Carrier Alternative Weekly
So much for the voices of conspiracy! A routine deployment caused a big splash in the news, with cries of an impending strike on Iran (as if they didn’t deserve one!) all to get us here, according to Lance Bacon at the Navy Times:
For the sailors aboard the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, the large, gray flattop that roared past the port side was a welcome sight. That ship was the carrier Harry S. Truman, and the long-awaited exchange happened Saturday. The Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group will officially relinquish control of Task Force 50 and the area of responsibility Friday.
Here’s what we get for all the uproar:
The Truman strike group deployed May 21 from Norfolk, Va., after a seven-month delay caused when the carrier Enterprise was late coming out of the yard. The strike group transited the Suez Canal and entered 5th Fleet on June 18. Its six ships, air wing and 6,000 sailors will provide close air support to coalition ground forces in Afghanistan.
Tehran need not fear since the USN will continue to use the world’s most expensive warships in sundry ground support missions over uncontested airspace, in an attempt to justify their relevance in 21st century warfare. Supporting land troops being its only haven in an era of mostly ground threats, though cheap, expendable, and off the shelf “jeep” carriers were good enough for this function in the last world war. Likely the Marine Harrier carriers would be adequate for this role in a Navy seeking savings, but are there no airbases in Afghanistan?
Placing them where their 100,000 ton hulls can be at risk from suicide boats, attack from missile subs or mines might also interfere with future funding plans.
Nothing to see here. Move along, move along…
Carriers Keep Out!
In contrast to the ongoing Iran fable, is a very real and impending threat to USN warships from China. Recently the PLA announced it would be testing it’s rumored carrier-killing anti-access missiles just in time for America’s birthday celebration on the 4th. Here is Greg Grant at Defense Tech:
Chinese media reports that beginning today the People’ Liberation Army (PLA) will hold six days of military exercises in the East China Sea, a message, analysts say, to the U.S. Navy not to steam its carrier battle groups too close to Chinese shores…
Respected China analyst Andrew Erickson says the live fire training aims to demonstrate China’s ability to attack a U.S. carrier strike group and may include the first test of China’s long talked about anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). He sees hints that China’s Second Artillery, a powerful organization within the Chinese military which operates the country’s missile force, may be at a point where it’s ready to test an ASBM.
According to the report, China has numerous available alternatives to concentrate attacks on our few giant warships:
Erickson says Chinese tactics would aim for “multi-axis saturation” of a carrier strike group’s missile defenses by combining swarms of missile boats (such as the Houbei Type 022 fast missile catamaran), missile launching submarines and land based ballistic missiles.
Which argues against the USN practice of concentrating immense firepower in a few inflexible platforms, inflexible in the sense they can be in only one place at a time.
Buy Small Carriers…
You get the impression that advocates for large decks in the USN want either 100,000 ton ships or nothing. They may get nothing as their continual insistence on building legacy style warships is helping anti-carrier advocates in their cause to turn the USN into a coastal defense force, since no power on earth can sustain ships costing $10-$15 billion each, plus arm them and build adequate numbers of warships for other navy functions.
Often accused of trying to sink the carriers, in contrast New Wars and others who advocate smaller ships are naval airpower’s last hope. Focused as they are on upshoring a floundering economy, and increasingly distracted by social concerns, politicians are looking for big cuts in military spending, and the logical conclusion will fall on the battlefleet, with many beginning to question its relevance.
The battlefleet is still relevant, and it doesn’t need cutting so much as changing. Though many have insisted how less capable small carriers are compared to the immaculate supercarriers of the Nimitz class, if the choice left is “nothing”, suddenly the economical vessel appears quite effective.
Michael Colombaro at Combat Fleet of the World is now echoing New War’s call for building smaller fixed wing carriers. First he gives the reason why:
If the latest Nimitz carrier (USS George.H.W.Bush) cost +/- 7 $ billion, the 1st Gerald-R-Ford cost +/- 14 $ billion (R & D include) and the 2 next reached +/- 10/12 $ billion per copy. For this, in 2009 it was decided to build a new carrier only every 5 years (rather than previously every 4 years). In fact, with cost escalation/inflation, its become clear than by late 2010’s/early 2020’s, the cost of a later 100 000 tons CVN 78 class ships reach easily +/- 15 $ billion (or even worse….)
And even the cost of there mid-life modernization (RCOH) is a major concern…
– The 1998/2001 RCOH for the USS Nimitz cost +/- 1,8 $ billion.
– The 2005/2008 RCOH for the USS Carl Vinson cost +/- 3,1 $ billion.
– The 2009/2012 RCOH for the USS Theodore-Roosevelt was expected to cost +/- 3,3 $ billion…
While Michael concedes how a larger deck would be more desirable, the costs can only lead to one conclusion–cuts.
Unfortunately the rising cost of big CVN will push the Americans to slow down their buildings. But this is not a long term solution. In fact, it becomes clear that in future, with UAVs is increasing onboard, with a 100,000 tons ship cost +/- 15 $ billion (or even much more by 2020’s), a VERY strong need for reducing expensive crew and newer threats capable of sinking large ships. The need to develop new, smaller , advanced (and survivable) vessels will be felt…
Here is a summary of the blogger’s CVL proposal:
- displacement-58,000/68,000 tons
- Length-278/290 meters
- Airwing-40 to 55 total
- Propulsion-2 or 4 conventional shaft or even pods
- Or-A single nuclear reactor that doesn’t require midlife replacement (?)
My own thinking, this is a safe adjustment to carrier procurement because of advances in airpower since the 1980s, with the advent of precision guided munitions, allowing naval bombers the long-sought goal of “one bomb, one hit”. I continue to be astonished that the carrier builders do not take advantage of this significant breakthrough in technology to reduce the cost and increase the number of flattops. Instead, they remain on the basic Nimitz type supercarrier hull, allowing the class to increase in unbearable cost, thus ensuring its inevitable demise.
Interestingly, the US Navy seems to be in the position of the British Royal Navy in it’s post World War 2 stage, and the decline from Empire. After the rapid expansion of the war years, the RN shrank rapidly and steadily, averaging around 300 ships in service initially, with about 9 fixed wing carriers in service by the 1950s. After 1960 and the retreat to a position “East of Suez“, the decline became more pronounced.
Beginning in WW 2 and for years afterwords, the Navy supplemented its fleet of large carriers, the 6 Illustrious class plus the improved Eagle and Ark Royal with numerous light carriers. Specifically these were 5 ships of the Majestic class, 8 ships of the Colossus class, and 4 ships of the Centaur class. Many of these remained uncompleted at war’s end, and eventually were either sold to allies such as Canada and Australia. One was even used against Britain in the Falklands War, or at least the aircraft of Veinticinco de Mayo, formerly HMS Venerable were. Others became the first British helicopter “commando carriers”.
Several were used as fixed wing aircraft carriers to supplement the declining number of strike carriers. Most notable was the famed HMS Hermes which could also launch the excellent Blackburn Buccaneer attack plane, though not the larger American Phantom II fighter.
The saga of saving the Fleet Air Arm and the subsequent canceling of CVA-01 in 1966, the last (so far) British supercarrier, has been told here before. The idea was that Britain attempted to purchase 5-6 supercarriers to keep herself in the first rank of naval powers, with this number eventually downsized to 1-2. Because of the expense and the post-war economic difficulties of the United Kingdom, again sounding very familiar to modern America, she ended up losing her fixed wing ability altogether.
This is not to say the V/STOL capability of the Invincible class, often called light carriers themselves but really non-traditional types able to load only helicopters and the Harrier vertol plane, aren’t desirable. The Harrier is a great plane, but its primary attribute is to operate from austere decks, even a helicopter platform. It’s drawbacks include short range, low speed, and high maintenance. Overall it is better than nothing, which is where the Royal Navy was about 1970.
It is curious that the Navy didn’t draw on its experience in building and deploying light carriers to continue this practice. Certainly a slightly enlarged HMS Hermes, perhaps some 30,000 tons-plus would have been more affordable than 60,000 ton giants, and less controversial price-wise. The French in the 1950s pursued a less ambitious carrier program, producing the Foch and Clemenceau, which were quite adequate for the colonial duties of her own fading empire.
Aircraft would have been less a problem. The French designed several series of the supersonic Entendard specifically for carrier service, but the British still had the Buccaneer that proved a formidable attack plane, later in RAF service up to the 1991 Gulf War. The Gannet airborne-early warning plane could also be carried, which is an oft-noted deficiency in the Invincible class in the Falklands.
Fighters would have been harder to come by, as the French discovered in their use of antiquated American F-8 Crusaders from the Vietnam War up until the 1990s. One idea might have been to adapt the Panavia Tornado for this role, which was smaller than the Phantom. Also, the excellent Franco/British Jaguar might have been an alternative, since these planes were also tested for naval service, the Jaguar M.
Of course, there was still the Kestrel, later dubbed the Harrier, just in time to save naval airpower for small/medium navies. The Harrier gave excellent service in numerous wars as it continues to this day. The problem is with its replacement there are few alternatives, the only one being the F-35B Lightning II which is an expensive and troubled program. Yet light fixed wing fighters and bombers are widespread, and deployed worldwide, most notably the French Rafale now on the small Charles de Gaulle, and there is even talk of adapting the Swedish Gripen for naval service. Numerous training planes such as the British Hawk series and the Korean T-50 Golden Eagle seem readily adaptable for combat functions.