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Carrier Diversity Thursday

October 29, 2009

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The Rationale for UCAV Carriers

James Dunnigan at Strategypage makes the case for a new warship geared toward a new way of war at sea:

While the navy would prefer to design and build the first generation UCAVs for use on existing carriers, these smaller and cheaper aircraft go together well with smaller and cheaper carriers. This means the Ford class may be the last of the big carriers. That’s because UCAVs mean you can get more aircraft on a carrier, and that creates a traffic jam type situation. Moreover, the widespread use of smart bombs means you need fewer bombers over the target. A 50-60,000 ton carrier, with three dozen F-35Bs, UCAVs, UAVs and support aircraft, can be as effective as a Nimitz with 70 F-18s and support aircraft. Thus the Ford class may not completely replace the Nimitz class on a one-for-one basis. The sharply rising cost of building American warships may force the adoption of a smaller, cheaper, carrier class.

And lets not forget that such tiny robot warcraft can also be launched from existing surface combatants and even submarines!

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“We will unilaterally disarm ourselves”

Wonder what vessel in particular did the Secretary of the Navy have in mind when he made the following statement? Do the proponents of drastic naval reform have a friend at the Department?

Mabus visited with Sailors aboard USS Green Bay (LPD 20) and toured General Dynamic’s NASSCO shipyard, including a walk through of USNS Wally Schirra. Following the tour Mabus commented on NASSCO’s ability to accomplish the task of building ships on time and on budget.

“What you’re doing here in San Diego for the Navy is a perfect example of how the Navy will achieve its goal of 313 ships,” said Mabus. “If we continue to make our ships ever more expensive and ever more exotic, we will unilaterally disarm ourselves. You [NASSCO] have proven that we can build ships on time and on cost.”

That is an amazing quote. The Navy does need someone more like DefSec Robert Gates.

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The Russian’s go light

No doubt hoping to build large deck carriers at some future point, the Russians aren’t planning for some obscure future moment but pushing ahead with plans to purchase French Mistral light carriers. Realizing perhaps that the “perfect is enemy of  good enough”, they can see the value that even a small aviation capable ship can bring to a fleet, rather than what it can’t do. The following is from the Jamestown Foundation:

Another manifestation of strategic change with regard to the Black Sea Fleet is linked to Moscow’s plan to purchase from France one helicopter-amphibious assault ship of the Mistral class, with an option to build three under license in Russian shipyards. The procurement of the Mistral was discussed in the Russian press as an affront to its own shipyards. Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, justified the decision based on the advanced characteristics of the French ship, which can carry transport and attack helicopters, with space for 450 troops, capable of launching six landing craft (conventional and air-cushion), and in the absence of the capacity to build such ships in Russian shipyards. “No country in the world can do everything at a high qualitative level,” he noted (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 23).

Some critics have attacked the purchase as a commitment to future global power projection, but in this case, it would appear that Russia’s Mistral will solve two immediate problems: procurement of a key class of ship for the Black Sea Fleet and enhanced power projection capabilities in the region.

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 Weaknesses could be exploited

The following info on the vulnerabilities of aircraft carriers is from Chinese sources compiled by the Rand Corporation:

  • Because of its large size, a carrier strike group is difficult to conceal and detectable by radar, infrared, and sonar.
  • In addition, because of its large size, an aircraft carrier is easier to hit than other types of vessels.
  • Air operations from an aircraft carrier can be affected by weather.
  • A carrier strike group consumes an immense amount of supplies.
  • Carrier strike groups have poor antisubmarine and antimine capabilities.
  • The hulls and flight decks of aircraft carriers are susceptible to damage by armor-piercing munitions.
  • While aircraft carriers do carry a large number of aircraft, only a few of them are actually devoted to air defense, around 20.
  • In addition, aircraft launching is sometimes restricted by maneuvers. Thus, it would be possible to overwhelm an aircraft carrier’s air defense during certain times.

Our main critique towards the aircraft carrier isn’t so much its vulnerabilities specifically, since all warships are vulnerable to an extent. However, it’s immense cost means you can only afford a few of them, and their drain on escort ships and even on their own aircraft replacements mean you have less forces available in a crisis. In wartime, ships get sunk or damaged, a fact of life, but if there are no replacements then you are lost. As currently geared, the Navy has left no room for failure.

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Drones defend the Sealanes

This is very interesting and the probably the future of warfare. Imagine not even having to launch a single warship in order to deploy airpower at sea. From the AP we read about “US drones protecting ships from Somali pirates“:

With the monsoon season now ended, there have been a rash of attacks as pirates return to the open seas. More than 130 crew members from seven ships are currently being held, including about 70 from the latest attacks.

In an effort to stem the surge, unmanned U.S. military surveillance planes called MQ-9 Reapers stationed on the island nation of Seychelles are being deployed to patrol the Indian Ocean in search of pirates, Moeller told The Associated Press in an interview at command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The patrols began this week, military officials said.

The 36-foot-long Reapers are the size of a jet fighter, can fly about 16 hours and are capable of carrying a dozen guided bombs and missiles. They are outfitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting. Military officials said Friday the drones would not immediately be fitted with weaponry, but they did not rule out doing so in the future.

Though not a solution for all occasions, this certainly can fill in  for large decks for a great many circumstances. An ideal role would be the use of Influence Squadrons consisting of motherships and corvettes, unable to carry their own attack planes, relying on heavily armed and long-loitering Reapers for their air support.

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Our right to cancel programs

On occasion military powers will create excuses why some weapons must remain in production whether they are needed or wanted, whether than can be afforded, or even if they are no longer relevant to modern warfare. You may have heard about the recent “cancellation” of one of the large aircraft carriers being built for Britain. Well sort of canceled:

It is too late for the navy to renege on contracts to build the two carriers, the Queen Elizabeth, due to go into service in 2016, and the Prince of Wales, due to follow in 2018. Although the second carrier will be built, it will be used as an amphibious commando ship, with only helicopters on board instead of JSF aircraft.

The world’s largest, most expensive helicopter carrier, even larger than the 45,000 ton America class amphibious ships. This is a product of very poor strategy on the part of the UK, but they are by no means the only country to create obstacles for change. The US though, after wasting multiple billions on Cold War era weaponry, only to find itself engaged in global counter-insurgency, appears now to be getting it right, according to Strategypage:

One encouraging post Cold War trend has been an increased willingness to cancel weapons projects that, well, become too expensive. This also includes weapons that were judged to be not worth the budgeted amount, at least not compared to cheaper alternatives. Thus since the Cold War ended, the Airborne Laser, B-2 bomber, Comanche helicopter, Combat search and rescue helicopter, Crusader artillery system, DDG-1000 destroyer, F-22 fighter, Future Combat System (armored vehicles and associated weapons and equipment), Kinetic Energy Interceptor, Multiple Kill Vehicle, Presidential helicopter and Seawolf submarine, all got production cut sharply, or were canceled, when their budgets went too far out of control, or what the military could afford. So there’s hope yet.

As an encouragement to countries who have grandiose visions but fewer resources to see them through to fruition, even if they are no longer needed, it is OK to admit you made a mistake, and move on.

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Got ASW?

While the American carrier fleet has famously neglected its anti-submarine warfare defenses since the Cold War, Strategypage tells us the Russians are back in the submarine business. Here is an article titled “New Russian Carrier Killers“:

The 9,500 ton Yasens carry 24 cruise missiles, as well as eight 25.6 inch torpedo tubes. Some of the cruise missiles can have a range of over 3,000 kilometers, while others are designed as “carrier killers.” The larger torpedo tubes also make it possible to launch missiles from them, as well as larger and more powerful torpedoes.

It should be noted that all these ex-Soviet missiles, and their modern equivalents have extremely powerful warheads compared to say a Tomahawk or Exocet. Most are 2-3 times more powerful and supersonic in contrast to Western missiles which emphasize accuracy over speed and payload. See this chart.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Tarl permalink
    October 31, 2009 9:30 am

    One does NOT need a large carrier to launch UAS, UAV or whatever one calls them. I am speaking specifically of fixed wing type.

    If the UAS in question is the size and weight of a manned fighter, then sorry, yes you do need a large carrier to launch and recover.

    I do not think strike or attack are missions envisioned for global drones,

    It is envisioned for the UCAS, which is (large) carrier-based.

  2. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 30, 2009 8:22 pm

    I’m still thinking a converted Ohio-class submarine could mix its missiles with spec forces ability, TLAM & a modern UAV drone-fighter complement. Hell, maybe you could runa megawatt ABM laser system off the nuke plant.

    The idea of a submarine-carrier with manned fighters doesn’t seem feasible to me but armed UAVs launching off a modified OHIO that also has some TLAMs & SEAL capabalitiess–I’m LIKING THIS. It’s not crazy & it’s not crazy expensive. We have the hulls & the plants for starters.

    All I ask is that the first “Strouse Class” multi-mission Ohio-variant be dubbed: “Argo.” And the second has to be “Yamato.” This is not negotiable.

  3. leesea permalink
    October 30, 2009 12:25 pm

    First off Jim Dunigan is NOT the most astute commentator on the web and secondly he frequently gets his details WRONG. So not such as good start point Mike?

    One does NOT need a large carrier to launch UAS, UAV or whatever one calls them. I am speaking specifically of fixed wing type. Of course almost any ship can launch a VTOL a/c. Also since the long range UAS are meant for recon and patrol very far from their launch platform, why not a T-AKV? I do not think strike or attack are missions envisioned for global drones, yes for the tactical variety of Fire Scout and Predator.

    So the Russians are shopping for baby flatops, so what? Unless oil is up they got little by way of cash to pay for one.

    It seems strange that SECNAV would be talking about exquisite ships while standing on one of the most egerious examples of one?!!

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 30, 2009 4:57 am

    Yeah Graham Just think of the jobs it brings!

    Concerning UAVs for the SSGNs, I think thats already on the agenda!

    http://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/n87/usw/issue_25/hammer.htm

  5. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 30, 2009 2:48 am

    Breaking! US Senate Votes 100-0 For Revolutionary New Weapons System!

    (sorry…;) )

  6. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 30, 2009 2:38 am

    I mentioned this in a previous post (not one of my most articulate ones, I admit), but sub-launched UAVs strike me as a particularly intriguing & potentially very useful asset. I mean, we’ve already converted 4 Ohio’s into SSGNs–cheap conversion, costly missiles. Why not convert some of that nuke missile space into a UAV hanger? Something to think about anyway.

  7. Tarl permalink
    October 29, 2009 7:30 pm

    What I could see is something like an UAV carrying flightdeck-frigate to extend the organic ISR umbrella of a task group, or to support an inserted light ground combat unit. Using battle carriers as exclusive UAV carriers would be a waste – still enough jobs for manned planes around.

    It depends on what kind of UAV your are talking about. You’re not going to launch something like UCAS, which is as big as an F-18, from a frigate. You’re not even going to launch a Predator from a frigate. A frigate would be best suited for launching a VTUAV like Fire Scout.

    (B. Smitty is right.)

    But who needs all that firepower in one place in the age of precision? It is a waste of resources adding to our stretched thin, overworked fleet.

    Long ranged UCAVs are not “all in one place”, they are capable of ranging very far due to their great endurance.

    Having two carriers with 36 planes each does not “reduce the amount of work” compared to one carrier with 72. You’re doing the same amount of work in each case.

    If you need power at more than one location, a single Nimitz is less effective than two 50,000 ton carriers in two different locations, regardless of the number of aircraft.

    Sorry, wrong. A Nimitz with UCAVs can be in two places at once due to the extremely long range of the UCAVs. The CSBA report on UCAS gives the example of a carrier launching UCAS from just outside San Diego, flying across the Pacific and striking China, then landing on another carrier in the Red Sea.

    And then there’s the question of eggs and baskets.

    OK, so those baskets can’t waltz around unprotected, which means that your two 50,000 ton carriers will each need the same amount of escorts as your single 90,000 ton carrier, which means you haven’t saved any money with the smaller carrier approach.

    Aren’t manned aircraft useful for extending the range of the air defense for the battlegroup beyond the range of the SM-6 and related shipborne weapons? At this juncture, is a UCAV – in their current state of development – capable of replacing the manned aircraft for air defense?

    I would think a UCAV would make a good persistent AMRAAM launcher. They can stay on station a lot longer than a fighter can. No, they can’t dogfight, but they can take a BVR shot at the direction of an E-2 just like a fighter can.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 29, 2009 5:21 pm

    Mrs. D.-Thank you so much! No matter how capable a ship is, can’t be in two places at once.

    Smitty, I would experiment with numerous UAVs. The Hummingbird is a chopper like Fire Scout only twice as big.

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    October 29, 2009 4:26 pm

    Ran across this resource today. Good listing and pictures of aviation ships. Thought some of you might find it interesting.

    Aircraft Carriers:

    http://www.jeffhead.com/worldwideaircraftcarriers/index.htm

    Large Deck Amphibs:

    http://www.jeffhead.com/worldwideaircraftcarriers/index2.htm

  10. UndergradProgressive permalink
    October 29, 2009 4:21 pm

    Aren’t manned aircraft useful for extending the range of the air defense for the battlegroup beyond the range of the SM-6 and related shipborne weapons? At this juncture, is a UCAV – in their current state of development – capable of replacing the manned aircraft for air defense?

  11. October 29, 2009 3:48 pm

    Thank you Mike.

    No, we “helium heads” are the rarest birds on the planet (and even then, the other ones are wrong, and only I am right! ha!).

    So, no serious work or testing done on airships yet. DARPA cancelled Walrus program to soon; the latest entry from LokMrtn is the LEMV, and that is two years away yet…..and only meant to be a sensor platform.

    Serious consideration needs to be given to airships. Lots of reasons why…but cost and endurance are perhaps paramount.

    Flying N-UCAV carriers will be phenomenal addition to the fleet.

  12. B.Smitty permalink
    October 29, 2009 10:58 am

    Mike,

    Something as small as a corvette can launch UAVs, but of what type?

    Fire Scout or Scan Eagle, perhaps.

    Not X-47C or Predator-C.

    In terms of capability, X-47C and Fire Scout/Scan Eagle are worlds apart.

  13. Mrs. Davis permalink
    October 29, 2009 10:39 am

    A 50,000 ton carrier with 36 F-35Bs and UCAVs is less effective than a Nimitz with 70 F-35Bs and UCAVs (duh).

    If you need power at more than one location, a single Nimitz is less effective than two 50,000 ton carriers in two different locations, regardless of the number of aircraft. And then there’s the question of eggs and baskets.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 29, 2009 10:13 am

    Tarl said “A 50,000 ton carrier with 36 F-35Bs and UCAVs is less effective than a Nimitz with 70 F-35Bs and UCAVs (duh).”

    Duh sure! But who needs all that firepower in one place in the age of precision? It is a waste of resources adding to our stretched thin, overworked fleet.

    And Campbell, you may be right but I don’t think that has been tested, has it?

    Distiller, I am behind you thinking something as small as a corvette can lauch the UAVs. Still, we have the big decks, why not use them for testing?

  15. Distiller permalink
    October 29, 2009 10:01 am

    What I could see is something like an UAV carrying flightdeck-frigate to extend the organic ISR umbrella of a task group, or to support an inserted light ground combat unit. Using battle carriers as exclusive UAV carriers would be a waste – still enough jobs for manned planes around.

  16. Joe K. permalink
    October 29, 2009 9:51 am

    The RAND Corp report also mentioned that the Chinese do not underestimate the threats posed by a Carrier Strike Group and it shared the view that in order to destroy a carrier it would require a significant amount of resources from both air, sea, and missile forces to be able to sink a carrier. Given the difficulty of trying to target a carrier while it’s at sea they would have to mobilize considerable amounts of forces with adequate amount of time to be able to accomplish such a feat.

    At least they can think on both sides of the coin.

  17. Anonymous permalink
    October 29, 2009 8:45 am

    Beware jet blast, rotors, and the remotely piloted………

  18. campbell permalink
    October 29, 2009 8:31 am

    “And lets not forget that such tiny robot warcraft can also be launched from existing surface combatants and even submarines!”

    (ahem)….USS Macon, USS Akron

    updated, neh?

  19. Tarl permalink
    October 29, 2009 8:14 am

    A 50-60,000 ton carrier, with three dozen F-35Bs, UCAVs, UAVs and support aircraft, can be as effective as a Nimitz with 70 F-18s and support aircraft.

    If you can get more aircraft on a large carrier, then the larger carrier is more effective (duh). A 50,000 ton carrier with 36 F-35Bs and UCAVs is less effective than a Nimitz with 70 F-35Bs and UCAVs (duh).

    Carrier strike groups have poor antisubmarine and antimine capabilities.

    While aircraft carriers do carry a large number of aircraft, only a few of them are actually devoted to air defense, around 20.

    These are current choices, not inherent vulnerabilities of CSGs that must always be true.

    Though not a solution for all occasions, this certainly can fill in for large decks for a great many circumstances.

    Reaper is cheap because it is not built to last and is not built for carrier ops. A Reaper would disintegrate if you launched or recovered it aboard a CV. A Reaper is also remotely flown, which is the source of many crashes at land bases, and I am skeptical you could do this routinely aboard a CV, given latency issues. Integrating a slow-ass prop driven UAV with no “sense and avoid” with manned jets in carrier controlled airspace would be challenging.

    Last but not least, why would you want the thing aboard a CV? It can fly a long distance – that’s what it does – and therefore, like BAMS, the best use of the Reaper to support the Navy would be to base it on land, control it on land, and fly it in the vicinity of ships at sea on an as-needed basis.

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