The Ignored Aircraft Carrier Alternatives
Some recent headlines in the news point to a growing idea that the large-deck aircraft carrier might be in trouble:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.