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Carrier Alternative Weekly

February 11, 2010

Basis for the Canberra LHD is the Spanish Juan Carlos. Note the ski jump. Author--Alberto Pereira Picado, importé par Basilio

Australian Light carriers Looming

Some might take issue with me describing the HMAS Canberra class amphibious ships as “carriers”, but the fact is– here is an amazing ability which the service hasn’t possessed for decades. Info is from

The first of the two LHDs – HMAS Canberra – is expected to arrive in Australia in 2012 followed by the second one in 2014. The ships are being built for the Royal Australian Navy for sophisticated air-land-sea deployment. The 27,000 tonne ships will be able to land a force of over 2,000 personnel by helicopter and water craft, along with all their weapons, ammunition, vehicles and stores.

Despite numerous difficulties and controversies endured by the Australian Navy of late, she seems determined for a major expansion of capabilities in the next decade, alone with some large Aegis missile destroyers we often liken to “new battleships”. All are of Spanish design. Defense Industry Daily writes:

These 5 ships will be the core of Australia’s future surface navy. The LHDs will be able to serve as amphibious landing ships, helicopter carriers, floating HQs and medical facilities for humanitarian assistance, and launching pads for UAVs or even short/vertical takeoff fighters.

Concerning her aviation abilities, here is Wikipedia:

The Canberra class ships will provide the Australian Defence Force with greatly increased naval aviation capabilities, with each ship carrying up to 24 Army and Navy helicopters.[1] These aircraft will include Army and Navy MRH-90 transport helicopters, Army Tiger helicopter gunships and Navy S-70B Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters. Although the ships will be fitted with a ski-ramp and could be certified to operate STOVL aircraft, they will not initially be fitted with the radar needed to operate fixed-wing aircraft.

Quack, quack?


The Demise of Naval Air

New Wars never gets tired of questioning the logic that says we must continue to deploy large deck carriers, even as their airwings reduce in size. Here is  U.S. Navy Undersecretary Robert Work quoted in Defense News:

We have a requirement for 10 carrier air wings. Do we have enough airplanes – is there exactly 44 in every single one? No, but we don’t need it.

Oh, and those 10 airwings are to support an 11 carrier fleet. Sigh.


Don’t Exile the UAV’s to the Carrier

One of the best qualities which small unmanned aerial vehicles bring to the battlefield, is flexibility. It allows the warfighter, as in small combat teams to field their own mini-airpower assets without always depending on large manned jets, which might often be hundreds of miles away or distracted by other missions. In other words, UAV’s in land warfare disperses the ability of airpower to react to numerous threats, large or small, empowering forces greater than ever before.

The navy’s current but belated interest in UAV’s seem to be in part based on the capability of launching large planes from its handful of large deck carriers. Defense Industry Daily explains the reasoning:

A May 2007 non-partisan report discussed the lengthening reach of ship-killers. Meanwhile, the US Navy’s carrier fleet sees its strike range shrinking to 1950s distances, and prepares for a future with 11 operational carriers – but just 10 carrier air wings. Could UCAV/UCAS vehicles with longer ranges, and indefinite flight time limits via aerial refueling, solve these problems?

This is a logical use of the carrier’s spacious hull, but we wonder if it is a practical use of the UAVs versatility, and its ability to launch from even smaller decks. Instead of just empowering the 10-11 carriers we have in deployment, UAVs should be spread among the fleet, of use with individual warships, just as the same weapons on land have enhanced the abilities of small ground forces.

While our very few large decks, can’t be everywhere at once, a UAV can be anywhere there is a launch platform available. Logically this would be as many of our current 280 ship fleet as possible, but at the very least the amphib carriers and the Burke destroyers. Currently, there may be no UAV suitable for this role, but it is certainly feasible, as we remember the USS Wisconsin and USS Missouri launching Pioneer drones off their decks during Operation Desert Storm. Imagine an armed Predator drone catapulted off the deck of Navy destroyer to speed inland and bomb terrorist enclave hundreds of miles inland, or support a company of Marines tied down by enemy fire. Maybe the Navy has imagined this which is why they might wish to see the drones tied down to their Big Decks!


India’s No-Sale for Kitty Hawk Carrier

Putting to rest rumors to the contrary, here is Sify Business:

The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk is not up for sale to the Indian Navy as it has already ‘outstretched’ its life, a senior US Navy officer said Wednesday.

‘The ship was meant to last 48 years. It is in Wilmington (North Carolina) and not for sale. There is no intention to sell it. It has already outstretched its intended service life,’ Rear Admiral Allen G. Myers, the Director (Warfare Integration) of the US Navy, told IANS.

This puts to rest all reports of the decommissioned carrier being offered to India, which, at one stage, expressed interest in the vessel.

Maybe just as well, though New Delhi has done wonders with the 50 year old Hermes.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 15, 2010 7:40 am

    But you don’t have to give up your helo ability. My point is every ship need not carry a helo hangar and support, since this is one of the causes of the cost rise in modern frigates. Like the Japanese used their older DDH’s in the 60s and 70s, you have a few exquisite ships, and many low cost combatants. Because those helo’s you mentioned are so capable, you could “share” them among a squadron of vessels. This networking would ensure you still have capability, without compromising ship numbers.

    There is plenty of capability in the fleet, it is just we concentrate in fewer high end packages, and fail to get the full benefit.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 15, 2010 7:01 am

    “Back to frigates with big hangers and at least 2 x Lynx / SH60 / NH90 / AW101 for me”

    Sorry Jed. I don’t buy into the inevitability of the shrinking fleet, which is what we are getting building only high end exquisite warships. Frigates certainly fall into this category today, concerning size and costs, not to mention their declining numbers. Capability can never make up for availability.

  3. Jed permalink
    February 14, 2010 5:40 pm

    Mike does not “every ship an aircraft carrier” already exist, every frigate or above carries a very useful embarked helicopter, or two.

    Ref: “We can’t let fear of the unknown rule us (comes from worrying exclusively over future wars instead of focusing on present conflicts).”

    It’s not fear, its called “planning” and in the British armed forces there is a very old saying “Prior planning prevents (piss) poor performance”. I remember an exercise as far back as the 80’s when the conducting staff signalled all ships to say all satcom was gone. We (a small Leander class frigate) ended up as ship-shore gateway for all U.S. vessels involved because they no longer carried the books with all the information about NATO HF ship shore stations and how to route their message traffic ! I am sure even with all the band width they have now the USN must have learned a lesson there ? I am sure you have heard the other old saying: “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” – see below

    Ref: ” If the enemy did up the ante, wouldn’t we have a counter to this threat?”

    I don’t know, would we ? In my more recent Army reserve experience I have seen U.S. soldiers get lost because they did not realize the datum used by their handheld GPS units was not the same datum as used for their maps. So while for soldiers and sailors training may be the answer, for Tomahawk (and various other weapons system, including most aircraft) the ability to fall back on Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) and digital terrain comparison etc is a possible response, what do you suggest would be the response for all these satcom reliant UAV’s ? Line of site UHF datalinks ? They don’t have the range required. Airborne relay ? With what platforms? I am sure NSA / DARPA / USN / USAF have secret weapons to overcome the loss of satcom / satnav – well at least I hope they do.

    And lets not even get started on cyber warfare elements of anti-UAx operations.

    So, as someone who is now an fully fledged and professionally qualified IT geek, I personally do not believe unmanned systems are the nirvana that many are seeking. Back to frigates with big hangers and at least 2 x Lynx / SH60 / NH90 / AW101 for me :-)

  4. Matt permalink
    February 14, 2010 10:04 am

    “Matt I still would say the UAS should be able to operate on the same freedom at sea as they have on land, and this would entail individual strikes rather than carrier-type airwings.”

    Should and can are not the same thing.

    UAS technology is just not there to do the long-range, persistent missions from the back end of a small-boy — no matter how much one might wish it to be so. I would commend you to read the NAVAIR article I posted to get a view on the current state of UAS technology. No disrespect intended, but like many surface advocates, I think you are grossly misinformed when it comes to what a UAS is and what it can and can’t do.

    Here are a few reasons as to why I believe small-boys are a non-starter is the for long-range, persistent, UAS operations at sea:

    RUNWAY LENGTH- In terms of freedom of operations on the land: Global Hawk requires 3,000 ft runway and support hangars. Personally, I think the Navy is going to be hard pressed to get UCAV to launch and recover off a 1,000 ft runway on a CVN. The back-end of DD/FF is adequate for a Fire Scout or MH-60, but is a complete non-starter for a Group 5 UAS.

    QUANTITY OF A/C – To get the type of results we’ve all seen on CNN (Reaper strikes against terrorists in Yemen and the in Pakistan) required persistent coverage. That takes 3-4 aircraft operating around the clock, often for days at a time. A single aircraft can’t stay airborne forever. This is why operating them in squadrons of 12 from a CVN makes sense — you could have 3 x 24/7 orbits going in three different places. If you could somehow launch and recover a Group 5 UAS from the back of a DD/FF, where exactly would you put the other 3

    MANPOWER – I think there’s a fundamental misconception among surface warriors that UAS has somehow altered the basic requirements of aviation. UAS moves the operators off-board, but in the end they are still big hunks of metal flying in the sky. You still need operators to operate the aircraft. You also need lots of folks to maintain the aircraft. Both of these take people and space.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 13, 2010 7:23 pm

    Matt I still would say the UAS should be able to operate on the same freedom at sea as they have on land, and this would entail individual strikes rather than carrier-type airwings. It is so tempting to try and fit new advances in technology into our preconceived notions of warfare, like sails on steamships. That is convenient, but as I alluded to in the article, are we building the carrier for the UAV or the UAV for the carrier?

    They are force multipliers, but the Navy way would see their unique talents wasted on a few big decks, as the rule goes, power concentrated is power wasted. Lets take advantage of the technology, not bottle it up.

  6. Matt permalink
    February 13, 2010 1:10 pm

    “Every ship an aircraft carrier! How cool and useful is that? And it is very possible with current technology.”

    Very cool and useful — except as I’ve tried to make clear, it isn’t at all possible with current or even near-term future technology.

    You continually refer to UAS as if they are some monolithic, one-size fits all item. Just as all ships are not the same,all UASs are not the same. They abide by the same aerodynamic trade-offs as manned aircraft in terms of size/weight vs. range/endurance/payload.

    There is a marked difference between capability and capacity. You can throw a whole bunch of Fire Scouts onto surface combatants, but to get the range and endurance to do the tasks you’ve postulated, you’re going to need a Global Hawk sized UAS and a big runway.

    I’d like to point out that DON refers to UAS based on five distinct capability groups. It might be worth a review:

    In terms of lack of foresight by carrier admirals, the 2020 carrier airwing is suppose to embark 12 x UCAVs – about 15% of it’s total complement. The current Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work is a huge proponent of UASs. I’d say the institutional reluctance of navy air to embrace UAS if not dead, is at least dying.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 13, 2010 11:15 am

    Matt said “if its range and endurance you want, you need a long runway.”

    New technology brings new capabilities. My argument concerning the carrier admirals is their lack of foresight in taking advantage of new technology to reduce the cost of manned naval airpower. This lack of foresight have given larger decks with smaller airwings, which to me is forcing obsolescence on the carrier. When the cost of deploying a technology outweighs its usefulness, you get obsolescence.

    Except airpower at sea is not obsolete, just our idea of how it works. The UAV has the range and persistence required for naval air, even as missiles and shallow water threats push the aircraft carrier further away from the shorelines.

    My point is you do not need giant airwings to launch this new airpower from the sea. There are alternatives, but the admirals would rather see the Navy sink altogether under the weight of last century ideas. Smaller force structures, smaller number of aircraft, it is a burden we can no longer bear. Its either some alternative or the Navy dies.

    They want a bigger fleet, without making any sacrifice. My counter-argument is, with the UAVs launched from many smaller ships you have lower cost without giving up capability. Every ship an aircraft carrier! How cool and useful is that? And it is very possible with current technology

  8. Matt permalink
    February 13, 2010 9:42 am


    I don’t think you understand the projected capabilities and limitations of UASs or the inherent complexity of air operations at sea. Simply put — if its range and endurance you want, you need a long runway. That runway can either be a big-deck or land-based facility. The back of a DD/FF just won’t cut it, no matter how one might wish it so.

    And why do you feel that the UAS solution needs to be ship-based at all? The Navy is investing pretty heavily in the BAMS UAS — which should be able to transit 2,000 nm and remain airborne for 24+ hrs. Why not just arm BAMS and forward deploy these to land-based sites near the area of interest? A BAMS can move to a hot-spot a heck of a lot faster than a small-boy. Maritime patrol has been doing forward detachment ops like this for years.

    I find it frustrating that you constantly throw stone at the so-called “carrier admirals” for not thinking objectively when you clearly have an agenda of your own – promoting the surface navy at the expense of aviation navy.

  9. Matt permalink
    February 11, 2010 10:18 pm

    “Imagine an armed Predator drone catapulted off the deck of Navy destroyer to speed inland and bomb terrorist enclave hundreds of miles inland, or support a company of Marines tied down by enemy fire.”

    It’s awfully nice to imagine a UAV this size taking off a small-boy, but us aviators have to live within the realities of physics, aerodynamics, and technological readiness.

    The type of UAS you are postulating is similar to the X-47, which will likely take the role of the UCAV-N in the 2020 carrier airwing. It’s 40 ft long with a 62 ft wingspan, weighs in at about 2 1/2 tons and requires a couple hundred feet to take off. Carrier-admirals aren’t as hide-bound as you may thing. The UCAV will bring capabilities which it’s current Hornet-heavy airwings lack — range and endurance.

  10. Matt permalink
    February 11, 2010 10:01 pm

    “Oh, and those 10 airwings are to support an 11 carrier fleet. Sigh.”

    You don’t need an air wing for a carrier that’s in drydock or undergoing reactor overhaul. Traditionally, the USN has always had more carriers than airwings. The system isn’t broke, that’s just the common sense way to resource the fleet.

    As to a Predator catapulting off the deck of DDG — UASs are not a cure all, and they are not altering any of the fundamental theories of aerodynamics. A UAS that will accomplish the long-range, deep strike mission you postulate is going to require a long runway — just like their manned brethren.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 11, 2010 6:54 pm

    Mr-X I know! Its not like we haven’t done the catapult launching before, and with large manned aircraft.

    Jed wrote “Ref Tomahawk Block IV – just like UAV’s its great until an enemy unvails its secret anti-sat weapon and starts kerplunking your GPS and SatComs birds :-)”

    I hear that all the time, but we continue to use these weapons all the time. We can’t let fear of the unknown rule us (comes from worrying exclusively over future wars instead of focusing on present conflicts). If the enemy did up the ante, wouldn’t we have a counter to this threat? That’s what warfare is, one threat at a time.

  12. D. E. Reddick permalink
    February 11, 2010 4:32 pm

    Here’s some good CG imagery of LHD L61 Juan Carlos I. In the first you can see how the new LHD compares with the older carrier Principe de Asturia (you can click on the imagery for an enlarged picture).

    This new LHD seems to be very lightly defended and armed. She would seem to need some added sponsons carrying at least some ESSM in VLS cells and a couple of RAM launchers. She certainly has such a gigantic slab-sided aspect to her starboard side that she can’t be missed by any missile radar guidance system. She needs more protection than what is being projected in this article.

  13. Jed permalink
    February 11, 2010 1:51 pm

    Ref Tomahawk Block IV – just like UAV’s its great until an enemy unvails its secret anti-sat weapon and starts kerplunking your GPS and SatComs birds :-)

    Even if they have no such secret weapon, both highband width satcom and GPS signals can be effectively jammed at a local / theatre level.

    So now Tomahawk is back to INS / Terrain Comparison (which is not bad per se) and UAV’s are useless – because most of them don’t even have onboard recording.

  14. February 11, 2010 1:38 pm

  15. B.Smitty permalink
    February 11, 2010 10:36 am

    The A-160 may be viable for limited SPECOPS missions, but is it ready to live on a ship? Are there any show-stoppers? Is it ready for wide-scale production?

    Block IV TLAM certainly has interesting capabilities, but the entire issue of reusability has not been addressed. This has massive implications for the air vehicle as well as the “carrier”.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 11, 2010 9:57 am

    The Hummingbird is very interesting, but as you say the low payload is a handicap. Though I do see a need for short range UAVs with the fleet, I feel we could do better.

    Especially concerning the Block IV Tomahawk, I see it as much more than just a missile laucnhed from a VLS tube. Here are its abilities via Defense Update

    “Deployed with surface ships and submarines, TLAM is equipped with a two-way satellite data link that enables the missile to respond to changing battlefield conditions. The strike controller can “flex” the missile in flight to alternate targets preprogrammed before launch, or redirect it to a new target. This targeting flexibility includes the capability to loiter over the battlefield, awaiting a more critical target. The missile can also transmit battle damage indication imagery and missile health and status messages via the satellite data link. And, for the first time, firing platforms have the capability to plan and execute GPS-only missions.”

    It is extremey capable, a very smart weapons platform. very UAV-like which I think the carrier-obessed admirals fail to take full advantage of as a force multiplier. But there is still time.

  17. February 11, 2010 9:15 am

    The A-160 is viable. Its in use right now by Special Ops command. It would meet the requirements of persistent ISR for “small” surface combatants. That is probably the most important future use of UCAVs in the future (besides deep penetration strikes). With there small size, even a Burke should be able to deploy 3 or 4.

    The discussion really isn’t about the F-35 but about getting aviation assets out to smaller decks. To be quite honest it doesn’t make much sense to consolidate all your “functions” onto one hull. With the threat of conventional ballistic missiles this idea probably has traction. Even if you can destroy the warhead what about the rest of the mass? Its going to keep going and hit something…maybe even its intended target.

  18. Bryaxis permalink
    February 11, 2010 8:57 am

    Yes F-35 is nice but if the V-22 exhaust gaz already burns and damages CVN’s decks what will the F-35’s exhaust gaz to a Burke’s helopad which is far less protected against heat ? I’m not sure the JSF will be that miracle weapon everyone thinks about…

  19. B.Smitty permalink
    February 11, 2010 8:55 am


    There is one UAV that rivals Predator A performance and would fit on a smaller carrier or surface combatant (assuming a folding rotor could be developed). It’s the A-160 Hummingbird.

    Who knows if it will ever become a viable system, or what unforeseen constraints it will have. And it’s 300lb payload means only 1 or 2 Hellfires along with an EO/IR turret. Not exactly equivalent to a Predator B, let alone an F/A-18.

    TLAM only proves we can launch a long-ranged missile from a VLS tube. It says nothing about creating a reusable vehicle that can be recovered and rearmed on a ship.

  20. Michael permalink
    February 11, 2010 8:34 am

    Knowing as how you are such an avid fan of large carriers especialy the UK’s,I thought you might like to take a look at the progress being made on them.
    See the latest issue 22 some nice pics and also in the back issues.
    No need to thank me Mike I just thought it would make your day.
    All the best.

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 11, 2010 8:23 am

    Smitty-Yeah seriously, and if not the Predator at least something equivalent, as near as possible in performance.

    Here is a new concept of making the airplane fit the ship, instead of having to build a 90,000 ton vessel to deploy a shrinking number of high performance jets. And every supercarrier advocate has their well-used metrics to insist there is no other way to deploy airpower from the sea.

    The V/STOL proved you could deploy jets from small carriers in the modern age. The Falklands War solidified the concept though some will deny it to this day.

    The UAV will then be the next evolution that you don’t have to limit yourself to building light carriers either! We are almost there with the Tomahawk Block IV. Someone at the Navy just has to get inspired for it to happen, without waiting through yet another decade in hopes the X-47B might work, while on land the USAF, Army, and Marines are making aviation history with their combat drones.

  22. B.Smitty permalink
    February 11, 2010 8:17 am

    Mike: “ Imagine an armed Predator drone catapulted off the deck of Navy destroyer to speed inland and bomb terrorist enclave hundreds of miles inland, or support a company of Marines tied down by enemy fire.


    Launching a 16ft wingspan Pioneer off the back of an 890ft Iowa is one thing. Launching a 48ft wingspan Predator off the back of a 500ft Burke is something else entirely. (Predator B and C both have 66ft wingspans!)

    And that’s the easy part! Recovering them is something else entirely! IIRC, the net recovery system used for Pioneer resulted in a lot of broken aircraft. The long, thin wings of a Predator would snap like twigs.

    Heck, Predator A is probably even too big for that Juan Carlos! It’s wingspan is 13 feet longer than an F-35B.

    Once again, a big, wide flight deck is mandatory if you want to handle large UAVs and aircraft.

    If you want a cheap UAV launcher, then start with one of those Maersk S-class AFSB conversions, but go with a full length, angled flight deck and 1 or 2 EMALS cats. Then you have roughly the same deck area as a CVN for a fraction of the cost.

  23. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 11, 2010 8:11 am

    Solomon, I can find no fault in what you wrote. I just hope we don’t limit ourselves to launching UAVs from large decks, since this negates one of their primary assets of flexibility. Are we only deploying long range UCAVs to keep Big Decks still viable or will they bring a new capability there? Is it possible to use high performance drones from non-carrier surface combatants, thus enhancing your aviation abilities in the absence of a carrier? These are issues I wish to see the Navy address.

    Back in the 1970s, there were studies done on using V/STOL Harrier aircraft from small combatants like the Spruance destroyers. This is a proven concept, but it wasn’t very practical. I think the use of high performance drones from combatants is practical, and the potential is intriguing, in which you could deploy mini-carriers globally at less expense of a traditional carrier arm. It would be similar to the 1920s-1940s when cruisers and battleship regularly carried float planes for the purpose of scouting and spotting naval guns.

    Potentially in the future you will see destroyers and frigates operating without carrier support within combat zones.

  24. February 11, 2010 7:42 am

    I know you’re not a fan of the F-35 but with the USMC being dedicated to the program, can you see a time when the America class LHA’s might be considered light carriers instead of amphibs?

    The rationale is solid. The funding reasonable. The time has come. The drop off in ability won’t necessarily be as great as some think. If the X-47 can be stored and used only in event of war then the number carried might be greater than we currently think. Fly them, land them, store them or rearm them for another mission but the throw wt of an LHA might effectively become equal to the big decks if a little imagination is used with UCAV’s.


  1. Military And Intelligence News Briefs — February 13, 2010 | Dara Khmer News

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