Carrier Diversity Thursday
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!
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.