Debunking Aircraft Carrier Myths Pt 1
Proponents of the large deck aircraft carrier have well-used excuses why we need to keep these highly expensive and decreasing-in-number warships as the core of today’s Navy. For the record, lets hear from one of the most effective advocates of the super-flattops in modern times, former Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, John Lehman, who wrote the following in his book On Seas of Glory:
A smaller carrier is less expensive, meaning more carriers for a given dollar amount and fewer eggs in each basket. But compared to the large nuclear carrier, smaller carriers lack the speed and endurance of a big deck; the poor seakeeping qualities of smaller carriers curtail flight operations as much as 30% of the time. Smaller deck areas limit aircraft in performance as well as in numbers. A ten-year review of carrier landing accidents showed the smaller decks with nearly double the accident rate of the Nimitz class. Moreover, the reduced volume on smaller ships limits weapons mix and storage capbility…A smaller ship is ultimately harder to sustain and needs far more under-way replenishment and hence additional replenishment ships.
And concerning enhanced survivability:
Some of the war-fighting features that make the Nimitz class the least vulnerable ship in any fleet include high-tensile-strength steel armoring of the flight and lower decks, magazine protection from high-and low-angle attack missiles and torpedoes, and multiple provisions for torpedo protection including more than two thousand watertight, shock-resistant compartments; protecting fire-fighting and flooding systems;chemical biological and radiation protection; and unlimited range at top speed… As the battles of WWII have demonstrated, it is quit another order of magnitude to sink it.
Bigger Decks and Smaller Airwings
I will be the first to concede that the giant nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Nimitz class, is probably the best that type or warship can be. If you want a ship to carry upwards of 100 aircraft, speed quickly to a crisis zone and make an impact, you probably could do no better. Considering the drastic reduction in ship numbers since the 1990s, coinciding with the astonishing cost to build supercarriers even without their weapons, perhaps it is time to ask if such wondrous and massive vessels are the right ships to carry out the mission of power projection, and whether they are any more survivable than smaller warships.
Lehman’s principle criticism concerned smaller, cheaper supposedly less capable aircraft carriers as alternatives to the Nimitz class, yet throughout his tenure the Navy successfully deployed such ships in its final standoff with the old Soviet Navy. Two ships of the WW 2 era Midway class served into the early 1990s, the Coral Sea and Midway. Both had been extensively updated and capably served modern naval aircraft. The class was the first to deploy an all-F/A-18 Hornet force, as do all USN carriers today. Their 45,000 ton size, half that of the Nimitz, didn’t limit their presence and power, as both ships were deployed in frontline service until their retirement, as in the Mediterranean Sea, the Western Pacific, and during the 1991 Gulf War.
It seems the consistently rising cost of supercarriers are also doing their part to “limit aircraft in performance as well as in numbers”. Today only a single warplane, the F/A-18 Hornet and its versions fly from the large decks, where up to 7 use to perform the same missions. While a more than adequate warplane, we would expect better for our 100,000 ton, $10 billion giants, with an all-Hornet airwing more suited to the half-sized Midway.
Mr Lehman is likely correct when he says “poor seakeeping qualities of smaller carriers curtail flight operations as much as 30%“, but compared to what? To the Nimitz class of course. Does this in anyway hinder the smaller ship in its primary mission of power projection? Every new carrier currently under construction in foreign shipyards are of the small V/STOL variety or medium CTOL (conventional take-off and landing). The motivation may be economic, but principally because any aviation-capable warship is an asset to a sea-going force. In certain circumstance, flight operations can be inhibited on any size deck, especially in adverse weather. Such conditions might also vary according to crew training, the age of a ship, or how well it is maintained.
The Benefits of Small Decks
As navy Secretary in the early 1980s, Lehman himself advocated the use of supposedly less capable Essex class carriers still in retirement, until this plan was vetoed by Congress. The modernized 36,000 ton veterans of the Pacific War with Japan were frontline ships throughout the Cold War, finally decommissioned not because they were no longer useful, but worn out from decades of service. The Secretary praised the durability of the small carriers as noted above with “As the battles of WWII have demonstrated, it is quit another order of magnitude to sink it.”
These durable warships, comparatively small by Nimitz standards, were good enough to withstand the mass Kamikaze attacks late in the war, which is a forerunner of cruise missile warfare today. They survived not so much by their construction, but extremely efficient and well-trained damage control procedure. The July 29, 1967 fire which knocked the armored carrier USS Forestall out of service for almost a year, induced the Navy to relearn these forgotten tactics of the war-era.
So we see that larger carriers, while durable, are very difficult to repair, as the British learned the hard way with their handful of armored carriers during the war. It also doesn’t require a crippling blow to knock a carrier our of action. Inhibit her ability to launch planes and she is effectively useless as a warship. With the USN struggling to maintain 10-11 flattops in service, the risk to our sea dominance becomes greater with a few giant ships.
If the large decks are so much more survivable, as Lehman insists, the question comes to mind “why do they need $2-$3 billion dollar Aegis anti-missile ships as escorts, the most advanced and costly surface warships ever built”? If they are as survivable as the Secretary assures us, then logically smaller and cheaper point-defense frigates costing around a half billion dollars would be adequate, and also boost ship numbers with the savings.
Continued tomorrow with Pt 2.