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The Ignored Aircraft Carrier Alternatives

August 13, 2009

Some recent headlines in the news point to a growing idea that the large-deck aircraft carrier might be in trouble:

Soviet warship turns into India’s white elephant.

Avoiding the World’s Largest Helicopter Carrier.

HMS not quite so Invincible.

Russian Carrier Dreams Sunk.

During the 1990’s, after the Tomahawk cruise missile’s dramatic debut in the 1991 Gulf War, there was some talk that that the TLAM (Tomahawk land attack missile) firing warships like cruisers, destroyers, and submarines could on occasion replace the diminishing number of large aircraft carriers in some roles. It was then that the proponents of Big Decks rose up mightily to object, pointing out the expense of each TLAM fired and not returned, and how it could not perform sorties or close air support of ground troops. Such a function, we were reminded, could only be performed by giant 100,000 ton supercarriers and their huge 90 plane airwings.

Specifically, we have the following arguments against the large deck conventional aircraft:

  1. Their cost, now at over $10 billion in the USN, and this doesn’t include very costly escorts and airwings. Altogether you are talking about $20-$25 billion to deploy a single aircraft carrier.
  2. Their vulnerability. By putting all our eggs in a single basket, including the bulk of the maritime strategy and 5000-6000 crewman we risk a great deal. I understand all ships are vulnerable but hoping we never lose a carrier is so wishful thinking.
  3. Just another “niche” weapon. As useful as carriers are, their function is no less important than anti-submarine warfare, littoral warfare, and mine warfare, all essential functions in wartime, and all of which are done by small warships. The carrier mindset has us believing only battleships can perform the sea control mission, which is historically inaccurate and strategically asking for disaster.

When discussing the usefulness of large decks, none of these drawbacks are ever factored in. For instance, I understand how no other vessel can bomb the Taliban in land locked Afghanistan like a 90 plane supercarrier, but is the price we pay worth this and can we find something which can perform the mission, not necessarily as good but adequate so that we don’t bankrupt ourselves, put our crews at risk, or neglect other essential warfighting needs (helicopters and armored vehicles for the troops who do most of the fighting for example)?

I think there have been alternatives, aside from the above-mentioned TLAM warships, as recent as the past few decades which the Big Deck carrier advocates have ignored or shrugged off as being inconsequential:

  • V/STOL Carriers-Most studies on the use of small decks in the 1982 Falklands Conflict focus on the limitations of the Harrier Carriers versus a Big Deck, instead of the obvious lesson, which was the validation of the V/STOL concept planes very trying circumstances. Even the ships’ lack of an airborne early warning plane was easily remedied by the use of helicopters, the Westland Sea King.
  • Precision Guided Munitions-The advent precision weapons (smart bombs, PGMs) in which one of two planes can now perform mission once requiring an entire airwing and several bombing sorties, should have induced the USN to spread such a capability around the fleet. This would have gone far in reducing the strain on our stretched-thin operating forces, and end the decline  in numbers ongoing since the Fall of the Iron Curtain. A squadron of 12-15 of the excellent Super Hornets launched from a small deck (converted helicopter carriers?) and armed with smart bombs would still provide America with a force unmatched by any other nation.
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles-The use of UAVs in ongoing Middle East wars have proven that such individual strike planes armed with many of the same PGMs of large manned jets can perform strategic bombing and close air support missions. The continued use of armed drones will future duplicate the role of the giant aircraft carrier in many circumstances, in such a dramatic difference in cost, again as has occurred on land,  that the politicians and admirals cannot possibly ignore.

When the unmanned aerial vehicles, often likened to “reusable cruise missiles” go to sea, there will no longer be any valid arguments, because the drones can do all of the above at least cost without putting a pilot and his $100 million aircraft at risk, or a $20 billion strike group as it nears the shore. Then the surface ships will finally be unfettered from the shelter of their giant motherships, where they have been bound for almost 3/4 of a century, now used to their full potential thanks to the power of modern robot weapons.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. leesea permalink
    September 18, 2009 2:34 am

    I know Mike has covered this elsewhere but big deck amphibs are alternatives, maybe not good ones, but at least the older hulls might be available soon?

    And of course, we must not forget that T-AKVs can be used to back up the a/c assets on aircraft carriers. That is why I am now calling the category “aviation capable ships”. T-AKVs can be more than just a/c and aircrew transports by serving also as M&R stations for smaller ships with less capability, and as extra hanger space for all of the above. And given range limitations of STOVLs, T-AKVs could be bingo fuel landing strips not to mention having additional fuel tankage.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 17, 2009 4:36 pm

    So why do we need superships to counter them?

  3. Jed permalink
    September 17, 2009 4:31 pm

    “Well this got a bit off topic as insurgents and terrorists do not have a naval force.”
    – Not yet !

  4. Defiant permalink
    August 14, 2009 9:43 am

    the only effective weapons they have are atgm, maybe the AK and some MG. You can’t probably send soldiers to afghanistan with wwII tech equipment. There’s nothing to learn from them, they are using guerilla warfare and hide behind children. Using those tactics would make you lose the war very fast. ANd infantry equipment is pretty much of the shelf excluding the raven uav, according to your reasoning you would’t provide your infantry with such a not off the shelf tool.
    If the insurgents had weapons as effective as ours, most of the reaper/predator would have been shot down.

    Well this got a bit off topic as insurgents and terrorists do not have a naval force.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 14, 2009 7:55 am

    Defiant said-“I always have the feeling you think that all future conflicts will be against an asymmetric threat.”

    Now that the terrorists and insurgents are getting new weapons as effective as our own, they are the new conventional. We could learn lessons from them, not only about fighting, but how to arm and equip our people quickly and cost-effectively. They buy off the shelf, so should we. And while we dream of future wars, they are winning the present.

  6. William permalink
    August 13, 2009 5:31 pm

    Well I recall reading on the defensetalk forum that an austere Juan Carlos 27,000 ton LHD costs euro 300 million (dollars 500 million). So you could buy almost five for the cost of an America class. Of course thats only if it was built outside the US.

    It has a ski jump and can carry up to 30 aircraft when operating in carrier mode, or in LHD mode, 46 Leopard 2 tanks and 900 troops and 16 – 20 aircraft.

  7. Defiant permalink
    August 13, 2009 4:19 pm

    Falklands are some years in the past and the enemy was technology wise behind.
    Don’t plan for the last war- plan for the next.
    You can’t expect the to destroy a bigger building with hellfires or to beat an enemy with tlam alone.
    I just read a little post on ares, about the mq1 warrior, it costs nearly 20 million and uses a car motor. with hellfire payload it probably won’t go faster than 300km/h. . The soldiers on the battlefield can go drink some coffee til the airstrike. I doubt the x-57 will be cheaper than a hornet.
    Points about V/STOL carriers in my first comment, besides America class cost 2.4Billion as well, carrying far less than half of a double the size carriers capability.
    I always have the feeling you think that all future conflicts will be against an asymmetric threat.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 13, 2009 3:20 pm

    Defiant, I think you may be thinking in terms like the USAF excuse for the Raptor: that the fighter platform itself must ” be all and do all”. You don’t need heavy payloads with new precision weapons. You don’t need highly maneuverable hot fighters as well as highly maneuverable missiles (as the Harriers proved in the Falklands).

    This sort of thinking is why most of the fleet is huddled around a handful of giant carriers, instead of dispersed with their individually more powerful new weapons giving us greater flexibility and reducing our presence deficit. Like the Navy, I think you are underestimating the abilities of these new battleships: TLAM equipped submarines and surface ships and V/STOL light carriers.

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    August 13, 2009 11:32 am


    AEW Sea Kings hang their radar off the side of the fuselage, not over the rotors. However I completely agree, helo AEW is not a “peer competitor” to fixed wing AEW.

  10. Heretic permalink
    August 13, 2009 10:38 am

    Mike, with respect to helicopter AEW … it needs to be made clear that while this “flavor” of AEW is certainly better than nothing at all, it’s not a “peer competitor” to fixed wing AEW platforms. Helicopters … um … vibrate … in ways that are not so helpful for AEW radar precision/accuracy. The only place you can put an AEW radar dish (prior to the AESA type phased arrays we build today) is above the rotor blades, which isn’t exactly a “rock solid” hardpoint to put sensitive sensor electronics that dislike vibration.

    So while it *can* be done, it is by no means an optimal solution. Better than nothing, granted, but still not something you want if there’s a better way to get the job done (ie. fixed wings, even if it involves tilt rotors).

    All of which makes me wonder if it’d be possible to somehow “evolve” a PC-6 Turboporter into a useful STOL AEW platform with an AESA radar system. Granted, the resulting aircraft would look almost nothing like a PC-6 once you get done “evolving” it into an AEW platform … but if you can hold onto the STOL characteristics of the Turboporter to a degree where the plane can make unassisted takeoffs and landings from a ski-jump flattop … you’ve got your AEW asset for small “jeep” carriers. It wouldn’t be an E-2D by any stretch of the imagination, but then there’s the whole “perfect vs good enough” aspect of such a decision. And nothing says that such EPC-6 planes would “have to be” operated from carriers … they could operate just fine from land, and quite possibly from relatively austere airfields for COIN operations.

  11. Defiant permalink
    August 13, 2009 9:53 am

    1. Vtol carriers
    are more expensive carrying the same amount of planes altogether (pro: spread of risk)
    planes starting from vtol can carry less payload (either reducing range or weapon payload)
    need bodyguards as well, so you have to spread the aaw capable vessels.
    can probably not deploy awacs
    2. how do you want to spread planes in the fleet?, besides, america class can handle f35b.
    3. ucav won’t be cheaper with the same performace as manned fighters.
    current uav lack the speed if there’s a sudden requiremtn for an airstrike.
    Theri only appeal is in the loiter time, so you can place them above a battlefield of ground troops and use eo/ir sensors and video stream to give the ground troops air reconnaissance and maybe launch a hellfire. This is only possible in the absence of enemy air defense systems. But uavs also require a lot of satellite capacity for video stream to the operator, this capacity however is limited.

    whats the potential of surface ships? the only use for ships is to block sea routes, a little shore bombardement, controlling airspace, and carriage of tomahawks. it will only be possible to carry more tomahawks.


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