Top 10 Aircraft Carrier Alternatives
There are few naval vessels on earth more versatile and powerful than an American nuclear supercarrier. Therein lies the problem, in that only the US Navy has been able to afford a fully functional carrier fleet (aside from a few light carriers) since World War 2,and even she must now strain sparse resources to the utmost to field a shrinking numbers of large decks. That is regrettable since naval airpower is still essential for maintaining sea control and projecting power from the sea. Over the years New Wars has proposed numerous substitutes which, thanks to the continuous advancement of technology that gave us the carrier in the first place, can duplicate her many functions at drastically less cost. Here are the Top 10:
- #10 Air Force Bombers- Other than carrier-based airpower, the only combat aircraft initially able to reach land-locked Afghanistan supporting Marines and Special Forces on the ground was the USAF’s venerable fleet of long range bombers. Such weapons, able to deploy intercontinental ranges within hours, instead of days or weeks for a highly visible carrier strike force, can perform against heavily defended SAM sites using precision stand-off weapons, or perform carpet bombing or close air support against enemy troops.
- #9 UAV Carriers- The Defence Viewpoints Blog has proposed a small UAV carrier that could also perform the functions of destroyers and frigates “These ships would be roughly half the size again of a current destroyer and would combine all the abilities of Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) and Naval Gunfire Support (NGS) through a range of weapon systems, including a squadron of 12-18 assorted UAVs and a helicopter platform airborne surveillance and for the transportation a small groups of personnel (as well as other roles).”
- #8 Airborne UAV Motherships-Following WW 2, the USAF experimented with parasite fighters to use as escorts for its strategic bombers. The idea seems tailored made for the unmanned aerial vehicle, since you don’t have to worry about losing a vulnerable pilot, as we wrote in 2008 “The UAV Mothership would not necessarily be a long-range bomber, but perhaps other aircraft would suffice such as C-17 or C-130s cargo planes, or even a converted airliner. New dirigibles currently undergoing testing might work, or long-range missiles and rockets.”
- #7 Submersible Aircraft Carriers-The UAV is continuing to prove its versatility, and has even been launched from US Navy submarines. Imagine the possibilities… “The US Navy is very close to possessing… a “flying Sub” in the Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles. The latest version of the highly effective Tomahawk that is fired from torpedo tubes has the ability to loiter for hours and change targets in mid-course…Plans continue for launching unmanned aerial vehicles from submarines in the War on Terror. Northrop has proposed using the sub-launched Tomahawk’s vertical tubes for UAVs from a stealthy affordable capsule system (SACS). Raytheon plans a similar test (in 2009), launching the craft from a submerged submarine’s trash disposal unit!”
- #6 Arsenal Ships-It was thought in the 1990s the Navy could build an affordable missile barge at about half the cost of a destroyer, but with over 5 times the firepower. In 1995, the NY Times wrote “Prospects for that ship, which is still on the drawing board but could be in the fleet within five years, raise questions about how many new carriers the Navy will need. A carrier costs $4.5 billion to build and $440 million a year to operate. The new ship, essentially a floating missile barge, might cost only $500 million and just tens of millions a year to run. The new ship would fire Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range artillery shells or rocket barrages against ammunition dumps, command posts and artillery, for instance, the same targets that warplanes flying off the carrier Roosevelt were bombing in Bosnia …”
- #5 TLAM Warships-Another idea would be to use existing missile firing warships more effectively, as we posted on recently “We contend that the TLAM (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile) is the best weapon to take advantage of the new precision warfare of one bomb or missile, assuring one hit. This doesn’t just balance the cost effectiveness of the two platforms either, but completely blows the carrier out of competition. Currently the USN has in service 130 TLAM ships–80 cruisers/destroyers and 50 submarines–positioned around the world… Far from being as efficient as a legacy manned warplane, they don’t need to be, just effective. Meanwhile, advances in technology are constantly upgrading the cruise missile until it is as versatile, still without the monumental expense of deploying naval air at sea.”
- #4 Land-Based Fighters-During the recent crisis between Argentina and Great Britain, we noted how the presence of a handful of RAF fighters based on the South Atlantic Isles were probably deterring a renewed war there “a mere 4 Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters are currently guarding the British Overseas Territory of the Falkland Islands. While the Navy would certainly be on call in force should the unthinkable happen, invasion from the Argentine mainland, the Mount Pleasant Airport, constructed soon after the 1982 Conflict would be the key to the island’s defenses…Given time, Mount Pleasant could expect reinforcement planes from Britain including more Typhoons.”
- #3 Harrier Carriers-The near-40 yr old Harrier V/STOL jet is still an amazing aircraft in frontline service. It’s most famous use has been from light carriers, giving small navies a strike capability they wouldn’t otherwise have, as I noted back in 2005 “Since the 1982 Falklands War, Britain has proved that small aircraft carriers with Harrier V/STOL aircraft can hold their own against fixed wing jet fighters. Likewise these planes have proved ideal for launching from the US Marine’s big assault ships during Operation Iraqi Freedom where they were dubbed “Harrier Carriers”.”
- #2 Light Aircraft Carriers-Also known as medium carriers, other than V/STOL ships, I think a smaller catapult warship of about half-the tonnage and cost of current supercarriers would be most useful “The airwing would consist of 3 squadrons of 12 planes each, for 36 fighters, a mix of F/A-18 Super Hornets and the F-35C Lightning II JSF as the latter becomes available. Since all carriers typically sail with helicopter equipped escorts, the need for an ASW wing would be negated, save for a few utility choppers. The electronic warfare “Grizzly” complement might be reduced to 2, as would the EW Hawkeyes, though certainly no more than 3, and perhaps advances in technology might integrate the essential missions of both aircraft.” Note that 40 strike planes is now typical of what the giant Nimitz class deploys.
- #1 Influence Squadrons-It is becoming increasingly evident that massive, hard to build, and nearly impossible to afford supercarriers are just not needed for most problems of modern seapower. Very often, the lighter footprint of soft power is all that is required, as well as being drastically less expensive. “Instead of Carrier Strike Groups, we would send “Influence Squadrons” as recently described by Commander Henry J Hendrix in a Proceedings article titled “Buy Ford, Not Ferrari.“ Such a unique and versatile fleet as proposed would include an amphibious mothership, missiles escorts, high speed–shallow water catamarans, a littoral combat ship, and notably M80 Stiletto stealth craft. Such a smaller, less vulnerable, less costly fleet makes much more sense than risking so much of our national treasure in giant flattops, in the type of insurgency conflicts we so often contend with where a “Ford” will fit in just nicely.”