Carrier Alternative Weekly
Naval Airpower’s Dirty Little Secret
The inconvenient truth that the Navy doesn’t want you to know from the 1982 Falklands War are the lessons learned in naval airpower. The fact is, two small, modestly capably and low priced warships carrying a handful of subsonic V/STOL aircraft defeated a larger, fairly modern land based air force armed with supersonic jets and cruise missiles. In contrast are the 11 USN supercarriers today, armed with over 70 high performance jets, pricing about $20 billion to deploy each, its only enemies being low tech air forces, or in the case of Afghanistan, no enemy airpower whatsoever.
Ironically, the Navy has quietly deployed its own fleet of small aircraft carriers, which alone are more powerful than all the other world’s naval airpower combined. These are the 10 amphibious assault carriers used by the Marines, and individually larger than either of the two British flattops that brought victory in the Falklands. Each are also more capable, able to carry more than 20 Harrier fighters comfortably (compared to 10 on the Royal Navy vessels), and because they are longer, don’t require a ski jump for launching a fully armed plane, as on the smaller Invincible class.
This engagement in massive overkill in terms of carrier airpower has an ongoing detrimental effect on the service. Since the Cold War, ship numbers have declined until the fleet is half-sized and still sinking. Aging frigates and patrol craft, arguably the most useful contending with modern low tech asymmetrical threats and economical for showing the flag, continue to go without replacement despite decades in service. Anti-submarine warfare is in long neglect, and except for the occasional crisis which reminds us of the threat, this is likely to continue without drastic change in priorities.
Not only is the USN in an aircraft carrier building race with only itself in competition, it also competes with USAF and Army aerial forces, for the primary mission of power projection on land. The notion that the US fears to lose land bases for launching planes is an unlikely or at least manageable occurrence, that fosters an unbearable burden on the Defense Budget. It means neglecting ongoing problems of seapower, while we fret over an obscure future threat, the enemy we want instead of the one we have.
Propped up by a Congress jealous of the industry and government funds such titanic monuments bring to their respective districts, there is little impetuous for change. The lessons of smaller, less well funded fleets, which can project power ashore without breaking their budgets, stands as an ongoing reminder to shine a light on wasteful Pentagon spending, however dim that light currently is.
Weapons Seeking a Strategy
The Oxford Research Group is horrified at the cost of Britain 2 new aircraft carriers, and the rising cost of their already pricey airwing:
The two new carriers, the 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth-class ships, each nearly three times the size of the current Invincible-class ships, are large vessels capable of a range of uses, but the reality is that they are intended as force-projection warships equipped with an extremely expensive new strike aircraft. The combined total order for the carriers and the RAF is expected to be 130 planes at a cost per plane of £94 million, although this cost continues to rise. Along with escorts and support ships, maintaining and deploying the carriers will dominate naval capabilities for the lifetime of the ships.
Coming to the following conclusions:
The entire UK carrier/F-35 programme should be canceled. Replacements might include two much smaller sea control ships utilizing the rapidly developing UCAV (drone) technologies, with a much scaled down purchase of one of the F-35 alternatives currently available.
I would hope the replacement would be some updated Ocean class, a cost effective yet effective class of helicopter carriers, much like the French Mistral and Japan’s Hyuga. These type vessels have much potential and are very useful for navies on a budget.
Saving the carriers, one ship at a time
Speaking of helicopter carriers, Congress is trying to extend the service of two elderly Tarawa class assault ships, in an attempt to breathe life support into the shrinking fleet. Story is from Phil Ewing at Scoop Deck:
Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor, chairman of the seapower subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, wants taxpayers to get their money’s worth for the final two Tarawa-class amphibs, Nassau and Peleliu. Even though the Navy current plans call for the ships to go away in fiscal years 2011 and 2013, respectively, Taylor wants them to serve for at much as 10 more years…
Here’s another pressing question: What would it take to the keep the ships in fighting shape for another decade? They’re old. Anecdotally, Navy Times heard from Nassau crew members more than than any others when we asked about sailors needing to buy their own gear.
A noble gesture, but the price of keeping two very old carriers would likely buy a whole lot of patrol vessels to fight pirates, compared to billion-dollar amphibs misused in this type of operations.
“most expensive helicopter carrier ever”
The EMALS advanced new catapult system just HAS to work, since it is the only major thing setting the so-called “transformational” new aircraft carrier apart from the half-priced but peerless Nimitz class. Here’s more from Lewis Page at The Register:
The so-called Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, is now under development in a shore-based test facility at Lakehurst naval air station in New Jersey. However, according to reports, the test mass-driver installation suffered serious damage earlier this year in a mishap blamed on a “software malfunction”. Apparently the “shuttle” – which moves along the catapult track to accelerate a plane to flying speed – went the wrong way in a test shot and smashed into important equipment…
The next US supercarrier, CVN 78, aka USS Gerald R Ford, is now under construction and intended to join the fleet in 2015. Navy officials confirmed last year that it is now too late to amend the ship’s design and revert to steam catapults: EMALS must be made to work or the US Navy will receive the largest and most expensive helicopter carrier ever.
Somehow, even if the catapult didn’t work, I feel the Navy would find a way to justify a $14 billion helicopter carrier! I’ll bet if they didn’t buy all those silly jets, the carrier could be really affordable!
Shrinking the Gap
The Congressional Budget Office, via DoD Buzz offers some ways for the Navy to keep enough planes flying off carrier decks:
Alternative 1: Do the HFH minor repairs and inspection on the 509 suitable Hornets; at a cost of around $2.2 billion. This option would increase the number of aircraft by 71 over the 2011–2025 time frame.
Alternative 2: Do the HFH repairs and inspection on 220 Hornets and the more costly SLEP on 289 Hornets; at a cost of about $7.7 billion. This option would increase the inventory by 135 aircraft from 2011 to 2025.
Alternative 3: Do the HFH repairs and inspection on 509 Hornets and buy 126 more Super Hornets (beyond the 515 planned buy) and decrease the buy of Joint Strike Fighters by 93 between 2018 and 2023. The downside of this option is that it would increase costs by up to $11.3 billion in the short term, out to 2015. However, because it reduces the JSF buy, it’s only an increase of about $4.8 billion over the current plan in the longer term out to 2025. It would increase the number of Navy tactical aircraft by 174.
Alternative 4: Modify 509 Hornets through HFH and purchase 126 more Super Hornets, but don’t reduce the JSF buy. This is the most expensive option at about $12.6 billion. It would also net the most aircraft, increasing the total inventory by 191 above the projected shortfall; the total inventory would remain above 1,000 aircraft between 2011 and 2025.
Sadly, reducing the very expensive carrier fleet isn’t one of the options, that would bring instant savings, allow needed decks to be filled and release tens of thousands of sailors for duty elsewhere.
Stephen Trimble also likens an increased Super Hornet buy and life extension of available planes to a “Doomsday scenario for F-35B/C“.
India’s Sitting Ducks
The world’s most populace democracy is spending a huge amount in order to deploy a potent carrier arm in the next decade. The great expense may be all for nothing, according to the following post via DefPro:
Indian Navy has expressed delight at the Sevmash Shipyard’s progress in refurbishment of Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier towards a delivery in 2012. Unfortunately, being ignored is China’s rapid development of its anti-ship (read aircraft carrier) ballistic missile program. In March 2010 Wired reported a US Admiral Robert Willard, the head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) told legislators that China 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.” The report further noted that since its development in 1990s, it is now at a testing stage. Due to the advanced technology in the missile even the U.S. may not have the technology to defend its carriers against such a strike, effectively meaning that aircraft carriers would be sitting ducks.
Refurbishment of the former Kiev class V/TOL cruiser into a fixed wing aircraft carrier has also suffered through delays and cost overruns, with the total price now standing at $2.3 billion US, from an original estimate of $974 million.
Aircraft Carriers versus Midget Subs?
According to Asian news sources, the US Navy is mobilizing major firepower in support of South Korea after the sinking of the corvette Cheonan by a Northern midget sub. Details from reporter Nam You-Sun at the AFP:
The nuclear-powered USS George Washington will leave its base in the Japanese port of Yokosuka on or around Saturday and arrive in the Yellow Sea early next week, Yonhap news agency said.
Major newspapers carried similar reports. Kim, the military spokesman, said US and South Korean ships would stage a joint exercise but declined to give details.
Sources said the enormous Nimitz-class US carrier was preparing to join the drill.
Thats a lot of power to chase subs in littoral waters, though we imagine it is all about “shows of force”, as if the corrupt Pyongyang regime respects symbols of law and order.