Debunking Aircraft Carrier Myths Pt 2
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:
- The Navy’s power projection role can only be conducted from supercarriers.
- Fewer aircraft and reduced flight operations negates a smaller carrier’s usefulness.
- Smaller carriers are more vulnerable than supercarriers.
- 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 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!
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.