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Talking up Carrier Obsolescence

February 18, 2009


Neptunus Lex offers old arguments on why the modern supercarrier is just the bestest most awesome warship around, but in reality the evidence  no longer holds water. He says:

Like the hedgehog who knows one big thing, there are always critics ready to proclaim the coming obsolescence of the carrier force, there have been for years. But the fox knows many things, and since the end of the Cold War, carriers have deployed to major combat operations in waters off Kosovo, Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan, where carrier-based tactical air power was practically the only game in town because of the great distances involved. We had six carriers engaged during OIF, one keeping a lid on any adventurers the Western Pacific and another in reserve. After major combat operations had ended, the term “peacetime deployment” became anachronistic in the GWOT, with deployed carrier forces providing sustained combat power ashore while remaining a constraint on the ambitions of unengaged regional opportunists.

The problem I have with this sort of reasoning is the lack of choice, almost as if we are stuck with 100,000 ton warships doing a mission no other vessel can do, while ship numbers sink rapidly below 300. I can imagine that a similar slide-rule was used pre-Pearl Harbor to justify continued production of giant armored battleships. Back then, a canvas and wire torpedo plane might seem only a minor threat to the most advanced and powerful weapon system of the day, the fast battleship, but in numbers it proved more than enough to sink even the most heavily protected vessels equipped with numerous defensive weapons. So will it be with when massed numbers of cruise missiles are launched against today’s capital ships, the aircraft carrier.


Often given as an argument for the indispensability of $6-$13 billion supercarriers long after the fall of the Iron Curtain are  continued interventions in rogue or failed states such as those mentioned “Kosovo, Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan” (left out was that greatest of modern sea powers, Haiti). It seems incredulous that America is captive to such a strategy in which only earth’s mightiest warships can contend with these land-locked or virtually non-naval powers, many whom have yet to enter the 20th Century technologically speaking, never mind the 21st!

Rather than risking so much of our national treasure to combat modern Brush Fire conflicts, wearing out multi-million and billion dollar platforms against poorly armed, poorly trained but highly motivated foes, we should learn to fight better and cheaper.

The fact is, small missile platforms can show us the way. While aircraft carriers and their parasite fighters are getting fatter, fewer in number, and less affordable even by the greatest of naval powers, cruise missiles are getting smarter, faster, in some cases cheaper, available for mass production in wartime, able to loiter for extended periods,  and ominously available on the Third World Arms market in increasing number and variety.

And the missiles do not need a billion-dollar platfrom to get to the target, just a ride. This may come in the form of small attack boats, ground based mobile launchers, and submarines.

Other non-naval alternatives which are available now are our fleet of heavy bombers, especially the venerable B-52s whose range with tanker support is virtually unlimited, one of which with smart bombs has the firepower of an entire naval airwing. F-15E fighter bombers can also attack targets deep into enemy territory as in Afghanistan, and can quickly change to air defense in the presence of enemy fighters.


27 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2009 8:52 am

    yes, but the LCS is useless – it is designed to have so many capabilities that it can not really do anything – its the reverse of how you describe the Arleigh Burkes: great concept; but lousy build. If it had been me doing the build process I would have done what they USM did in WW2, the amphibious LVTs, based on a common design, one type was focused on troop carrying the other on weaponry – instead of having two ships which are not as good as it could be in any area, you would have one that is there to fight and protect the other, whilst the other one is there to insert the troops.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 22, 2009 7:42 am

    Now, I love the Arleigh Burkes as a class, not so much as a concept. I agree with Galrahn (do you read Information Dissemination blog? Highly recommend) that the Burkes are greatest battleship class of all time, but I also think the age of battleships are over. If we only needed a few missile escorts, like the 35 during the Reagan era (The RN had 12 during Thatcher) then the Burke is the right size. The USN in the 1990’s decided they wanted the bulk of their surface battle fleet to consist of these 9000 ton Burkes, 65 now ordered and counting, which I dub the “All Battleship Navy”. Then 9/11 comes along and suddenly we wake up to the fact that in wartime, small general purpose warships are much more effective against these asymmetrical threats at sea.

    So now the USN is leisurely and belated building these littoral combat ships, better than nothing I suppose, and still say they need even more Burkes, and probably will build at least a few DDG-1000. Its a mess and I don’t think there is real thought behind ship procurement, just build what we are use to and add a few extra “frills’ to make it look revolutionary.

  3. February 22, 2009 5:11 am

    That I can more understand, as in small numbers, and with Arleigh Bukes to protect them they could be useful as support for amphibious operations; but I think they are going over the top because myself I would have just modified the Arleigh Burkes with a bigger gun, and maybe produced a Flight III with larger VLS, so that they can take more missiles – surely that would also have been cheaper? and probably more cost effective.

    In the RNs case the civil servants seem stuck in the 1930s, you have frigates for ASW, Destroyers for AAW, and Cruisers for…oops we don’t have cruisers any more, but what the ‘frig’ why change the system?

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 21, 2009 9:37 pm

    Ha ha! This is how we feel about DDG-1000. Plenty of surface missiles, but nothing much for aerial defense.

  5. February 21, 2009 3:13 pm

    it should really be called fire-less Dragon, afterall the T45s can only hit aircraft, seeing as they are fitted for but not with harpoon, have the Sylver A50 vls which can fire Aster Missiles only, a 4.5in Deck Gun which has be decertified by health and saftey because they feel that it may be dangerous (and the MOD forgot to fill out the dangerous article/tool form – so it will not be allowed to be used for 6 months whilst they check it)…therefor, yes Fire/Claw/Tooth-less dragon might be the more correct name – sorry personal bugbear!

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 21, 2009 1:27 pm

    Now I didn’t know that about HMS Dragon! Very interesting.

  7. February 21, 2009 1:24 pm

    we haven’t started the naming after living politicians yet, but we have been doing the naming ships after cities, and counties for years – and we are naming one of the new destroyers Dragon to get support from Wales!

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 21, 2009 9:28 am

    Sure, weapons today are all politics. As Admiral Rickover said concerning naming submarines after US cities “fish don’t vote”. Its sad when the only way they can keep pet weapon systems going is to appeal to the masses, plus the rich and powerful. So we have ships named after still living politicians who have done little save kept the money flowing. Now we have a Virginia class sub named after a certain Senator Warner, one of the subs biggest boosters. I don’t have any major problem with the Virginia’s, probably the most effective ship in the fleet. Just it is a shame how the system works overall.

  9. February 21, 2009 3:22 am


    thankyou, well, as I say I am an accedemic so big articles go with the territory, but I think your blog is catchier myself – mine I think is sometimes a little over the top, but I like to try and give all the information I can find, it means I do not publish on as many topics as I like.

    the trouble with the big words, can they deal with two sylable ones? or do I need to aim at explaining it in single sylable ones; Like the Sun Newspaper?

    oh, here is a little more information for you on the carrier thing, that proves they are politics, a friend has just handed me a report detailing that, both Nuclear Power, 70,000tons and a vls missile system were turned down by the political advisor the MOD on grounds that these might have an adverse impact on international politics as they could make the RN seem too threatening!

  10. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 20, 2009 8:49 pm

    No big words, and in very short sentences!

    Was browsing your blog today. Excellent! Wish I had time to write more detailed articles.

  11. February 20, 2009 4:08 pm

    now all I have to do, is a write a report which even politicians can understand and get behind

  12. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 20, 2009 2:19 pm

    Might work Alex!

  13. February 20, 2009 1:08 pm

    if you have a nuclear carrier – why not just make the escorts run on hydrogen – the carrier could supply this to them – thus making fuel bills really really really cheap – if they can run the Honda Clarity – why not the Arleigh Burkes?

  14. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 20, 2009 8:11 am

    If we must have big carriers, nuclear power is so cost effective than it seems a must. Now we are discussing nuclear power for surface combatants which can only raise the astronomical cost of these warships. A smaller, pricier navy is in the works unless something drastic occurs. I am thinking the economic crisis may be a blessing in disguise for procurement, stopping many insane choices by the leadership.

  15. February 20, 2009 2:55 am

    I can better the DDG-1000 – meet the T45 Daring Class Area Air Defence destroyer, fitted for but not given harpoon, RN requested Type 41 vls, so that it could fire cruise missiles, rocket torpedoes, and the SM-3 aswell as the Aster 15/30 missiles. however, the civil servants did a report and actually stated that it was better for european politics to by the sylver vls; but even then did they buy the Sylver A70 (the top of the range) which has a cruise missile system, not as good as Tomahawk but not that bad, no the bought the slightly cheaper A50 which can only fire Aster Missiles. So once again instead of being given a general purpose guided missile destroyer like the asked for the RN gets a destroyer which can only hit aircraft. however it does not stop here, the obsolecence goes on, a BAE MK110 57mm is about as good as the Phalanx CIWS, but half the price – so we could have bought 3 and still had change for the same as the two Phalanx’s – providing the destroyer with a much better system.

    Do you know why our carriers are going to be gas not nuclear? its because the government is worried about loosing votes in the portsmouth area where they will be based. Those two carriers were limited to 65,000tons cause they had to be built in specific yards in scotland, ones with a labour party mp, so that meant they couldn’t be 70,000tons like the navy wanted. they have the distinctive two islands because the RAF insisted that the control tower should be seperate from the mechanicals – hence double the turbulance will be created. To top this all off, because they would rather give the culture secretary more money in a recession than defence we are getting just two carriers to replace the three we had.

    The cherry on top of this cake though is that they have just finnished a refit (which they took from the RNs budget) which should have kept Illustrious (one of our baby carriers) in service for another 15 years, and have now announced it will be leaving the navy as soon as the first of the new carriers is commissioned in 2014.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 19, 2009 8:20 pm

    And Congress over here, who are more interested in getting votes from their constituents (jobs=votes) than for National Security. So they keep in production weapons we don’t need, like the DDG-1000, whether the Navy wants them or not!

  17. February 19, 2009 2:44 pm

    it is a deffinitely unbalanced – look at the Royal Navy – Britain has built (currently) 1 in 4 of all corvettes currently in service, but the Royal Navy has none

    look at the LCS – which frankly is over priced, under gunned, and does not add anything to the already extensive USN capabilities

    You have to remember that it is not just the admirals who run the building of ships it is also civil servants; for example the British Civil Service is boasting how it has put an army Brigadier in charge of the Carrier Project, and managed to design and build the T45 destroyers without a single naval officer being involved

  18. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 19, 2009 1:17 pm

    Currently the average is about 80% Big Ships, 20% small ships (frigates, patrol ships, minesweepers). This is a SEVERELY unbalanced fleet, wouldn’t you agree?

  19. February 19, 2009 9:06 am

    yes the small ships are important, but they need the big ships to give them safe haven – I believe in a balanced fleet, with a good mix of both big and small ships. the small will do a lot of the fighting, but the big are ALSO needed; for example for when the little need time to replenish and rearm, for when the amphibious operation is taking place and you need to fire a large weight of artillery, or for carring an airgroup which actually matters. This theme is contiued on my blog, especially if you read my article on corvettes or the one on cruisers.

  20. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 19, 2009 8:31 am

    Yet Alex, Britain and America are steadily shrinking their fleet’s to pay for these billion dollar giants, while competitors are increasing their own forces. During wartime, we have learned the hard way how essential small ships are to our defense, but the admirals think with their Big Ships they can scare the enemy into surrender!

  21. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 19, 2009 8:27 am

    “Let us hearken back to late autumn and early winter of 2001-2002 after 9-11. Naval airpower from carriers in the N. Arabian Sea were the only “strikers” available until big AF got into place by late Spring”

    You are repeating my arguments, b2. Carrier strike forces at the price of a medium size nation’s defense budget which we “have to have” to combat Third World characters. It is horribly wasteful in resources and can no longer be justified. If we wear out our forces fighting the folks with AK-47s and pipe bombs, what will be left to combat the ones with supersonic cruise missiles?

    Sure, my arguments are old ones, and we’ve been hearing them since Korea. But since we haven’t had a major war at sea since 1945 where our exquisite warships had to face a major attack from air and sea forces, whose to say they are wrong? Justifying their use against non-naval powers is a blind strategy and tells us nothing.

    And instead of cheaper, smaller warships, I should have said reasonably priced and sized ships! It is just out of control.

  22. February 19, 2009 8:12 am

    You say Lex’s ideas re carriers is “old”?

    I’ve been hearing your “original” ideas re USAF and global reach w/heavy bombers as replacements for US Navy combat airpower, for longer you’ve been on this earth…

    I opine your ideas are old and reactionary..As a matter of fact they have been rejected time and again since 1948. Check the historical record.

    Why do you think symmetrical competitors like the Russians and the PRC continue to try so hard to produce an operable CV?

    re- “ship numbers sink”

    That’s because the USN has been remarkably incompetent and phyzoid re “small boy” procurements this past decade and a half..Own worst enemy so to speak.

    re- “smaller and cheaper ships”

    Like what? Those words don’t go together in this world. LOL.

    F-15E is a fine platform. Almost used up in FLE, it still only has a combat radius unrefueled of 400nm or so- best case..Missiles as the mantra? Have you priced the per unit cost of smart missiles nowadays?

    Carriers are vulnerable to a certain degree, but what forces/equipment isn’t put in Harms Way? I can tell you after 7 carrier deployments in/out of the Cold War that a CVN ain’t the “grape” you think it is.

    The only thing I would concur with you on is that bearded, Islamofacist, AK-47 toting nut jobs don’t require carrier combat power to eradicate. What a revelation! But neither do they need $500000/flight hour B-1,2,and 52 series bombers to do the job, either!

    Before we forget: Let us harken back to late autumn and early winter of 2001-2002 after 9-11. Naval airpower from carriers in the N. Arabian Sea were the only “strikers” available until big AF got into place by late Spring…Don’t you remember? SOF/Naval Airpower followed by Marine Expeditionary forces actually accomplished the Taliban takedown. Remember?

    Relevance is all in eye of the beholder. I look at facts, not postulation based on deep seated envy. Respectfully submitted, you may think you are thinking outside the box but IMO you are way off the reservation!


  23. February 19, 2009 6:41 am

    I have actually been looking at this, and the best returns for money for are an aircraft carrier is a 65-70,000ton vessel with nuclear power, as these carry good airgroups but only cost about £1.5billion to build, leaving money over for the other craft, such as destroyers and corvettes; the real reason you now need carriers apart from their ability to support amphibious operations, and strike targets at great distance in land, is to be able to provide a secure or at least neutral enviroment for ships like corvettes, the LCS, and other craft launching attacks on land to operate in – afterall a corvette is small, cheap, and easily overwhelmed and no elected government, especially not a western one, is just going to let its forces be massacred; without a carrier those missile which Mike talks about would simply overwhelm them. Though I am not sure if you need as many carriers to do this, I think myself 9 70,000ton carriers would provide a goodly proportion of capability USN needs from its carriers – and if push comes to shove and they need more, they could just re-load a LHD with JSFs and use that as a supporting carrier.

  24. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 18, 2009 2:03 pm

    Exactly my thinking Ken. Now I wouldn’t say lets get rid of all our Blue Water capability, but placing the bulk of our shipbuilding funds in large warships, thinking they are adequate for littoral warfare is a colossal waste of funds. We’ve won the Cold War, now lets win the new one but not with the same ships and strategy.

  25. February 18, 2009 12:18 pm

    I agree that we need to disperse some of our combat power, and that smaller, cheaper ships are a great way to accomplish that goal. I would love to see the Navy stand up and say “bring me 5 corvettes for littoral operations, with options for up to 95 more,” at a fixed price for a batch of five. Base the option exercise on satisfactory completion of operational test and evaluation. Let the shipbuilders and combat system providers do their best in a winner take all competition based on capability. The real challenge for the navy would be to just keep its mouth shut during design and construction.

  26. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 18, 2009 8:06 am

    “Our nation needs to have multiple options available”

    Sure Ken, but don’t you think putting all our naval eggs in one basket with a carrier costing the size of some nation’s defense budget (counting naval planes and escorts), you sort of limit the options you can afford? I think we can do better. My way offers choice, but the admirals say “we have no other alternative”.

  27. February 18, 2009 8:00 am

    So what’s the difference in availability and responsiveness between a B-52 flying from a base 2,500 miles away and an aircraft carrier 300 miles away? Assuming 500-knot transits, the carrier air wing can launch, strike targets, return to rearm, and be back over the target area within a 4-6 hour cycle. The BUFF needs 5 hours just to get to the target area the first time.
    The either-or argument is specious, however. Our nation needs to have multiple options available for the achievement of its military objectives.

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