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Aircraft Carriers Vs the Red Army Pt 2

May 19, 2009
Charge of the Light Brigade painting by Woodville

Charge of the Light Brigade painting by Woodville

By the 1980’s, the American “forward strategy” might have been likened to a naval version of the Charge of the Light Brigade, in the face of every launcher imaginable able to fire new ship-killing weapons. Warships including cruisers, destroyers, frigates, fast attack craft, nuclear attack submarines, plus quieter diesel/electric subs, were now armed with stand-off cruise missiles as were maritime patrol bombers and ground-based missile batteries. As proved dramatically in the Gulf Wars, with numerous US warships hit, the old-fashioned naval mines were still potent. Yet, the obstacles didn’t deter the Navy under President Reagan, says Ronald Spector:

By the mid-1980s, Pentagon strategists were debating and testing operational scenarios involving early offensive action against the Soviet Union by forward deployed battle groups and amphibious forces positioned in the Norwegian Sea and the North Pacific. In general war, the plans called for naval forces to attack the Soviet fleet in its home waters, including the remote Barents Sea.

The new strategy did have the effect of forcing the Red Navy to curtail its own Blue Water operations for a time, but it is probably a good thing that the few hundred USN naval bombers didn’t have to contend with the many thousands of missile launchers in Soviet home waters. Sadly though, the practice of sending carriers against land powers continues to this day, which seems to work as long as you don’t expect your adversary to shoot back.

As the US Navy participation in the Vietnam Conflict neared its finality in 1972, Vice Admiral Malcom W. Cagle would write concerning the use of naval airpower in this war and Korea:

“Supporting the land battle is strictly a secondary and collateral task.”

All-nuclear battle formation sets sail in 1964

All-nuclear battle formation sets sail in 1964

Yet, not since the aerial clashes of the Pacific Campaign 30 years earlier between Imperial Japan and American flattops had there been any other type of war at sea, nor to this very day. Despite strenuous efforts by the Soviets late in the Cold War, no other nation has been able to duplicate the numbers and capabilities of the US nuclear powered attack carriers to pose a significant challenge.

What is disturbing, is the most minor of naval threats have found a weak link in this forward strategy. Somali pirates using asymmetric tactics at sea are expanding their operations further from shore, while the Navy seems overly concerned about what is happening with native tribesmen inland. Certainly the carriers could make short work of the village headquarters and pirate bases with a few strikes of naval airpower, but this would require much political will currently lacking due to concerns over civilian casualties. NATO has been extremely reluctant to invade Somalia which would doubtless solve the problem, but the memories of the embarrassing “Black Hawk Down” episode from 1993 still lingers. The 2006 Ethiopian invasion with American carrier support, to destroy the radical Islamic Courts seems to have fed the chaos rather than solving it.

Our post Cold War naval strategy is simple enough: the great Blue Water battleships need to flee the shallow seas and the small ships should go in. Our aircraft carriers designed to intimidate and contain land powers like the old Red Army are too vulnerable in waters infested with missile firing corvettes, submarines, and airpower. As in the Iraq Surge on land, the USN should get out of their giant “Floating Green Zones” and meet  the insurgents at sea in small craft head on.

Instead of Carrier Strike Groups, we would send “Influence Squadrons” as recently described by Commander Henry J Hendrix in a Proceedings article titled “Buy Ford, Not Ferrari.” Such a unique and versatile fleet as proposed would include an amphibious mothership, missiles escorts, high speed–shallow water catamarans, a littoral combat ship, and notably M80 Stiletto stealth craft. Such a smaller, less vulnerable, less costly fleet makes much more sense than risking so much of our national treasure in giant flattops, in the type of insurgency conflicts we so often contend with where a “Ford” will fit in just nicely.


Shield of the Republic by Michael T. Isenberg

Power at Sea–A Violent Peace, 1946-2006 by Lisle A. Rose

The Age of Steam Part 2 by John Van Duyn Southworth

At War at Sea by Ronald H. Spector

25 Comments leave one →
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  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 20, 2009 8:50 am

    Thanks Joe, Distiller, and everyone for your thoughts.

    First thing we have to ask ourselves, is there a problem in navy shipbuilding today? If you listen to Congress, or the Navy, the Media, or even with your own eyes are concerned about the high cost of warships, and the shrinking ship numbers, then yes, there is a problem. We also think that for every problem there is a solution, though sometimes pride and stubbornness gets in the way. There’s nothing like a war to bring about change, and as we have seen with our Army in Iraq, change is possible.

    Here is the problem the USN and her allies are facing: they have not fought a major war at sea in about 60 years, against a well equipped seapower attempting to sink their ships. There have been some minor conflicts, notably in the 1980s in the South Atlantic and the Persian Gulf, which offers us a glimpse of what a full-scale sea war with modern weapons might be like. As a whole, the Navy’s answer has been to build larger ships with ever more defensive equipment onboard, notably the Arleigh Burke destroyers, PAAMS anti-missile ships for Europe, and of course, the continued construction of large deck carriers as the core of the fleet.

    It is my personal opinion, and those of many others, based on sound historical reasoning, that the continued building of large ships is the wrong answer to modern threats. At the start of every war Western navies have been woefully short of small warships to contend with asymmetrical threats, notably the submarine as well as small boats armed with torpedoes, and lately with cruise missiles. I base my reasoning also on recent history with our land wars in Iraq, in that usually land tactics are transferred to the sea, such as the use of gunpowder weapons, aircraft, now missiles, and so on. The troops in Iraq and Afghanistan found that their heavy armor tactics designed in WW2 and updated to fight the Cold War were not the answer to barely armed, very agile, and stealthy suicide bombers and insurgents. In a way, the army had to copy these very successful guerrilla tactics of the enemy, but on a grander scale.

    Now with piracy, the insurgents have transfered their successful land tactics to the sea, and they really aren’t that different than say, the submarine of the world wars, in that they can sail around our giant aircraft carriers and missiles ships, the latter of which have had little effect in stemming the tide of piracy. As yet, these bold buccaneers are only a minor threat, compared to the old Red Navy or German fleets, but they are having an effect on a very important region in the West’s naval lifeline of Middle Eastern oil. We can only imagine they will grow bolder and more powerful if allowed to go unchecked, and likely embolden more powerful navies like Iran who are better equipped for a real war at sea, with their own missiles boats, suicide boats, and cruise missile submarines.

    Now, the 1000 ton corvette we often propose would be the high end of this new littoral fleet. For a pirate in speed boats you don’t need a $100-$300 million warship anymore than a $2 billion destroyer. For this you would need low tech patrol ships like the OPVs, Stilettos, CB90s, all of which has been discussed here before. What the missile corvette brings is firepower with medium and short range coverage for a littoral squadron, an Influence Squadron, convoy escort, and amphibious warfare support, perhaps with “rockets in a box” NetFires for shore bombardment.

    Weapons will always and eventually return back to basics. The armored knight in the 17th century or so became the unarmored infantryman. the heavily armored battleships of the last century was displaced by the mostly unarmed aircraft carrier. Today the heavy fighter bomber is being displaced in many cases with the flimsy, fairly cheap, and short range UAV. So the corvette is just a start, a back to basics with warships design, where we can experiment, and if we fail it will not be with a multi-billion dollar design like the DDG-1000 or even the LCS, lasting for decades, where we had pinned all our hopes.

  17. Distiller permalink
    May 20, 2009 2:12 am

    The true displacement driver for surface combatants is the desire for double-ended multi-purpose vessels. Putting full ASW (incl aviation complex) *and* full AAW onto the same ship will always lead to a very large displacement (even the Burkes are almost too small for that). And the continuing USN habit of not putting any real self defence onto its large ships and instead using an excessive number of AAW optimized escorts leads to the warped force structure we see today.

    I admit I have no answer to the question whether a larger number of smaller single-purpose ships is overall more preferable to a lower number of larger multi-mission ships. Things are still in a flux and sensors, computing, and robotics is constantly changing the calculation basis. And the view on self defence is just now starting to get into the right direction – partially, and for sure not driven by the U.S. Navy. But I’m pretty sure that a dedicated ASW escort with three ASW helicopters is more useful than a time-sharing arrangement with the AAW task and only two helicopters. And the USN also didn’t go for multi-mission till the Burke, and neither the Soviets nor the Europeans did.

    It’s interesting that the Navy’s hardest hitters on the seas, the SSNs, are single-mission ships (even though they try frantically to concoct some multi-mission capability for them all, when a selected few is all that is needed for those missions – see USS Jimmy Carter and the four SSGNs), but on the surface they want multi-mission.

    For strictly blue water tasks there are no reasons any more why one should use large CVs or any of today’s surface units at all. And I doubt very much that an over-AAW’d USN surface group can withstand a SSN wolf pack. The fast long range torpedo is a deadly weapon and very much underestimated in my view, especially if used by a dedicated enemy.

    A modern CVS as backbone of a escort flotilla should look more like a flight deck frigate, I guess. Zumwalt’s sea control ship is still a very valid concept. And a land attack carrier should probably be medium sized, not a supersized CVN, to spread the tonnage and open multiple attack vectors. But this again plays into the question of escorts and overall fleet size. With the USN having a bunch of Nimitz class CVN they use what they have. If building the Fords along the same pattern is an overall wise decision I don’t know – militarily probably not. I basically comes down to the question whether the Navy believes in a future conventional blue water war with China, or not. The Ford class says yes, and Congress says yes through its demand that all future large surface combatants should be nuclear powered. Else the USN could build CTOL versions of CVF (which is still 20% too large).

    Talking about dreadnoughts: Think of a Kirov-like battlecruiser (the concept, not the actual ship), but fast enough to outrun SSNs and packing enough self defense to eat up a carrier strike group worth of missiles – now that would be an interesting vessel!

    I agree that the size of 1000 to 2000 tons (i would even say below 3500 tons) is problematic, since these vessels tend to just carry their self-defence and only minimal offensive mission capability. For offensive (that is wide-area coverage) AAW they are too small, ASW work is better done by either subs or larger platforms with multiple helicopters, and for MIW work they have the wrong profile in any case. Lots of navies in the West still tend to build vessels without real offensive mission capability, or cram to little of each segment into too small hulls, resulting in washed-out anemic capability profiles – interestingly the Soviets had a somewhat clearer picture of things here. Burke could have been on the right track here with Flight 1, until someone decided to cram helicopters into them instead of going for a dedicated ASW version.

    For purely littoral defensive work mine warfare, small SSKs under 1000ts (like the DCNS Andrasta), missile and torpedo FACs modeled on the German Schnellboots of WW2, dispersed road mobile AShMs, and multiple small ATGM units along the coast, all fed by small UAVs and ELINT units and bolstered in the hinterland by multiple small MANAPDS units against 3D maneuvers from over the horizon are the way to go, no question about it. Don’t offer any attack points and use dispersed manpower to offset technology.

  18. Joe permalink
    May 20, 2009 12:31 am

    Good 2-parter Mike.

    As much as anyone, I can be seduced by the powerful appearance of a refurbished WW 2 battleship or modern aircraft carrier and feel pride in our Navy. But while I love new technology and want our fighting men and women to have the best, at what point do we say “that’s too expensive to risk?”

    I don’t have all the answers, but a next-gen Gerald Ford A/C carrier is projected to be around $9-$10 billion per copy. F-35 planes, which will eventually man them, are projected to run anywhere from $100m -$150m a pop in the future.

    That combo represents a lethal weapon and an expensive target. Pick your cost assumptions, but that represents anywhere from $18 – $24 billion on just those two items, not mentioning weaponry, crew costs, defensive systems (calculating 90 F-35’s per deck), or other support ships to help protect the carrier, etc.

    And when we have ?future peer competitors? like the Chinese who have apparently developed OTH missiles designed to destroy our CBGs and also possess supercavitating torpedoes, neither of which we (supposedly) have a defense for, it makes you stop and think.

    It shouldn’t make you think that we should “throw out” the Navy we do have just because the world is trying to catch up us, but do we double down and produce more of what it is that’s represented the target everyone has been “aiming” for all these years? Or do we modify plans and attempt to stay one step ahead?

  19. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 19, 2009 8:46 pm

    I can’t help but disagree totally Sven! Historically the small warship has been essential in all naval wars, from the age of sail to today. It was small littoral craft which helped build the British Empire in early forms of amphibious warfare, and small gunboats which secured that Empire. More recently, in two world wars, small ships ranging from 1000-2000 tons were in huge demand and over many thousands were built by the US, Canada, and the UK to combat submarines and escort the Big Ships. The very name “destroyer” was derived from the torpedo boat destroyer, without which the battleship would have been obsolete long before WW 2.

    In the Vietnam War, small ships, the famed Brown Water Navy intercepted Vietcong shipments on the rivers and coastal regions to help stem the infiltration of the South. The communists would use any route available to feed their insurgency in the South, so interdicting these shallow water areas was imperative to the American war effort.

    So where does such low cost and plentiful craft fit in today? Considering the high cost of large warships, the increased complexity, and shrinking numbers, small corvettes and other littoral ships might be the antidote. Considering the enhanced capabilities of modern precision weapons such as cruise missiles and guided rockets, small ships can pack a punch that rivals and makes them a threat to the Big Ships.

    If you aren’t planning on fighting a major war at sea, then an “all battleship navy” is fine, as long as shipbuilding funds don’t dry up. But for a sustained campaign at sea, you will need small ships as well, which can take the war to the enemy, sustain losses, and be replaced quickly with new construction. Not having fought a major battle for sea control since WW 2, I fear we have roped ourselves into this mindset, that a few multi-mission warships are all that are required to defend the sealanes. But history does not sustain this false conclusion.

    I think we can learn something from the wars of the past, Sven, in getting a glimpse of what the future entails. And if history is any guide, we will need lots of ships, some large ones of course, but very many small ones of all shapes sizes, and functions. A handful of large and costly battleships are mainly good for a constabulary force, as Western navies have deployed since Korea. But there is no guarantee in the future we will only fight land powers who don’t shoot at our carrier fleet, in fact the opposite is more likely.

  20. May 19, 2009 6:45 pm

    The justified doubts about the big warships (including big carriers) don’t prove that small warships (corvettes) are a better or even the right choice, though.

    The matter is very difficult, highly technical, influenced by physics that go far beyond general knowledge and outsiders are not able to do sufficiently complex operational research on it.
    We probably can’t even tell paper tigers from real threats.

    I saw a lot of big ship bashing in blogs and discussions.
    That’s not enough, though. A thorough concept is needed, a new dreadnought idea.
    Inertia will keep things traditional unless a thorough and convincing new concept is being proposed.

    I’m working on one (with my very small available resources and man hours), and so far I see no use for new warships like 1,000 or 2,000 ton corvettes/frigates. They just seem to serve no purpose – they aren’t good at anything noteworthy and can easily be substituted by other craft.

    There’s – as salespersons would say – there’s no unique selling proposition.
    We don’t need more frigates or corvettes. They’re in fashion because they look like real warships and navies get more flag and bridge officer slots with them in comparison to larger FFG/DDG – that’s the only thing that comes close to a USP.

    Visby is also quite useless, serves no purpose that’s anywhere close to a justification for its costs – albeit its size is probably right for a very different concept.

  21. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 19, 2009 2:23 pm

    Or perhaps Distiller, the Navy might decide they don’t need carriers at all to keep the sealanes open, but a submarine armed with ship-killing missiles. So, we likely won’t see a change in strategy anytime soon.

    If you went back in time to Korea, what type of warship would you have built to specifically match the Red Navy? Since the only craft available to them which was any threat was diesel submarines, instead of supercarriers there might have been a whole-sale replacement of the destroyer fleet, the batle-worne Gearings, Sumners, ect, with smaller ASW carriers for support. A good example is the British Royal Navy of this period, who were forced to build what we consider an appropriate sub-fighting navy, the most likely type of combat it would fight against the Soviets, which turned into an adequate power projection force in an emergency, as in the Falklands Conflict.

    The nuclear submarine force, which many including yours truly consider the modern capital ship, would still have been built. This would have been the only new battleship which would not have interfered with the crucial replacement of escorts ships in the 50s and 60s, a lack of which the USN have been suffering from ever since.

  22. Distiller permalink
    May 19, 2009 1:12 pm

    The carriers basically don’t have an anti-surface primary since the VTs left the decks. History. Doesn’t mean that CVF has the right characteristics, though. Deep strike is still a capability that justifies a CTOL carrier.

    But would a land attack carrier look any different than a blue water battle carrier?
    Maybe with non-nuclear propulsion, since the bomb arsenal and jet fuel needed refilling every couple of days anyway, so that it wouldn’t really matter if a tanker also came alongside?


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