Aircraft Carriers versus TLAM Warships
Recent plans for placing Prompt Global Strike on America’s unmatched fleet of Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) firing cruisers and destroyers brought the following post from 2009 to mind. Originally appearing in the Carrier Alternative Weekly column, I present it here in its own post simply for my own future reference, though you might find it interesting:
What if there was a way to build up carrier numbers today, without drastically increasing the shipbuilding budget or retiring vast sums of other essential navy ships prematurely? I don’t mean just deploying the 15 of the Cold War, but dozens, scores, all you need and more. What if I tell you we have these vessels already in service? First some history.
The carrier advocates use the same faulty metrics for the deployment of only a handful of large deck aircraft carriers, used by the battleship admirals pre-1940, that their ships were more cost effective in laying down ordnance on a target. In part, they were right (which is why you still hear howls of “bring back the battleship”) that the 16 inch guns of a dreadnought could place down a massive amount of firepower on a target quickly, often with more accuracy than carrier air.
For example, the first American fast battleship, USS North Carolina in 1940 carried 911 tons of shell, the bulk of which it could expend in less than an hour. An Essex class carrier of the same period carried only 425 tons of ammunition, divided among bombs, torpedoes, and shells for self-defense. For Essex to deliver all of her small stocks of weapons, it would take days, burning much fuel and risking precious pilots in the process.
In the end, the carrier reined, because it was more effective and practical. The 100 planes of the CV could patrol and control hundreds of thousands of square miles of sea compared to the range of the battleship’s cannon, on average 20 miles. Most important, it could sink the world’s most powerful warships, as it dramatically proved on numerous occasions.
Today, the large deck has a new rival which might be equally effective, without the giant cost it takes to build, deploy, and arm a carrier force. Today the metrics which rule in the minds of the Navy is that a 100,000 ton carrier with 70 planes can launch the new smart bomb (one bomb, one hit) more cost effective than a $1 million Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM) launched from a single surface warship. While for the carrier to send a single fighter against a single target, you deploy an entire fleet, highly visible and up to one tenth of your entire Navy to place one bomb on one target. For the TLAM warship to perform the same function of placing one weapon on one target you just need one ship, plus this ship carries many such weapons.
Therefore, even though the cruise missile is individually more costly, here is where the battleship versus the carrier ordinance comes into play. The TLAM is more cost effective because it is less harder to deploy than naval airpower from the sea. Much of this is obvious since all nations, particularly Britain, India, China, and Russia which have attempted to deploy even one large deck aircraft carrier have faced enormous technical and funding issues. Even the supreme practitioner of the art, the US Navy struggles to keep 10-11 in service, or build adequate numbers of planes for its spacious decks.
So I contend that the TLAM is the best weapon to take advantage of the new precision warfare of one bomb or missile, assuring one hit. This doesn’t just balance the cost effectiveness of the two platforms either, but completely blows the carrier out of competition. Currently the USN has in service 130 TLAM ships–80 cruisers/destroyers and 50 submarines–positioned around the world, dramatically revealed recently with attacks on terrorist targets on Yemen by TLAM ships. Far from being as efficient as a legacy manned warplane, they don’t need to be, just effective. Meanwhile, advances in technology are constantly upgrading the cruise missile until it is as versatile, still without the monumental expense of deploying naval air at sea.
We have the equivalent of 130 carrier groups deployed today, something the carrier admirals only dream of in their deepest fantasies. This would be the same as deploying some 130 light carriers, each armed with precision weapons, around the globe. As we often argue there is no difference in the effectiveness (notice we didn’t say “difference in firepower”) of a PGM armed light carrier and a PGM armed supercarrier. Because of smart bombs, the latter becomes so much overkill and unnecessary.
We should keep a few of our giant decks around, to support the occasional land battle, but this has always been a secondary role for seapower, which the giant and expensive battleships were ushered into in the last World War, after it became obvious cheaper lighter weapons were more effective and cost effective in the long run. For this we argue that the Navy is heavily skewed toward the high end conventional side of warfare, still shrinking and stretched thin when there is no need. Because of a traditional mindset toward the deployment of airpower from the sea, it has little understanding of the power and potential of the force multiplying Tomahawk cruise missile.