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The Myth of Carrier Cost Effectiveness

April 22, 2010

Compared to the baseline Nimitz-class design, CVNX-1 was to require 300 to 500 fewer sailors to operate and would feature an entirely new and less expensive nuclear reactor plant, a new electrical distribution system, and an electromagnetic (as opposed to steam-powered) aircraft catapult system. In large part because of the reduction in crew size, CVNX-1 was projected to have a lower life-cycle operation and support (O&S) cost than the baseline Nimitz-class design. CVNX-1 was to cost $2.54 billion to develop and $7.48 billion to procure, giving it a total acquisition cost of $10.02 billion…

In November and December 2002, after reviewing these alternatives, OSD decided to alter the design of CVNX-1 to incorporate additional advanced features originally intended for CVNX-2 (the name at the time for the next carrier after CVNX-1). These changes included a new and enlarged flight deck, an increased allowance for future technologies (including electric weapons), and additional manpower reductions. Compared to the baseline Nimitz-class design, the ship would now require at 500 to 800 fewer sailors to operate. To signify these changes the ship’s name was changed from CVNX-1 to CVN-21. Incorporating the changes increased the ship’s development cost
by about $600 million and its procurement cost by about $700 million. OSD reportedly did not consider CVNX-1 sufficiently transformational; the CVN-21 proposal appears intended to increase the transformational content of the ship.

Ronald O’Rourke in the CRS report “Navy CVN-21 Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress” 

Reading the above, it is difficult to grasp where the savings in new carrier procurement for the CVN-21, now the CVN-78 Gerald Ford class comes in. Basically, the “cost effectiveness” of a large deck CVN becomes deceptive, much like a budget deficit. Someone is having to pay for the $13.5 billion warship, this falling on equally important naval assets. The fewer planes, the fewer warships, drop in training such as essential ASW skills, all point to a consistent drain on increasingly sparse budget allocations. Like a cancer the carriers are stealing from the health of the overall Navy budget.

The Navy was forced to cut the Super Hornet buy in the 2000s for this reason, from 1000 to about half. Likewise are navalised JSF planned purchases consistently reduced. This isn’t really a bad thing, considering the capabilities of modern fighter bombers able to drop precision guided munitions. It is bad when the size of the carrier remains mostly the same and the pricetag rises to unbearable proportions. It points to obsolescence because you aren’t keeping in step with advances in technology. To remain static in warfare is to become stagnate.

Over the decades, the navy has grappled not only with providing adequate numbers but also adequate planes themselves to fill the 1000 ft., 100,000 ton capital ships. The original F-14 Tomcat fighter was forced to serve its entire lifespan with faulty engines because of its high cost. Is was also extremely long-lived considering the cost for replacements, including the Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter (NATF), which unfortunately came along at the end of the Cold War. Further cancellations involved the A-12 Avenger to replace the Vietnam era A-6, and the Common Support Aircraft to supersede the S-3 Viking patrol plane and the E-2 Hawkeye. Today the F/A-18 Hornet has taken the place of some 4-5 previous aircraft, not by choice but necessity. 

The navy will insist it can get by with fewer planes, but not smaller decks? This is to the point that the large decks become more important than the weapon it carries, the tail wagging the dog. The only reason for the carrier’s existence was to deploy the new weapon of aircraft to the sea. Now we have elevated the platform more important than the weapon it carries.

Consider for a moment the apparent cost effectiveness of the carrier and how this has worked historically in practical terms. Over the years the Royal Navy has been able to maintain 3 carriers only by keeping 1 in reserve, two continually operating. Even these savings were not enough to prevent the mass retirement of the dedicated naval jets, the Sea Harriers, now replaced by RAF Harriers. A good plane but not quite so good as its predecessor. Furthermore, in order to afford the carrier replacements, the 2 Queen Elizabeth supercarriers, only one will likely be in full service at a time due to possible reductions in the JSF purchase order.

The argument might be the Royal Navy is underfunded. What about the best funded and supreme practitioner of carrier warfare in history, the US Navy? Surely the world’s greatest fleet is not suffering from the affordability issues of her Atlantic cousin. Except the Americans must also stretch the bounds of ingenuity in order to create a viable carrier fleet, even during a budget bonanza. We noted recently how the carrier airwing has shrunk since the Cold War from over 50 to 40 combat planes. A further “stealth cut” recently occurred, with the Marine squadrons now filling up the 40 jet force, otherwise it would have shrunk to 30 planes on the “Nimitz class light carriers” and future Ford class CVN’s. Someone argued earlier this wasn’t a cut, but the aircraft available to the Marines have certainly shrunk. It is juggling resources in order to create an appearance.

The oft used “large carrier is more cost-effective” mantra, meant to justify multi-billion dollar platforms, and which looks good on a Power Point slide has proven flawed in practice. The reports from the Navy and other experts of fighter gaps, presence deficits, of chronic over-deployments is a direct consequence of precious funding diverted to large decks, which can no longer deploy adequate airwings to justify its great bulk or expense. However, naval airpower is not obsolete, just our concept on how it is deployed in the face of advancing technology.

It is possible the US Navy has discovered the most cost efficient way to deploy a fleet of large deck carriers, but empty decks do not a navy make. Neither do vanishing numbers of submarines, amphibious warships, or the virtually non-existent flotilla ships needed to contend with low tech but numerous threats worldwide. The continued drift toward a 200-ship fleet offers unimpeachable truth that we can no longer bear the burden of the “cost-effective” aircraft carrier.

(Note-some of the above appeared in the comments last week.)

38 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2014 6:14 pm

    Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to generate a good article but what can I say I put things off a lot and don’t seem to get anything done.

  2. bobsyruncle permalink
    January 31, 2011 9:08 am

    Too many eggs in one basket. The Air Force is doing the same thing with the F-22 Raptor: bankrupting itself on technology demonstrators. Stuffing as much unproven technology as possible into a product does not increase capability or shrink the price tag. It increases costs exponentially, reduces reliability logarithmically and virtually eliminates any real capability. Putting prototypes into production is suicide, the Germans tried it in WWII and paid dearly. They couldn’t field enough equipment to be effective, and what they did field was often chronically unreliable under field conditions. 3/4s of the Panther tanks Germany fielded in the battle of the bulge were abandoned after major breakdowns.
    The ‘new military’ replete with 90’s era management fads is slowly being killed by overqualified incompetents. The Air Force, much like the Navy, is a technocracy. And much like the Navy it is failing to fully leverage its in-house engineering expertise as well as defense industry engineering expertise. If the competents aren’t forced to play along with management boondoggles for survival they are driven to other fields.
    Technical experts (ie engineers) are not being allowed to define problems, search for solutions and select appropriate courses of action. Manager types are writing wishlists and directives that make good bullets on their annual efficiency reports, and increase the reach of their influence and personal dominions. To this end, a project has to be science fiction, have an astronomical budget and promise the impossible to be attractive. For congress to give a go ahead, the project must involve large enough contractors, and employ a large enough unionized workforce to ensure that they will get a large enough campaign contribution for signing the check. Short term easy outs for individuals at the top are screwing the future of our national defense. There seems to be no available solution short of firing everyone in the acquisition system and starting from scratch.
    Systems must be simple and stupid. If they are overly complex and full of unproven technology they will not only fail to work, but on the rare occasion they’re serviceable, the showpieces will serve no practical purpose other than to wow observers for the brief period it takes for an opponent to destroy them with more practical assets.
    Perhaps most important of all, military hardware must be stupid. The military is in the habit of using what society gives it and this rarely includes large numbers of Ph.D’s. and child prodigies who have elected to enlist rather than attend college. If a C student with a bachelor’s degree or a high school diploma can’t run it, the military won’t be able to use it without being held by the expensive hands of overpaid contractors and consultants.
    This is already a problem and will likely worsen in the foreseeable future. Every time this is brought up, the military responds by claiming to increase its recruiting standards. This serves only to further politicize the selection and training system. The military can only get what volunteers. Saying no to the willing does not automatically cause the appearance of more qualified applicants.
    When it comes to human resources, the military is not negotiating from a position of advantage. They need to accept this and learn to deal with it. In the past, military institutions have not relied on overachievers who ace exams and fail in the field, but well disciplined people who can cope with and often excel in stressful, real world situations and improvise to solve complex problems with simple tools. In short, the kind of ordinary people who are most likely to volunteer without being bribed with astronomical signing bonuses or promised the fame and glory of being the only person allowed to operate the only piece of equipment their chosen branch of service owns.
    Our military can’t follow the path of NASA if it is to survive. Future military engagements are not likely to be decided by what Tom Wolfe describes as ‘single combat’ in his book “The Right Stuff.” They are likely to be decided by engagements that will test the collective flexibility of personnel and equipment, not their individual whiz-bang-wow factors.
    The military needs
    1. -Simple- yes a super carrier can still support a large enough air wing without losing simplicity, and an elegantly simple fighter can still win
    2. -Stupid- “designed by geniuses to be run by idiots,” as quoted from “The Cane Mutiny”
    3. -Scalable- If a military response can’t be scaled to match the mission, it will either be an inefficient waste of resources in small conflicts or an inadequate invitation for disaster when the big boys come out to play.
    4. -Diverse- reliance upon a single weapon system is ludicrous. The toolbox needs more than a single multi-tool that sucks at everything. The toolbox needs a diverse set of tools that can do their jobs well, apart or together.

  3. Retired Now permalink
    April 24, 2010 10:36 pm

    “Improvements” we get with CVN-78 Class:

    1. only 3 elevators vice 4 on all older CVN

    2. many less radars (less redundancy)

    3. many more design engineers at Newport News now can be busier until retirements

    4. a more tempting target for some cowards to shoot at with a 30 year old Exocet ASCM from a truck on the beach

  4. B.Smitty permalink
    April 24, 2010 10:22 am

    Distiller said, “Opting out of carrier-borne wide-area ASW just because there are only “friendlies” in the water down below is not an option in my mind.

    I wonder if an effective ASW system could be developed for the F/A-18?

    Developing a podded sonobouy dispenser seems straightforward. Maybe use the SHARP pod with a sonobouy receiver, data relay and signal processing hardware.

    The CONOPS would be to have one aircraft with the SHARP pod stay at altitude and act as the C3 node. Then use one or more aircraft to lay sonobouy fields and carry torpedoes. Signal processing could be done on the C3 node or via relay back to the CVBG.

    Since a carrier has over 40 fighters, it could easily maintain more than one persistent ASW CAP.

    A MAD pod could also be built, if need.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 23, 2010 8:21 pm

    Chris asked “what do we get with the Ford that we don’t already have with the late-model Nimitz carriers like CVN-77? ”

    Nothing to justify a near doubling in the price. The size of the airwing will continue to decrease if trends continue. The CVN-78 had to have the appearance of being transformational. The leadership are running out of tricks in order to keep a 100,000 ton platform viable in an age of light and lethal threats.

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    April 23, 2010 6:04 pm

    papa legba,

    LCS mission modules typically include 3 Fire Scouts and one H-60.

    The Fire Scout brochure lists “voice/data communications relay” as baseline feature.

  7. papa legba permalink
    April 23, 2010 5:17 pm

    B. Smitty said (in regards to OTH datalinks requiring aircraft): “Very well may be true, though I imagine a suitably-configured Fire Scout would also work.”

    OTH comm duty would probably be an excellent job for a UAV, but I don’t know if a fire scout could cut it. It may or may not have the payload capability; I’m not sure what the weight of a comms relay is. I doubt it has the onboard power for it, though. A Communication relay needs a lot of electricity.

    It also still leaves the ASW capability of a ship at the mercy of their aircraft. The LCS designs carry only one firescout. and I believe the air assets of those ships are already overtasked.

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    April 23, 2010 2:54 pm

    papa legba said, “To my knowledge, non-satellite OTH datalinks at sea require an aircraft to act as a comms relay. There are some balloon-mounted aerial relays for land warfare but I don’t believe the Navy has them at sea.

    If that’s correct, anything relying on OTH datalinks are, effectively, at the mercy of the availability of the ship’s helicopter (or a P-3 in the area). This again puts the ASW capability of the ship becomes completely dependent on the status of its helicopter. For many ships, so much of the other capability of the ship is centered there that it might not be available.

    Very well may be true, though I imagine a suitably-configured Fire Scout would also work.

  9. Chris Stefan permalink
    April 23, 2010 2:05 pm

    Other than EMALS and reduced manning what do we get with the Ford that we don’t already have with the late-model Nimitz carriers like CVN-77? Is the capability worth the bump up in cost?

    Of course this represents another problem with DoD procurement these days in much of the R&D is tied to platform buys rather than going with low-risk designs using technology that has already proven it works. EMALS should have proven it works using one of the retired carriers before it was ever considered for the Ford.

  10. papa legba permalink
    April 23, 2010 10:18 am

    B. Smitty said: “I think the plan is to use an OTH datalink and not rely on satellite connectivity. “

    To my knowledge, non-satellite OTH datalinks at sea require an aircraft to act as a comms relay. There are some balloon-mounted aerial relays for land warfare but I don’t believe the Navy has them at sea.

    If that’s correct, anything relying on OTH datalinks are, effectively, at the mercy of the availability of the ship’s helicopter (or a P-3 in the area). This again puts the ASW capability of the ship becomes completely dependent on the status of its helicopter. For many ships, so much of the other capability of the ship is centered there that it might not be available.

  11. B.Smitty permalink
    April 23, 2010 9:17 am

    Retired Now, “Compare to an SQS-53 latest hull mounted sonar version, which can actively transmit a variety of search patterns and many thousands time more POWER out than for example a sonobouy dropped by a helo or P-8. Unlike a helo with a dipping sonar which has both limited power as well as limited range, the DDG or CG escorting the CVN can xmit their sonar’s at full power (in many patterns) all day and all night long.

    Active pinging by hull-mounted sonars on large surface combatants is a capability of last resort, IMHO. It effectively announces the presence of the warship to anyone within “earshot”, and should make any self-respecting enemy sub commander drool with anticipation.

    Sonobouys and USVs have a fraction of the sonar power, but can be used near a prospective target without risk of losing a few hundred sailors and a $2+ billion asset to a torpedo.

  12. B.Smitty permalink
    April 23, 2010 9:03 am

    Mike said, “Smitty said “I don’t see what that has to do with gunboats.”‘

    Thats what THEY call it! I didn’t make this up. And I agree with you.

    Mike, Gunboat Diplomacy has nothing to do with gunboats.

    Mike said, “But a fleet geared for sea control, not power projection can survive the loss of a land battle, as we recall the War with Napoleon, and the Dunkirk evacuation. With command of the sea you live to fight again.

    Huh? Dunkirk was catastrophic for the British military. I don’t see how you can remotely use it as an example to support your case. Had the British had a more effective power projection, maybe they wouldn’t have been thrown out of France.

    A navy’s primary purpose is NOT sea control. It is to extend the will of a country to the sea.

  13. April 23, 2010 6:14 am

    With cruise missiles that have super-sonic capability in their terminal phase—which means they don’t spend a lot of time in view of the radar horizon before hitting—all we are building are mulit-billion dollar targets. Club and Brahmos will be a significant threat.

    Jan. 5, 2023 (AP) Paris—The U.S. Department of Defense has confirmed the loss of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ford as the result of an attack in the Adriatic Sea by cruise-missiles which appear to have been launched by Serbian National Front. The death toll includes 1200 with 180 missing. This is in addition to the 200 killed and 14 missing from the sinking of the destroyer U.S.S. Churchill yesterday under similar circumstances.

    The United States Navy is carrying the brunt of Operation Determined Force, which is a joint effort to bring peace to this region after the break-up of NATO two years ago. ……………….

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 23, 2010 6:12 am

    “It isn’t just the Ford.”

    No argument there, but I do think it is the crux of the matter. As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    I still believe in carrier air, I just think it should be subordinate to the fleet as a whole, instead of the fleet mainly existing to support the carrier. You limit yourself by depending on a single strategy, when the enemy in the next war throws everything he’s got at you.

    The sinking of the battlefleet at Pearl Harbor was a shocking blow to the Navy culture, because every strategy centered on the giant armored ships refighting Jutland or Trafalgar. The carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarine sailors were there just for mopping up afterwards. They had to learn quickly on the job, that the fleet as a whole has a job to do, at the cost of many fine hulls and precious crew.

    The altar of naval airpower as deployed on giant carriers is hurting our navy more than it is helping, and the cost is just part of this. We are neglecting essential skills, the health of our shipbuilding industry, the size of our fleet. In other words, the navy is mortgaging its future all for false hopes and last century ideas on seapower.

  15. Guess who? permalink
    April 23, 2010 5:58 am

    Mike – “Out of necessity,because of budget cuts, not by choice the British were forced to deploy a mostly ASW fleet centered around destroyers and frigates, with a modest power projection capability. ”

    Not entirely true, CVA-01 carriers wouldn’t have created a top heavy fleet, the Royal navy was already an ASW escort oriented force, she had 4 carriers in the mid 60s; Hermes, Ark Royal, Eagle and Victorious and 2 Commando Carriers in Albion and Bulwark (Centuars refit was cancelled and she was binned) and around 100 Frigates and Destroyers (and a few old cruisers)

    From what I’ve read 3 CVAs were planned the first entering service around ’75 when Vicky was scheduled to be decommissioned, the second around ’78 when the Ark was due to go and the last in ’82 when the Eagle was at the end of her life.
    CVA-01 would’ve been around the same size as USS Midway, it’s hard to make assumptions about air-wing as she was cancelled quite early although it is highly likely that had she gone full term the actual platform would have varied a great deal from the initial designs such as removal of the Alaskan taxi-way, removal of Sea dart and Ikara systems in favour of more deck and hangar space… The Royal Navy made it no secret that they wanted CVA-01 to be similar to CV-63 however this was never going to get passed the treasury so the plan changed to what designs we see floating around in the archives today…

    HOWEVER, the RN didn’t want to sacrifice air wing so the plan was unorthodox in that there was to be a class of large cruisers that would escort the carriers and those cruisers would house the rotary assets allowing for a larger complement of fast air on the carriers… these cruisers were initially in excess of 10,000T however they continued to grow in size and weight, the design continued long after the carriers were cancelled and many years later these behemoths now featured flat-tops/through-decks and were commissioned as Invincible class… I’ve never found anything regarding numbers for these cruisers however I would imagine that they were planned to replace both the tigers and the Commando carriers

  16. Distiller permalink
    April 23, 2010 3:22 am

    A Carrier Battle Group has to rule its bubble without compromise – otherwise it’s not worth it.

    Opting out of carrier-borne wide-area ASW just because there are only “friendlies” in the water down below is not an option in my mind. Having one or two SSN with the carrier group can not take all the load; and in addition there are not enough SSN for escort the carrier groups PLUS go on open ocean hunt PLUS keep a shadow on enemy SSBN.
    And land-based ASW aircraft don’t have the persistance, or need a shitload of tanker support – which the USAF can’t really provide either.

    In fact when it comes to carriers and their escorts one should ask if the escorts need an organic ASW helicopter capability. Maybe the original Burkes were the way to go – provided the carrier has the ASW helos/VTOL UAVs (which it has, or could have)and planes (which it doesn’t since the Vikings are gone and CSA never materialized).

    The failure of the DoD to field the CSA (best folded into the Army ACS programme) is really crippling the force in my mind. CVNs should rather be called CVAN these days!

    Either there is some secret ASW stuff around that works really well, or the DoD is simply negligent.

  17. Anonymous permalink
    April 22, 2010 10:30 pm

    Retired now,

    Actually I’d rather have an S-3, but I’d settle for an MPA or helo. Probably in that order. I think the mobility and reactiveness conferred by an aircraft far outweighs the lower power output of its individual sensors.

    Yes, the sonar on a DDG is infinitely more powerful, but it and its SQS-53 sonar can only be in one place at one time. An active sonobuoy field can cover a lot more waterspace than a small boy in a given 6 hour search period. And an MPA can chase down and kill a possible contact a heck of a lot faster.

    It only takes a small number of P-8As (say 4 to 6) to cover a search station 24/7. In terms of quantity, we’re buying over 100 P-8As. And you act as if a DDG can stay on-station forever. It takes a train of tankers to keep a DDG on-station, and that’s a point of vulnerability.

    I think DDG and CG should be a stop-gap measure — riding shotgun for the carrier. But really the focus should be on detecting and killing the subs before they even get close enough. And I maintain that the best assets to do that are in the air and not on the surface.

  18. Anonymous permalink
    April 22, 2010 10:10 pm

    Jacob wrote –

    If the whole point of having a military is for those contingency last-resort scenarios, then we really ought to be preparing to go to war against any country. If the submarine has become the primary naval weapon worldwide, then our ships won’t be going anywhere without plenty of ASW.

    ****

    Well, Japan has the largest and arguably most proficient submarine force in the world behind the US and China — should we be start dusting off War Plan Orange? How about that sneaky Royal Navy — after all they’ve got more SSNs then even China. Canada bought some diesel submarines — better watch out for them.

    One could easily see how if we went chasing every potential enemy, we’d break the bank. Fortunately, a very little common sense is left in Washington DC, and we don’t design our Navy for “those contingency last-resort scenarios”.

    Our ships can and do go lots of places without heavy ASW escort – because we understand where and when there is a potential threat from submarines. We need to concentrate our resources where there is a threat. I’m thinking of the Pacific mainly.

  19. DesScorp permalink
    April 22, 2010 10:04 pm

    I don’t think you can use the Ford class as an argument that carriers are too expensive, not when everything else the military is doing is overpriced as well. It isn’t just the Ford. It’s the LCS, F-22, F-25, VH-71, FCS… I could go on forever. The US military can’t program manage worth a damn. We’ve been talking about this over on Eric Palmer’s blog as well. Whatever the military touches, it gets more expensive. A cheap corvette-class ship concept, the LCS, now costs as much as a fully armed, blue-water ship of war, all while having the armament of a Coast Guard Cutter.

    The Ford class isn’t a unique example. It’s just another example. As we were discussing elsewhere, maybe we should take procurement and development out of DOD’s hands, as they’ve proven that they’ll screw it up every time. Who would we give it to? That’s the question, isn’t it.

    I’ll meet you halfway, though. I’m beginning to think that the idea of a 100+ ton nuclear supercarrier doesn’t make as much sense anymore as a 75+ ton conventional supercarrier would. The nuclear guts make up over half of the cost of the carriers, and if you replace the hosed-up EMALS with conventional steam cats, you could probably go back to making carriers for under $4 to $6 billion again, especially if you used the keel of an existing large ship as a starting point… say, a Wasp/America class keel. Load it up with Super Hornets, and you have an affordable naval airpower projection capability.

  20. Retired Now permalink
    April 22, 2010 9:45 pm

    Matt, which do you think would be more effective battle group ASW protection:

    a. Helo’s with some LRMPA P-8 or P-3 support ?

    or

    b. escorts deploying unmanned searching “robots” ?

    If you pick a. , then would these helo’s be dipping sonars that are actively transmitting ? Or perhaps dropping sonobouy’s ? Would you be having your LRMPA P-8 / P-3 dropping passive sonobouy fields, or active sonobouy’s ? If you select b. would your unmanned robots be searching for subs actively or passively ?

    The only point I have is this: helo’s, sonobouy’s, unmanned subsurf robots, must go active in order to locate a quiet non-nuc submarine. I’m wondering two things:

    (1). do you plan to have your sonobouy fields and unmanned sub robots searching for more than maybe 12 hours per day ? and

    (2). how much POWER do you think an active sonobouy transmits ? and for how many minutes or hours before their batteries expire ? Same question for unmanned robots.

    Compare to an SQS-53 latest hull mounted sonar version, which can actively transmit a variety of search patterns and many thousands time more POWER out than for example a sonobouy dropped by a helo or P-8. Unlike a helo with a dipping sonar which has both limited power as well as limited range, the DDG or CG escorting the CVN can xmit their sonar’s at full power (in many patterns) all day and all night long.

    So, unless P-8 and Helo’s are available in large quantities 24/7, along with those yet-to-be-proven unmanned subsurface robots, then our CVN’s and LHD/LHA/LPD are in grave danger to any nation with a couple of battery powered submarines and a few torpedoes.

    Power out and availability 24/7 are the key reasons CVN’s need not deploy unless they are properly escorted with CG and or DDG.

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 22, 2010 8:58 pm

    Smitty said “I don’t see what that has to do with gunboats.”‘

    Thats what THEY call it! I didn’t make this up. And I agree with you.

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1991/GTD.htm

    *****

    Jacob brings up an interesting point. The primary naval threat of the Cold War was from Russian submarines. Out of necessity,because of budget cuts, not by choice the British were forced to deploy a mostly ASW fleet centered around destroyers and frigates, with a modest power projection capability. In an extremely rare instance when the latter force was needed in the Falklands, the Brits were successful, though admittedly it was touch and go sometimes.

    Now most logic, I would call it American logic, says you need to build forces to fight this type of power projection conflict, even though the Falklands was an extremely rare occurrence. It could only happen again if the Brits let down their guard. This is building a fleet not for the most likely but a worse case scenario.

    What if they had deployed a fleet of supercarriers and a handful of destroyers and frigates instead, as is the common presumed lesson of the 1982 Conflict (and as is ongoing today)? This would have deterred the Argentines in the 1980s certainly, but what if the Russians saw the UK’s lack of ASW capabilities and decided to attack? Recall, it was the Soviet Submarines that were the major and most likely threat, not the Argentines.

    So had the British deployed a smaller, but more capable fleet, heavy on power projection, weak on ASW defenses, they would be overwhelming in one capability, and lacking in the sea control mission. That last is the primary reason for having a Navy. They would not then be able to perform their main mission for weakness in the other.

    But a fleet geared for sea control, not power projection can survive the loss of a land battle, as we recall the War with Napoleon, and the Dunkirk evacuation. With command of the sea you live to fight again.

    Ironically, it was the budget cuts of the 1960s that saved the Navy, not so much the Falklands of 1982.

  22. B.Smitty permalink
    April 22, 2010 6:06 pm

    Matt said, “I think that’s the LCS concept. The problem I see is that USVs are pretty slow – meaning you have to carry them into the area you want to search. How do you get into the threat area to deploy the USV without getting torpedoed yourself?

    This type of system also relies on sufficient satellite connectivity to function – which I don’t think we can count on in wartime.

    I think the plan is to use an OTH datalink and not rely on satellite connectivity.

    You can drop the USVs off well before you enter the threat area, and allow them to search ahead of you as you close. Of course the current crop only has limited endurance and range, so they will need to be topped off frequently.

    My problem with this plan is the LCS ASW module only has two 11m USVs, IIRC.

    I would think you would want many more than that to cover a useful area with a reasonable chance of detecting a sub (and allow for downtime).

  23. Jacob permalink
    April 22, 2010 6:00 pm

    Matt wrote: “I’d agree that there are a lot of countries buying and producing submarines as of late. But how many of those represent likely adversaries? China, Iran, and North Korea definitely. Maybe Russia and Venezuela? I can really only think of a handful. In fact, most of the world’s submarines are either ours or in the hands of folks we are allied with. ”

    If the whole point of having a military is for those contingency last-resort scenarios, then we really ought to be preparing to go to war against any country. If the submarine has become the primary naval weapon worldwide, then our ships won’t be going anywhere without plenty of ASW.

  24. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 22, 2010 5:57 pm

    Matt wrote “But if the real-world environment is benign so that you can operate carriers close to shore, why wouldn’t you?”

    Actually, Matt, this is pretty much the strategy, even in wartime. Has been since the 1950s. They had to justify having large decks with the Soviets building only ex-German submarines. See the Adm. Forrest Sherman quote in this post:

    https://newwars.wordpress.com/2009/07/01/sub-hunters-take-a-dive-pt-3/

    The strategy received a new birth under NavSec John Lehman in the 1980s:

    https://newwars.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/aircraft-carriers-vs-the-red-army-pt-2/

    The carrier as gunboat strategy was put into practice when USS Independence sailed into the Persian Gulf in the 1990/91 Gulf War, and later repeated the feat with USS Nimitz during the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis with China. This latter effrontery has proven the stimulus for the Chicoms to seek anti-access weapons, which if they work properly likely will end the carrier’s 70 year reign at sea, if the budget doesn’t get her first.

  25. Joe permalink
    April 22, 2010 4:33 pm

    Mike said: Note that in a real shooting war at sea in 1982, the British kept them well off shore, with surface combatants providing the near-to-shore control. Here is the proper use of seapower assets in a combined team.

    Wasn’t a more likely reason for the “well off shore” positioning that the smaller “Harrier Carriers” were not equipped with AEW aircraft and had virtually no defenses against Exocet missiles?

  26. Matt permalink
    April 22, 2010 12:44 pm

    Mike wrote:

    Good point except I can’t recall American ships being used for this purpose in modern times.

    Note that in a real shooting war at sea in 1982, the British kept them well off shore, with surface combatants providing the near-to-shore control. Here is the proper use of seapower assets in a combined team

    ****

    I’m reasonably certain the Navy practices this type of operation regularly. But if the real-world environment is benign so that you can operate carriers close to shore, why wouldn’t you?

    The RN carriers were only 70-100 nm northeast of the Falklands during the 1982 war, which placed them about 400 nm from Argentina. Not really well off-shore — but this mainly had to do with the Sea Harriers relatively short range.

    http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj02/fal02/corum.html

  27. Matt permalink
    April 22, 2010 12:16 pm

    Matt,

    Isn’t the current thinking on ASW, at least in the littorals, for USVs to extend the reach of surface ASW, freeing the combatant from having to sprint-drift? The combatant slows, deploys USVs, and then retires to a “safe” distance to monitor them.

    In theory this can be more effective than helo or MPA ASW because the USVs can stay on station longer, and use VDS or towed arrays rather than sonobouys and dipping sonars.

    ****

    I think that’s the LCS concept. The problem I see is that USVs are pretty slow – meaning you have to carry them into the area you want to search. How do you get into the threat area to deploy the USV without getting torpedoed yourself?

    This type of system also relies on sufficient satellite connectivity to function – which I don’t think we can count on in wartime.

    I think that automation and pushing surface ASW off-board is only going to take us so far. A bad guy will recognize the achilles heal in these types of systems and exploit them.

    In the end, surface ASW is inherently defensive and a poor choice when and if we want to take the ASW fight to the enemy.

    Subs are probably the most effective solution, but way too expensive. Pitting a $2 billion Virginia class against a $400 million diesel is a pretty poor return on your investment. And in a defensive fight, they’re forced to go “man-to-man” when what we really need to counter numbers is “zone.”

    I think the best path forward is continued investment in air platforms. They provide the best mix of offensive and defensive capability, and are really the most cost effective. At $250 million a P-8A is much cheaper than submarine and has the capability to act over a much wider area.

  28. B.Smitty permalink
    April 22, 2010 11:53 am

    Mike said, “USN considers their carriers as gunboats because they rarely operate except in benign environments, but realistically, you should only use gunboats (surface combatants) as gunboats near to shore.

    “Gunboat”? I really don’t get the analogy. The USN uses carriers as their primary power projection asset. I don’t see what that has to do with gunboats.

  29. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 22, 2010 11:42 am

    Smitty wrote “They certainly can stay 700nm+ offshore and still attack shore targets.”

    Good point except I can’t recall American ships being used for this purpose in modern times.

    Note that in a real shooting war at sea in 1982, the British kept them well off shore, with surface combatants providing the near-to-shore control. Here is the proper use of seapower assets in a combined team.

    USN considers their carriers as gunboats because they rarely operate except in benign environments, but realistically, you should only use gunboats (surface combatants) as gunboats near to shore.

  30. B.Smitty permalink
    April 22, 2010 11:25 am

    Mike said, “I fear that the principle use for the carrier is for the constabulary navy, keeping land powers contained on land. Proof of this comes from every time someone complains about the pricetag the cry comes up “we couldn’t have bombed Afghanistan without them”!

    I don’t understand what you’re saying here.

    OEF and OIF were hardly “constabulary” or “containment” missions. Both were aimed at overthrowing existing governments (and to eliminate an Al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan).

    Carriers don’t need “near shore” access. They used Indian Ocean in OEF primarily because the targets were 700nm inland and the near shore environment was benign.

    They certainly can stay 700nm+ offshore and still attack shore targets.

  31. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 22, 2010 10:48 am

    I fear that the principle use for the carrier is for the constabulary navy, keeping land powers contained on land. Proof of this comes from every time someone complains about the pricetag the cry comes up “we couldn’t have bombed Afghanistan without them”!

    They aren’t thinking that someone in the near future with submarines and missiles might actually deny the carriers access near to shore where we can continue this Containment Strategy from the last century.

    I repeat, they are not thinking.

  32. Hudson permalink
    April 22, 2010 10:29 am

    Big deck carrier battle groups travel with at least one nuclear sub riding shotgun.

  33. B.Smitty permalink
    April 22, 2010 10:26 am

    Matt,

    Isn’t the current thinking on ASW, at least in the littorals, for USVs to extend the reach of surface ASW, freeing the combatant from having to sprint-drift? The combatant slows, deploys USVs, and then retires to a “safe” distance to monitor them.

    In theory this can be more effective than helo or MPA ASW because the USVs can stay on station longer, and use VDS or towed arrays rather than sonobouys and dipping sonars.

  34. Matt permalink
    April 22, 2010 9:49 am

    Retired Now,

    1. I’d agree that there are a lot of countries buying and producing submarines as of late. But how many of those represent likely adversaries? China, Iran, and North Korea definitely. Maybe Russia and Venezuela? I can really only think of a handful. In fact, most of the world’s submarines are either ours or in the hands of folks we are allied with.

    So from a strategy perspective, seems like the USN wouldn’t necessarily need to deploy surface ASW-heavy with every Strike Group. It’s a risk, but probably one that is acceptable.

    2. On the topic of ASW operations – continuing to rely on surface ships as primary ASW defense for the carrier always seemed like a losing proposition to me for the following reasons:

    a. Surface ships have to move awfully slow to search for submarines. A DDG’s effective search area and patrol speed is pretty low when compared to other assets (MPA, helos).

    b. In most cases, their sensor range is way less than the submarine — meaning the submarine is much more likely to detect the surface ship first and act/react accordingly.

    c. The range of a DDGs organic ASW weapons are pretty short — meaning they have to get within torpedo range of the sub in order to kill it.

    d. All of the above limitations drive the screening conops of six or so expensive DDGs relatively close to the carrier, which themselves require an AO to provide fuel replenishment.

    All in all, surface ASW seems like an awful inefficient way to do business. In contrast, helos and MPA have longer range; greater sensor coverage; faster reaction time; and can put a weapon right on the bad guys forehead. And they aren’t themselves vulnerable to torpedoes.

    I’m not saying we don’t need surface ASW, but I do think in the long run it’s a path of diminishing returns. Air ASW has tremendous inherent advantages – that’s where we should concentrate our resources. I think the MH-60R and especially the P-8A are a step in the right direction – take the ASW fight to the enemy. Maybe we should also onsider bringing back S-3 on large-decks?

  35. Distiller permalink
    April 22, 2010 8:36 am

    It’s all going the Soviet way – wilfully.

  36. Retired Now permalink
    April 22, 2010 6:50 am

    Gee, it’s got everything but a real sonar ! Has the USN noticed that countless countries are buying/building large numbers of submarines ? CVN-78 could be sunk by a simple WW-I U-boat ! I notice that almost every LHD/LHA/LPD force deploys with no ASW destroyers at all !

    So, to protect CVN-78 from subs, the USN will use helo’s with dipping sonars ? How many at once ? Fly them 24/7 while USS FORD is underway ? Helo’s won’t protect our $15,000,000,000 carriers from any third world’s subs.

    Notice that CVN’s these days are steaming all over the world usually with a grand total of 3 ASW capable escorts present 24/7. Does the Navy really believe that a CVN can be protected from attack subs closing for an old fashioned torpedo shot, with less than 6 dedicated destroyers and cruisers arranged in an ASW screen ?

    Good grief, what if the CVN battle group actually detected a sub closing for a torpedo attack ? Detach one of your few ASW DDG or CG, and turn the force away. Only to run into another cheap, diesel sub from a country that never used to have any submarines at all. Attention NAVY, the world is on a submarine buying spree, with many, many nations acquiring these incredible little threats.

    $15 billion dollar nuclear powered targets are awfully tempting, especially when they don’t have 6 DDG/CG escorts performing ASW screening 24/7.

Trackbacks

  1. LCS Alternative Weekly « New Wars
  2. Military And Intelligence News Briefs — April 23, 2010 « Read NEWS

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