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Aircraft Carriers:The ‘Bigger is Better’ Myth Pt 2

September 1, 2009

Yesterday we examined the drawbacks of depending exclusively on large deck aircraft carriers for naval airpower and how the expense outweighs its usefulness. For instance:

  1. Sortie rate doesn’t matter as much bombing effectiveness and loitering ability.
  2. The Navy justifies the deployment of the world’s most expensive ships by their use against Third World land powers with modest military abilities at best.
  3. Carriers are too vulnerable to risk against peer adversaries with anti-access weapons. Such weapons may even be in the hands of low tech Hybrid Powers.
  4. New technology is dramatically easing our dependence on giant ships, which are a consistent drain on the shrinking ship building budget.

Amazingly some still contend we can’t get along without the supercarrier, shielded by powerful anti-missile escorts, and deep diving nuclear subs, protected by up to 90 warplanes of various types. Here is Raymond Pritchett writing at the USNI website:

The only consideration where CVLs have a good argument is in terms of risk, because CVNs put a lot of eggs in one basket. It all comes down to the level of risk that is acceptable vs the level of cost, capacity, and capability desired for your naval force. I’ll take the big deck, at least 10 if possible, with its associated conventional launch capability and with the E-2D and EA-18G, I’ll whip any 4 VSTOL CVLs every single day of the century.

French helicopter carrier Mistral, an affordable and exceptional design so good the Russians want one! Photo courtesy of and Wikipedia Commons.

French helicopter carrier Mistral, an affordable and exceptional design so good the Russians want one! Photo courtesy of and Wikipedia Commons.

The claim that supercarriers are indispensable for modern warfare should set off the alarm bells, since the notion that only very large, very expensive platforms boasting the most powerful weapons, kept the all-gun battleship advocates blind to its weaknesses until far too late. While physically intimidating with armor up to 20 inches, and powerful guns able to lob a 2700 lb shell 25 miles, it was still vulnerable to a new simpler menace: tiny and swift flying wasps whose stingers included the precision weapons of the day, the air-launched torpedo and the deadly accurate dive bombing tactic.

Ironically, the author himself reveals doubts of today’s capital ship’s future survivability in the face of that ultimate scourge of obsolete weapons, fiscal reality. From Information Dissemination we learn the following:

The FY 2007 defense authorization act established a procurement cost cap for USS Ford (CVN 78) of $10.5 billion, plus adjustments for inflation and other factors. It also established a procurement cost cap for subsequent Ford class carriers of $8.1 billion each, plus adjustments for inflation and other factors. It is unclear what the cost impact of shifting the CVN 79 procurement date one year to FY 2013 (instead of FY 2012) and the CVN 80 procurement date by two years to FY 2018 (instead of FY2016) will be, but odds are very good this will increase, not decrease, the cost of building Ford class nuclear aircraft carriers. The Ford class is already suffering cost growth, and the full extent of what the total cost growth might be with many outstanding questions is still unknown. There does not appear to be many cost saving options available due to the US economic situation.

We now also know for a certain the fleet will soon drop to 9 carriers, rumors of which were reported last week:

There is a dirty little secret though, the operational aircraft carrier number will already drop to 9, not 10, long before the Ford enters service.

Anyone want to give me 8?

I’ve even heard the number 8 operational carriers bounced around, under a more aggressive retirement plan…

Japanese 'helicopter destroyer'  Hyuga offers their Navy an amazing expeditionary and power projection capability.

Japanese 'helicopter destroyer' Hyuga offers their Navy an amazing expeditionary and power projection capability.

We don’t presume to say Mr Pritchett has given up on the fight to maintain a conventional, large deck, carrier-centric force in the US Navy, despite the odds rising against such exquisite vessels in an age of austerity in defense. We can only hope though, the doubts revealed in his own post are shared by the Navy leadership, who hold the future of the fleet in their hands. Time to consider many less costly ships able to perform many roles instead of a few Big Decks preparing to fight a Blue Water conflict no longer imminent or even likely.

Tomorrow we fight for the right to GO LIGHT!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 28, 2010 8:21 am

    Jarico, I think your ideas hold merit, especially when you consider we use the very large and expensive supercarriers in very low threat areas, often against nations which possess very little airpower to speak of, as in Afghanistan. So it seems we could take the risk and deploy small carriers and numerous platforms able to launch vertical warplanes, especially for use in Third World conflicts. Also, if we ever fight a peer conflict at sea, involving cruise missiles and stealthy submarines, you might actually ensure some of your airpower would survive by dispersing it, instead of placing your hopes in a few very expensive and irreplaceable targets.

  2. April 28, 2010 2:20 am

    I found this forum interesting,
    I am not a military expert or an expert in naval affairs.Question, Could the development of VTF aircraft, like Harriers and off sprays, make smaller fleets of Mini carriers be as effective… if not more effective then our 11 or nine Super carriers USN now have in service?
    The reason why I ask this is because we now live in a world where one could probably find a Super carrier Armada by using an I phone and Google earth, Ok over simplified.
    The advancement of VTF aircraft, is broadening the type of vessel or carriers that aircraft can lift off from.
    The USN, is not the only Navy exploring options of using cargo container ships , oil tanker ships and other merchant ships as launch pads for all kinds of air craft, as well as god knows what?

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    September 2, 2009 9:36 am

    Excuse me. When I mentioned the “French PA1 design” I really meant, of course, the PA2, based on the same hull as the British CVF, but with two catapults and arrestor gear instead of the ski-jump.

  4. B.Smitty permalink
    September 2, 2009 9:30 am


    I’m not against a smaller carrier, per se. However I do want to make sure it’s the best way to spend limited defense dollars. I am leery of a STOVL carrier, though, when the only real fighter option for the future is still in a very risky stage of development.

    For the missions you mentioned,

    1) ASW – Is a CVL flying large numbers of helicopters really going to add a lot to our ASW capabilities? ASW helos are good at localizing and striking subs found by other means, but they may not be the best option for broad area surveillance, tracking, and queueing. So perhaps the ASW helos we have on warships are enough, and we need to focus on detecting and tracking subs in the first place.

    2) Convoy protection – Is this really a pressing mission need? What convoys do we need to protect? Protect vs what?

    3) Task group CAP – Without F-35B and an expensive STOVL AEW program, the CAP mission is a non-starter. Even with F-35B, a STOVL AEW program will be expensive and not quick to implement.

    4) A-MIW – This may be a mission a helo carrier could perform, but it’s also one an inexpensive LPD or LHD like the Rotterdam class or Mistral could perform too.

    5) small warship/boat support (NSW/NECC) support, MSO, other ships a/c support – Again, perhaps a mission for a cheaper LPD like the Rotterdam or LHD like the Mistral than a full blown CVL.

    After thinking about fitting a larger number of smaller carrier-like vessels into the future fleet, the two options that I came up with that “felt” the best to me were,

    a) Replace the LPD and/or LSD in each ARG with a Mistral/Juan Carlos/Canberra type LHD. This potentially would increase the cost of fielding an ARG, and may have cargo cube and vehicle square issues. However it would be cheaper than trying to field a new CVL without reducing elsewhere. And it wouldn’t fundamentally eliminate capability, as replacing CVNs with CVLs would.

    My problem with it is, in the CVL role, a STOVL LHD is still reliant on the unproven F-35B program. And there’s still the non-existant STOVL AEW, and other missing “irreduceables”, issue.

    b) Replace the LHA in an ARG with a CATOBAR CV like the French PA1 design. Such a vessel may have to be redesigned to swing-role as an effective LPH/LHA or a CV, as the mission warranted. This also would cost more than the new LHA(X) design, but going with a real CATOBAR carrier might let us reduce the number of CVNs without eliminating capability. ARGs/ESGs would then truly be mini-CVBGs.

    Of course, developing a CV/LPH that can be effective in both roles might not be practical or cost-effective.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 2, 2009 5:37 am

    “Perhaps you need to spend less time in the navy yard and more time studying merchant shipping”

    How often are warships built to mercantile standards? For warships you need speed, maneuverability, and numbers. Few merchant ships are built to these same standards and wouldn’t be very cost-effective. Which is why I insist it is a peacetime focused fleet. But every problem currently afflicting the Navy from reduced number of ships, over-worked crews and ships, higher ship costs, drastically reduced number of ship classes so we get less innovation in types, and ships riddled with faults when they do enter service, seems to come from buildings them too big.

    In contrast-with building smaller vessels:
    1.Reduced manning problems
    2. Reduced costs.
    2. Increase number of ships you can buy (no presence deficit).
    3. Greater variety of ships.
    4. A bigger, better, affordable fleet ready for war but meant to keep the peace.

    I could go on, but the bottom line is, a back to basics in ship design is long overdue, and may just come from the vessels we keep exiling to the Caribbean or African Patrol like the HSV 2 Swift, or the M-80 Stiletto.

  6. leesea permalink
    September 2, 2009 2:22 am

    Bsmitty, sure there are irreducible minimums needed for any carriers survival. I think Heretic’s list is a little more shall we say austere but even then may not go far enough. One has to ask exactly how much weight you are putting on the strike mission and therefore the a/c needed to fufill it?

    Part of Capt Hughes premise is that CVLs will do OTHER missions than strike (aka power projection in my book) which are needed by OTHER parts of the Navy. Those may be humbler and more plebian but are still necessary. Here are some which come to mind in no particular order: ASW, convoy protection, task group CAP, A-MIW, small warship/boat support (NSW/NECC) support, MSO, other ships a/c support. Sure they are no Top Gun zoomie missions but they need to be done regularly wherever the Navy deploys.

    The other part of this equation is that some a/c can and should be based on other ships. Ok the F-35B is still unproven, but there are also lots of helos being used which need to get back to the CVL at times. Part of the Hughes premise is to spread the ships and a/c around on more platforms in more places.

    More hulls carrier or otherwise is always my preference.

  7. B.Smitty permalink
    September 1, 2009 9:53 pm


    I agree with your basic assertion that there are some irreduceable assets a “real” carrier must have.

    For modern strike warfare, I would throw in an EW/Jammer platform.

    I have two problems with a STOVL carrier design,

    1) It reduces you to exactly one unproven, pre-production fighter – the F-35B. Frankly, I wouldn’t even consider basing a carrier design around the F-35B until it is close to IOC, at the earliest. It is not a Harrier. We need time to understand its idiosyncracies and shipboard issues before committing to a class of ships built around it.

    OTOH, a smaller, conventional, CATOBAR carrier can still operate the full range of in-service, proven, carrier aircraft including all of the existing “irreduceable”.

    2) New, STOVL, “irreduceable” programs will be costly, take a long time to build, and be less capable than the existing, in service types.

  8. Anonymous permalink
    September 1, 2009 5:22 pm

    “Such lessons come mainly from years of peacetime sailing, not war experience. When a weapon becomes so bloated, overweight, and costly it is a drag on other essential platforms, a back to basics approach is in order. This is where we need to be with the USN who have come to the conclusion only large exquisite vessels are useful in modern seapower, but such lessons are not from practical experience, but that we will never have to fight a major war. They have said as much themselves.”

    What exactly are you driving at with the above? I assume the weapon you are talking about is the carrier?

    Larger ships are more adaptable, suffer less fatigue, and therefore have an inherently longer life.

    Larger ships are more stable. Better for weapons. Better for the crew.

    Larger ships (even the modern egg shells) with correct water tight zones are able to soak up more damage than smaller vessels. A modern all electric design where generating capacity is spread throughout the hull and propulsion by podded units (down the length of the hull) would be a good design model to follow.

    Are you familiar with the “large empty box school” of ship design?

    Do you not what is meant by an “unstable design”?

    What I am suggesting is that there is nothing wrong with size; far from it bigger is better for a myriad of reasons.

    Your problem isn’t with large ships but with a particular class of ship (the Nimitiz.) I have studied the Nimitz class and I am aware what all the crew on-board do. But I wouldn’t run a ship that way (and neither would you!)

    Perhaps you need to spend less time in the navy yard and more time studying merchant shipping.

  9. Heretic permalink
    September 1, 2009 4:09 pm

    Mike, when dealing with the CVE(N) angle (particularly in the jet age) there are certain “irreduceables” which a modern fixed wing aircraft carrier simply should not be without. These are factors which simply don’t scale down with everything else. As I mentioned in the part 1 thread, I’m of the opinion that these factors/functions are:

    Airborne Early Warning
    Airborne Tanking/Transport
    Vertical Lift Cargo/Rescue

    No matter how small you go with a carrier, you can’t “dispense” with these critical functions. For that reason, you essentially need to have four copies of the platform that provides the respective service … so as to have round-the-clock coverage with a reserve capacity of 1 airframe for that job.

    So … granted the proposition that even before you start adding fighter/strike planes to a carrier you already “need” to spend 12 slots on air support assets, it then becomes a question of how large of a fighter/strike component do you want to have embarked aboard?


    When you’re going small … is there a “sweet spot” in terms of the mix between offensive and support assets when talking about manned aircraft?

    As stated before, my personal preference would be for a strike package of 24 fixed wing V/STOL aircraft, with 4 STOL AEW, 4 STOL Tanker/Transports and 4 VTOL rotary wing/tilt-rotors in support … with ski jump(s, plural, if built on a catamaran or trimaran planform with two parallel flight decks topside). Mind you, this is all “back the envelope”/gut feeling sort of wishful thinking on my part … but at the same time it just “feels right” for a realignment of what a carrier ought to have (and be about) when going small(er than 90 planes aboard).

    Makes me wish there was some sort of freeware/shareware software package that would allow me to mock up these kinds of ideas (in admittedly basic ways) to find the flaws in the underlying assumption(s).

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 1, 2009 3:54 pm

    “Larger ships are always more economical (more stores, bigger bunkers,) better sea keepers, better for air ops.”

    Such lessons come mainly from years of peacetime sailing, not war experience. When a weapon becomes so bloated, overweight, and costly it is a drag on other essential platforms, a back to basics approach is in order. This is where we need to be with the USN who have come to the conclusion only large exquisite vessels are useful in modern seapower, but such lessons are not from practical experience, but that we will never have to fight a major war. They have said as much themselves.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    September 1, 2009 3:32 pm

    How big is big? And how small is small? NUMAST (the ships’ masters union here in the UK) have questioned why if commercial interests can send a 20k tonne displacement ship to see with a crew of 15 why can’t the RN. Obviously the RN has to have watch keepers for weapons etc. (HMS Ocean operates with a crew of 185 for 20,000 tonnes. )

    Ark Royal IV displaced 53,000 tons, 245m long, 50m beam. Ark Royal V displaces 20,000. 209m long, 31m beam. In terms of length and breadth then the later ship isn’t all that smaller. Remember costs for a surface ship are 60% weapons, 40% hull. I don’t think an ASM will be that bothered by 35m difference in length.

    Larger ships are always more economical (more stores, bigger bunkers,) better sea keepers, better for air ops. etc.

    Nuclear costs may look frightening. But just think of all the extra oilers needed. Nuclear power gives a platform much, much greater utility.

    I like the Mistral. Its only deficiency is its slow speed. An amphib should be able to cover 500 miles a day. 18kts doesn’t quite cut the Dijon.

    Thanks for a nice website.

  12. Hudson permalink
    September 1, 2009 2:23 pm

    Thanks, Mike. I’m wondering where in the inventory EW fits in compared with guns, missiles, bombs and decoys. Can EW disable or deflect certain types of cruise missiles, for example? The Israeli experience would suggest that electronics are a powerful weapon indeed.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 1, 2009 11:21 am

    Hudson, it just makes sense you would use every tool available to fight your enemy in a conflict, and this sort of electronic and cyber warfare is all apart of the business. Those who don’t use all their resources loses.

  14. Hudson permalink
    September 1, 2009 8:39 am

    Recently I read where the Navy purchased a batch of special EW F-18s. It makes one wonder if they’re up to something. Maybe the Navy has learned important lessons from the Israeli operation against the alleged N. Korean supplied nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert.

    Not only did the Israeli F-16s freeze the Russian-supplied anti-air batteries, but apparently knocked out cell phone service across Lebanon for a day or so. Could electronic warfare therefore be an important part of the big carrier’s defense, that it would send these F-18 Hornets fanning out across Iran, say, “stinging” their missile defense systems and making it impossible for the enemy to communicate with its forces, while it is getting pounded?

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