Carrier Alternative Weekly
Sea Control Vs. Power Projection Navy
In the 1960s, the British Royal Navy planned to construct two 55,000 ton supercarriers, the CVA-01 class to replace her few remaining war-built large flattops. These very expensive warships were to have been escorted by a large new destroyer and required new aircraft to fly off their spacious decks. After the world-wide financial difficulties of the 1970s (brought on mainly by the Arab oil embargo), it is interesting to see what type of fleet would have emerged had the Labour Government not canceled the new ships. With the plans ongoing for the current fleet of supercarriers, we can’t help but wonder if the CVA-01 would have been another ‘too big to fail” project like the CVF, that would entailed a mass retirement of still-useful hulls in order to pay for. A very different fleet of ships would have sailed to the Falklands in 1982, no doubt.
The primary naval threat of the Cold War was from Russian submarines, not from other aircraft carriers. Out of necessity, because of budget cuts, the British were forced to deploy a mostly ASW fleet centered around destroyers and frigates, with a modest power projection capability in the form of a few V/STOL carriers, the Invincible class. Initially the older HMS Hermes acted in the role of “Harrier carrier”, and was the flagship of the South Atlantic force, also accompanied by two older landings ships Fearless and Intrepid. In an extremely rare instance when the projection fleet 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 expeditionary conflict, even though the Falklands was an extremely rare occurrence. It could only happen again if the Brits let down their guard, as we see the current RAF fighters standing watch on Mount Pleasant Airfield. You are then constructing a very expensive, smaller, and more complicated navy for an unlikely scenario, instead of the most likely.
The most likely current and future naval threat still seems to be from the submarine, but more urgently a COIN type conflict is possible, even ongoing, that would entail the purchase of many small and low tech patrol ships, with a few larger command vessels like RFA vessels for support. Logically, this is where the sparse money and resources should be spent.
What if the Royal Navy 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 the ongoing construction priorities today by the British)? 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.
Remember also, the Russians compensated for their own lack of power projection ships for most of this period by designing special carrier-killing submarines. While a handful of Type 82 destroyers and some frigates would have been adequate to defend 2 supercarriers in 1982, what about the widespread merchant marine, vital for an import dependent Britain? The USN could manage to deploy a fleet of large carriers and escort ships only because she had a bigger fleet (not so much anymore, however). The RN had no such vast resources to construct essentially “two navies” in one, neither does she to this day.
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 Labour defence cuts of the 1960s that saved the Navy, not so much the Falklands of 1982.
Little Benefit Going Nuclear
Noah Shachtman brings up a good point, and an inconvenient truth about the presumed usefulness of nuclear power in bringing on fuel savings:
It’s also useful to remember that a criticism of the carrier’s nuclear power is that the air wing and battle group still needed to be refueled (esp after demise of nuclear power CGs [cruisers]) and retained the need for the long logistics tails. Makes me think of the scenario of the CVN [aircraft carrier] speeding to the Arabian Sea, only to leave behind the battle group when they needed to refuel.
Aircraft Carriers versus the Swarm
We cannot assume that a swarm will focus on suicide attacks, though we must reckon with the possibility. Similarly, the goal need not be sinking a carrier. In some cases, simply harassing a CSG so that it is somewhat tied down and unable to devote its resources to other matters might be sufficient to the military-political ends of those ordering such a swarming diversion. In a diversion, there would be less motivation for suicide attacks, and one would suppose the that attacker would wish to preserve the lives of his trained and talented forces.
The idea being, that simply sinking a carrier might not be so easy, because then you must face the consequences of “rousing the sleeping giant”. An example of this strategy might be the rather passive piracy struggle ongoing in the Gulf, in which the Somali freebooters perform hardly any killing, seeking rather hostages and loot. It has a significant effect in raising very little disturbance from Western governments so far. Here’s more from J.N.:
How might a nation-state such as Iran employ such a swarm, and how might the Navy and the US respond to it? Would a harassing swarm attack rise to the threat level that would justify substantial escalation? I think not…Would the US want to send in a second or third CSG if one has been attacked or harassed by a swarm? Would this show of force intimidate the enemy, or would the world media spin in so that more and more US forces were being “tied down” by a few small boats? As I noted before, this can become a David and Goliath moment. There might also be the perception that one CSG couldn’t defend itself and needed help. This could be potentially damaging to prestige.
Fascinating commentary. So the swarm by not attacking would actually win by default. The Chinese did this a while back to the USNS Impeccable, and the Iranians themselves performed like tactics. It is almost the same idea the Navy uses its giant ships for which are “not meant to fight” but rather intimidate and deter a potential aggressor. The Iranians or whoever would be doing the same here with their much maligned and seemingly far less capable speedboats.
Which is why we call for small warships to manage these small warship navies, because in appearance we dare not give the impression of an overwhelming fleet “bullying” a weaker power. Unless they give us clear reason for retaliation of course, (as with the mining of the frigate Roberts in 1988) our vastly more powerful supercarriers are essentially helpless before this type of asymmetric warfare at sea. Amazing!