Carrier Diversity Thursday
The Real Deterrent
The admirals will insist their large deck carriers backed by many multipurpose missile escorts and submarines are needed to deter war. Ironically, since World War 2 and despite seeing the creation of the most technically impressive warships in all history, this hasn’t negated the need for land armies on consistent occasions, including our present Middle East conflicts. From Strategypage we read:
After several months of debate, the British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have been ordered to cut back on spending, so that money and resources may be used to support army operations in Afghanistan. Among other things, the army has been pointing out that only ten percent of spending on new equipment goes to the army (based on actual and planned spending between 2003-18). This, despite the fact that it’s the army that is doing most of the fighting during this period…
What annoys the army the most is the continued effort to maintain Britain as a major naval power. The generals can understand the need for destroyers, frigates and submarines to defend the seas that surround the British isles, but they chafe at the nearly $40 billion to be spent on four SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs) and two aircraft carriers (and their escorts). To fund this, on a shrinking defense budget, the army is starved for modern combat equipment. This is allowed to happen while thousands of British troops are in combat.
Makes you wonder, why do we have these magnificent monuments to our technical prowess, notably the giant supercarrier, if they are never used save in these Third World brushfire conflicts, where their great expense seems such a waste? Meanwhile other more urgent military needs are starved of funding.
Running on Empty
Western governments seem to be living in a fantasy world, in which the Cold War is ongoing, and desperate foes like Al Qaeda and the Taliban can be ignored or considered only a distraction from real threats. The big conventional conflicts are the kinds of wars we want, rather than what we get. Did we learn nothing from Vietnam and the first Gulf War that we can’t fight with one or both hands behind our back? The following is from Allan Mallinson at the Yorkshire Post:
Gordon Brown has thrown money from the Treasury contingency reserve at equipment deficiencies, but has failed to tackle the systemic problems of the defence budget, which is still dominated by huge capital programmes whose origins are in the Cold War – such as Eurofighter – or by over-specified projects such as the two fleet aircraft carriers.
Meanwhile, the Army and the less glamorous parts of the RAF such as support helicopters – the people doing the actual fighting – are squeezed ever more, for the Treasury claws their contingency spending from the core defence budget in later years.
Yet we continue to spend vast sums for deterrence that does not deter. It hasn’t been that long ago when we were justifying the building of large deck aircraft carriers and our manned strategic bombers like the B-52 as the only viable way to launched the atom bomb against our enemies. Almost immediately such a role for our expensive platforms were made obsolete by the submarine and land based ballistic missiles. So we found other roles for them, mainly attacking Third World countries in numerous brushfire wars, from Asia to the Middle East. If our military power is stretched thin containing these poorest of nations, what will we do against a real peer threat?
Part of our ongoing critique of deploying giant deck carriers also includes their tremendous cost. Stephen Abott at Budget Insight points out where the savings might start:
By cutting two CSGs, the Navy may be able to procure 2-4 fewer cruisers, 4-6 fewer destroyers, and two fewer submarines, along with cuts to support ships over the next 30 years (assuming a 30 year service life). Additionally, increased operational tempo could allow the Navy to require fewer ships to maintain or increase its deployments. (Were the Navy to deploy other ships in place of a carrier, of course, this could reduce the savings.) This corresponds to at least $24.6 billion and possibly over $41.1 billion in decreased ship procurement, than originally planned by the Navy, over 30 years. A decrease of two CSGs would thus lead to total savings of at least $47 billion over 30 years, or the equivalent of more than four years of naval ship procurement.
7 Aircraft Carriers for the Price of 11
Four giant decks will be less their airwings unless the Navy addresses the impending fighting gap, according to Boeing and Eric L Palmer (Thanks also to both for the graphic!):
The not-so-subtle language in it is that there is still a significant amount of risk by going with the yet unproven (and little-flight-tested) F-35C. One graphic shows a potential for a lot of extra parking space on carrier decks in the future.
How can one justify the pork and graft associated with new large carriers if there isn’t much to put on them? On this I sort of agree. About half of the carrier jets now are Super Hornets. Legacy Hornets are wearing out. If the F-35 stumbles we may see 2 jet fighter squadrons flying off of the carrier deck (not counting the Grizzly detachment).
It was costs that eventually killed the all-gun battleship, not its lack of usefulness or the dive bomber. The Navy needs only to find something as useful as manned air and problem solved! I am thinking a combination of light carriers, cruise missile firing ships, and UCAVs launched from ship or shore will fit the bill nicely and affordably.
Last Stand of the Giants
Even as the number of planes dissipate on the large decks, the very purpose for the carrier’s existence, the advocates claim we can’t get along without them. Here is Christopher Lehman writing in the Boston Globe who pleads for “Keeping the aircraft carrier fleet afloat“. In so doing he makes our argument for us that:
The United States does not need aircraft carriers to counter those of other countries. With the possible exception of China, it is difficult to imagine a future conflict with a large foreign navy.
Instead, their primary mission is to project power, virtually anywhere in the world, on short notice, with their complement of aircraft and supporting vessels. Indeed, according to the Navy, in 80 percent of the recent outbreaks of international violence, the United States has responded with one or more aircraft carrier task forces. They have been in growing demand over the past 25 years.
What is the purpose of a Navy other than to fight another Navy, or a warship other than to sink other warships, with all other functions including power projection a secondary mission? Here they tread on vital functions of land warfare which is why we have an Army and Air Force. If the Navy can’t maintain the sealanes, with a handful of Big Decks and most of the destroyers tied to defending them, then the other services can’t perform their own necessary functions. If an enemy seeks to impede our fleet with submarines, what will the carriers do to combat them, seeing they no longer possess a long range ASW aircraft, only helicopters?
Then we get the justification for operating the Big Decks without adequate types or numbers of aircraft:
But most frequently their impact comes not from the warplanes that operate from their flight decks. Without releasing a single weapon, aircraft carriers have proven to be an invaluable crisis management tool. On several occasions they have defused a tense situation before it escalated into conflict.
The worlds most expensive, and largest Mercy Ships, performing roles more suited to hospital ships or at least a light carrier. A noble mission, yet this could hardly be cause for the continued building and maintenance of vessels which now approach $10 billion each, not including costly aircraft programs and annual upkeep.
The United Kingdom has committed to building two new large-deck carriers. Italy and Spain recently built their own aircraft carriers, and France is slated to make a decision in the next few years on whether to proceed with new construction. Russia and India, meanwhile, are modernizing their carrier fleets. And China has assigned naval engineers to study the construction techniques of other nations’ carriers. Last March, Admiral Hu Yanlin told a Chinese newspaper that, “Building aircraft carriers is a symbol of an important nation.’’
What the author failed to mention, was the travails these particular navies are suffering in their attempts to deploy US Navy type carrier wings by retiring still useful escorts and submarines to pay for them, or delaying aircraft programs until after the ships are launched. As noted above, the British Army is suffering fatal equipment shortages fighting present wars, while sparse defense funds are allocated for some future, obscure conflict involving carriers, the wars we want to fight.
Also, “everyone has them and so should we” seems to be the mantra. It doesn’t matter if they are effective or not, just as long as our intentions are noble. Recall also that every major navy was building massive all-gun battleships in 1941, then the most visibly impressive warships afloat, right up until the bombs were falling on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Even then and for years afterwards, the vulnerable but still useful craft continued serving, with its final enemy being the cost of maintenance and upkeep, plus the realization that other vessels could do the work more efficiently and at longer ranges.
So we think the guided missile, whether launched from surface ship or submarine will take the place of the giant supercarrier in usefulness and practicality. In no way would we begin to suggest that a missile is as yet more efficient than the manned bomber, though the unmanned bomber certainly possesses this potential. Instead we think the best reasoning for deploying missiles in place of aircraft is what a missile does best, sink other ships. The cruise missile has taken away from the aircraft carrier this single most important role of a Navy, maintaining (or denying) control of the sealanes, which is something the carrier admirals and their supporters no longer deem worthy of their attentions.