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Aircraft Carrier Thursdays

September 16, 2009

You may have noticed we have set aside the Thursday posting specifically to discuss the need, or lack of need for the large deck aircraft carrier in modern warfare. We have decided this since we feel most passionate about the issue. As the Air Force has been grudgingly diverted from it’s central air superiority mission recently, which has lessened in importance in recent decades,  so we think the Navy should think in terms of small wars and small ships, instead of the massive conventional battles they most often plan for, or even seeing such exquisite battleships like the Nimitz’s as the right weapon for low tech warfare. They may be handy, but it is because there are so powerful which is why we can get by with fewer and fewer as alternatives in the fleet abound.

That is our philosophy anyway. Come and join us on Thursday morning and divergent views are always welcome. Thanks again for your continued interest!


29 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    March 11, 2010 2:00 pm

    B.Smitty said: “One thing the Navy could do is modify the P-8 MMA to become a LIC medium bomber…”

    As a former P-3C backseater I’d look to go on record that this is a TERRIBLE IDEA! The USN has thrown just about every mission at the MPA community (ASuW, overland ISR, strike warfare with SLAM) such that we’ve gotten to be jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none. In contrast, I’ve flown with Brit and German VP crews. All they do is martime ISR and practice killing submarines… and they are VERY GOOD at both missions.

    The P-8A was designed to find, fix, and when necessary kill submarines. ASW may not be as high profile as say air-to-air, but it is very technical work which takes skilled crew and a purpose-built aircraft. It should be noted that there are way more potential bad guy submarines out there then there were 10 years ago, and they are of a much higher quality.

    Undoubtedly, the P-8A can and will support martime ISR for the long war, but it must keep its focus on ASW in order to deter or prevails in the event of a conflict. If we need a light, low-intensity bomber then the services should buy OV-10s or something similar. But trying to bend the P-8A into a light bomber would be a gross miscalculation of resources.

  2. B.Smitty permalink
    September 19, 2009 10:39 pm


    The “of sorts” is where you run into trouble. Fire Scouts and Scan Eagles are not F/A-18s, F-35s, or X-47s.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 19, 2009 2:54 pm

    I’m all for alternatives, whatever service they come from. When I talk about light carriers, it seems to get the most attention, but I also see long-range bombers, Tomahawk ships, arsenal ships, and hopefully soon UAV carrying warships. In the future, every warship will be an aircraft carrier of sorts.

  4. B.Smitty permalink
    September 19, 2009 2:46 pm

    Mike said,

    “Which is why we keep insisting on alternatives. But the Navy says these won’t work. How do we know if they’ve never been tried in wartime. (Oh wait, they have been tried in wartime, and light and auxiliary carriers have been able adjuncts to the battlefleet since the carrier’s inception).”

    You need aircraft that can fly off of those light and auxiliary carriers. Harriers are getting old and have short leggs. F–35B is still a big unknown. There are no STOVL UCAV programs in the works.

    One thing the Navy could do is modify the P-8 MMA to become a LIC medium bomber. It wouldn’t take much. With no additional modification, it will have 11 weapons stations, a EO/IR turret, a SAR/GMTI radar, a shirt-sleeve work environment with 5 operator stations, and AAR capability. It could supplement the B-1/B-52 fleet, saving their flying hours for conflicts demanding their capabilities.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 19, 2009 7:10 am

    “defeating terrorists in caves is not a Navy mission, it is an Army mission”

    Thank you Tarl! I am convinced this stems from post-WW 2 budget battles when the Navy had not single peer threat at sea (it has none today), and had to justify its existence somehow. The entire fleet is geared toward expeditionary warfare and has lost the desire for surface combat and ASW warfare, which is what a Navy is all about. Using giant supercarriers to support land battles? This was the secondary duties meant for the likes of jeep carriers during the war!

  6. Tarl permalink
    September 18, 2009 9:03 pm

    It takes a $6-$10 billion warship with its equally costly airwings and space age escorts to defeat terrorists from the 7th Century hiding in caves.

    Fundamentally, defeating terrorists in caves is not a Navy mission, it is an Army mission. The Navy’s role in counter-terrorism is to support the Army, e.g. transport the light infantry forces to the place where they can kill the guys in caves, and maybe provide some ISR and fire support to those light infantry fores. There is no reason to design your Navy primarily around this Army mission – that is, when you design your ships, defeating guys in caves should not be in the forefront of your mind.

  7. Armchair Chinese Admiral permalink
    September 18, 2009 5:41 pm

    [William: I favour the use of AirSHIPS for SOME of the CAS role.]

    The acronyms escape me but I assume you are talking about a cheap long endurance airship used for long range electronic surveillance in place of AEW aircraft patrols.

    My over active imagination on the same problem is to use a tethered skysail instead. If these are powerful enough to tow a large ship they are powerful enough to carry a significant load of multiple sensors and perhaps some weapons. The tether cable itself forms a direct data link as well as relay control communications for whatever equipment is attached between the skysail and shipboard processors. I don’t know the technical details on antennae but perhaps some one can critique my suggestion that the skysail fabric can incorporate an integral fabric based large “dish” or several large antennae systems.

    The skysail can perhaps transmit decoy signals to attract incoming missiles. A false low value target is perhaps more profitable and technically easier to achieve than just jamming the incoming missiles.

    I am a fan of converting container ships for wartime missions. They are cheap and therefore practically disposable single mission bomb trucks and bomb magnets. C-ships (and multi ship battle groups)are impossible to sneak by anywhere so concealing one’s position is not an operational requirement. Waving a large skysail the enemy can detect is no big deal.

    My objective is if I can make the theoretical argument that all those over expensive and over complicated weapons systems can be defeated by cheap and simple countermeasure any small country can afford then perhaps the world can get off the never ending nation bankrupting cycle of ever more complicated technologies just to deliver the same payload of explosives.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 18, 2009 2:40 pm

    Which is why we keep insisting on alternatives. But the Navy says these won’t work. How do we know if they’ve never been tried in wartime. (Oh wait, they have been tried in wartime, and light and auxiliary carriers have been able adjuncts to the battlefleet since the carrier’s inception).

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    September 17, 2009 9:46 pm

    Mike said, “Smitty that is terrifying. It takes a $6-$10 billion warship with its equally costly airwings and space age escorts to defeat terrorists from the 7th Century hiding in caves. That is an astounding statement.”

    Certainly there are other ways to keep CAS/ISR sorties over a distant battlefield. However we have the carriers and their airwings. We don’t have a wealth of local land basing.

  10. Joe permalink
    September 17, 2009 5:48 pm

    @ Smitty: I proposed the B-1R idea not to deal with COIN-style threats that we face in the Iraq-Afghan-Pakistan sense but to be a partial counter to the defensive weaponry that top-shelf adversaries might bring to the table that stands to affect the viability of our carriers. The X-47B/C might be a worthy counter-idea, but insofar as I-A-P are concerned, why should we go Nieman Marcus against guys with Big Lots weaponry?

  11. William permalink
    September 17, 2009 4:56 pm

    Its a step in the right direction. I’d want longer persistence, say at least a week. Theres already talk of High Altitude Solar powered AirSHIPS that would have the ability to remain in the Air for up to FIVE years.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 17, 2009 4:19 pm

    William, that is thinking out of the box! The key to the future is persistence. And Blackwater already does this:

  13. William permalink
    September 17, 2009 2:04 pm

    I favour the use of AirSHIPS for SOME of the CAS role.

    For instance in A’stan much of the UK’s patrolling is done on FOOT in the vicinity of their FOB. You could use an armed AirSHIP stationed over immediate area to provide CAS.

    I’d use a large off the shelf commercial AirSHIP design but modified to be flown UNMANNED and armed with as many Laser Guided Hydra rockets as it can carry plus a 50calibre MG controlled by a remote weapon station.

    If you could get an UAV AirSHIP design thats capable of staying aloft for long periods, weeks or a month on station in the immediate area of a FOB or bases you could much reduce the need for fixed wing CAS.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 17, 2009 1:42 pm

    “We can’t replace carriers with TLAM shooters and VTOL UAVs especially in the low-intensity conflicts we’re fighting today. ”

    Smitty that is terrifying. It takes a $6-$10 billion warship with its equally costly airwings and space age escorts to defeat terrorists from the 7th Century hiding in caves. That is an astounding statement.

  15. B.Smitty permalink
    September 17, 2009 9:10 am

    I’m with Distiller and Heretic on this. We can’t replace carriers with TLAM shooters and VTOL UAVs especially in the low-intensity conflicts we’re fighting today.

    The types of UAVs you can fly from a small combatant, such as Fire Scout or ScanEagle, have limited speed and range, no ability to AAR, and a very limited sensor and weapons payload compared to a fixed wing fighter aircraft or UCAV. They simply don’t provide the same capability or reach.

    A Fire Scout can’t fly from a vessel off the coast of Pakistan to provide a strike/ISR orbit over any part of Afghanistan. Nor could it fly from the Persian Gulf and hit targets over Baghdad. It’s just too small and too slow.

    TLAMs can take an hour or two to get to their target, and once there, they are “use ’em or lose ’em”. They might be nice to hit the occasional chemical factory or terrorist camp, but they can’t provide the timeliness, range of effects, or coordination with ground troops that a fixed wing asset can. They also can’t “bring back” expensive ordinance and sensors at the end of a sortie, if not used.

    No, if we want to reduce the number of carriers, the only real alternative, IMHO, is long-ranged, land-based airpower. And as others have said, this has it’s own set of problems.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of the B-1R proposal. It may be cheaper than a completely new design, but I don’t think it gets us much over the current B-1B.

    I favor the “half B-2” designs I’ve seen floating around. If we are going to invest billions in a long-range strike system, I want it to be survivable.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 17, 2009 8:27 am

    Eric, do you have a link to that study? Someone said in an earlier post flat out it wouldn’t work. That sounds like the Navy, if its never been tried it won’t work!

  17. September 17, 2009 6:50 am

    I want Makin Island propulsion system and size with a ski-jump.

    And if the F-35B does not work out…. A ski-jump with an angled deck for hook recovery of Super Hornets. ( A study was done on ramp launching of Super Hornets.)

  18. Distiller permalink
    September 17, 2009 4:55 am


    a rounded air group could be defined by capabilities, like e.g.
    — fighters (sweep, escort, intercept)
    — kinetic strike (light, AW/N)
    — electronic strike
    — electronic support (stand-off, escort)
    — ISR (photo, stand-off and penetrating ELINT, &c)
    — ASW (near, wide)
    — airborne battle management (AEW, UAV C2, loitering stand-off, escort)
    — tanker (loitering, escort)
    — CSAR
    — airborne boost-phase BMD
    Most of these jobs will have a manned/unmanned option.

    To fulfill that you’d need with today’s platforms e.g.
    — F/A-18E (fighter, escort tanker, light k-strike, photo ISR)
    — F/A-18F (AW/N k-strike, escort UAV C2)
    — EA-18G (e-strike, escort jammer, penetrating ELINT)
    — some “Common Support Aircraft”, e.g. a modified Hawkeye (AEW & battle management, stand-off ELINT, wide area ASW, COD, loitering tanker)
    — some H-60 (CSAR, local ASW, other local combat support jobs)

    If you play with numbers and scenarios you arrive at around 45 aircraft, depending on your combat capable rate assumptions, and allowing for a little attrition.

    A future air group could replace/reinforce manned platforms, like e.g.
    — the Predator C giving additional ISR capability
    — UCAS-N instead of most F/A-18F and EA-18G jobs
    — an unmanned version of the CSA as straight replacement of the manned one
    — and you might gain some additional capabilities, like e.g. loitering boost-phase BMD, when using automated AAR to keep a 24/7 orbit
    But you’d need some additional C2 (possibly also organic relay/integrator) platforms, so it’s not 1-1.

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to make the carrier air groups dependant on land-based assets, like e.g. tankers. The true value of the carrier air group is its ability to (i) produce a regional and temporary superiority, and (ii) plug the holes in the land-based airpower umbrella. Both jobs are much more efficient with an organic full-spectrum capability.

    In any case a 45 aircraft requires a carrier in the 50-55.000ts range. Such a vessel would be large enough to be built as a 2-cat angled deck carrier for (near) simultaneous CTOL take-off/landing operations, and it would be capable of flight ops in pretty bad weather. On a *fleet level* such vessels would mean higher granularity (better scalability), better survivability, more flexibility, but not lower costs (esp taking into account the escorts). If you build enough of them, they can also double as 3D assault carriers for amphib operations.

    Anything below that would make a full-spectrum airwing impossible, and the 30.000ts class of LHDs becomes attractive, esp if you restrict yourself to theatres where land bases are close. But it also means that you surrender true power projection ability.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 16, 2009 10:09 pm

    I don’t think for all situations a large deck is needed. As Joe K. mentioned they are extremely useful and capable, but they cannot do everything or be everywhere. For this you need a large, balanced fleet. The cost of designing, constructing, equipping, escorting, and annual upkeep has now made them more of a liability than an asset.

    Which is why we call for alternatives, and nothing is “crazy” Joe. it is only crazy if you consistently refuse to try alternatives, and think that large decks are the answer to every naval need a country might have. It is just one answer, not the only one. there are other essential functions of sea power that only a submarine can do, and only a destroyer or a minesweeper can perform, and yes only a supercarrier can do.

    We are seeking then the balanced fleet and multiple capabilities for the inevitable wars we will face. If we only prepare for a single type of conventional land attack which we are used to, then most likely the enemy will try something “out of left field” to counter our superiority in this one thing America does best of all.

    I love the supercarriers and wish we could afford lots of them, but also I know that numbers count in wartime, and numerous threats we will face in the future, require alternatives to solve. There are no perfect weapons which can do all things. Its all about diversity in life and this includes the naval strategy we need.

    The same idea would apply for fixed wing aircraft. They aren’t always needed for every occasion. A fixed wing plane for instance can’t take off from a lone frigate at sea and hunt a submarine or smuggler. Sometimes a fighter bomber can’t linger around for hours to support the Marines in a land battle, but a UCAV can hang around most of a day. There are also other types of fixed wing air such as the long range bombers and P-8s that were mentioned, which might be available when a carrier is not.

    Thinking beyond giant ships, multi-mission vessels, hundred million dollars superfighters, it’s all about returning choice to shipbuilding and weapon’s procurement.

  20. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 16, 2009 8:33 pm

    In benign environments you might get the same benefit (large load, long loiter) with a properly equipped P-8.

    Any long range bomber is going to be an Air Force project.

  21. September 16, 2009 8:27 pm

    Why do that when you are going to have all aspect stealth in a drone (X-47B) that will fly off carriers, not have to worry about basing rights, won’t endanger a pilot and could carry out the same mission? If anything the B-1R is a nice concept but I saw that show on Future Dogfights and even in that mythical battle it was extremely vulnerable.

  22. Joe permalink
    September 16, 2009 8:19 pm

    “Crazy idea from a left field” time…

    Would it be possible and feasible to mix and match an Air Force reality/concept with a Naval need?

    A few years ago there was a proposal made pertaining to the concept of a B-1R Bomber – a reworked/reengined version of our current B-1B fleet that would endow it with limited air-to-air capabilities, retain the bombing role it’s known for, as well as install the F-22 engines in it, IIRC.

    And ELP advocated an idea for the next gen bomber a couple of months ago that essentially is a new-build B-1B, emphasizing low-observability, a purely conventional role, the ability to loiter, and high-speed. Mr. Palmer did not bring it up in the context I’m about to suggest, but what if…

    Considering the high cost of building the new Fords, plus the ever-increasing cost of the F-35’s designed to fly off them, would it/could it be cost-efficient to devote THAT money instead to constructing a number of new-build ‘bomber-fighters’ that could be the supplementary air power to any other carrier battle group/influence squadrons in the world?

    Their longer range and ability to loiter over targets would contrast them dramatically with current F-18 Hornets/Super Hornets. It would also bring to bear the bomber that has proven most useful in CAS roles in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Plus, it puts into the Navy’s hands an airpower option that possesses huge striking power while at the same time not being susceptible to Chinese “carrier-killer” OTH missiles.

    To do all that is possible to keep the costs down, make the planes repositories of technology that is already being used elsewhere in either the Air Force or Navy – put nothing on them that exists only in the farthest recesses of an engineer’s mind.

    Whether that would be enough to make them $$viable$$ or not on a per-plane basis I do not know. And no bomber-sized aircraft is going to have an advantage in an air-to-air battle situation with another country’s fighter jets no matter how it’s equipped. But I don’t offer it up as a total replacement for all that an F-18 can do, just for primarily the strike role performed by carrier-based air…without the carrier. I know Mike would be hollering by now, “What about the UCAV’s…???”, but the reason I don’t mention them is…

    I figure one will have to make a pretty dramatic proposal to the Admirals and their supporters in Congress if you expect them to give up their love of super-carriers…even if it’s for one or two go-rounds of construction. The Ford is going to be built, it’s just a matter if you can delay or cancel the follow-on carrier – if that is your goal. UCAV’s are an expanding area in our military, but I don’t see them as (yet) having the conversation-changing ability to convince any military or political officials to stop producing big-deck carriers.

    Utterly crazy idea…???

  23. September 16, 2009 6:47 pm


    I don’t support this concept but in defense of it the AESA radar on the F-35B would partially negate the need for AEW aircraft and any shortfall would be made up by BAMS and P-8. V-22’s could serve in the cargo and rescue role. Although not ideal it could perform the mission and even if it couldn’t you would simply move a couple of SH-60s on board and use the V-22 strictly in the cargo role. Ski Jump isn’t entirely necessary. The F-35B carries enough fuel to equal the legacy F-18C’s range internally with tanks it exceeds it. Altogether while not pretty it is doable with whats either here or soon to be here.

  24. Heretic permalink
    September 16, 2009 5:34 pm

    To reiterate what I (personally) see as the minimum level of “irreduceables” you would “need” on a modern aircraft carrier designed to sustain STOVL strike operations:

    4 STOL fixed wing AEW aircraft
    4 STOL fixed wing cargo/tanker aircraft
    4 rotary wing/tilt-rotor aircraft for lift and rescue
    24 STOVL fixed wing strike aircraft (includes EW)
    Ski jump

    That’s 32 manned aircraft that you wouldn’t want to go below. UAVs would be extra (and considering the small size of some UAVs, might even be considered “free” in some respects given the scale).

    I’m certainly no “expert” on the subject, but that *feels like* a reasonable “sweet spot” between big and small where you’ve “got enough” of what you need to fight an enemy without going overboard into having “too much” to make the whole thing uneconomical. Note that a small air group like that ought to be capable of operating equally well whether based on a carrier or ashore.

  25. Joe K. permalink
    September 16, 2009 5:17 pm

    @Mike: Well how effective can all of those alternatives you mentioned be able to match the capabilities of fixed-wing aircraft. I mean sure an F-35 can go supersonic but it can’t satisfy an interceptor role very well. Helicopters and UAVs can’t match on speed and even though UAVs would have the necessary range I doubt using them to replace fixed-wing aircraft on the current battlefield would really been an improvement. And I think it would be better to blame Rumsfield on Transformation rather than the Navy on bolstering current ships with updated technologies. His idea, not the Navy’s.

    And before we can go about trying to sound off about how large carriers are a big waste of money, what about their capabilities? With them positioned around the world more often if a crisis situation develops THEY will be the ones to first respond – not the Air Force. And there’s really no substitute for the kind of power and force multiplier effect that carriers like the Nimitz-class has especially given their placement. Besides, their very presence could dissuade problems from occurring because they have that strength.

    The amphibious ships can’t really compete because the best they can throw out are VTOLs and helicopters; and I don’t think it would look good having to rely on them if you’re starring down an enemy in supersonic fixed-wing craft. That’s asking for a really bad PR incident to happen.

  26. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 16, 2009 4:37 pm

    Mike, I recognize where you are going with this and you may be right, but before you can convince the rest of the world, I think you need an enumeration of capabilities required , when, and where.

    And before we loose the carrier force we have built up over many years we need to know we won’t need the defensive capability found in their high sortie rate and their AEW capability.

  27. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 16, 2009 3:42 pm

    Solomon, I think Galrahn and I are in agreement with more than he cares to admit. Maybe if I come out for the Big Decks then he would come out against them? Nah, I’m too committed to reforming the fleet to turn back now!

    #1 I don’t think naval airpower is needed for all situations and certainly not fixed wing air when you have guided missiles, UAVs, helicopters, and V/STOL. There’s more to naval air than Big Decks which the Navy once knew and I am trying to remind them.

    #2 If the Navy will relearn the vital lesson in #1, then they’d have plenty of funds and not a stretched thin shipbuilding budget, or a hollow fleet.

  28. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 16, 2009 3:01 pm

    The big deck CVs have proven very useful in the years since WWII. If you are going to make a case that we need to do something different, there are a couple of things you need to demonstrate with more rigor than I’ve seen so far.


    1. We need carrier airpower dispersed to more locations than we can do with CVs and F-35s on big deck amphibs (advocating CVLs).


    2. We need more small ships to do the cruiser functions and we are unable to build them because we are spending money that should go to the small ships on carriers we don’t need.

    I’ve seen you try to make both arguments and they are actually to some extent in conflict unless you can also show that you can accomplish #1 and save enough money to accomplish #2.

    Keeping in mind, all the time that it is not that can not spend more money on defense, we have simply chosen not to. We have decided to spend it elsewhere.

  29. September 16, 2009 2:33 pm

    Seems like Galhran is at least partially coming your way. In a recent post he advocated that since the Enterprise refit is proving troublesome then the Navy might consider going to 10 carriers and augmenting the force with LHA(R) fitted with F-35B but I believe (not sure) that he wants those tasked to expeditionary tasks and not necessarily attached to an ESG.

    I semi disagree…LHA(R) if I remember correctly was supposedly just an interim design and well decks and full assault capacity is suppose to be gained back in follow on designs. Galhran makes up for the shortfall by increasing the number of LPD’s but I still worry about the splitting off of Marine Air from the Ground Combat Element. Still I guess its worth considering.

    If I relayed his thoughts correctly then I guess you MIGHT have a SORTA, LITTLE BIT convert.

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