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Carrier Alternative Weekly

July 15, 2010

1988 air-to-air right side view of a Russian Beriev A-50 airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft.

Outstanding Quote

Current events with North Korea gives further weight to this prediction from an older Defense Industry Daily article on the Ohio class SSGNs, converted Trident missile subs:

In the past, when trouble struck in a global hotspot, it has been said that one of the first questions an American President asks has been “Where are the carriers?” In future, that question may often change to “Where are the Tactical Tridents?”

H/T to Lee Wahler!


Carrier Abuse

From the 1991 book “This People’s Navy” by Kenneth J. Hagan, are these thoughts on the misuse of America’s carrier-borne airpower since World War 2. The Vice Admiral Malcolm W. Cagle mentioned here edited a comprehensive review of the Navy’s air war after Vietnam:

Admiral Cagle’s more general conclusions about the use of aircraft carriers in Vietnam–and in Korea two decades earlier–bear directly on the nature of American seapower at the end of the twentieth century. He noted that in those limited wars the “carriers had been employed as floating airfields–tied to a geographic station less than 100 miles from the enemy’s coast, sending aircraft against targets deep into the enemy’s land.” This stationary positioning of the carriers “made no use of the prime advantages of the carriers–their mobility.” It also made them sitting ducks. In the words of Admiral Roy Johnson, at one time commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, we might have gotten in serious trouble by operating near a fixed point” if there had been “a serious air threat or submarine threat in the Gulf of Tonkin.” Therefore, Cagle concluded, the prolonged operation of carriers from nearly fixed points “should not become a practice”. Vietnam–and Korea–thus represented an inappropriate operational deployment of aircraft carriers, and yet those wars comprised the principal operational use of the great carrier armada built after World War II.

As I have argued, the conflicts since the World Wars and continuing to this day have not been the correct use of the world’s most powerful and capable warships, neither do they justify their continued use. Here’s more:

The two limited wars also caused, “in the minds of many”, an incorrect understanding of the aircraft carrier’s true function. From Vietnam to Korea, according to Admiral Cagle, the false conclusion was drawn that “the primary purpose” of carriers was “sea-based tactical air augmenting…land based tactical air.” Not so, said the admiral. He offered a corrective: The “main mission for attack aircraft carriers is to assist in carrying out the Navy’s prime mission, control of the seas.” The carrier, in other words, was Mahan’s modern tool. The goal remained command of the seas; the strategic line back to Trafalgar ran straight and clear’ the real purpose of the carrier was to destroy the enemy’s fleet as Nelson destroyed Villeneneuve’s in 1805.”

Since the world wars, and because of the misuse of the large aircraft carrier for a role it isn’t really designed, I think the control of the seas has reverted by to the surface combatant, thanks to the continued improvement of the guided missile and its targeting radars. So, why do we still have aircraft carriers with all plans centered on their use but only in environments they were not made for?

But a dilemma existed: There had been no formidable enemy fleet since the defeat of Japan in 1945.

By default then, they live, with no true test of their abilities or survivability in contested waters against a peer enemy. Note if you mention the fact that no one possesses any vessel of the immense cost or power of a single one of our 11, advocates immediately change the subject away from the lack of foreign enemies!

 I thought the above was of major interest since it was from a general history of the US Navy and not a manual calling for reform.


If it was a Corporation, it would go under!

The Navy isn’t practicing good economics in keeping the first nuclear powered supercarrier, the USS Enterprise in service for another year, according to Kit Bonner at Sea Classics magazine:

The US Congress appropriated over $.5 billion USD to fund one final cruise for the Enterprise. Northrop Grumman was given $453.3 million USD for major overhaul to take no more than 16-months in dry dock. To date, the “Big E” has been in dry dock for 24-months, and is 31% over budget. It seems that this has become the norm as opposed to the exception in certain private shipyards. Unfortunately, eleven contract modifications have been required for a cost over-run of $140.1 million USD. All to allow an obsolete ship to take one more cruise!

The domino affect has altered the entire US Navy’s carrier force as certain ships have been waiting long beyond the time required for repairs to provide safe and combat ready service. At a minimum this includes the USS Nimitz, USS Eisenhower, and USS Harry S. Truman as well as a trickle-down affect on escort ships and their crews. Obviously, this has been very poorly managed, and perhaps sentiment has interfered with rational and realistic leadership. After all, the Enterprise is obsolete and has eight nuclear reactors compared to two in rest of the CVNs. This means greater costs. Perhaps, the “Big E” should be put out to pasture and work begun on an appropriate museum dedicated to this fine ship. It would be a shame if its final legacy was that of poor business practices.

The Navy over the years has altered the numbers of how many such giant ships it can’t live without, from 15 to 12 and now 11. Soon it will likely be 9 or 10. It is just me or is the strategy for the deployment of supercarriers merely “as many as we can get from Congress” instead of for any dire need? Also recall that there are plenty of other Navy warships which can do power projecting, from missile firing cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and giant SSGNs equipped with 154 missiles each plus Marine Harrier carriers.


Russia’s Land-Based Alternative

One of the primary arguments for maintaining fleets of giant and costly supercarriers, is the need to launch early warning aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye to defend the fleet from air attack. To make up for its lack of 100,000 ton ships to launch EW aircraft, the Russians have come up with a logical solution. Here is an article with an head-turning title “Cruiser sunk the aircraft carrier 700 km outside“:

To make up for the Russian Navy ships retired a few years ago too fast offensive caused a “deficit”, the Russian military in the exercise of the war at greater long-range aviation component.
From the Russian Volga – Ural Military District, Siberian Military District of the Soviet Union -24, -34 front-line bomber Su deliberately non-stop from 8,000 kilometers away, the Pacific exercise, there was another A-50 early warning aircraft and air refueling IL -78 protects They destroyed the enemy at sea with cruise missile target, which means “not enough ships, aircraft and Minato,” the Russian ocean-going operations will be a major feature.

Larger jets EW like the A-50 can also load a great many more electronics, is faster, and thus more survivable than the 50-year old propeller driven Hawkeye. Also with refueling, larger planes are less a toil on the crew, allowing the plane to stay airborne indefinitely. I’m glad we have the Hawkeye as long as there are decks available to carry the fairly short range plane. Still, as the Russians proved, the loss would be no game-changer, if the immense cost of naval airpower has outweighed the need, and if land-based air already provides the solution.


Merlin Keeps Watch

Speaking of AEW, the British also know how to deploy the capability on a budget, recalling they originally designed the Sea King AEW2A “within 11-weeks” during the 1982 Falklands Conflict. Here from Defense Update is the story “‘Merlin AEW’ Proposed to Replace Royal Navy’s Sea King Mk7 AEW Helicopter“:

AugustaWestland and Thales presented the conceptual design of an AW101 ‘Merlin’ based Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC), positioned to replace the Sea King Mk7 ASaC currently operated by the Royal Navy. Operating from the deck of helicopter and aircraft carriers, Sea King Mk 7 helicopters are carrying the Searchwater 2000 radar and Cerberus mission system to provide airborne early warning at sea for the Royal Navy naval surface fleet.

While some would say the heliborne EW isn’t as good as the USN’s fixed wing capability, the RN thinks otherwise, using the new weapon off its own large decks:

The Royal Navy plans to deploy the new ASaC helicopter with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, currently under construction.


Westland Sea King AEW.2A AEW-helicopter

18 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2013 12:43 am

    This is my first time visit at here and i am truly pleassant to
    read everthing at single place.

  2. B.Smitty permalink
    July 21, 2010 11:58 am

    It’s based on the Britten Norman Defender, which is a light STOL aircraft.

  3. Heretic permalink
    July 21, 2010 10:14 am

    Maybe … but it doesn’t say anything about STOL performance.

  4. B.Smitty permalink
    July 16, 2010 5:51 pm


    Not exactly a PC-6, but something like this?

  5. Heretic permalink
    July 16, 2010 9:39 am

    re: tangosix

    In an ideal World there would exist a large(ish) turbofan powered carrier capable/short runway support aircraft which could perform A.E.W. and many other roles on both land and sea.

    In an ideal world, you’d see PC-6 Turboporters being used converted for use as AEW instead of helicopters at sea. Kinda hard to knock the maintenance footprint on the PC-6 … or the STOL performance for that matter.

    Would be “helicopter slow” to flee from hostiles, but then most hostile aircraft would be jets that can run down a prop-job anyway … E-2D or no.

    Any converted EC-6 doing AEW would no doubt want to have an aerial refueling option, which with a propeller up front kinda sort limits the probe and drogue refueling choices. Some sort of autopilot controlled automatic refueling system using an outer wing(tip) probe might work though, where the pilot goes “hands off” during the refueling. Good thing there are companies training drone tankers to do precisely this, eh wot?

    Kinda silly to think about … sure … but a plane with the best STOL performance in the world which has 1530 kg (3,366 lb) of payload capacity and room for 10 skydivers aboard is perhaps not something to dismiss out of hand for low end AEW, especially in a navalized context where runways are short?

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 16, 2010 6:38 am

    Thanks Chuck!

  7. Chuck58 permalink
    July 16, 2010 5:49 am

    Minor point, Mike – VARYAG is actually the second ship of the ADMIRAL GORSHKOV class which was a larger follow-on to the KIEV class. What are they? “Aviation Cruisers” is the term I’ve heard to describe these multi-role platforms.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 16, 2010 4:20 am

    “Mike, I’m just wondering, what’s your opinion on the Russian Kiev-class carriers?”

    Was she a carrier or a missile cruiser? It is easier to compare her to the Invincible class, which were contemporary. The Invincible was also a cruiser/carrier, though very lightly armed in comparison and smaller. Though what matters in a carrier is her airwing and in this the British had the Russians beat.

    The Forger V/TOL was just a terrible plane, never worked probably, and would have been in extreme disadvantage in almost any airspace. Almost no range and no ability for short take-off which is standard on the Harrier. Almost immediately they were retired after the Cold War in recognition of this.

    Still the Kiev’s were a worthy evolution toward Russia’s own Big Decks, and note the design was not repeated. One survivor is getting a makeover into a fully serviceable flattop, the Varyag. Lesson here, probably best to have focused mission ships.

  9. Al L. permalink
    July 16, 2010 12:51 am

    RW2 said:
    “As for this myth that the U.S. Navy has Harrier carries she does not.”

    But the U.S. Navy could have such carriers, and for a good price.

    As RW2 states the LHD’s have enormous amounts of hull space dedicated to the Marine landing force. LHA-6 also has large volumes dedicated to Marine landing forces.

    What if a LHA-6 type ship was built as a dedicated aviation Ship? Would it be capable of operating a complement of 30 JSF sized aircraft for a cost of $3.4 Billion? I think so. That’s about a third of the cost of a Ford class carrier.

  10. RW2 permalink
    July 15, 2010 10:24 pm

    To add to what Tango Six post the E-2 C/D operates over a hundred miles from the carrier where it also acts as a command and control while the fleet goes passive. I’m not aware of the abilities of the RN A.E.W. helos so I want comment on them.

    As for this myth that the U.S. Navy has Harrier carries she does not. LHD/LHA (not including the America’s) are not designed or capable to be that type of ship. They are design to get marines from points A to B in a safe manner with all there toys for the inatial assault. They are designed keel up for amphibous operations. There Power is the ability to land over 1000 Marines from over the horizon. I’ve worked on Boxer (LHD-4), the Bonnie Dick (LHD-6) as well as the Tarwara LHA-1 and Pielielu LHA-5. Deployed with the Belleau wood LHA-3 when I was station on my first ship G-town. Gator Navy gets no love.

    Though there defensive systems are good there magazine space is limited for safe storage for bombs. Small bombs at that. There flight decks are narrow and when you see a bunch of 53 echos on deck its a maricle there blades don’t strike the island. Without the use of a ski jump AV-8B put a hurting on there decks. Maybe this is why some airwings deploy without them?

    The Americas will be interesting to watch. It sounds like the Marines wanted a dedicated ground support Air Assault ship to compliment the fine Wasp/Makin Island class ships. How the first two non welldeck ships got approve by the Navy is an amazing feat. I wonder how the idea was sold?

  11. Fencer permalink
    July 15, 2010 9:55 pm

    Mike, I’m just wondering, what’s your opinion on the Russian Kiev-class carriers?

  12. July 15, 2010 6:38 pm


    there are a number of problems with helicopter based Airborne Early Warning (A.E.W.).
    The biggest problem for a country like the United Kingdom is cost.

    The helicopter cannot do the job of fixed wing A.E.W. so you end up having to have both fixed wing and rotary wing A.E.W. which is incredibly expensive.

    British forces have 7 Royal Air Force Sentry fixed wing aircraft in addition to the 13 Seakings of the Royal Navy.
    As few as 10 carrier capable fixed wing A.E.W.aircraft could replace those 20 aircraft.
    The potential financial savings are huge even though this would entail buying new aircraft.
    For military aircraft the vast majority of lifcycle cost is operating cost rather than purchase cost.

    The problem with helicopters is that they lack speed,range altitude and endurance.
    They are also lacking in terms of the systems they can carry,antenna size,power output,frequency and numbers of operators carried are all important factors for radar aircraft.

    A big powerful,lower frequency radar carried at high altitude will have both long detection ranges against small radar cross section targets and a distant radar horizon.
    It will have the speed to support fighters operating many hundreds of miles from the carrier and the kinematics to run away from any hostiles which look like they may get too close.

    A small,lower power,higher frequency radar carried at lower altitude by a helicopter is going to have a great deal of difficulty detecting low radar cross section targets at great distance.
    It will also have a much closer radar horizon and lack the speed and endurance.
    Thus enemy aircraft will find it much easier to get close without being detected and when they do the helicopter will lack the kinematics to run away bravely.
    The helicopter will also lack the speed and endurance to support operations distant from the carrier and unlike the fixed wing aircraft it would be unable to fly over low level ground based threats.

    Thus the helicopter is useful but rather limited in what it can do and must be supplemented by fixed wing aircraft.

    If those fixed wing aircraft are like the Sentry they will be restricted to a handful of long vulnerable runways often very distant from where they are needed with consequent reductions in unrefuelled time on station and subsequently a large demand for refuelling.
    It is worth remembering that the new British aerial refuelling tankers are costing nearly three times as much as their new aircraft carriers.
    Any reduction in tanker demand saves very large amounts of money.
    The Sentry is also very manpower intensive and being rather old will need to be upgraded or replaced at some time in future.

    The carrier based E2D Hawkeye has the very latest systems but a smaller radar than the Sentry but much larger than the Seaking.
    It is faster than the helicopter but not as fast as the Sentry.
    It’s 8 hour unrefuelled endurance is less than the Sentry’s 11 hours but more than the Seaking’s 5(ish) hours.
    It can be based on more numerous short runways or a carrier deck enabling it to fly much shorter distances which combined with it’s very low fuel consumption will result in little if any demand for aerial refuelling.
    It’s down sides are the limited number of operators it can carry and it’s rather low speed.
    However,it is the best all rounder and the only option which permits significant financial saving for the United Kingdom at this time of financial crisis.

    The choice for Britain then is either carrier capable fixed wing A.E.W. or carrier capable rotary wing A.E.W. and land based fixed wing A.E.W. at far greater cost.

    In an ideal World there would exist a large(ish) turbofan powered carrier capable/short runway support aircraft which could perform A.E.W. and many other roles on both land and sea.


  13. Jacob permalink
    July 15, 2010 1:36 pm

    “I think the control of the seas has reverted by to the surface combatant, thanks to the continued improvement of the guided missile and its targeting radars.”

    I’m not so sure about this….if a carrier and its airwing can’t defend against swarms of land-based planes and supersonic cruise missiles, then a surface combatant task group will only fare worse. At least those F/A-18’s can keep some of those bombers away from the fleet and minimize the amount of damage taken.

  14. Al L. permalink
    July 15, 2010 10:58 am

    “Merlin Keeps Watch”

    There’s another aircraft that could make that system better:

    Still one more reason to consider a LHA-6 based sto/vl carrier.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 15, 2010 10:38 am

    “the Cerberus system is actually better than updated E2C”

    I hadn’t heard that. Even more impressive!

    Good point about the capability. Since you already have supercarriers, why not go ahead and give them super-airpower? What I like about the heliborne AEW, it can fly from more cost-effective decks, and its a great capability as you point out.

    “could the presence of an overwhelming US Naval fleet world wide have dampened down the Soviets enthusiasm for challenging the US on the world’s oceans?”

    Nah, they had pretty much caught up with us by the 1980s, surpassed us in number, then bankrupted themselves trying to deploy naval airpower with a faltering economy. Sounding very familiar…

  16. July 15, 2010 8:53 am

    Ref: “While some would say the heliborne EW isn’t as good as the USN’s fixed wing capability, the RN thinks otherwise, using the new weapon off its own large decks:”

    Not really true Mike. While there are those that say the Cerberus system is actually better than updated E2C, and its overland performance is actually demonstrably better, the new radar in the E2D catches up with, if not leapfrogs the heliborne radar.

    But lets get this straight, if the RN could AFFORD fixed wing AEW on its carriers, it would have it ! That would require the carriers to be fitted with cats and traps, and to be honest in the long run that might be cheaper than F35 STOVL operations. Plus if fitted with cats and traps we could have air group commonality with the only other European conventional carrier user, we could have Rafale and E2’s and share training and other stuff with France.

    Or for the British “anything Euro is bad’ crew, we could have F18’s and send pilots for training in the US !

  17. juandos permalink
    July 15, 2010 6:32 am

    But a dilemma existed: There had been no formidable enemy fleet since the defeat of Japan in 1945“…

    Hmmm, could the presense of an overwhelming US Naval fleet world wide have dampened down the Soviets enthusiasm for challenging the US on the world’s oceans?


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