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Carrier Alternative Weekly

December 10, 2009
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The aircraft carrier's worse enemy strikes!--Fiscal Reality.

Scratch 2 Flattops in QDR

Whew! Big news. Taking a deep breath. Here we go, from DoD Buzz:

Word on Capitol Hill is that the Quadrennial Defense Review should result in the demise of two Navy car­rier groups and the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. On top of that, the Joint Strike Fighter pro­gram is likely to lose a so-​​far uncer­tain num­ber of planes and the Air Force looks to lose two air wings.

Folks on the Hill are watch­ing the car­rier cuts par­tic­u­larly closely. They were will­ing to accept the tem­po­rary loss of one car­rier but two groups may just be too much for law­mak­ers to swal­low though it would con­ve­niently answer the hot debate about whether the Navy faces a fighter gap.

“Even if they cut two car­rier strike groups (which will be an uphill bat­tle for DOD), they still face a sig­nif­i­cant USN fighter gap,” said a con­gres­sional aide fol­low­ing this. “The Navy seems to rec­og­nize this, but every­thing we’ve heard thus far from OSD seems to indi­cate that they’d rather try funny math then address a clear gap.”

I’d say retiring 2 carriers would go along way toward alleviating the stretched thin naval air force. Concerning the fighter gap, see the next post. This has been a long time coming and the cuts aren’t over with. This is why we call for a carrier alternatives, since even with 9, 10, or 11 flattops in service, during wartime this would be drastically reduced, if history is any judge. We recall the horrible losses of ships and men in the Pacific campaign when oftentimes there was only a single carrier in the Pacific in 1942. The only way to assure you don’t have losses is not to fight, but we don’t think the ideal conditions of the last century, where few rival fleets have dared challenge the might of the US Navy will continue indefinitely. It was over 100 years from Trafalgar to Jutland, so we might as well prepare now for the inevitable.

I support a 5 carrier fleet, given the amazing capabilities of modern warplanes, as well as long range missiles which now provide surface ships and submarines a long range strike role independent of naval air. Likewise, unmanned drones are becoming increasingly capable, and are now being tried from naval platforms, which will enhance the strike abilities of non-aviation ships. I do understand that no vessel can currently do sorties and close air support like large decks, but this isn’t a cost efficient way to run a Navy, given the extremely poor countries they are used against, like Afghanistan.

Earlier we posted on “Benefits from Halving the Carrier Fleet“:

  • At least 25 warships released from escort duties, greatly easing our Navy’s “presence deficit“.
  • Up to 300 warplanes which could be divided among the remaining carriers, ending any worry over a “fighter gap“.
  • 25,000 crewmen and women would be available for duties elsewhere.

    The Navy should think of their ten multi-purpose amphibious carriers as light carriers, which can easily support naval operations in the manner described above with Harrier V/STOL jets, but at less cost. It was in  1943 that the first of the Independence class CVL’s entered operations to support the larger ships until adequate numbers of the new Essex class entered service. Thinking of the LHA/LHD assault ships in this manner as enablers of the bigger flattops, would then give us a 15 carrier force, something which the Navy hasn’t been able to do for a while, focused as they are on, all big decks, and only big decks for decades.


    Four Carrier Fleet on the Way

    Blogging on all things aviation related, Eric L Palmer looks at the numbers and sees dire times ahead for the US Carrier Fleet:

    The completely unproven F-35C; is a very big gamble. UCAS-N is also a big question mark…Looking at the total number of Super Hornet squadrons we have today–assuming 4 fighter squadrons per carrier–shows that the Navy might be able to populate 5 carriers worth at best. It might even slip to 4.

    We gave the following enormously blunt statement a special place:

    There is no justification for a country to maintain and build big-deck aircraft carriers if it has so little to fly off of them.

    Amen! As the original mothership, a platform is only as good as the weapons is carriers, and naval air force has been shrinking for decades. Realistically, the Super Hornet is not a “new” plane so much as a major upgrade of the proven F/A-18 Hornet from the 1970s. Still, it is a pretty good plane, good enough thanks to new precision weaponry that we can get by with fewer of them, as the Navy is going out of its way to prove to us. This seems good enough reason for the 4-5 flattop fleet mentioned in the article, or even the constriction of more numerous light carriers in their place.

    Also concerning fighters, here is something we wrote in a July post:

    An interesting phenomena in recent decades has been the dramatic increase in aircraft carrier size, while the number of warplanes needed on her spacious decks have actually declined. With the advent of new precision bombs in modern warfare, widespread use at sea not starting until the 1990’s, naval aircraft are more capable than ever. With one plane (or UAV) having the ability to destroy a target once required of huge airwings and multiple sorties, it only stands to reason we have entered a revolution in carrier power, which a few big decks with sizable numbers of strike bombers fail to adequately take advantage of. Yet the Navy still insists our shrinking number of 100,000 ton flattops with their 90 warplanes are the only way to deploy airpower at sea!


    China “Sinks” US Carrier

    Scoop Deck reports on a fictitious tale of “How The United States Lost the Naval War of 2015,”, appearing in Orbis magazine:

    The piece, “How The United States Lost the Naval War of 2015,” by Naval War College professor Cmdr. James Kraska, is not uplifting. In it, the Chinese sink the GW with one of their super death-ray re-targetable carrier-killing ballistic missiles; deny it; score a propaganda victory after rescuing some survivors; and use the whole thing to consolidate their status as the new rulers of the world Pacific. The impotent Navy does nothing, and suddenly it, the U.S. and the world realize that America’s power has evaporated.

    Blogger Phil Ewing is dubious of this possibility:

    (Apparently, in Kraska’s future, the Navy itself has forgotten about the ship-killing missiles, and 7th Fleet strike groups are no longer escorted by Aegis warships that could, at very least, produce American sailors who watched a missile plunge down from space and destroy the carrier.)

    Yours truly writes military fiction too and with a happier ending. With respect to naval prophet Hector C Bywater, here is The Next Great Pacific War.


    Hard versus Soft Power

    Christopher Albon at the USNI blog pleads with the US Navy leadership to find its proper place in General McChrystal’s Afghan strategy, beyond its platform centric mindset:

    The Navy can play a significant role in McChrystal’s strategy. Every year, thousands of sailors deploy on humanitarian, development, and disaster relief operations around the world. Sailors have repaired schools in the Pacific, organized health clinics in South America, and delivered disaster aid in the Caribbean. These operations are outside traditional military education and have required developing a new set of skills, notably the ability to plan and work side by side with different services, agencies, governments, and NGO partners. The missions have given the Navy hard won experience adapting military resources to humanitarian, development, and disaster relief challenges. This is particularly true of short term, high impact programs, the type of military involvement in development envisioned by Secretary of Defense Gates. The Navy could have precisely the type of soft-power experience McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy requires.

    The main obstacle to a major Navy role in Afghanistan is not material, but cultural. The Navy’s leadership is dominated by line officers. This perpetuates an institutional culture valuing warships and warplanes. However, the enemy has neither fleet or coastline. All the carrier strike groups in the world will not find victory in the mountains of Afghanistan.

    Here is my reply within the comments:

    The idea that the Navy might have other more urgent roles than deploying naval air seems beyond the grasp of the present culture, but it was not always so. Not since Operation Market Time in Vietnam has there been a dire need for cooperation with the land forces, but somehow we seem in a desperate hurry to pick a fight with China.
    Lets not rush it. Fight and win our present conflicts. These little wars have always provided sailors with vital warfighting skills as well as America her future naval leaders for tomorrow’s major sea battles. This we have known from the Barbary’s Wars onward, as some skills can’t be taught from video games and textbooks alone.


    28 Comments leave one →
    1. Rick Friedling permalink
      May 17, 2012 3:56 pm

      The Hornet and Super Hornet were both highly-compromised designs lowering capability in the cause of lower maintenance and purchase costs. We should have built the Super Tomcat as a 75% new design with moder avionics and better maintainability, AT LEAST until the dubious F-35 was ready. The Phoenix AIM-54 missle–and its would-be successors–was a fantastic “force-multiplier,” and the “Bombcat” capabilities of the Tomcat were only realized in its last days. We through away better designs than most countries can only dream of designing.

    2. October 23, 2011 2:06 pm

      Its such as you learn my mind! You seem to know so much approximately this, like you wrote the guide in it or something. I believe that you simply can do with some p.c. to force the message house a little bit, but other than that, this is excellent blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

    3. Al L. permalink
      December 11, 2009 12:23 am

      I (for once) agree with much of what Mike B. says in the “scratch 2…” section of his post, but I would go futher. The CSG structure of the Navy is, more than anything else, crippling planning and ship building. The CSG’s are a dinosaur, left from the cold war. They were necessary then as a breakout of world war 3 was thought to be possible in a very short period of time, To not have such capability forward deployed could have been a handicap.

      The situation has changed. CVN’s would be much better used as a force in waiting. The forward presence mission should be passed to other ships. As a conflict developed the CVNs could be surged forward to join up with the forces in threatre.

      The advantages of this scheme are:

      1. Less CVNs would be needed to provide the same number available at any one time. A force of seven could provide at least 3 available at any time. Since all would be late Nimitz or Ford class less life cycle layup time would be needed.

      2. Less wear and tear on the ships and more importantly their aircraft and crews.

      3. Because they wouldn’t be tied to patrolling an assigned area, more could be pushed into a conflict zone sooner, all 3 at once if needed.

      4. They would be less exposed to attack on a regular basis.

      5. Their escorts could be freed up.

      6. Beause the CVNs would not be rotating presence missions as they do now, the current rotation could be replaced with one more suited to the current world. Let’s assume with 7 CVNs 6 would be available at any one time 1 would be in drydock. And assume a 24 month cycle for each ship between the start of each 6 month deployment. A CVN could be deployed every sixty days in a constant rotation, making 3 available at any one time, and 4 available at any time by surging 1 out 30+ days early or holding another on deployment 30 + days.

      I agree with Mike that a drop to 5 CVNs would be acceptable if the concept I stated above was implemented, however that could mean none would be built for 30+ years after the Ford. Will U.S. shipyards still be able to build a CVN after a 30 yr hiatus? Perhaps planning for the build of 2 over 30 years is better.

    4. CBD permalink
      December 11, 2009 12:05 am

      I ran some numbers for the smaller CSGs and ESGs (re our prior discussion of Leviathan vs. SysAdmin). Makes me uncomfortable, but the numbers seem to work as you said (even with 8 of each).

    5. Hudson permalink
      December 10, 2009 5:55 pm

      B. Smitty,

      That’s OK, man. I call it simply: ten fingers, one brain.

      I certainly hope the president is right, for the sake of the country. But remember how we won in Phase One–mountain moving B-52 strikes and the ruthless Northern Alliance massacring hundreds, maybe thousands of Taliban POWs. Brutal, but we won that battle.

    6. Mrs. Davis permalink
      December 10, 2009 5:51 pm

      We just can’t wait for another Pearl Harbor to finally admit we have the wrong strategy.

      OK, we’ve got the wrong strategy. What’s the right one? We won’t really know till after the next Pearl Harbor, so being a conservative institution, the Navy will yield to inertia till another force makes it change course.

    7. Joe permalink
      December 10, 2009 5:25 pm

      You need leaders with the political will to attack the pirates where they originate from versus trying to come up with enough platforms to chase after every speed boat…that is my way of dealing with your stmt of “The reason the pirates have been so bold is because they are mostly unhindered”.

    8. B.Smitty permalink
      December 10, 2009 5:25 pm


      Sorry about that. I jumped the gun. Too often on this blog, the argument, “We aren’t currently doing A, so we should stop/slow building B.”, rears its ugly head.

      I happen to agree with O here. Restrictive ROE is necessary. You risk years of work with one errant bomb.

    9. Mike Burleson permalink*
      December 10, 2009 5:12 pm

      Joe asked “And what defense strategy would be successful against the “one man, one horrible weapon, many deaths” idea?”

      Not the Navy alone, but she must play her part or be counted irrelevant. More patrol ships would secure our ports. The same deployed overseas would keep pirates and smugglers occupied in the narrow seas, giving them less free reign on the open oceans. The reason the pirates have been so bold is because they are mostly unhindered. We are getting some better, but the fleet is hurting from lack of hulls, as I consistently post here.

      We need a navy better suited for the times, one geared toward cooperating with the population of the sea. Still the battlefleet of Aegis, submarines, and even carriers, but not nearly so many as we now have, and not nearly so important and depended on as today.

      Smitty wrote “First, a UAV can’t perform the full range of missions (yet). ‘

      I completely agree, but there have been other alternatives. We aren’t even trying to get there in the urgency we need, with the fleet crumbling around us, and the threats mounting. We just can’t wait for another Pearl Harbor to finally admit we have the wrong strategy. We just can’t fall for that again. The Chinese missiles might all be a bluff, but can we afford to take the chance? We’ve been wrong before.

    10. December 10, 2009 4:59 pm

      “When one terrorist with one suitcase bomb can change the course of nations, I think its time we reevaluate our definition of power projection.”

      If I remember one terrorist with one revolver once started an awful lot of trouble.

      That China 2015: SSKs are always quieter than SSNs. SSNs are steam ships, their boilers need water, hence the feed pump needs to run all the time. Making the pump quiet is a major challenge. As the Chinese have found out.

      I still want to know if this Chinese wonder weapon works. And if it does why can’t AEGIS ABM system can’t shoot it down………

    11. Hudson permalink
      December 10, 2009 4:51 pm

      B. Smitty,

      My point is, in consideration of discussion about carrier support of the mission in Afghanistan in this thread, given the present ROE, there is very little need for any carrier presence in the region. Or, as you mention, the USAF. So the real discussion isn’t about B2 vs. CSG and these kinds of metrics; it’s about the rules of engagement and their impact on the types of airframes and weapons needed to ensure “success” in the region thougn not necessarily victory. It’s about O’s rules and not our rules.

    12. CBD permalink
      December 10, 2009 4:29 pm

      Mrs. Davis,
      The frequent commenter Tangosix has a good breakdown of the actual costs of a B-2 vs. CSG in terms of sortie and payload at his blog, here. It doesn’t take into account the ability of B-2s to now strike with the much smaller SDBs (thus generating more strikes per sortie and increasing the accuracy of each weapon dropped), but it’s a good analysis of the costs of the B2 purely in terms of sorties.

    13. B.Smitty permalink
      December 10, 2009 4:05 pm

      Hudson said, “How many flattops do we need for that?

      Zero. We also don’t need most of the USAF for that. What’s your point?

    14. Hudson permalink
      December 10, 2009 3:55 pm

      Under the present ROE in Afghanistan, there is practically no bombing going on. When was the last time you heard about a plane dropping a 500lb bomb on a suspected Taliban hideout? Or an A-10 dropping cluster bombs to save a Marine outpost from being overrun by Taliban? It’s mostly very close in gunship support, or pitifuly, fixed wing buzzing the hideout to spook the enemy. Sad, I know. We have zero tolerance for civilian casaulties.

      So for all practical purposes, under the current administration, airpower is pretty much limited to drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. How many flattops do we need for that?

    15. B.Smitty permalink
      December 10, 2009 3:17 pm

      Mrs. Davis said, “So the question becomes what is the fully loaded cost per sortie of a Super Hornet from a CSG versus a comparably capable UAV (or B-2 or B-1 or B-52)? If the UAV is cheaper but the problem is that we don’t have enough to generate the volume of sorties, then the cost effective solution seems to be to build more UAVs, not more CSGs. Lots more UAVs.

      Three issues.

      First, a UAV can’t perform the full range of missions (yet).

      Second, we live in a time where forward basing is either limited or non-existent. How may UAVs and bombers can we fit on Diego Garcia? Where else do we have (nearly) guaranteed right of use? If you rely on aircraft based on foreign soil, your policies will kowtow to the desires of the host country (for better or worse). Plus, the cost of additional foreign basing must be factored in to the fully-loaded cost of a UCAV.

      Third, you have to solve the command and control issue. There’s only so much satcom bandwidth available. You have to factor in expanding satcom capabilities into the cost of UCAVs.

      We have to prove to ourselves that aggressive comm jamming won’t eliminate the utility of our UCAVs. We are already heavily tied to satellites for communications, navigation and precision strike. What happens if an opponent renders them inoperative. What’s the backup plan? Manned aircraft can at least fall back on tried and true methods.

      Don’t get me wrong. If we can solve these issues without blowing out the loaded price, then I’m for it. But, presently, large scale use of UCAVs is unproven, and their cost effectiveness may not be as advantageous as it first appears.

    16. Joe permalink
      December 10, 2009 2:19 pm

      When one terrorist with one suitcase bomb can change the course of nations, I think its time we reevaluate our definition of power projection.

      And what defense strategy would be successful against the “one man, one horrible weapon, many deaths” idea? How would a fleet of “Harrier Carriers” be any more appropriate against a terrorist?

    17. Mike Burleson permalink*
      December 10, 2009 2:11 pm

      Byron and all. I can’t agree that we justify what type of navy we have by how effective it is against land target. During the last world war, admirals kept naval airpower away from land bases as much as possible except for quick sudden strikes, or by the use of small escort carriers, which supported amphibious operations (recalling the Battle off Samar).

      This is an extremely inefficient way to support the troops in Third World countries. We only do because the admirals won’t consider alternatives, like light or escort carriers, and certainly not UAVs on ships except for some obscure future. Actually, I don’t think carriers are the best way to launch the new UCAVs, some of which have ranges exceeding 1000 miles and persistence for a couple days. More if you add tanker support.

      In other words, times, price, and technology is giving–has been giving us carrier alternatives for a while now if we only see it. The issue is already being decided as the carrier fleet sinks under its own monolithic pricetag. We can no longer afford a handful of ships pricing as much as some countries defense budget to deploy, or even enough aircraft which is their only reason for existence. It is unaffordable, and unnecessary.

      When one terrorist with one suitcase bomb can change the course of nations, I think its time we reevaluate our definition of power projection.

    18. Joe permalink
      December 10, 2009 2:05 pm

      What I think you fail to consider Mike is that this will likely end up being {if it happens as ‘rumored’} cutting for the sake of cutting, ala Great Britain. The political leaders that would be imposing these cuts have no grand redesign of the US military in mind…just the desire to move present & future monies from “use A” to “use B”.

    19. Mrs. Davis permalink
      December 10, 2009 1:58 pm

      Generate sorties?

      So the question becomes what is the fully loaded cost per sortie of a Super Hornet from a CSG versus a comparably capable UAV (or B-2 or B-1 or B-52)? If the UAV is cheaper but the problem is that we don’t have enough to generate the volume of sorties, then the cost effective solution seems to be to build more UAVs, not more CSGs. Lots more UAVs.

    20. B.Smitty permalink
      December 10, 2009 1:47 pm

      Mike said, “But not victory Smitty. And the disproportion in cost is astounding. these are just Bedouins for Pete’s sake!

      Mike, if victory is the measure, then the entire Navy should be scrapped. There’s no ship or submarine that will achieve victory in Afghanistan.

      OTOH, carrier airpower did make major contributions to the initial victory over the Taliban (flying the majority of combat sorties).

      Mrs Davis said, “Is there anything carrier aircraft can do that B-2s and Global Reapers cannot do equally well for less money in the mountains of Afghanistan?

      Generate sorties?

      We only have 16 combat coded B-2s in the entire inventory. Even if you count the B-52s and B-1s (which are flying all of the bomber sorties these days), bombers alone can’t generate a lot of sorties. Sorties matter because individual bombers can’t be everywhere.

      I’m not sure what a “Global Reaper” is, but I assume it is a Reaper like airframe with Global Hawk range and endurance. I am a proponent of such a system, however you would require many, and more than just the airbase at Diego Garcia to generate a similar number of sorties as a carrier (which can get much closer).

      Also, looking more broadly, bombers plus HALE UCAVs don’t have a proven means of performing OCA. While not important in Afghanistan, future opponents may have significant air forces of their own.

      I will concede that, right now, carrier air is not particularly cost effective for patrolling the skies of Afghanistan.

    21. Mrs. Davis permalink
      December 10, 2009 1:19 pm

      Is there anything carrier aircraft can do that B-2s and Global Reapers cannot do equally well for less money in the mountains of Afghanistan?

      just as in WW2, you’re going to fight the war with what you have…and if you don’t have much, you will be screwed.

      True if you’re Japan, not so much if you’re the U. S. Note that none of these Murderers were afloat in December 1941.

      Any general war, such as one between China and the US, is likely to be long and will be won by the power with the greater capacity to build weapons and supply the forces that use them. Neither China nor the US will be able to knock the other out short of a general nuclear attack. It would be suicidal for China to try that and the US would not do it. So any such conflict would remain conventional, or at least non-nuclear, just as WWII was non-chemical. The key factor would be access to petroleum.

      Who is the workshop of the world bothers me a lot more than how many potentially obsolete weapons systems we are operating before the outbreak of such hostilities.

    22. D. E. Reddick permalink
      December 10, 2009 1:09 pm

      Well, it seems that the Indians and Russians have finalized their carrier deal – again! By the end of the coming decade the Indian Navy may be in possession of three medium-sized CVs. They might catch up with us after another decade or two, given present trends.

      Gorshkov deal successfully concluded: Indian foreign secretary

      Malaysia Sun
      Tuesday 8th December, 2009

      India and Russia have ‘successfully’ concluded the agreement on the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier, ending a long standoff over the key defence deal, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said.

      The issue, Rao said, came up during the summit level talks between visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Monday.

      ‘Both the leaders discussed the issue and noted excellent progress on negotiations on price and technical issues which have been brought to a successful conclusion,’ she told reporters in a late night briefing.

      But the foreign secretary gave no details about the price. Sources had earlier said that it was ‘satisfactory’ for both sides.

      The delivery of the aircraft carrier, now rechristened INS Vikramaditya, was agreed years ago but has been long delayed due to bargaining over refitting prices.

      The haggling of the Soviet-era carrier had come to symbolise the strains in relations between the two Cold War allies.

      Russian media quoting Kremlin sources confirmed that Moscow would finally deliver the refurbished aircraft carrier to India.

      However, there was no word on when the vessel might be handed over to the Indian Navy.

      Manmohan Singh was on a three-day trip to Moscow during which he signed six bilateral pacts, including a deal on the peaceful use of atomic energy that guarantees uninterrupted uranium fuel supplies for Indian reactors and transfer of technology.

      The two sides also inked three military pacts.

    23. Byron permalink
      December 10, 2009 12:55 pm

      Mike, the first aircraft to put warheads on foreheads in AF were Carrier aircraft. Carriers provide flexibility that the Air Force cannot. And in far away spots like AF, it’s the Navy that can provide on-call support 24/7, not the Air Force.

      Secondly, once you start to bleed away the capabilities of both the airwing sailors AND the aviators, you are also losing invaluable experience, something that the speed of modern conflicts might not allow you to retrieve.

      Last, but most important, just as in WW2, you’re going to fight the war with what you have…and if you don’t have much, you will be screwed.

    24. Mike Burleson permalink*
      December 10, 2009 12:29 pm

      But not victory Smitty. And the disproportion in cost is astounding. these are just Bedouins for Pete’s sake!

    25. B.Smitty permalink
      December 10, 2009 12:25 pm

      All the carrier strike groups in the world will not find victory in the mountains of Afghanistan

      As a corvette guy, it’s interesting that you’d highlight this sentence MIke.

      Carriers at least CAN and HAVE made major impacts on both conflicts. Somehow this fact has been lost in the discussion.

    26. Sarcastic ShockwaveLover permalink
      December 10, 2009 11:43 am

      Geez, that story of yours is bloody scary…

    27. Mike Burleson permalink*
      December 10, 2009 8:37 am

      NavHist-I think the smaller, economical ships more relevant to today’s conflicts will be forced on this because of the high price of large legacy hulls. This isn’t a disaster as some might contend, because thanks to modern weapons and sensors, the small boys are much more effective than the missile and torpedo boats of the last century. But they have always been essential in all past wars. Now we have supposedly learned better?

    28. Navhist permalink
      December 10, 2009 6:18 am

      I seem to remember an article calling for a decrease in CSGs to fund building other ships at the low end. Let’s see if the QDR actually funds platforms at the low end (look for riverine and PCs as indicators).

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