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The Logic of Small Carriers

March 11, 2010

Principe de Asturias, amphibious assault ship USS Wasp , USS Forestall and light V/STOL carrier HMS Invincible. Photo credit marvolo and Shipbucket

Taking Advantage of the Revolution

I will say it again: Because modern airpower is so effective, you can do much more with much less. The classic American F-15 currently has an unmatched kill ration of 100+ enemy planes to nothing. It is a fact that no American fighter has been shot down by another aircraft in at least 40 years. Concerning naval airpower, the British Royal Navy tallied up a kill ratio 21-0 in the 1982 Falklands Conflict. According to blogger Matthew Taylor “No RAF jet fighter has ever recorded an air-to-air kill.”

We can see the value, especially from the lessons of the Sea Harriers in the South Atlantic conflict, that a few planes might be all that is required for the deployment of manned naval air at sea in the near future. The US Navy’s carriers which  she can’t purchase planes to fill in adequate numbers, is a lesson in the futility of large decks, when fewer planes can perform wonders. The air-to-air victories are just one part. The advent of precision guided munitions on naval air has revolutionized bombing, providing the pilots with the long sought goal of “one bomb, one hit”. It is an amazing capability allowing a single fighter bomber to do the work once required of whole airwings.

Sadly, the Navy wants expensive multi-mission warships to go with their expensive multi-mission aircraft, thus making the revolution in airpower at sea of no effect. It is a lesson in redundancy to only build smart platforms for smart weapons.

The V/STOL Alternative

Such amazing technology could be taken best advantage of with newer light carriers of 20,000 tons, armed with 6-8 F-35B version of the Joint Strike Fighter each. This V/STOL version appears to be the only really vital capability required from the strike plane, long delayed and ever increasing in price. The supposedly “low cost” fighter will probably cost as much as the vastly more capable F-22 Raptor fighter*. In no way can such a price be justified in the thousands wanted by the Pentagon. The high cost could be justified in a run of say, 500 F-35Bs, concerning the unique mission of vertical lift.

Large decks are very handy and capable, as we’ve seen in numerous low tech wars since 1991. They are however, enormously expensive to be used only in Brush Fire wars, amounting to $10 billion in the US Navy not counting its airwing and escort ships. This is especially true since cheaper, more efficient alternatives can do many of the functions of naval airpower. Already submarines and surface ships utilize the Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM) in a power projection role. Dispersed and on call, the TLAM ships already provide a significant boost in the fighting power of the USA and British navies.

Some large deck proponents would balk at replacing large decks with smaller ones, especially considering the need for large numbers of planes in the frequent land wars. We can’t imagine after awhile that adequate land bases wouldn’t be available soon after the start of a land campaign. Still, if large decks are occasionally needed, we could keep a few of the newer Nimitz class in semi-reserve, like we once did with the old Iowa battleships, pulling them out occasionally for the rare but possible Big Wars. These vessel would not need their full airwing for such times, as they often sail without full decks anyway these days, but could ferry whatever is needed for the mission intended, such as fighters or even helicopters.

The Final Argument

Summing up, here is the logic for replacing very expensive large deck aircraft carriers and huge and expensive airwings with low cost small carriers and tiny airwings:

  • Modern technology has allowed military aircraft, especially Western fighters the capability to do more with much less.
  • The lack of any peer threat in the last 40 years, and the prevalence of plenty of high performance jets in America and her allies precludes any risk from reducing numbers at sea.
  • High Western training standards, and modern weapons make even lower performing V/STOL planes like the Harrier and the F-35B more than a match for potential enemies.
  • The High Cost of large decks actually reduces your strength, since you can only afford a handful of $10 billion ships, and rob from other vital naval functions to deploy that. In other words, when you try to deploy large airwings at sea, more becomes less.

*(Note)-According to UPI, the Obama Administration is spending $8.4 billion next year for 43 JSF. Thats comes to a whopping $195 million each in this initial production run.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. James Daly permalink
    March 12, 2010 8:48 pm

    Its a crying shame that a next generation development of the Harrier has never been set in motion. The work that went into developing it back in the day… only we don’t have a British aircraft industry now. But with the UK, Spain and Italy committed to VSTOL carriers a European project might have been a goer, espec if it could have voided the JSF’s cost issues. Might have been good for export market too… ok, im in what if territory now!

  2. March 12, 2010 6:06 am

    The British use of TLAM is more for political reasons to show support for the US. We launch them in ones and twos. I think you need to apply the model you use for gold plated warships onto tactical bombing!

    Before I have commented here that TLAM would only come into its own if we Brits built up a substantial stock of them. I ventured hypothetically investing similar amounts to those used to sustain the nuclear deterrent about 1billion pounds a year over a couple of years. Roughly I calculated it takes 50 TLAM to put an airfield out of use which is the cost of 1 JSF approximately. It would 12 or more aircraft to do a similar job. And in a high end war it is probably safe to assume that not all those aircraft would come back. Without including other costs (human or material) as soon as that happens you might as well as save the trouble, time, and costs and just used the missiles. 50 TLAM would over whelm the defences of even of a US airfield. If you had stock of a few thousand missiles you could out a country’s air defences if you could get them into theatre. Imagine the Falklands War today if we Brits could have launched a heavy TLAM attack against the 8 or so Argentine airfields the day of/before the landings. 400 TLAMs probably equals the cost of one escort. In accountancy lead governments this scenario of expending money (ordnance) to save money would never happen. This is just a wild, extreme theory of mine. Please don’t think I take this idea of mine that seriously. It is too abstract.

    As for JSF well I have had other wild thoughts here too. It seems many air force types are opposed to turbo-props. And it seems the JSF is just too complicated. Perhaps then this suggests we need a whole new class aircraft that is jet powered, simple, and rugged just for fighting these COIN/anti-terror wars. I think I am saying we should dust of the plans for the Harriers, tweak and tune ’em with modern materials and engineering, and start building them again. Of course this approach is only valid if you think the next 50 years of war will be dominated by Westerners running around the more remote areas of the Third World shooting tribesmen and nation building. TBH I don’t think this is what will happen. Personally I think we are returning to a pre-Napoleonic era where expensively equipped, well trained forces come together at a diplomatic crisis points and fight very structured, very limited wars. (Similar to those scenarios the USN run in their West Pac exercises.)

  3. March 12, 2010 12:10 am

    I’m b sc chemistry graduate some carriers suggestions 4 me

  4. CBD permalink
    March 11, 2010 5:43 pm

    I think I said this in the last discussion of this topic, but there are limitations inherent to any platform. There are also CONOPS that make the limitations worth their while (and cost).

    The light carrier may be the only option for many nations, but when considering the role of light carriers in USN service, we’re not really concerned about air dominance or long-ranged strike missions. Our LHDs and LHAs are light carriers, no two ways about it.

    The role of the USN/USMC light carriers is to provide CAS and tactical strike capabilities towards a specific end (invasion and clearing for follow-on forces). They are designed to provide air support and air transport. Harriers do this duty well and cheaply enough. The F-35B will not do this well (expensive, heavy, hot and thirsty).

    In any major invasion, the CVNs and long-range bombers will be there to make ruins of the integrated air defenses, enemy aircraft formations and major national infrastructure. The LHX vessels’ Harriers will do their best to help, but they won’t be primarily responsible for that…they will focus on establishing land forces ashore (delivered by helicopter and landing craft) and providing the support of those forces otherwise unavailable. The Marines manned the guns on battleships conducting NSFS and they fly the Harriers and Cobras doing CAS from the sea. The Harriers can cover somewhat, but there are too few to do it all. There are enough, however, to do their mission and a bit extra.

    A CVE/CVL type carrier, which many other nations seek, needs the F-35B. They need to be able to conduct long-range strike, CAP AND CAS missions off of one, small platform. It is a difficult mission. The demand that they complete these varied missions with a VTOL platform has required the faster, heavier, larger, stealthier and much more expensive JSF. The Marines would be better served by a JSF with larger engine and the latest avionics. They can do their old duties so much better in the age of low-weight PGMs, off-boresight AAMs, vastly improved materials and AESA that the very reason for replacing these craft has evaporated. A modernized Harrier will cost less than half, perhaps a third as much as F-35B…and it will do its proper missions very well.

    Take the LHA-6, which is supposed to host 22 F-35Bs and a very limited wing of V-22s (at the cost of storage capacity and a well deck) and put 28 Harrier IIIs in the place of those F-35Bs. You’ll still have room left for wings of the latest Zulu Cobras, Viper Hueys, and the E & K Super Stallions…enough air lift capability to land the embarked Marines and give them the cover they need. Expect the LHA-6 to act like a CVN and you’ll neither achieve your objectives nor get your marines ashore.

    There’s a reason that so many light carriers were (properly) termed “escort carriers”–they had their mission (local air defense) and achieved it. They augmented the larger carriers for strike missions and improved the local air defenses. Nobody expected them to run alone.

  5. Heretic permalink
    March 11, 2010 5:25 pm

    Another thing you’re also “forgetting” here Mike is that list of Irreduceables that I’ve outlined on more than one occasion here on your own blog. The biggie of course is the need for both AEW and for CAP around the carrier. Those two requirements combined drive a minimum complement of 20 aircraft aboard a carrier if you want 24/7 coverage with even a minimal reserve to account for mission readiness rates of less than 100%. Just the CAP alone is going to “cost” you 16 parking spots on a carrier which expects to do the job competently on a 24/7 basis.

    And that’s still just at the “self licking ice cream cone” level of aircraft embarked … never mind having enough left over to do anything beyond self-protection. This is why I say that realistically you don’t want to go lower than 40 parking spots in the hangar if you can help it … otherwise you start running into “tyranny of low numbers” problems of availability and mission readiness rates.

  6. Heretic permalink
    March 11, 2010 5:16 pm

    Mike, you’re wrong.

    About That Austere-Base Thing…
    – Bill Sweetman at Aviation Leak

    Quoting …

    The newly released document, hosted on a government building-design resource site, outlines what base-construction engineers need to do to ensure that the F-35B’s exhaust does not turn the surface it lands on into an area-denial weapon. And it’s not trivial. Vertical-landing “pads will be exposed to 1700 deg. F and high velocity (Mach 1) exhaust,” the report says. The exhaust will melt asphalt and “is likely to spall the surface of standard airfield concrete pavements on the first VL.” (The report leaves to the imagination what jagged chunks of spalled concrete will do in a supersonic blast field.)

    Not only does the VL pad have to be made of heat-resistant concrete, but currently known sealants can’t stand the heat either, so the pad has to be one continuous piece of concrete, with continuous reinforcement in all directions so that cracks and joints remain closed. The reinforced pad has to be 100 feet by 100 feet, with a 50-foot paved area around it.

    By the way, any area where an F-35B may be stopped with the engine running – runway ends, hold-shorts on taxiways, and ramps – also has to be made of heat-resistant concrete to tolerate the exhaust from the Integrated Power Pack (IPP), which is acting as a small gas turbine whenever the aircraft is stopped.

    This follows the revelation that the US Navy is worried about the exhaust damaging ship decks.

    The F-35B, as currently being constructed, is NOT going to be a small carrier fixed wing aircraft solution “on the cheap and off the shelf” like you’re fantasizing. Period. It is rapidly turning into a 20+ year boondoggle of truly epic fail proportions.

    Mike, you’re DREAMING … and it’s a very bad dream.

    The BEST you’re going to be able to hope for in a new generation of small carrier fixed wing navalized aircraft is … Sea Gripen … in a STOBAR configuration, or in a CATOBAR configuration.

  7. March 11, 2010 4:12 pm

    One man’s small carrier is another man’s big carrier…………..

    I have to agree with everything said here by the others about the Falklands War. It was close run. Though the Invincible class have given good valuer for money, they would have been a much better buy if they had been 10,000 tons larger.

    Same goes for the SHAR. Good value but how much better would it have been a carrier full of Hawker Siddeley P.1154’s down south?

  8. xbradtc permalink
    March 11, 2010 1:59 pm

    Mike, you also are forgetting that a small deck carrier requires the same escort as a large deck. Arguably more, since it has less airwing to devote to fleet defense.

    So instead of 10 carrier groups with 40/50 escorts, do you advocate 20 small decks with 80/100 escorts? And what about fleet logistics?

  9. MatR permalink
    March 11, 2010 12:24 pm

    Re: Falklands

    The Argentine A4s and Mirages were at the utmost extent of their radius because Argentina had limited AAR. That meant that, for Mirages at least, pilots couldn’t go supersonic over the UK fleet or the islands, or make full use of their planes’ capabilities. In general, there wasn’t time for CAP or anything more than ‘drop bombs and skidaddle’. That goes some way to explaining lopsided SHAR victories.

    Also, SHARs had just incoporated the latest sidewinders, courtsey of the US. Without that advantage, kill ratios would have fallen dramatically.

    It’s not really the case that the small UK carriers offered a robust edge to the British – as Sandy Woodward, the RN taskforce commander stated, it was a “close run thing”.

  10. Matt permalink
    March 11, 2010 11:20 am


    I meant to say the fact that a carrier or amphib was never SUNK was just plain luck. RFA Sir Tristam was obviously hit, abandoned, and later salvaged.

    But yes, this does visually illustrates the inadeqacy of small carriers to protect a task force.


  11. March 11, 2010 11:11 am


    Matt said:

    “The fact that the carriers or amphibs were never hit was just plain luck.”

    You might want to look at this picture:

    I am sure the families of the 48 men who died on that ship would question the adequacy of the air cover provided by small aircraft carriers.


  12. Matt permalink
    March 11, 2010 10:17 am

    “Concerning naval airpower, the British Royal Navy tallied up a kill ratio 21-0 in the 1982 Falklands Conflict.”

    Mike – air-to-air kills are undoubtedly an impressive stat, but any naval fighter jock will tell you that their primary mission is to protect the fleet and homeplate.

    Yes, the FAA killed 21 Argentinians for a loss of no Sea Harriers. But the leakers that got through sunk several RN frigates and destroyers, and the Atlantic Conveyor! The fact that the carriers or amphibs were never hit was just plain luck.

    The FAA pilots were brave and skilled, and the Harrier turned out to be a great jet for its time. However, the RN just barely squeaked by in this conflict — largely because the small carriers just weren’t up to the mission of defending the task force.

    I’m not a fan of alternative history, but just imagine how much easier a time the British would’ve had with just a single Nimtz class and its 1982 air wing. The AEW capabilities of the E-2C alone would’ve given the task force ample warning of inbound raids and the F-14s would’ve torn the Skyhawks and Daggers to shreds long before they got anywhere close. Meanwhile — the A-6s would’ve pounded the Argies on the Falklands to ribbons.

    **I’ll say it again — having 7 guys who can jump 1 feet is not the same as having 1 guy who can jump 7 feet.**

  13. Jed permalink
    March 11, 2010 9:57 am

    There are some fundamental questions here Mike that you don’t seem to answer. What are you smaller carriers to be used for ?

    LHA6 full of F35B seems focused on CAS for Marines yes ? A smaller number of super carriers with F18E/F still carries the burden of multi-layered air defence of the fleet yes ?

    So small carriers could also provide F35B’s for air defence, “sea control” (AShM strikes, surveillance etc). Small carriers can of course carry lots of Helo’s for asymmetric anti-surface and conventional ASW tasking.

    There is only one problem with this. The F35B. Optimised for frontal stealth for a “first day of the war” strike requirement of the US Navy, the F35B is going to be an order of magnitude more expensive than the Harrier II+ it replaces in USMC service. It’s effect on elements like deck design (apparently its going to melt / burn holes in “normal” decks) are going to ramp up the through life cycle costs.

    Even the cheaper F35C that will find its way into USN squadrons is a highly compromised design.

    BUT if your small carriers are to be integrated into a US Fleet (and lets face it the Brits, Spaniards and Italians just have to design around whatever aircraft is available !) what is there main role to be ? Distributed presence ? Air-sea battle doctrine based area denial via new supersonic anti-ship missiles ? Delivery of winged torpedo’s in development for the P8 ???

    Non of these roles need an F35. What is needed is a ‘next-gen’ Harrier. Bigger engine, more thrust, sure. Supersonic – maybe in the dive. Stealthy – nope, to compromising, leave that to the F35C. Easy to maintain – for sure !! Good AESA radar and long range air to air missiles will allow them to be part of the layered air defence system. Oh, and did I mention cheap…… :-)

    That’s my vision Mike – what exactly is your vision of the small deck / aircraft combination and how it might integrate with a smaller force of existing super carriers and FA18E/F/G ?

  14. Matt permalink
    March 11, 2010 9:10 am

    Charley – care to elaborate?

    I’ve read up a little on COPE INDIA. It seemed to be a pretty stressing and realisic scenario — and the US got their assess handed to them. The results were very similar at Red Flag — arguably the most comprehensive air-to-air exercise in the world.

    This isn’t to say we’re not learning from this. From what I’ve read the USAF was admitting that they’ve done a pretty poor job of simulating red tactics and capabilities and were going to make some changes.

    IMHO Mike’s pretext of unrivaled US air superiority — and the implicit assumption that one USN/USAF fighter is worth many red — is tenuous at best.

  15. Charley permalink
    March 11, 2010 8:56 am

    Don’t rely too much on exercises like COPE to predict outcomes.

  16. Matt permalink
    March 11, 2010 8:05 am

    Mike – I would caution starting your article off with a “facts” that have not been properly researched.

    “It is a fact that no American fighter has been shot down by another aircraft in at least 40 years.”

    Although AAA & SAMS were the predominant threat, the US lost DOZENS of F-4s, F-8s, and F-105s over N Vietnam in 1970-72 to VNAF MiGs. (

    LCDR Scott Speicher’s F/A-18 loss in Gulf War I is commonly attributed to an Iraqi MiG-25.

    “The classic American F-15 currently has an unmatched kill ration of 100+ enemy planes to nothing.”

    Most of these victories were by Israeli pilots (arguably the best fighter pilots in the world) flying against incompetent Middle Eastern adversaries.

    Looking at the US, Indian Air Force SU-30s have literally mopped the floor with USAF F-15s in exercises. At COPE INDIA 2004, India SU-30s beat the F-15s 90% of the time — although this may have more to do with how the USAF trains vice the capabilites of the F-15.

  17. March 11, 2010 7:32 am

    195 per plane would still make it cheaper than the F-22…at least in the development phase.


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