Return of the Small Carriers
Capt. Wayne Hughes, USN (ret.) author of the influential work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, has released a study online detailing how the Navy might embrace a true Green Water strategy for a new era of conflict at sea. We hope to be discussing portions of this exciting proposal which closely aligns with our own thinking of where the fleet needs to be, in terms of how its fights, and especially on the questions of increasing numbers of ships available. Today I will examine specifically Dr Hughes’ plan for light carriers, CVLs. From the report titled “The New Navy Fighting Machine” (Google Doc.):
In view of recent debates over the procurement cost of the next CVN and LHD, it should come as no surprise that there is substantial uncertainty in the cost and preferable size of a CVL. We believe a notional CVL, which operates 20 F-35B aircraft in STOVL mode, will displace 25,000-30,000 tons and cost from $2.5B to $3.5B after the first prototype is constructed. We use $3B as the SCN cost in Table 2 of blue water ships (following Chapter VII). We emphasize the desirability of adapting the same design for green water operations. The size and cost are based in part on HMS Illustrious, which carries up to 24 AV-8B Harriers, and in part on the conviction that a dedicated aircraft carrier can be smaller than the current LHAs and LHDs (costing $4B or more and displacing 40,000 tons), when the well deck and Marine berthing and assault equipment are removed. Since a standard LHD airwing is 12 CH-46s, 5 CH-53s, 4 UH-1s and AH-1s, 6 AV-8Bs, and 2 MH-60s or nearly 30 aircraft, the envisioned CVL seems
feasible, although we will not know this until the ship is designed and the cost in series production of 18 of them is estimated.
According to the report, primary advantage of the large deck Nimitz class would be life cycle costs over time:
Why the CVN, costing 40-50% more to construct than an nonnuclear CV carrying the same number of aircraft, was nevertheless seen as preferable 30 years ago and led to an all-CVN force. A 50% cost disadvantage of the CVN reduces to only a 5% penalty in life-cycle costs of ship and aircraft. Nuclear power’s operational mobility advantage easily makes the CVN more attractive.
My own thinking, according to the evidence, is this notion is less attractive because it adds to the upfront costs of aircraft carriers, even when spread out over the building cycle of about a decade. USN carriers are now averaging $10 billion each with the Ford class, not counting warplanes, almost impossible to construct in the numbers required.
A comparison of a ten-CVN force with a 35-CVL force carrying the same number of aircraft (about 700 in each case) shows that they have similar life-cycle costs, even if the CVN is costed correctly at $10B and the not-yet-designed CVL were to cost more than $3B.
I would also point out that thanks to precision weaponry, the CVLs are as effective as the CVNs in terms of firepower. I recently posted my thoughts on how building small carriers would bring savings without reducing effectiveness:
The Navy then might say they can operate a single, large $6 billion supercarrier with 70 warplanes over its lifetime far cheaper than a $3 billion light carrier like the future America class with say, 30 F-35 JSF. This is probably a true statement from an economic standpoint, especially with the price of fuel, the two smaller ships would be more costly over time, comparing the two types individually.
However if you factor in the effect of 10 light carriers, all fitted with precision bombers might have beside 10 supercarriers with the same weapons, the savings of the latter disappears. In other words, if a single light carrier can perform the standard presence mission done by the $6 billion ship, also in wartime the same attack mission (recalling that precision weapons now assure us “one bomb, one hit”), here you would see enormous savings. Specifically, small carriers take best advantage of the advances in precision bombing aircraft, manned or unmanned, since smart weapons do not require smart platforms.
- 10 x Nimitz class carriers-$60 billion
- 10 x America class light carriers-$30 billion
So we find that building the same number of light carriers which ship-for-ship is as effective as large deck vessels, we have savings of $30 billion with which to do other things with.
Still there is the issue of costs. No matter how capable a warship might appear on paper, or even how cost effective it seems over the years, it cannot be in many places at once. Whether we have a mix of large and small carriers, or just many small carriers as I would suggest, numbers are the overriding factor. The reports sums up the question nicely:
Absent such a CVL, we believe that on affordability grounds alone, the total number of aircraft carriers will shrink to eight within the next two decades and, absent the development of a CVL, with no redress possible.
New Wars’ ongoing prediction–costs kill the large deck carrier.
Concerning Hughes’ light carrier proposal, I am thinking 20 F-35Bs would need a parent vessel of at least 30,000 tons. My reasoning for this is the size of late model Harriers and the RN’s use of only about 10 at the most on its Invincibles. The Harrier’s full weapons load brings the weight of the plane to 31,000 lbs, which is the empty weight of a F-35 Lightning. I think a small ship of 10 planes might be sufficient and perhaps less costly, keeping it down to European light carrier dimensions, or closer to the 20,000 ton range. Such a vessel would also make an ideal UAV mothership.