Carrier Alternative Weekly
Within the recent report from the Sustainable Defense Task Force titled Debt, Deficits, & Defense: A Way Forward, were naturally suggestions concerning America’s very powerful but also increasingly unsustainable fleet of aircraft carriers. Many of the proposals echo those put forth on occasion by New Wars, and I see this only as a common sense reaction to a growing problem. Doubts persist about the viability of large traditional aircraft carriers such as :
- They are too expensive, pricing upwards of $14 billion not including their expensive airwings and thousands of costly personnel needed to operate a single one.
- They may not be needed given advances in technology such as V/STOL planes including the supersonic F-35B that can operate from small decks or even converted merchantmen, plus amazingly smart and versatile cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles, so effective on land, soon to be so at sea.
- Their vulnerability. Taking a decade or longer to build and equip a multi-billion dollar platform, it only takes seconds to disable or defeat it using modern anti-access weapons such as cruise missiles and super-cavitating torpedoes. Even old fashioned mines or suicide boats pose a risk that the Navy has yet to contain sufficiently.
To me, all this seems to add weight to those seeking savings. Instead of casting off the numerous small patrol vessels or anti-mine ships as is the usual custom, the Navy needs to shed itself of supercarriers where there are no peers and none expected. Small craft are the least expensive to operate, need smaller crews, and are more relevant for today’s battles against pirates and Third World powers.
Here then are the proposals, from Congressman Barney Frank and many other distinguished analysts from the Project on Defense Alternatives, the CATO Institute, the Center for Defense Information and so on.
A 9 Carrier Fleet w/8 Airwings
We can reduce the size of our Navy from the current fleet of 287 battle force ships to 230,
although this will require using our naval power differently. Included in this fleet would be nine aircraft carriers. This option would keep fewer of our war ships permanently “on station,” partly by having them operate in smaller groups. It would put greater emphasis on surging naval power as needed. The firepower of our naval assets has grown dramatically during the past 20 years…
The option would eliminate procurement and advanced procurement costs for two aircraft carriers.
Savings also would come from a reduced demand for new aircraft: approximately 60 F-35’s and 10 E-2D
Advanced Hawkeye aircraft could be removed from the procurement pipeline. Finally, there would be substantial savings from operations and support accounts. All told, about 11,000 naval personnel would be subtracted from end strength…
The demand for ships could be reduced by patrolling in smaller groups and by shifting emphasis from
“presence” requirements to “surge” requirements. In particular, large-deck aircraft carriers and their air wings– which are the fleet’s most expensive component –could be mostly reserved for meeting war-time surge requirements…
Among US air power assets, those that are carrier based have a special role. Where access to land bases
is limited, aircraft carriers can bring tactical air power within reach of enemy bastions. But this fact should not exclude them from close scrutiny, especially in times of tight budgets. In fact, the United States has more of this asset than it reasonably needs. Moreover, sea-based air power is relatively vulnerable and expensive. Sortie for sortie, it costs more than twice as much as land-based tactical air…
In none of these wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo) were the engaged carriers employed to their fullest, however. For instance, during the first month of Operation Iraqi Freedom, naval fighters flew an average of 0.8 sorties per day. They are capable of flying two, at least – and the Navy claims they can do more in a pinch…
In 2005 Senate testimony, then Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vernon Clark asserted that the number of targets that a carrier air wing could attack per day in the future would increase from 700 to more than 1,000 – having already risen substantially from 200 in 1997. Implicit in this is the option to reduce the overall number of carriers and wings, while maintaining or even increasing striking power.
Supplementing the future offshore strike capability of US carriers would be the long-range attack capability of America’s bomber force – able in the future to carry several times as many guided munitions as today. Also bolstering the aircraft carriers would be the rest of the Navy’s surface fleet and the four Ohio-class submarines that have been reconfigured for conventional missions. The surface fleet is equipped with approximately 8,000 Vertical Launch Systems…
Proposal for 8 Carriers & 7 Airwings
Canceling procurement of CVN 79 and all future Ford Class CVNs would save $16 billion in planned procurement through 2020 (approximately $7 billion for CVN 79 and $9 billion for CVN 80). Decommissioning the Nimitz, Eisenhower, and Vinson (along with the Enterprise) would save at least $5 billion over 10 years in reduced O&M costs, including associated air wings. A further $12 billion would be saved in foregone procurement of 60 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, assuming a 50% replacement of F/A-18s with JSFs for each carrier eliminated. Associated reductions in personnel would save $10 billion. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, assuming a 50% replacement of F/A-18s with JSFs for each carrier eliminated. Associated reductions in personnel would save $10 billion…
I am in complete agreement, that the US military can do with far fewer forces geared for conventional warfare, in other words, traditional legacy platforms from the past century. I fear that some of the debate centering on the weapons reflect ideas born during the 1990s in the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that small numbers of high tech equipment can take the place of large standing armies, navies, and air forces. Obviously this notion, that high tech will solve all our problems, making wars easier and quicker has been officially discredited by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast, we see us needing more boots on the ground, our air forces are as busy as ever if not busier, and the need for small patrol craft to contend with the rise of small navies is increasingly clear.
So we should balance the reductions in conventional power with increase in unconventional warfighting equipment and personnel. These would include light and agile troops, hundreds of new patrol boats costing in the tens of millions or less, and plentiful new UAVs. As we say that because legacy weapons like giant aircraft carriers and their amazing fighters are so capable we can get by with fewer, lots fewer. But the need for presence and numbers, for the “cop on the beat“, whether on land, sea, or in the air never varies from war to war.
The time for change is here. We can no longer fight new wars with the weapons of yesterday. Lets get this done.