Carriers: The Weakest Link Pt 1
Consider for a moment the amazing capability of a single US Navy Nimitz class aircraft carrier, other than a nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine, the most powerful, most capable warship ever devised by man. Here from the Navy website we read:
Aircraft Carriers support and operate aircraft that engage in attacks on airborne, afloat and ashore targets that threaten free use of the sea; and engage in sustained power projection operations in support U.S. and coalition ground forces in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The aircraft carrier and its battlegroup also engage in maritime security operations to interdict threats to merchant shipping and prevent the use of the seas as a highway for terrorist traffic. Aircraft also provide unique capabilities for disaster response and humanitarian assistance. The embarked carrier air wing provides helicopters for direct support and C4I assets to support them and ensure aid is routed quickly and safely. The 10 Nimitz class aircraft carriers are the largest warships in the world, each designed for an approximately 50 year service life with one mid-life refueling.
An astonishing potency in a single, immense package, but is this concentration of force necessary, and is the USN limiting itself to only 10 Nimitz ships and 1 aging USS Enterprise an advantage or a handicap?
Concerning carrier numbers, the idea that there is 11 aircraft carriers at sea at a given time is deceptive. For instance, the Navy will say that it takes 3 Big Decks to ensure one is always forward deployed, with one in extended refit, another in rest and training. While this may vary according to emergencies, this means on average there are only 3-4 of our most expensive ships available. Considering the vast expanse of the worlds oceans, the myriad of commitments America involves itself in through treaties, this highlights an amazing gap in our ability to deploy naval power.
The British Royal Navy also plans to deploy its own big deck supercarriers in the near future. The UK version of the Nimitz class are HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, at 65,000 tons roughly 1/3 smaller but still able to deploy a respectable airwing of 40 jets. The RN says it needs 2 to insure that 1 is available for service at a time, which means on average expect half the firepower unavailable in most circumstances. Up until now the 3 Invincible class have formed the naval air striking power of the fleet, and during the Falklands conflict in 1982, along with the older HMS Hermes, meant it was possible that at least 2 were available in an emergency. So, with all the extra expense and apparent capability of the large deck, you can see the RN actually losing some ability by deploying larger, fewer ships.
Even these small numbers depend on the ideal notion that no one is shooting at your Big Ships. Throughout the Cold War, and even to this day, the USN might trust in America’s nuclear arsenal to ensure it pretty much had free reign of the world’s ocean. Because almost any military encounter between the superpowers might lead to full scale nuclear exchange, the carriers could sail close to most shorelines, and proved very effective supporting land operations against less well equipped, virtually non-naval powers in the Third World.
With the proliferation of guided missiles in the hands of even the poorest of nations, such as cruise missiles supplied to the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon, used against an Israeli warship, the ideal conditions of the past may be at an end. Recently in a naval demonstration ostensibly pointed toward North Korean aggression, the Chinese forced the US Navy to deploy the aircraft carrier George Washington into another sea. This amazing act was partly through diplomatic coercion, but also from the rising threat of missiles equipped with advanced targeting, technology which was ironically designed here in America. What a stark picture this presents to the brash sailing of carriers into the Taiwan Straits during a previous crisis with the Mainland in 1996, certainly a turning point in naval seapower!
Author and naval expert Norman Polmar thinks we can do better. Recently, the consultant to numerous Congressmen, Secretaries of the Navy, CNO’s, and President Ronald Reagan said the Navy “would make do”:
What has happened, he said, is a revolution in smart weapons to the point where surface ships and submarines can deliver cruise missiles on target instead of strike aircraft from a carrier offshore. For reconnaissance, there are satellites and unmanned vehicles instead of planes.
“Today, you want to hit somebody and you send a destroyer or submarine and you shoot 20 or 30 or 50 Tomahawk missiles,” he said. “We’ve got different capabilities in other ships that can do, to some degree, not completely, what a carrier does.”
Especially in terms of the Tomahawk missile, there are now 130 such vessels in service including the “arsenal submarines” of the Ohio class, totaling an extra 600+ of these 1000-mile range unmanned bombers on 4 super-stealth and cost effective platforms. Speaking of unmanned weapons, there is also the impending use of UAVs from surface, “reusable cruise missiles“, with their effectiveness assured in recent land wars. Along with the Tomahawks, the naval drones with their great range and persistence promises to restore the range and survivability of the fleet, as new threats destroy the invulnerability myth of the supercarrier. Backed by satellites and land based planes, this should destroy once and for all our dependence and obsession with the world’s most powerful and costly warships, ending a chronic drain on our budget and numbers once and for all.
Instead of fearing constantly that our troops or ships will lack aerial protection we should depend more on our unmatched air defense ships for air cover. The West’s most powerful Aegis radar has been consistently updated over the decades, until it can now destroy maneuvering missile warheads falling from space. A recent upgrade to the Arleigh Burke destroyer has been the addition of ESSM, potentially quadruples the number of the 90 missiles carried by the world’s most powerful surface combatant class. Instead of tying these new battleships to the increasingly redundant carriers, they should be loosed against America’s enemies, restoring the fleet’s versatilely and enhancing the survivability of our fleet.
Why can’t we get by with fewer carriers? Large deck advocates often boast that the vessels carry more firepower than many world air forces. Recall that the Royal Navy carriers in the Falklands stood up to a more numerous land based force with apparently less capable, sub-sonic, and short range Harrier jets. It is understandable that the Navy might be prepared then for battling 1, 2, and even 3 other airpower’s at a time, but by their own standards the USN is attempting to combat 11 other powers simultaneously, while their own strategists put this number as high as 13!
This post will be concluded on Thursday.