Carrier Alternative Weekly
No More Carrier Versus Carrier
Here is Strategypage adding to the question of why America deploys supercarriers while no one else has anything similar, not for a long time:
We think World War II in the Pacific as the “war of the carriers” and the “beginning of the carrier age.” Well, that’s technically true. But keep in mind that only five carrier to carrier battles were fought during the entire war, all between May 1942 and June 1944. There hasn’t been another carrier versus carrier battle since the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June, 1944. That’s over fifty years, and another one doesn’t look too likely any time soon. The “carrier versus carrier” era lasted only twenty five months. In fact, the last carrier to carrier combat that was anything like an even fight was the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands. This was also the last time an American carrier was sunk in a carrier battle. In effect, the “Golden Age of Carrier Battles” lasted from May to October, 1942. Five months. Four battles. There hasn’t been a carrier battle since 1944, nor is there ever likely to be one.
Thats a good point. The Navy might argue it needs carriers for other things, but the further question might be does it have to have 11, and are 100,000 ton, 1000 foot decks the only way to deploy airpower from the sea? The rest of the world navies say there are alternatives.
After World War 2, and with no other fleet to challenge our large decks, the USN had to find something to justifying continued production of very expensive strategy of carriers and their equally pricey aircraft. They found it supporting land operations, first n Korea, later in Vietnam, and today in the Gulf Wars. Except experience in wartime against peer adversaries proved this is a dangerous way to operate, and most experienced British and American admirals shunned operating close to land bases:
Although land based aircraft were two to three times as effective as carrier planes, the carriers could be swiftly moved across the vast expanse of the Pacific.It was this mobility that made carrier less effective. The carriers could not lug around as much avgas or munitions as a land base could stockpile. Operating at sea caused more damage to the aircraft, and the shortage of space on a carrier made aircraft maintenance more difficult. But despite these limitations, the aircraft carrier reigned supreme across the Pacific. As long as the carriers stayed away from more numerous land based aircraft (something the Japanese weren’t able to muster by 1944), the carriers could slug it out with anything they came up against. Note that the last American carrier lost in combat was a victim of land based aircraft.
In a peer conflict with a strong airpower foe like China, the carriers would be less useful since their planes could not operate close to shore to be effective. As long as our adversaries are weak in airpower, as the Koreans, the Vietnamese, or the Iraqis, we can easily justify their use, just not the huge expense. Now, even low tech nations like the Iranians can deploy missile batteries, which further increases the likelihood that the carriers and their planes will be ineffective.
A Nimitz class carrier, which is four times larger (by internal volume), costs $6 billion, and ten were built. Is the Nimitz eleven times as effective as the Essex?
I’m not sure about that, but modern naval aircraft are drastically superior, thanks to precision missiles and bombs. Also, the 36,000 ton Essex class were utilized by the Navy through the Vietnam War and into the 1970s, on the frontlines. If such a small vessel today was married to modern precision airpower, we might disperse this marvelous new capability that the Navy prefers to concentrate on a handful of very expensive hulls, which might be easily taken out in a future war at sea. You could buy about 10 ten Essex carriers today with precision bombers for the cost of a Nimitz (many more for a Ford) which means a lot of capability you can play around with.
With Nimitz class carriers, the navy can put accurate firepower on where most of the world’s population lives (near a coast). In late 2001, carrier aircraft provided most of the bombers over Afghanistan. But the navy won’t get enough money to keep eleven (it was twelve not too long ago) of these carriers in service.
We don’t need more-capable ships today, but more hulls to deploy the more-capable weapons, the aircraft, missiles, and sensors of the microchip revolution. So does Secretary Gates, thankfully:
Meanwhile, new technologies make robotic ships, submarines and aircraft affordable and effective. The navy is being told to buy more of this stuff. Robotic equipment is cheaper and, well, more expendable. If the navy needs this new gear, and is scrambling to find the cash to replace the old-school ships and aircraft, something has to give.
What Sen. Webb Didn’t Say
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, currently in a fight with the state of Florida over the Navy’s shrinking number of Big Decks, trying to keep them in his home state, was none too pleased with Secretary Robert Gates call last week for fewer, not more carriers. Here is a statement from the Senator via Peter Frost at the Shipping News:
“When someone says that there is a massive overmatch between our Navy and other navies around the world, I think that is a misstatement of why we have navies or how different countries field military forces. You don’t field a navy to fight another navy; you field military forces to protect your essential national interests. Our Navy, as I believe all of you would agree, is vital to the strategic posture of the United States and to deter malevolent behavior in a wide-range of hotspots around the world. That is an additional requirement in terms of fighting potential threats.”
What was left out though, if Navy shipbuilding is somehow underfunded, now and in the future, isn’t this the fault of Congress, who holds the purse strings, and not the Secretary? Webb having been in Washington for decades, and a clear advocate for carrier power, is at much at fault as the Navy for producing the smallest fleet in a century, because as mandated by the Constitution it is he and his colleague’s duty “To provide and maintain a Navy”.
Everything I heard from Mr. Gates seem to call for a bigger fleet, more widespread to deal with the myriad problems brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the demise of a single peer threat. Now there are many and varied challenges, calling less for a Cold War strike force in which power is concentrated in a few hulls, that may be at risk anyway. Senator Webb should be helping the fleet deal with the new century, instead of standing in the way of reform for the sake of tradition, or for jobs in his home state.
I just don’t see how the platforms of the last century can still be relevant for the problems of today, seeing we can no longer afford them. There is also no getting around the fact that during his tenure in Congress, Sen Webb and his colleagues in the government have resided over the largest drawdown of American warships since post-Vietnam, seeing it reduced to historically low levels, and done NOTHING to stem the tide. In contrast he and others have helped to continue the slow death of US naval power, by buying warships of another era.
Increasing Carrier Protection
Last week we commented on the following letter by Donald A. Moskowitz, who was concerned over the lack of escorts for our fleet of 11 carriers. Here he is again in the Herald News:
At times the carrier has only one escort because the other ships are dispersed to carry out “patrol missions, exercises and port calls.”
The Navy is comfortable dispersing the ships because we are not “facing direct, hot war threats,” but what would happen if some rogue nation decides to launch surprise attacks against our carriers? One escort and the air wing cannot protect a carrier from a large scale attack.
One idea might be to increase the carrier to escort ratio, by halving the number of carriers. Then the number of escorts for our fleet of vulnerable flattops would be instantly doubled. There would be an added benefit in all problems with a potential “fighter gap” considering the amazing shrinking carrier airwing, would be instantly solved! Just a thought…
The Political Aircraft Carrier
Paul Rogers at Open Democracy brings up an interesting conclusion about Britain’s plan for new large deck aircraft carriers. Because they are so expensive to build, equip, and maintain, they trap you into certain foreign policy ideas that may no longer be relevant, but certainly aren’t very flexible:
The cost of maintaining the carriers and their aircraft will hugely constrain other military spending, and direct Britain’s defence spending very much into a “global-reach” posture. In this sense they represent a curious inability to overcome the notion of policing the world that animated Britain’s outlook in its age of empire…More generally, the carrier/F-35 programme is hugely indicative of “old thinking” – an attitude to defence that has simply not caught up with the emerging globalised and interconnected world of the 21st century…
If the carriers are built to completion and the fighter-planes purchased, British defence policy will be channeled along a particular path that it will then long be obliged to walk, sail and fly. The potential to make a real difference over the acknowledged dangers of the coming decades would be closed for a generation.
Sounding much like something New Wars has quoted, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.
Always Consider the Risk
Strategypage is discussing the recent Iranian aerial spy mission over the carrier USS Eisenhower in the Gulf:
On April 21st, an Iranian F-27 maritime patrol aircraft flew very close to the American aircraft carrier, the USS Eisenhower, in the Sea of Oman…But there is always the danger of a suicide bomb attack. The F-27 could be crammed with several tons of explosives, which would do a lot of damage to an aircraft carrier. With the F-27 only a kilometers away, a sharp turn towards the carrier would have the aircraft hitting the ship in less than ten seconds. Possibly enough time for the Sea Sparrow missiles from the carrier, or escort ships, to do enough damage to stop the suicide Fokker from arriving, but maybe not.
Many attacks on American warships seem to come by surprise, thinking about Pearl Harbor, USS Stark, and more recently the USS Cole. It would be a great propaganda coup for a rogue Third World state like Iran to even damage one of our Great Ships.
Reading Between the Lines
Secretary Gates, in a week of eyebrow-raising comments, had yet one more shocker left. Talking to reporters he said:
I might want to change things but I’m not crazy. I’m not going to cut a carrier, OK, Gates said.
Rather than discouraging yours truly, I though it very funny, since it points to the bureaucrat in Gates. Being very diplomatic, the Secretary could not come out and openly say he is cutting something which the Navy and a great many politicians plus their constituents have billions invested in. In other words, pure politics at work.
Gates is a man of his times, and like New Wars, is simply observing the trends, especially the budget trends in which funds for many extras that have little to do with current threats simply are vanishing. Since the end of the Cold War, we have been funding one type of military, yet using it to fight another kind of war. Despite the fact this makes no sense whatsoever, a high tech military to fight low tech enemies, we can no longer afford it.
So this is out of Gates’ hands, and after him it will be up to his successors in the Pentagon to choose continued investment in an ever shrinking number of large decks, or a rebirth of the Navy, with enough hulls in the water to maintain its global presence, numbers even beyond the planned 313 ship fleet called by most “sheer fantasy”. What makes the current Secretary standout, he has chosen not to ignore the problems, which have been building for some time.
Japan’s Destroyer Carrier
David Axe, now in anime, details the JMDF’s newest capital ships:
Basically 22DDH will be an enlarged version of the Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers. The size increase is on the order of 25 percent, with a flight deck around 250 meters long, and a displacement of 19,500 tons. That’s a very big … destroyer. The U.K.’s Invincible class carriers are just over 20,000 tons.
Note how capital ships always come from the flotilla. The aircraft carrier was originally a scout for the battlefleet. The large V/STOL “Harrier carriers” were an evolution of the helicopter cruisers from the 1960s, the cruiser pre-dating the flattops as scout and screen. Now the destroyer, formerly the greyhound of the fleet, is getting aircraft, and with long range missiles, can rival the reach of the carrier.
General Atomics wants to Navy to consider its intriguing Sea Avenger UAV for carrier ops. There a slight problem however, according to Bill Sweetman:
Although the Avenger was designed from the ground up to be suitable for carrier operations (for example, the wingspan is held to 66 feet, and the wing design combined a thick and rugged inner section with easily folded outer panels) the Navy has historically been reluctant to buy aircraft from companies without carrier experience.
That’s spreading the potential for diversity thin, with the shrinking number of carriers in the USN. Likely such experience will soon be a lost art.
Speak no Evil of JSF
Speaking of Bill Sweetman, it seems the military reporter has been banned by employer Aviation Week from discussing the troubled Joint Strike Fighter program. Ironically, Lockheed Martin is a major advertiser with the magazine. Here’s David Axe once again:
The drama began with a Facebook update. In advance of a trip to Fort Worth, Texas, to visit Lockheed Martin’s F-35 factory, Sweetman posted this status update:
“Gentlemen, your target for tonight is Fort Worth. Flacks are predicted to be numerous and persistent on the run-in and over the target, and (crap) is expected to be dense throughout the mission. Synchronize watches and good luck.”
Sweetman, my former boss at AvWeek, was referring to Lockheed Martin’s and the government’s long history of lying about the F-35. Two years ago, an independent Pentagon auditing team found serious management and production problems inside the decade-old, $300-billion program to build some 3,000 F-35 fighters for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps plus more than a dozen allied countries. The problems would result in a two-year service delay and potentially tens of billions of dollars in cost increases.
This has very disturbing implications, not only about Freedom of the Press, but also procurement reform, plus accountability in government and industry. It also casts a dark cloud over the whole JSF program, touted as a replacement for numerous legacy warplanes, including naval aircraft. Sounding more and more like the false promises from the immensely flawed F-111 Aardvark program from the 1960s.
Bill, your sacrifice isn’t in vain, because such action proves the desperation the industry and its backer’s have reached to keep alive an increasingly unjustifiable weapon’s program. We have reached the tipping point, all downhill for JSF from here.
No Carrier Alternatives
After an ominous monologue examining the vulnerability of the large aircraft carrier to modern threats, advanced weapons which are cheap plentiful, light, and lethal,even invoking the memory of Pearl Harbor, E. Thomas McClanahan at Kansas City.com goes on to suggest, “what other choice do we have”:
Robert Haddick, a former Marine officer who writes at the Small Wars Journal site, noted that the answer to that question could be found in part on Okinawa, where residents are demanding closure of a major U.S. air base. Once that happens, Haddick wrote, a “big strategic hole” will open up in America’s western Pacific defense plans, and we will need our carriers even more to project force and deter aggression.
Okinawa isn’t the only problem. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain bases in several other countries. Yet we have vital interests in far-flung regions such as the Persian Gulf, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait.
The principle excuse for keeping carriers, even though they may be at risk for sinking when they approach the land, is we may not have airbases to protect our troops and allies. However, if the Big Ships are unable to reach their destination anyway, for fear of the small threats previously mentioned, isn’t that the same as the closing of the land bases? So we have stalemate.
I think that is basically what Secretary Gates was challenging the Navy to do, to find alternatives to vulnerable, probably obsolescent warships which we can’t afford anyway. Saying “we have no other choice”, settles you into an expensive rut which we can’t dig ourselves out of. Like a bad addiction, we know it is harming us in the long run (in this case bankrupting the shipbuilding budget) yet we can’t help ourselves.
It also invokes images of the Allied generals from the Great War slinging masses of precious infantry against machine gun and barbed wire entrenchments because “they had no choice” to end the muderous war of attrition on the Western Front. Suicide isn’t good military strategy.
New Wars insists there are alternatives to large decks, which are small decks taking advantage of the enhanced firepower and technology of modern warplanes, plus missile armed warships, and even long-range persistent UAVs which need less fueling, and can stay airborne for days without refueling. All this points to increasing redundancy of giant mobile airfields at sea, who are now so large and are easy targets for emerging technology, much of it borrowed or stolen outright from American precision tech, proven immensely accurate in the Gulf Wars.