Carrier Alternative Weekly
Admiral Kuznetsov’s Makeover
Here is an interesting story on Russia’s sole large deck aircraft carrier, the only such vessel even remotely capable as the US Navy’s fleet of 11 flattops. From Ria Novosti we learn of the Navy’s plan to send her to drydock in 2012, and the apparent major upgrades to follow:
First of all, the defective propulsion unit comprising steam turbines and turbo-pressurized boilers will be replaced either with a gas-turbine or nuclear propulsion unit.
The ship’s 3M45 P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck) anti-ship cruise-missile launchers will be dismantled, and her internal layout changed. Consequently, the hangar area will be expanded to 4,500-5,000 sq. m. for storing additional fixed-wing aircraft.
The Admiral Kuznetsov’s air defenses will be strengthened by replacing 3K95 Kinzhal (SA-N-9 Gauntlet) missiles with a multi-role naval system featuring 80-120 new-generation and medium-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
Moreover, 4-6 Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) combined short to medium-range SAM and anti-aircraft artillery weapons systems will be installed.
The new weapons systems will feature state-of-the-art radio-electronic equipment, probably including the standard Sigma combat information and control system, due to be installed on all new generation Russian warships. The system facilitates unprecedentedly effective cooperation between task force elements.
The carrier will also receive aircraft catapults, a logical option. Considering the fact that her ski-jump will remain intact, one or two catapults can be located on the angled flight deck.
Pretty impressive plans, but is it all just fantasy? Considering the ongoing funding woes the fleet is suffering from, plus grievous shipyard difficulties in that she has consistently delayed the conversion of another Cold War carrier for India, the ex-Admiral Gorshkov, there is much cause for skepticism. Plus, there has been numerous grandiose plans for major naval expansions since the 1990s, for new supercarriers and nuclear subs, none of which have come to fruition.
Possibly the upgrade proposals will in fact be less drastic, or perhaps this may be an excuse to take her out of service under the guise of modernization?
Back to Basics
Better late than never, the Navy is realizing its carriers need a persistent strike option available to the land forces for over a decade. Here is Guy Norris at Aviation Week:
The unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (Uclass) RFI calls for a notional system made up of 4-6 autonomously launched and recoverable vehicles to operate in “irregular and hybrid warfare scenarios.” The system must be able to operate from CVN-68 and -78-class carriers, and be capable of being directed from both carrier- and shore-based mission control stations. The stealthy UAV must be able to receive fuel from hose-and-drogue Navy-style tankers as well as from probe-equipped U.S. Air Force tankers.
Despite the air-to-air refueling option, the Uclass unrefueled mission endurance will be at least 11-14 hr., with inclusion of an “appropriate” reserve fuel quantity. The aircraft should also be capable of using “lethal precision weapons to suppress, defeat, destroy, deceive or influence a range of enemy targets,” and will likely be configured with folding wings and tie-down points.
Naturally they would be used on the large deck options initially, like the early seaplanes were flown from the decks of battleships and cruisers. In the future, purpose built options may be available, small UAV carriers, or perhaps naval airpower will once again become an integral part of the large surface combatants where they were born!
China’s Carrier Trap
You’ve likely heard of the carrier-killing ballistic missile we feared is being deployed by China, specifically targeting the USN’s most valuable warships. Dr. Andrew Erickson of the Naval War College, writing in Wired’s Danger Room blog tells us of official confirmation:
Last week, Adm. Robert Willard, the head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), made an alarming but little-noticed disclosure. China, he told legislators, was “developing and testing a conventional anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21/CSS-5 [medium-range ballistic missile] designed specifically to target aircraft carriers.”What, exactly, does this mean? Evidence suggests that China has been developing an anti-ship ballistic missile, or ASBM, since the 1990s. But this is the first official confirmation that it has advanced (.pdf) to the stage of actual testing.
Now some would want us to send more of our highly visible flattops to the region, playing into the PLAN’s anti-access strategy. With ongoing buildup of the naval base at Guam it seems the admirals agree with this strategy, which sounds much like moving Pearl Harbor 1941 a few thousand miles closer to Japan.
A better idea would be to build a larger fleet of less noticeable vessels, submarines and small ships, which can disperse and reform when needed. Our own version of the swarm.
What? Me Worry?
Craig Hooper refuses to swoon over the Chinese ballistic missile threat to the flattop. Here he writes in the recent Proceedings mag:
In May 2009, urgently worded accounts of contemporary Chinese antiship ballistic-missile (ASBM) developments exploded onto a number of mainstream U.S. media outlets, sparking a domestic uproar. But by unintentionally validating China’s as-yet-unproven ASBM capabilities, these well-intended warnings did America’s strategic position in the Pacific Basin few favors…
America must stop casting itself as the primary target of a Chinese ASBM. Even if the antiship version of China’s medium-range DF-21 ballistic missile materializes and proves to be fully operational, accompanied by reliable, well-integrated targeting, guidance, and command systems, there are too few conventional antiship DF-21D variants available to pose an immediate hazard to U.S. carriers. Government estimates suggest the inventory of nuclear- and conventionally-armed DF-21/CSS-5 missiles is still manageable, expanding from 19 to 23 in 2004 to a moderate-sized fleet of 60 to 80 missiles. It is, today, hardly an inventory sufficient to defeat a well-defended U.S. carrier battle group.
Let me also say, that even if the ASBM capability proves a failure, this is yet another threat to the carrier’s dominance of the sealanes since World War 2. And as the threats grow numerous, it seems our answer has been to build fewer and ever larger flattops to compensate.
I personally suspect the death-watch on the carrier began in 1954, and the launch of the first nuclear powered submarine. Since then there has been a gradual dismantling of our ASW capabilities, hastened by the fall of the Soviet Union. If that wasn’t bad enough, starting in the 1960s, they began adding stand-off ship killing cruise missiles to these super-stealthy and fast as a destroyer platforms, making an already amazing weapon even more lethal.
Yet the ultimate threat to the aircraft carrier is not a military one, but its own bloated pricetag and the costs and complication of its specialized naval aircraft. This is a concurrent problem for all navies seeking to deploy last century naval airpower in the age of the guided missile and UAV.
The F-35B is really cool say Marines
The concern was the new V/STOL version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, would melt the carrier deck it would launch from. Colin Clark reports from DoD Buzz:
The STOVL version of the Joint Strike Fighter is not too hot and is not too loud, Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway told DoD Buzz during an editorial board session.
The most troubling operational challenge that appeared to face the F-35B, next to weight, was reports that it would not be suitable for a carrier or other ship because its exhaust would melt the flight deck. Not so, Conway told reporters from Military.com. The plane, at 1,500 degrees, is just 18 degrees hotter than a Harrier, he said Thursday.
I hope he’s right, as the current Harrier vertol is getting long in the tooth. But the need for vertical airpower seems as dire as ever.
The “E” doesn’t stand for “Easy”
The ongoing saga to beat the dead horse and get a little more life out of the ancient USS Enterprise hit another pothole, says Peter Frost at the Daily Press:
The “Big E” is becoming the U.S. Navy‘s “Big $.”
The Navy this week agreed to spend an additional $13.2 million for maintenance on the USS Enterprise, pushing the cost to repair the fleet’s oldest aircraft carrier to nearly $655 million — 44.5 percent higher than the original estimate.
It’s the 11th time in 21 months the service has had to throw more money at the 49-year-old carrier to prepare it for two final deployments before a scheduled 2012 decommissioning.
Why does this story remind of the Indian Navy’s own attempts at keeping the equally ancient Hermes/Viraat viable for a few more years?
Scraping to Keep the Fleet Fit
Speaking of aging platforms, the Navy is trying desperately to avoid a “fighter gap” by keeping war-weary Hornets in the skies as long as possible. Reporting at Jacksonville.com, here is Timothy Gibbons:
The original F/A-18s, known as Hornets, are mainly at or beyond their expected life span, and even the newer Super Hornets are running into trouble with metal fatigue.
Meanwhile, the F-35, the plane that’s expected to replace the older Hornets, is getting more expensive and taking longer than planned to come online. That has led the Navy to consider asking Boeing to start building Super Hornets again.
Dealing with the reality of an aging fleet — a situation recently thrown into sharp relief by the Navy’s need to ground 104 jets to check for cracks in their fuselage — has fallen on the shoulders of Fleet Readiness Center Southeast.
Now, workers there are delving deeper into the guts of the aircraft than the manufacturers ever expected, leading artisans to ramp up production on products they must craft from scratch.
“We’re looking at areas no one ever intended us to be looking at,” said F/A-18 division director Major Nimock.
They’re doing a great job, but seems to be only delaying the inevitable. Unless we can replace platforms on time, ordering new ones as needed, we could realistically see further shrinkages in the carrier airwing.
That Was #4 on the List of Alternatives
Andrew Oh-Wilekke, the Washington Park Prophet, sees land-based USAF planes as an alternative to aircraft carriers in the Gulf:
There is a very good chance that the U.S. could now secure a permanent Air Force base in the region similar to those in Aviano, Italy or Okinawa, Japan, and will have something like 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future in any case. In the past, this might have been seen as a threat to Iraq or other Arab states. Now, it would be seen merely as a precaution against Iranian military action that would disrupt the oil trade in the Persian Gulf.
It wouldn’t take a very large Air Force base to have superior capabilities to an aircraft carrier, and this kind of base could also be home to the Navy’s land based P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Some smaller U.S. Navy ships might still remain in the Persian Gulf, but freed of force protection for an aircraft carrier as a primary mission, far fewer navy surface ships would be required.
I agree with that in part. Naturally if you had land based airpower on call, there would be little reason to deploy high end battleforce vessels like carriers and Aegis warships. However you would still need smaller vessels like corvettes and patrol ships which can do boarding, search-and-seizures, and at-sea rescues. So, with force multipliers like land-based air, you can actually build a larger, though lower cost fleet.
If the Navy could grasp ahold of this concept, a few superships and many low tech vessels, much of their current presence deficits, overdue-deployed crews, the amazing shrinking fleet would be turned around.
Mortgaging the Future Navy
Within the April 1 (sadly no fooling here) Defense Department release of its Acquisitions Report, was this little snippet on the USN’s Ford class carrier:
CVN 78 – Program costs increased $5,426.4 million (+15.5%) from $35,119.1 million to $40,545.5 million, due primarily to the shift from a four-year to five-year build cycle (+$4,131.2 million), which placed the program on a more fiscally sustainable path while continuing to support a minimum of 11 aircraft carriers through fiscal 2040. Additional increases resulted from revised cost estimates for the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) (+$1,292.6 million), platform non-recurring engineering (+$350.0 million), and labor and material projections (+$311.7 million), a stretch-out of the procurement buy profile (+$520.6 million), and the application of revised escalation indices (+$301.8 million). These increases were partially offset by decreases resulting from inflation and other miscellaneous adjustments (-$933.1 million) and a shipbuilding reduction across the program (-$627.0 million).
Not surprising but what else could be done? It reminds us of our current funding crisis in America’s housing market, and how some defaulted on homes they could not afford. Is the Navy living beyond its means in a new era?