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Debunking Aircraft Carrier Myths Pt 2

June 9, 2009

Yesterday we countered several arguments advocates of large deck supercarriers use to justify their continued production, in an age of the miniaturization  of warfare due to advances in computer precision technology. Specifically we debunked the following aircraft carrier myths:

  1. The Navy’s power projection role can only be conducted from supercarriers.
  2. Fewer aircraft and reduced flight operations negates a smaller carrier’s usefulness.
  3. Smaller carriers are more vulnerable than supercarriers.
  4. Small carriers are useless as frontline warships.

We still contend that whatever enhanced capabilities the larger aircraft carrier brings to a navy, the drawback in astonishingly high procurement, annual maintenance, and life cycle costs counter any benefits. These skyrocketing prices also have an ironic rippling effect in that they hinder the replacement of naval aircraft, the prime reason for the ship’s existence, without which it is a hollow shell. We also argued that smaller, cheaper carriers could perform the primary mission of power projection equally well, if you consider that more hulls in the water means you can cover a greater area of sea. Precision bombers also enhances the capabilities of small decks.

Today we intend to reveal the drawbacks of building nuclear-powered warships, and question the need for big decks in the Age of Precision.

Nuclear Power as Blessing and Curse

Nuclear power also adds to the prohibitive cost of these “4.5 acres of sovereign US territory”. While such powerful propulsion allows quicker and practically unlimited deployments, the advanced price also means fewer ships available for quicker response. A carrier undergoing refueling means this ship is out of service of up to 3 years. According to the Navy, nuclear propulsion also adds from $600-$800 million to a ship’s price-tag. Some savings are found over time in not having to use expensive fossil fuels, but these costs are spread over the decades and not seen as upfront prices to wary ship-buyers in Congress. According to the GAO:

A nuclear-powered carrier costs about $8.1 billion, or about 58 percent, more than a conventionally powered carrier to acquire, operate and support for 50 years, and then to inactivate.

Nuclear Task Force One in the 1960s

Nuclear Task Force One in the 1960s

Nuclear power has been both a blessing and a curse for the US Navy. While it has given us many wondrous carriers, surface warships, and submarines, it has the drawback of creating a much smaller Navy in a time of many threats, Even the most capable vessel can’t be many places at once. The continued purchasing of high-end exquisite warships has practically decimated our escort forces, the small ship navy, the backbone of the fleet during the World Wars and well into the Cold War. Today only about 30 frigates are in commission, which are very useful in fighting pirates and soft power missions around the world, where many hundreds of the sea-going greyhounds guarded the sealanes in years past.

Then there is the animosity nuclear power draws from even our closest allies, such as Japan. The majority of Navy warships, including the carrier’s missile escorts sail quite adequately powered by fossil fuels. Such vessels can also take advantage of new forms of propulsion such as gas turbines, and in the future hybrid fuels, and all-electric drive.

The New Warfare versus Big Decks

A ship capable of handling 90-100 planes fails to take advantage of new precision weapons that greatly magnifies the capabilities of smaller platforms. With aircraft now guaranteeing “one bomb, one hit”, it seems now is the time to consider smaller ships with 1/3 to 1/4 airwings, and also the increasing capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles used so successfully in recent land wars. Due to the high costs of ships and planes, we are heading for smaller wings regardless, but the size of the ships are going up, not down!

USS Monterey (CVL-26)

USS Monterey (CVL-26)

During the World war, small carriers like the Independence class were not built to replace large deck ships, but to fill the gap until more of the Essex class made it into service later on. Now that it proves no longer feasible to deploy the desired 12-15 supercarriers, this sensible and proven concept might be revisited in order to maintain numbers in the fleet.

Can We do Better?

Again we agree that the Nimitz and her future replacement of the USS Gerald Ford class are the most capable ships imaginable. They are highly visible symbols of the might of the US Navy in her quest to maintain freedom of the seas. As capable as they are, the question remains are they the best platforms which all aspects are considered for the type of warfare we are facing in this new century, or could smaller and more numerous ships, less of a drag on precious shipbuilding funds, be a better alternative?

From our study so far, here are qualities that are desirable in a future small carrier, still allowing it to be an effective tool for power projection:

  • Reduction in cost so that it doesn’t distract from other essential warship programs and especially the procurement of new naval aircraft.
  • Reduced costs to produce greater numbers which enhances the physical presence of the Navy by increasing deployable numbers.
  • More hulls to ensure some of our primary striking arms will survive in wartime.
  • Cheaper non-nuclear propulsion to better integrate the ship into the rest of the fleet, and to reduce cost.
  • Adequate as opposed to excessive armor protection, to ensure the ship is easily repairable to battle damage.

Concluded tomorrow with Pt 3 and a proposal.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Zeke permalink
    April 12, 2010 9:38 pm

    Did I miss Part 3 and the proposal?

  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 20, 2009 6:43 am

    Its a good idea, Jeremy, if you can afford it. But history doesn’t bear out your statement. The British Navy was never forced to port even at the height of the U-boat war in WW 2. They still imported all their oil from the Middle East and America.

    America gets alot of oil from overseas, but not all, and there are tons of reserves in Alaska and Canada untapped. I think with rationing here at home she’d have all the oil she needs to fuel her war machine without imports.

    And a torpedo can sink a nuclear powered ship as easy as a conventional one, except the nuke ship is much harder to replace not to mention a sourge on the environment if sunk.

  3. Jeremy permalink
    June 19, 2009 10:31 pm

    While it is debatable that conventional powered ships are cheaper now, During a major war, where fuel use in the military skyrockets, and the seas become much less safe for oil tankers, nuclear powered ships would be nothing short of a necessity,

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 10, 2009 7:56 pm

    Thanks Mike, for the info. I think the small carriers were more than just “niche”. They were doing the power projection role on land defending MacArthur’s forces at Leyte when the whole Japanese battlefleet showed up. Then there was ASW in the Atlantic, and again supporting landing operations, first in Operation Torch.

    So today we use giant supercarriers for basically the same mission of supporting land troops that the tiny “jeep” carriers built to commercial standards, with a handful of fighters loaded, most slower than 20 knots speed. And we built 100 of them for ourselves and the RN, about 10X’s the number of supercarriers we now possess.

  5. June 10, 2009 7:17 pm

    Actually, there is a technology under development that does indeed combine a gas turbine and a nuclear reactor. Works well on land, but since it uses a high temperature gas reactor, much too big for a ship. Also being developed to reasonably cleanly turn coal into jet fuel. See

    Harking back to WWII, small carriers had a niche (anti-submarine warfare, some invasion support), but because the number and types of aircraft were limited, the larger carriers were much more versatile. While the Brits did well in the Falkland’s, a large carrier would have made it significantly easier.

    Lesson that keeps popping up is a weapons system that is a jack-of-all-trades does not do any one thing well.

    You can indeed go full out with a reactor if there is a need.

  6. Heretic permalink
    June 10, 2009 12:41 pm

    Mike, there’s no hybrid propulsion like that simply because the safety margin on USN reactors is so large that they’re NEVER going to go full out after undergoing sea trials prior to commissioning. This means that the reactors have more “spare capacity” than they know what to do with (for all practical *cruising* purposes) such that any sort of gas turbine “backup” hybrid propulsion is effectively adding dead weight to the ship for no real *meaningful* gain in propulsive capacity (ie. added knots).

    And I wasn’t advocating a single reactor *installed* for a 50k ton carrier, I was advocating a single reactor *type* be used (with multiple copies per ship to reach propulsion/power generation requirements). If that means two, or three, or four copies of the same reactor as in the Virgina subs … so be it.

  7. Scott B. permalink
    June 10, 2009 5:26 am

    leesea said : “p.s. the French did it!”

    And they certainly won’t do it again!

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 10, 2009 2:43 am

    Mike said: “Small carriers are, by their very nature, less capable”

    Its really not so much about the ship, but the weapons she handles. Any denial about the enhanced capability of modern aircraft including dependability, safety, and most of all lethality due to first laser guided and now JDAM bombs? Logically the small carrier is better set to handle the fewer sorties required for today’s military planes. The more funds you you spend on your mothership, the less you have for its true purpose which is a weapons’ carrier.

    As for single reactors, I wonder if anyone ever proposed a hybrid nuclear/gas turbine propulsion, cruising with the atomic fuel, then for high speed dashes switching to conventional?

  9. leesea permalink
    June 10, 2009 1:23 am

    All CVN have aircraft burning JP and other POL needs. So regardless the carrier will be going alongside an NFAF ship oh every 3 to 5 days while on the line. So what does nuke power get one operationally? And if more VSTAL and UAV are part of the air wings of tomorrow as many have forcast, then what does the Navy need so many CVNs for?

    Heretic is right on the money about the lack of standardization in nuclear plants which is a major contributor to increased construction and operation costs. Has anyone heard anything from the Navy about using the same reactors in all its futue ships?
    p.s. the French did it!

  10. June 9, 2009 9:02 pm

    A nuclear powered aircraft carrier does not have to worry about it’s fuel supply being cut off by hostile foreign countries. A gas turbine powered ship does.

    Small carriers are, by their very nature, less capable. Better to have-and-not-need than need-and-not-have.

    A single reactor type is not practical; subs are small, carriers are not.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 9, 2009 4:20 pm

    “600-800 MILLION, not billion”

    Oops! Fixed now ( but give them time, eh?)

  12. Distiller permalink
    June 9, 2009 1:04 pm

    Remember that the PetroChina is said to buy McDermott? No nuclear fuel for the Navy then?

    Ok, seriously: Coal liquefaction can give the Navy all the fuel they need at around 80 USD per barrel (look that number up, not sure I remember correctly).

    There are a couple of pluses for nuclear carriers. Like high speed transit over long ranges (hopefully with nuclear powered escorts), a smaller island free to be positioned anywhere on the ship, no turbulences from exhaust gasses on approach. But they still need regular vistis from replenishers to fill up jet fuel and jet ammo, so that aspect is somewhat overrated.

    On a system level don’t forget that a conventional carrier has more potential shipyards for building and repairing – not only because of size, but also because of the special equipment and workforce a CVN needs in drydock. Esp in-theatre or close-to-theatre repaire capability could be crucial. In the Pacific there are CVN drydocks only in Kitsap, Pearl, and Singapore. (The Apra plans are crazy, as this whole concentrated build up on Guam is sheer lunacy).

    Here more stuff:

    Mike: 600-800 MILLION, not billion

  13. Heretic permalink
    June 9, 2009 12:18 pm

    Mike, I’m going to have to disagree with your assessment of nuclear power. The answer to the nuclear problem is to standardize the power plant to as great an extent as possible so that it can be used in as many ships as possible (greater numbers equals lower costs and all that).

    Enterprise had 8 reactors that are custom to that design.
    Nimitz ships have 2 reactors that are common only to that ship class.
    Ford carriers will have 2 reactors that are common only to that ship class.

    I have to wonder if standardizing on the same reactor as used by the submarine service (ie. SSN-774 type reactor) would be the best possible choice for the fleet. If you do THAT, then the question becomes a matter of simple algebra as far as hull sizes and desired speeds.

    (# of reactors) * (hull shape) * (displacement) = desired underway speed

    I have no idea of the sorts of computations actually involved here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you wound up with something like two SSN-774 reactors produces a 50,000 ton flattop with a cruising speed of 30+ knots (or whatever the requirement is).

    You then turn around and specify that the CG(X)N also use one SSN-774 reactor, and that it needs to have a minimum underway cruising speed of {insert knots} and enough surplus power to run {gigawatts of power hungry systems} simultaneously while underway.

    Basically, settle on a single reactor for the whole navy, based on the submarine service’s, and use it in everything above a certain specified tonnage.

  14. elgatoso permalink
    June 9, 2009 11:58 am

    I am not so sure that cheap oil is better.
    Nuclear ships have a a cleaner atmosphere.They don’t use expensive fossil fuels.
    “Naval Reactors estimates that building a nuclear-powered amphibious assault
    ship every three years or so could reduce the procurement cost of each nuclearpowered
    carrier (CVN) by about $65 million and each nuclear-powered attack
    submarine (SSN) by about $20 million due to increased economies of scale in the
    production of nuclear propulsion components. Naval Reactors further estimates that
    if nuclear-powered surface combatants were then added to this mix of nuclearpowered
    ships, it would reduce the cost of each CVN by an additional $80 million
    or so, and each SSN by an additional $25 million or so. Naval Reactors also states
    that the additional work in building nuclear-propulsion components could help
    stabilize the nuclear-propulsion component industrial base by providing extra work
    to certain component makers whose business situation is somewhat fragile”
    “If nuclear-powered amphibious assault ships or surface combatants are built
    partially or entirely by the two nuclear-construction yards — Northrop Grumman
    Newport News (NGNN) and General Dynamics’ Electric Boat division (GD/EB); see
    discussion below — it might further reduce the cost of CVNs and SSNs built at those
    yards by spreading the fixed overhead costs at those yards over a wider workload and
    enabling more efficient rollover of workers from one ship to another. By the same
    token, it might increase the cost of other ships being built at Ingalls and GD/BIW by
    having the obverse effects in those yards.”
    Telephone conversation with Naval Reactors, March 24, 2006.

  15. Scott B. permalink
    June 9, 2009 8:33 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Adequate as opposed to excessive armor protection, to ensure the ship is easily repairable to battle damage.”

    I’d like to understand why you think *armor* protection is excessive on the current CVNs and why it would make these CVNs less repairable to battle damage.

    Maybe your statement is based on studies that I’m not aware of ?

    If that’s the case, I would love to get a chance to read these documents.

  16. Scott B. permalink
    June 9, 2009 8:23 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Reduced costs to produce greater numbers which enhances the physical presence of the Navy by increasing deployable numbers.”

    Greater numbers doesn’t necessarily produce increased physical presence.

    For instance, as Lehman pointed out, smaller carriers have lower seakeeping qualities that curtail flight operations in heavy seas.

    In such cases, it doesn’t really matter how many smaller carriers you’re going to have, your physical presence in terms of naval aviation is going to be ZERO.

  17. Scott B. permalink
    June 9, 2009 8:15 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Cheaper non-nuclear propulsion to better integrate the ship into the rest of the fleet, and to reduce cost.”

    Non-nuclear propulsion may not be cheaper.

    See for instance Ronald O’Rourke’s CRS report entitled Navy Ship Propulsion Technologies : Options for
    Reducing Oil Use — Background for Congress
    , page 15 :

    2005 Naval Reactors Quick Look Analysis

    A 2005 “quick look analysis” conducted by the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors, concluded that total life-cycle costs (i.e., procurement plus life-cycle operating and support costs) for nuclear- and fossil-fueled versions of large-deck aircraft carriers would equalize when the price of diesel fuel marine (DFM) delivered to the Navy reached $55.

    The break-even figures for LHA/LHD-type large-deck amphibious assault ships and large surface combatants (i.e., cruisers and destroyers) were $80 and $205 per barrel, respectively.

    As of February 2006, the price of DFM delivered to the Navy was $84 per barrel. Since the cost of DFM delivered to the Navy is roughly 15% greater than that of crude oil, these figures correspond to crude-oil costs of about $48, $70, and $178 per barrel, respectively.

    The difference in the break-even points results in part from the different amounts of energy used by each type of ship over its life time.


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