Carrier Diversity Thursday
With the Navy’s new emphasis on personnel diversity, we would like to see the same standard applied to shipbuilding, especially what is considered its capital ship for almost 70 years, the large deck aircraft carrier. With the fleet continuing to shrink, and sailors forced into continuous lengthy deployments, now is the time to rethink this single minded strategy which limits the Navy’s alternatives and weakens America’s seapower.
The US Navy in a Panic?
Here is Peter Hartcher at the National Times on the much discussed Chinese carrier-killing ballistic missiles:
In March, an analyst with the US Navy Institute, Raymond Pritchett, wrote that the news of this new weapon had “created a panic” in the US Navy…
(Analyst Randy) Schriver, a former navy intelligence officer who went on to become deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific in the second Bush administration, says the implications are profound: “After the Taiwan crisis in 1996, the Chinese looked at it and said, ‘what do we need to do to prevent the US intervening like this again?'”
The result, 13 years later, is the Dong Feng 21. “It’s a technological leap that’s never [before] been made,” says Schriver, now the head of a non-partisan research body, Project 2049 Institute, and a founding partner of the consulting firm Armitage International…
“The Chinese would have the ability to hold our carriers at a great distance – it almost makes the aircraft carriers obsolete.
“What did we do in 1996? We sent carriers. What are the Chinese doing? Taking the carriers out of the equation.” He thinks it prudent to expect such missiles to be operating within a couple of years.
No wonder the US Navy is in a panic.
We must ask ourselves first whether the impact of the aircraft carrier upon our only imaginable enemies in a future great war is likely to justify the cost involved-whether its action in an improbable war is likely to hurt them more than its cost will certainly damage us, war or no war; and whether there is any vital interest of our own than can only be secured, or secured less expensively by other means, by the aircraft carrier…Secondly, we must satisfy ourselves that the carrier has a reasonable chance of remaining afloat in the face of modern methods of attack.
Former marshal of the RAF Sir John Slessor writing in Strategy for the West.
The High Price for Prestige
We often insist the large deck aircraft carrier is more of a prestige weapon than an essential requirement for modern navies, much like the all-gun Dreadnoughts were a century ago. India, in a desperate bid to replace her old-ex British carriers, but also to make good her reputation as a modern rising power, sought to quickly add a refurbished ex-Soviet flattop to its arsenal, all at a bargain price. Things have not worked out as promised and India has now learned the High Cost of High Tech, according to Strategypage:
The original price for the refurbishment of the of the Gorshkov was $1.5 billion. Building a Gorshkov type carrier today would cost about $4 billion, and take eight years. Two years ago, the Russians admitted there were problems, and demanded another half billion dollars to make it all right. India went along with that. But last year, the Russians raised the price again, and now wanted $3.5 billion for the job, and an additional four years. The Indians refused to pay. The Russians were willing to admit to mistakes and put things right, for a price.
Meanwhile, the Chinese haven’t sat idly by during India’s faltering bid for greatness. In another article on Strategypage we learn:
The head of the Indian Navy has been complaining about Chinese warships being more numerous, and more frequently showing up in the Indian Ocean…India is particularly annoyed at China intruding into the waters surrounding India. It’s not called the Indian Ocean for nothing, and the Indians consider these waters sacrosanct. Chinese naval power is not welcome.
We often worry when navies try to create a USA light fleet, with large carriers, superdestroyers, and nuclear subs. All these may work and are very impressive on paper, but in wartime exquisite ships are just as easy to sink and cheaper vessels, maybe more so because they make a tempting target for an ambitious captain out to make a name for himself. As we see in the articles above, such giant and technically troubled programs easily cut into ship numbers as well. Advice to India: build more submarines and lots of them, not necessarily of the nuclear kind, and many small missile firing surface ships. It would be better for a weaker navy to be a sea-denier instead of a power projector, as the Chinese might think twice before going to war if they have to count the High Price for doing so.
The Case for Smaller Carriers
The British Royal Navy proved the viability for small carriers in modern warfare in the 1982 Falklands Conflict, as an alternative to Big Decks. Despite these hard won lessons, today the Royal Navy has their eyes set on the traditional flattop once again as the center of the fleet, yet the price they are paying may be too much for the shrinking service to bear. This is from the Daly History blog:
The Royal Navy faces a particularly though time, as it has committed itself to two huge 60,000 ton aircraft carriers, at the expense of frigates and destroyers. Indeed, the new Type 45 Destroyer was cut from a planned 12 ships to an eventual order for 6, which of course is nowhere near enough. There are as yet no firm plans to replace the Type 22 and Type 23 Frigates. Ships can only be in one place at any time, and for every ship on duty, you have to plan for at least 1, possibly 2 being in port or refit.
One cannot help if we might have been better served with several smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers and more escorts to protect them. The first Aircraft Carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be safe as work has already started on her and it would cost more to cancel her. But the second, HMS Prince of Wales, will almost certainly come under threat. We could potentially be left with one huge and expensive to run aircraft carrier, which is far too inflexible.