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Carrier Freeze is Viable and Vital

July 8, 2010
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In order to bring great relief to the straining and shrinking shipbuilding budget, some major compromises may be called for by politicians and the Pentagon. As for the Navy, cuts usually fall on the most economical programs such as mineships, or most essential naval personnel, readiness, or vital training exercises, without which a navy is just shell and shadow. As an alternative which could induce savings in the scores of billion dollars over 2 decades, New Wars proposes a freeze on all carrier construction. Being a weapon’s platforms, the original motherships,  rather than weapons themselves, I think this a safe answer as naval aircraft diminish increasingly in number and quality.

The Navy currently has 11 carriers, though with impending cuts may see these fall to as low as 8 within the next 10 years. Since the effectiveness of a flattop rests on the quality of aircraft and less on the ship itself, this seems a self-defeating trend for the ship to receive more attention than its planes. Obviously canceling procurement of Big Decks for a spell to buy fighters would seem contradictory, except the hulls themselves average 40-50 years while a plane may be obsolete in 5 to 10 years, or less during a major war.

An example of this can be taken from recent history. The original Essex design that fought the last World War underwent tremendous change during their 6 decades of service (the last, Lexington CV-16 decommissioned in 1991). With its open bow, single flush runway, and propeller driven aircraft, it was truly a product of the late 30s, early 1940s. Soon the advent of jets brought a major remake, with an additional angled flying-off deck added, plus a mirror landing system, and catapults for the heavier, faster planes.

Before: USS Lexington in 1943.

After: USS Lexington in 1984.

So we see the war-era Essex’s continually modernized, operating in frontline service with the new weapons of war, from prop planes to supersonic fighters. While the smaller, cheaper aviation could adapt to the times, during the World War, to Korea, and Vietnam, a large deck would only be strengthened or lengthened as needed with upgrades. With our current 100,000 ton Nimitz and Ford ships pretty much the last word in traditional design, there is really not much more required to fly airplanes off a deck at sea, but longer range planes and variety is a constant need.

The fear is of losing vital shipbuilding expertise if even a minor break in building carriers is undertaken. What comes to mind continually are the two decades between the World Wars when the Navy enjoyed a “Battleship Holiday“. Though procurement was virtually nil, designs were refined and proposals were continuous, until by the the 1940s the USA had several excellent classes in service. The break in dreadnought construction allowed for some innovative solutions and finally gave us the superb and long-lived Iowa class.

Near to our own era, we see foreign navies which build only a few ships, procuring some modern and workable designs, going for decades between replacements. The Last British V/STOL carrier was built in the 1980s, while the Royal Navy has now undertaken the construction of its first large decks ships since World War 2. Likewise has France operated small fixed wing carriers, with Foch commissioned in 1963, followed by Charles De Gaulle an amazing 38 years later!

So the USN seems to be building such exquisite vessels not out of a dire need, but for reasons of sheer momentum. She thus expends many tens of billions every decade enduring a tremendous strain on sparse shipbuilding funds. Further expense comes from aircraft programs which are far from adequate, and many thousands of crew required to operate the world’s largest warships.

Ironically, in order to keep buying Big Decks, the Navy has been limited in the quality of its airpower. While the latest, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is adequate for its needs, it still lacks the range of older planes from the Vietnam Era, just as anti-access weapons are driving the Navy further away from the shore. The SP’s lone successor, the F-35C, the first all-new naval aircraft since the 1980s will be another short range plane, nearly 20 years in development. The Navy needs to rush its deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles at sea. Also, there was some talk of deploying new COIN aircraft for use in our land wars, but the funds just aren’t there. Some type of anti-submarine warfare plane is a glaring omission in the airwing, and the 50 year old E-2 Hawkeye aircraft probably needs replacing instead of just updating.

If you consider a supercarrier with a lifespan of 50 years, as with USS Enterprise, then by 2030 the USN will still have 8 ships in service. They will likely still be “one of a kinds” as far as quality, size, number of ships, and firepower, though other nations doubtless will have carriers. By then technology may have moved on, as missiles get smarter and UAVs more effective, so that our dependence on 100,000 ton, $15 billion warships may be at an end. The freeze on carrier construction is doable and overdue, and also necessary for the health and modernization of the fleet.

*****

USS Enterprise with FS Charles de Gaulle.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. Al L. permalink
    July 9, 2010 11:54 am

    Mike B. said:

    “But we also have the missile firing ships and the Harrier carriers which have a not-insignificant power projecting role themselves. So why invest in overkill in the midst of economic troubles?”

    The country won’t be in economic trouble indefinitely. While many on the net talk like change in naval structure can happen overnight with no regard for existing infrastructure or continuity( an important issue, change shouldn’t weaken the defense posture while it happens)in reality it takes years.

    If the Navy changed its ship plans re: carriers tomorrow it would take years before a new type of ship came on line, even if it was simply a modification of the Makin Island design.

    Secondly, if one takes the time to plot out the life lines of the existing carrier classes (CVN, LHA, LHD) now is an excellent time to begin a transition to a high low force.

    The old maintainance nightmare carriers like the Enterprise are on their way out or gone. The Tarawas will very soon need to be retired or they will spend lots of time under repair/renovation. There are 2 designs on the board on which to base a sto/vl carrier with minimal risk (Makin Island & America) Lastly for the next 13 or so years the Wasps and Nimitz classes will form a stable base of ships while a transition is made. After that time the retirement/replacement cycle becomes a driver once again when the Nimitz ages out.

    It would have been better if the Ford had never been started. Thats a $15 billion drag, and a ship that could have waited a decade. Canceling it now however would be a waste, slowing it would be better, and my guess is that if policy doesn’t slow its construction, circumstances will anyway.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 9, 2010 9:14 am

    RW2 said “Going on a carrier holiday will put thousands of skilled people out of work. ”

    Funds would be diverted to build other ships, and more than a single giant budget-drainer. This is the excuse the USN gives so it keeps outdated or unnecessary weapons in production too long, and Congress backs them up. But I promise you that vacuums are ALWAYS filled by something else.

    “Im curious why you used the Lady Lex as your example instead of the Midway? ”

    Speaking of the Essex class in general and Lexington was the oldest of that class in commission.

    Al L wrote “I don’t agree that a carrier freeze is needed, however a CVN freeze is.”

    My thinking is we already have so many that we are overburdened with naval air and not enough for other essential naval functions, for mine warfare and the littorals, submarines, amphibious craft, etc. Specifically you could improve the long-neglected naval air arm.

    But we also have the missile firing ships and the Harrier carriers which have a not-insignificant power projecting role themselves. So why invest in overkill in the midst of economic troubles?

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 9, 2010 9:05 am

    Anonymous asked “This proposal seems identical to one you made in the comments of the last Carrier Alternative Weekly.”

    Often the questions or responses I get in the comments end up as posts! You guys inspire me!

  4. sid permalink
    July 9, 2010 7:52 am

    I don’t recall anyone saying that what stopped them was their extreme age, so I don’t quite understand why this non-debate suddenly pops up.

    Thats not exactly correct.

    I happened to watch the Lex get underway as a commissoned carrier for the last time.

    She was actually berthed at the city piers several miles northeast of her usual berth at the NAS carrier pier (where I was on a YP), which was undergoing an upgrade at the time.

    Anyway she was warped out by the tugs…And a little bit later warped back into the pier.

    We thought that was odd. Turns out she had suffered a steering engine casualty that was no longer economical to fix.

    Several of the other Essex’s decommissioned in the ’70s were in quite poor shape as well.

  5. Al L. permalink
    July 9, 2010 12:32 am

    I don’t agree that a carrier freeze is needed, however a CVN freeze is.

    Freeze construction of CVN’s after the Ford. Halt construction of the Ford until EMALS proves successful in real world testing. Let it be known- no EMALS success then no Ford $.

    With no Ford and a target of 8 CVN, a new CVN isn’t needed until the Vinson retires in 2032. With the Ford a new CVN isn’t needed until the Roosevelt retires in 2036.

    LHA and LHD construction should also be frozen. The first of the Wasps will retire in the 2030s. A freeze should result in a minimum force of 8 in the mid 2030s

    Move toward construction of a class of 8 sto/vl carriers based on the Makin Island. Add in the America for a 9th sto/vl carrier force. This is the type of carrier that should be built over the next 25-30 years. Thats .30/ year which results in $1.25 billion per year in carrier construction costs or less.

    If all existing CVN, LHA and LHD were used to their planned decommissioning date, and the new sto/vl carriers were completed at 1 every 3.5 years starting in 2015 then the carrier force would drop to 19 ships about 2014, but rise to 21+ in 2019 and stay there through 2031, but still allow about 30 billion dollars to be rededicated to other ship types over the next 20 years.

  6. RW2 permalink
    July 9, 2010 12:26 am

    Going on a carrier holiday will put thousands of skilled people out of work. What money you think your going to save you are going to lose in unemployment benefits. We are seeing this right now in San Diego with the massive layoffs at NASSCO.

    I do see your point, however, I think slowing the build cycle even more would be better than a holiday.I’m not sold on the F-35c. When will people learn that the Navy has different needs than the Airforce? The Pentagon and civilian leadership forced the F-35c on the Navy. EPIC Failure in my view up there with the F-111 debacle. The Navy hasn’t recovered from the cancelation of the A-12 Avenger II and the early closure of the F-14D production line.

    Im curious why you used the Lady Lex as your example instead of the Midway? Interesting enough she prove to the Navy the advantages of an all Hornet airwing. Since her old design wouldn’t allow for the F-14 to be embarked. Which is a good example why small carriers are not the way to go.

    It might be even smarter just to build 1 Ford and go back to the GW Bush version of the Nimitz class. Somewhat in the same way the Navy built 3 conventional carriers after the big E joined the fleet.

  7. Anonymous permalink
    July 8, 2010 9:35 pm

    Mike,

    This proposal seems identical to one you made in the comments of the last Carrier Alternative Weekly. I assume there’s a connection?

    Al

  8. Joe permalink
    July 8, 2010 6:23 pm

    B. Smitty/Scott B. (or anyone else),

    The coming EPE for the SHornet…will the increase in thrust be enough to make Supers any kind of honest option for ski-jump carriers? Have there been any estimates of what kinds of performance gains the engine will bring, overall?

  9. July 8, 2010 6:18 pm

    Hello,

    as Oriskany was mentioned,there is a video of her at the bottom of this page:

    http://grandlogistics.blogspot.com/2010/06/analysis-of-warfare-is-bit-like.html

    tangosix.

  10. July 8, 2010 6:08 pm

    Hello,

    Distiller said:

    “Agree that a combat support aircraft is needed. Not only for the Navy, also for the support of the land combat forces. There would be many many missions to fill by such a J-CSA!”

    I couldn’t agree more with this statement.
    A large support aircraft on board an aircraft carrier would be not only very useful in combat but also very easy to justify from a financial perspective.
    The United Kingdom actually had the money to develop such an aircraft but unfortunately chose to build the Nimrod M.R.A.4 instead.

    The thing which disappointed me most about the Ford class was that there was no attempt to accomodate larger aircraft.
    I understand the limit on current ships is about 100,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight due to limitations of catapults,lifts,space etc..
    Given the fifty year replacement cycle the United States Navy is going to be stuck with relatively small support aircraft for a long time to come.

    Within current limits I would guestimate it would be possible to build a twin turbofan aircraft with a moderately wide body,rear ramp,twin tails,short takeoff/austere field capability,500 knot speed and a payload of about 50,000 pounds of fuel/cargo.
    Such an aircraft could be a convertible tanker/transport as well as more specialised variants for airborne early warning,anti-submarine etc..

    The cost savings on land based support aircraft would make it easy to justify such a development.
    Being able to transport light vehicles from a carrier deck by fixed wing aircraft would also be revolutionary.

    tangosix.

  11. Scott B. permalink
    July 8, 2010 2:16 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “What stopped them wasn’t their extreme age, but the lack of adequate planes to fly from their decks”

    I don’t recall anyone saying that what stopped them was their extreme age, so I don’t quite understand why this non-debate suddenly pops up.

    One of the things that certainly stopped them was the inadequacy of their design, – including deck layout -, to efficiently operate adequate planes at the turn of the 1960-70s.

    You might want to check :

    1) The structure of USS Oriskany’s Air Group just before her decommissioning in 1976 :

    * F-8J
    * A-7B
    * RF-8G
    * E-1B
    * SH-3G

    2) The proposed air wing for USS Oriskany during the aborted attempt to have her reactivated at the beginning of the Reagan era :

    * A-4M
    * SH-3

    Lot of bucks required to end up with not much bang down the line…

  12. Scott B. permalink
    July 8, 2010 1:52 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “I have to respectively disagree and laud the USS Lexington’s service training successive generations of naval pilots for modern war until its retirement, many of which I am sure are still with the fleet today.”

    I have to respectively laud the USS Lexington’s service as a CVT (then AVT) and disagree with your insistance to make it sound like :

    a) A ship commissioned in 1943 and decommissioned in 1991 may have provided 6 decades of service, unless a decade unexpectedly shrank down to 8 years.

    b) A single ship might be considered representative for the entire class it belongs to, when obviously stats prove it was the exception rather than the norm.

    c) A CVT (then AVT BTW) might be considered to be the same as a CV, which obviously is not true, especially in this particular case.

    You’re stretching the most basic facts way too much there, Mike.

    Way too much…

  13. Hudson permalink
    July 8, 2010 1:07 pm

    Certainly a bold and interesting proposal. If Congress imposed just a one year moratorium on new carrier construction, the Navy brass would likely fly into a panic. Such a freeze, though, would certainly stimulate useful discussion on just what all our flattop acerage is needed for. What are the likely missions for our big decks, smaller decks, and semi-decks, today and tomorrow? Shake up that spherical snowball and see where the flakes land, so to speak.

  14. Distiller permalink
    July 8, 2010 12:29 pm

    The Ford class should be just too good to drop. Especially since they don’t need to RCOH. With Fords a 8+1 carrier fleet is thinkable. With a carrier building stop it’s more like 8+1+1, including a second round of hugely expensive RCOHs and deep refurbishment and upgrading for the Nimitz class. And as usual: Smaller carriers are only interesting with a hull number increase = keeping the tonnage of the carrier groups stable at roughly 1.5 million tons.

    Agree that a combat support aircraft is needed. Not only for the Navy, also for the support of the land combat forces. There would be many many missions to fill by such a J-CSA!

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 8, 2010 12:21 pm

    Scott, I have to respectively disagree and laud the USS Lexington’s service training successive generations of naval pilots for modern war until its retirement, many of which I am sure are still with the fleet today. Two Essex’s almost entered service in the 1980s, including a proposed sale to Britain. What stopped them wasn’t their extreme age, but the lack of adequate planes to fly from their decks, further proving the point that we need more and better aircraft yesterday.

  16. Scott B. permalink
    July 8, 2010 11:51 am

    Mike Burleson said : “An example of this can be taken from recent history. The original Essex design that fought the last World War underwent tremendous change during their 6 decades of service (the last, Lexington CV-16 decommissioned in 1991).”

    USS Lexington (CV-16) is all but representative for the history of the Essex-class carriers, for she was reclassified as a training carrier (CVT) in 1969 and continued to serve as as a training carrier for the rest of her career until decommissioned in 1991.

    Most of the Essex-class carriers were commissioned in 1943-46 and decommissioned between the second half of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, which certainly doesn’t come anywhere close to the 6 decades of service you claim to be an example taken from recent history. More like 3 decades and that’s already being quite *flexible* with historical accuracy.

  17. B.Smitty permalink
    July 8, 2010 10:13 am

    How about EPE F414s and conformal tanks for the Super Hornet.

  18. Jed permalink
    July 8, 2010 8:53 am

    Put the S3 back into production !!

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 8, 2010 7:49 am

    juandos -We just barely got the Super Hornet. The type of navy we want doesn’t match the funding, and hasn’t for quite some time.

  20. juandos permalink
    July 8, 2010 6:49 am

    Did the Navy make a mistake in not replacing robust, long distance aircraft (i.e. F-4, F-14) with aircraft that don’t have at least these same requisite properties?

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