Carrier Alternative Weekly
It Takes a Navy
My title is a hit on a recent US Naval Institute article titled “It Takes a Carrier“. While I do agree about the continued importance of naval airpower in modern war, I am against the notion you must do without essential fleet escorts, surface combatants, in order to deploy fixed wing air. James Daly at the Daly History blog is writing along this line with his recent series of posts on the “Falklands then and now“. Here is the one concerning “Frigates and Destroyers”:
So far we’ve looked at the Aircraft Carriers and the Amphibious Assault ships. Prestigious and important as they are, the Frigates and Destroyers of the fleet represent the workhorses of any naval operation. If we were to look for a military metaphor, they are the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ of the sea, the boots on the ground…
In 1982 The Royal Navy deployed a total of 23 Destroyers and Frigates to the South Atlantic. These were not all serving concurrently, as several were sunk or so severely damaged that they had to return to the UK for repairs, ans some arrived late as reinforcements. It should be noted, however, that this number represented around a third of the Navy’s total strength of escort vessels, and that many other ships were either under refit in the UK or on patrol around the world…In summary the escorts that sailed to the Falklands comprised a balanced and flexible fleet.
Bringing us to today’s Royal Navy and what a modern South Atlantic Task Force might look like:
The Royal Navy would do very well indeed to put together a fleet of 10 ships for escort duties… There would be very few replacements available, and losses would be felt very seriously indeed.
Reportedly the Royal Navy agreed to losing a number of Destroyers and Frigates in order to ensure the delivery of its two planned supercarriers. The Royal Navy might be planning for super-carriers and already has impressive assault ships, but has neglected to build a fleet of escorts to support them or to perform the less glamorous ‘workhorse’ tasks. After learning the importance of being able to act independently in 1982, British Defence policy has once again made it virtually impossible for the armed forces to operate without the assistance of allies.
Again let me say, naval airpower is extremely important, else why would I be writing a post about “alternatives”? We continue to require some type of airpower at sea, I only say the way we deploy manned air today is over-burdensome and unnecessary. It is the admirals’ fault for trying to refight old wars, and I mean World War 2 with an over-dependence, perhaps even an overconfidence in fixed wing carriers, that these can replace hulls in the water.
As the above post reminds us, surface combatants are the heart of any fleet, without which large amphibious ships and aircraft carriers can’t even leave port, no matter how capable they are. The most important ships in the RN today are her frigates, just look at the headlines, and they are in the fight for freedom everywhere.
The following comes from Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week’s Ares blog:
The long-range UCAV offers the Navy the way out of becoming the ultimate “self-licking ice-cream cone” – a carrier group that commits almost all its resources to self-defense.
Students of military history may recall this as the case near the end of the Cold War, with the USN in defense mode, with F-14s and Aegis ships defending their giant decks, while only a handful of aging attack planes gave the fleet an offensive punch. The giant ships were granted a renewed lease on life with the demise of the Soviet Navy plus the advent of precision guided munitions.
Today, however, with shrinking budgets and rising threats, they seem more vulnerable than ever. Smart cruise missiles and apparently even smart conventional ballistic missiles are in the hands of many powers instead of the one enemy of the Cold War. Remarkably, the Navy is still resistant to the increased protection offered by UCAVs which possess remarkable range, up to 1000 miles, and incredible staying power counted in days rather than hours.
We see the USN carrier admirals becoming belated enthusiasts for the UCAV concept in an attempt to stave off the dramatic decrease in their Big Ships’ numbers and effectiveness. Probably it will be too late as the same missile and drone threat which they face in modern warfare displace them in their traditional roles of airpower at sea. The new weapons likely will not do many missions as well as a 70-plane carrier, but their ease of deployment and costs will decide the issue.
Canceling the Navy’s F-35C?
Nothing official mind you, but at the Center for Defense Information, Winslow T. Wheeler and Pierre M. Sprey insist the signs all point to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter going the way of the F-111 in US Navy service:
The Navy has been quietly reducing the number of Navy F-35Cs in the program plan and converting them to Marine F-35Bs. Alternatives to the F-35C have been discussed, and at least one has been briefed to top Pentagon managers. Meanwhile, both in the Navy budget and under the table with Congress, the Navy has successfully pushed for increased buys of their F-18E/F (an almost equally unworthy fighter and not much of a bomber). The Navy’s budget for F-35Cs is scheduled to steeply increase to $9 billion in fiscal year 2012. Expect the Navy to announce sometime before that the F-35C is simply carrier unsuitable…
The success of that pitch will spell the death knell of the F-35 program. Unit costs will automatically jump to a new peak. The performance deficiencies the Navy is sure to reveal at that point will add a sack heavy enough to bow the camel’s back, and the F-35 program will become nothing but a mad scramble to uncommit from as many Aardvark IIs as possible.
Thats big news, and when it happens, I’m sure Eric L Palmer will be there as well to say “I told you so”!