Carrier Alternative Weekly
Last week we posted on the Navy future plans for deploying Unmanned Combat Air Systems from its large carrier decks. Looks like this is going to be a reality, at least in Cyber Space. Here is details from Navy News:
Personnel from the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) program team and industry partner Northrop Grumman Corporation are underway with USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) to test the integration of existing ship systems with new systems that will support the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D).
This effort will reduce program risk and is one of many steps toward the X-47B’s first carrier arrested landing or “trap.”
The X-47B will be the first unmanned jet aircraft to take off and land aboard an aircraft carrier. With a 62ft wingspan and length of 38ft, the X-47B is about 87 percent the size of the F/A-18C aircraft currently operating aboard Navy aircraft carriers.
It is just as well the tests be for “imaginary aircraft” now. With the rising costs of large deck carriers, now on average $12 billion each,such virtual planes (above) may soon be all we can afford!
Akin Addresses the Gap
Speaking of the number of planes, here is Colin Clark of DoD Buzz concerning a letter to Sec. Gates from Rep. Todd Akin, calling for more fighters:
The Navy has pretty much stuck with a figure of 243 aircraft or, as some lawmakers have it, 48 planes a year. OSD’s old PAE shop performed an analysis last year that concluded there was in fact no fighter gap, if you took into account capabilities beyond those planes based only on US carriers, but that study was never publicly released. Gates also told the committee that the Pentagon looked at cost savings in terms of a multi-year buy and found them lacking.
Akin rejected those arguments in his letter to Gates. He notes that the Future Years Defense Plan posits a 39 percent increase — from 89 to 124 — in the F/A-18 E/F/G buy over an earlier estimate compiled by Ash Carter, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. This greater quantity, Akin argues, would far exceed the 6.5 percent savings estimated by DoD for the smaller buy. “Adding 35 aircraft and an additional year of procurement could easily push the savings close to $500 million,” Akin writes.
The numbers how important, as how can you continue to build large decks only to not fill them with adequate planes? It is ludicrous.
Sea Gripen Might Help
Another answer to the “Fighter Gap” might be to build less costly airframes. Saab of Sweden offers just such an alternative (which we reported on earlier) in the Sea Gripen. Story by Saurabh Joshi of StratPost:
Saab has been studying the idea of designing a carrier-borne variant since the mid-’90s but the company only decided to launch the Sea Gripen program in the wake of its existing campaigns for the air forces of India and Brazil and the moves by the two countries to build a serious carrier capability, even though at that time there was no formal request from either country. Saab is planning to pitch the aircraft to countries with smaller-sized carriers and says they expect more nations to show interest in the Sea Gripen, because existing naval fighters are either of an older generation or large-sized, forcing them to buy or build large ships as well.
Though a land fighter, the Gripen possess all the essentials for launching from a short runway:
“We do not have to start from scratch. We do not have to redesign the aerodynamics – we do not have to redesign the flight control system or the avionics. We already have a rugged, rough and strong airframe built for ‘carrier-like’ landings,”
So refreshing to hear of an aircraft program not beset with endless delays, taking decades to enter service, and less capable than promised except more expensive! This has been the norm for Western aircraft programs of late. Good to see the Swedes break the mold!
History as a Guide
On occasion I have made the statement that because airpower is so effective in the Age of precision weapons you can do more with less. Concerning large deck aircraft carriers, they increasingly are a wasted expense since they concentrate so much force in a few ships. Proof of this stems from recent campaigns in the Middle East involving carrier airpower, according to this 2007 article from Carl Conetta at Project for Defense Alternatives:
Three or four aircraft carriers were directly engaged in Afghan operations at any one time during October-December 2001. During the first phase of the 2003 Iraq war, four or five were engaged. During the 1999 Kosovo war, one.
In none of these wars were the engaged carriers employed to their fullest, however. For instance, during the first month of Operation Iraqi Freedom, naval fighters flew an average of 0.8 sorties per day. They are capable of flying two, at least – and the Navy claims they can do more, in a pinch. Looking to the future: The target attack capability of each air wing will increase significantly with the addition of smaller, longer-range, and more accurate PGMs. In 2005 Senate testimony, then Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vernon Clark, asserted that the number of targets that a carrier air wing could attack per day would increase from 700 to more than 1,000 by 2010 – having already risen substantially from 200 in 1997.
As we have pointed out in recent weeks, the Navy has reduced the number and size of airwings loaded on its carriers in the past 2 decades. This is a logical acknowledgment of the abilities of manned fighter bombers armed with PGMs. What is not logical is to continue to build only large decks to deploy fewer airplanes, especially with shrinking force structures in an age of many threats, there is only so much money to go around. No matter how some try to justify it, it makes no sense to spend so much ($12 billion each for the new Ford class) only to get so little in return.
No Eulogy for Naval Air
We have not come to destroy carrier airpower but to save it. It is the admirals which are destroying naval airpower in the US Navy today, by limiting it to few and steadily shrinking quantities of less capable Big Decks. It would be so nice to see the amazing abilities of the modern precision bomber, the excellent F/A-18 Super Hornet, spread among a fleet of 20 or so light carriers, with airwings of 12-18 each dispersed around the world, against America’s foes.
Instead, they claim such cost, fuel, and crew efficient vessels as “less capable”. They insist only on ships of vast size and expense, capable of large aircraft compliments, which as we see above they are increasingly incapable of filling. Instead of more capability, it is diminished in a few increasingly unaffordable large decks, that are a burden on stretched shipbuilding funds. They waste crews, they waste hulls, and they waste the amazing abilities of modern precision guided weapons. They are also wasting time since in the next war at sea it will likely be the guided missile which will decide the fate of naval airpower for them. I only wish we could give the concept one more chance before an inglorious death by suicide.