Carriers: The Weakest Link Pt 2
The idea of massed airwings of the type carried by the typical Nimitz class supercarrier is actually making us weaker with the appearance of great strength. When this becomes your only answer for world problems, it greatly limits your capability and effect. For instance, a show of force with a carrier strike group against a Third World nation appears almost farcical, because of the great difference in strength between the two powers. A rogue dictator knows the US must either deploy this force at its full strength or not at all, and given the world attitude against war on weaker nations, the defiant potentate knows he is mostly secure. The dramatic takedown of a Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega is such a rare occurrence as to be unlikely, the dictator feels secure enough when the carrier withdraws for other duties, he quietly breathes a sigh of relief, and publicly claims a great victory of standing down the American colossus. The old David versus Goliath scenario, which is very effective for propaganda purposes.
The huge size of a supercarrier, with so much national treasure packed inside, plus the very exquisite planes and warships required to defend it, means for a massive and unnecessary drain on America’s resources. More expensive ships and their long building times means American shipyards spend an excessive amount of time on fewer warships. Fewer ships built means less work, which is the primary cause of the demise of the US shipbuilding industry. Our apparent great strength then has a ripple effect across the entire Navy, ensuring it remains small, less flexible, and with fewer shipbuilding resources in case of war. This makes us less prepared for the future, not more.
It is also a very wasteful way to deploy power at sea. The admirals use the argument that larger carriers are better because they carry more firepower than so-called less capable small carriers, but this dated idea bears scrutiny in considering advances in technology. The 1980 airwing of the USS Nimitz was far less capable than the 2000 airwing, the addition of precision guided munitions making a dramatic difference. Packing all this incredible technology in a few large packages, keeping it concentrated rather than dispersed where it is needed makes it less effective.We are weak even with the appearance of great strength.
If, however, you spread the new capability out, in smaller carriers, or with missiles ships, or land based planes, you could do more missions with the seemingly “less capable” airwings. You wouldn’t be bound by the 10 or 11 platforms you can afford, a handful of this forward deployed at any given time, requiring equally pricey escort warships, and 5000+ crew to operate.
With small carriers, this should satisfy the fear that we need carriers to support land troops ashore. Besides, these days Marines and Army soldiers carry much of their own aerial power in the form of V/STOL planes, the aforementioned UAVs, and even loading drones in backpacks as part of their kit. Mindful also that carriers should never operate in range of missiles, suicide boats, mines, or stealthy midget subs, against which we don’t need to risk our largest, most expensive warships anyway. Recall that supporting the land battle is secondary to the Navy’s primary role of sea control. Do we want to gear all of our precious resources toward a secondary naval mission, or will the fleet get serious about sea control, instead of continuing to trust in nuclear shield, that no one will shoot at our carriers?
The admirals will tout the amazing flexibility of their multi-billion dollar superships. On land, our warfighters are thinking of how many missions they can get out of individual aircraft, and UAVs are very able as well given their long-loitering persistence. In the very near future one or two drones will do the missions we now launch giant fleets and their tens of thousands of crew to perform. Not just fantasy, its very nearly here.
Because this new capability is so effective, less is more, but hulls are the life of any fleet. Get more hulls and you can project this new power in many places. Power concentrated is power wasted.
You also must consider that the loss of a single such immense fighting ship, carrying so much of your total strength, you also lose a great amount of your firepower. During the world wars, carriers suffered grievous attrition in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Recall Admiral Cunningham in the Mediterranean Theater, often down to a single carrier, many times with none. Compare this to the old battleship navy which depended greatly on numbers, with Nelson at Trafalgar forced to fight with one ship, or Jellicoe at Jutland so lacking!
Another cause for the carrier’s being the weak link in the fighting fleet, is their large size and vulnerability. Even the Navy now admits their biggest ships are at risk from a relatively simple off the shelf weapon, howbeit with advanced new guidance systems. Earlier this year comes the following testimony before the House Armed Services Committee by Admiral Robert F. Willard, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM):
China is also developing and testing a conventional anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21/CSS-5 MRBM designed specifically to target aircraft carriers.
Having grave implications, according to Andrew S. Erickson, at Associate Professor at the Naval War College:
What does this mean for the U.S.? If developed and deployed successfully, a Chinese ASBM system of systems would be the world’s first capable of targeting a moving carrier strike group from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. This could make defenses against it difficult and/or highly escalatory.
While the Navy is taking steps to combat the Chinese carrier killing missiles, this will entail the concentration of even more force to guard the highly visible platforms, putting at risk the same vessels which potentially do the same mission. By keeping the missile escorts tied to the at-risk and redundant carriers, we are placing these valuable assets at risk as well.
Also, by keeping the new battleships bound with the now obsolete carriers, we lose the flexibility of the long-range and easily dispersed Tomahawks to ensure the fleet’s survivability. Remember that in 1941 the faster and longer-ranged naval airpower (200+miles) were still tied to the slow moving and short-ranged guns (20+ miles) of the battlefleet in the US Navy, and you can see the discrepancy today.
We have all the fighting power we need with lower cost missiles ships, submarines and light carriers, which should be dispersed in roles where we now use only supercarriers. These should be supported in their mission by smaller Influence Squadrons consisting of motherships, corvettes, OPVs, attack craft, which are less vulnerable in shallow waters, especially geared for this role as they are, and affordable enough to build in large numbers. For the Navy, they would be the “lighter footprint”, a tactic which the ground troops have used to great success in our wars and peacekeeping operations ashore.