It never fails. Every time there’s a Democrat in the White House, or defense budgets are tight (and the two conditions seem to be remarkably in synch!) there are pundits coming out of the woodwork to claim the era of the big deck carrier is over.
Now, these aren’t necessarily partisan political attacks. Often, smart, professional people raise the issue, and argue that a larger fleet of smaller carriers would better suit our defense needs. This time, Bryan McGrath at Information Dissemination brings us word that Jerry Hendrix and Noel Williams take a swing at the Big Deck pinata.
While it is good to review our strategy and platform acquisitions with a critical eye, the author’s conclusion is flawed.
They argue that the current supercarrier such as the Nimitz class can’t operate in a high threat environment. But most of the flaws they point out are either the fault of the aircraft deployed on board carriers, or will be equally applicable to any other, smaller platform.
The Navy has studied again, and again, again what the best approach to carrier design is, and every time, the answer has always been the same- bigger is better.
Ship steel is relatively cheap. Given the same level of sensors and combat systems, the bigger ship usually costs less per ton than a smaller ship.
And as the carrier gets bigger, its flexibility in terms of the aircraft it can operate grows. There is almost no capability to operate the critically important support aircraft such as E-2 Hawkeyes from smaller carriers. And the Brits learned to their dismay that operating carriers without airborne radar coverage is a poor way of doing business.
When you factor in the costs for manning smaller carriers, AND the fact that a notional larger number of small carriers will need more escorts than our current number of large deck carriers, and the cost of building and manning those escorts, any cost savings in construction and manning evaporate.
Hendrix and Williams decry the short range that current carrier aircraft can attack at. But their proposed solution of long range stealthy UAVs from lighter carriers has shortcomings.
First, there is no such thing as a stealthy long range carrier capable UAV. Yet. The Navy is working hard to develop one. But it is being designed specifically to operate in a big deck carrier environment, and there is no guarantee that it will work there, let alone in the more challenging small deck environment.
Secondly, any UAV that can be operated from a small deck carrier can be operated from a big deck in greater numbers, and most likely at higher sortie rates. The great flexibility of the carrier has always been its ability to adapt to changing airwings. In effect, main weapon of the carrier is the easiest part of the ship to change.
And if long range, either by manned aircraft or UAVs is important, that means a bigger aircraft. And the bigger the aircraft, the greater the advantage of using a bigger carrier. Large carriers not only have the ability to operate larger aircraft, they have greater ability to operate aircraft in poor weather (bigger ships move less for a given sea-state), and they have greater ability to stay on station for long periods of time. They carry more fuel for their air wings, and more weapons in their magazines. That greater persistence results in greater numbers of sorties generated over a given period of time, in effect multiplying the number of aircraft available.
This isn’t to argue that Naval Aviation isn’t in dire straits. For almost 30 years, the Navy has made a series of disastrous decisions in the development, procurement and retention of its aircraft for the carriers. The A-12 program killed the still viable A-6 Intruder, and when the A-12 collapsed under its own weight, there was no viable alternative. Long range precision strike on carriers was doomed. Modified F-14s carried the load for a short while, but could not represent a long-term alternative.
The lightweight legacy F-18 Hornets were short-ranged, and getting old. The F-18E/F Superhornet, while an improvement, is not a stealthy long range strike fighter. It lacks the ability to penetrate deep into modern integrated air defenses. The F-35C, hobbled by its F-35B STOVL cousin, isn’t the answer either. It was originally seen as a replacement for the cheap, almost disposable legacy F-18s. Now it is an monstrously expensive fighter that no one can afford to risk. The early retirement of the versatile S-3 Viking with no replacement planned was stunningly short sighted (it was bad enough that the Navy deleted ASW capability from them a few years before). Just as the S-3 was becoming a very, VERY popular ISR platform in Iraq, the Navy retired it in the name of cost savings, in spite of the fact it was the cheapest aircraft in the wing to operate.
What the Navy really needs it two aircraft. First, in lieu of the F-35C, they need a large, long range, semi-stealthy, two seat, twin engine strike fighter. Using the engines and avionics from the F-35 program would trim the development costs considerably. Secondly, they need a replacement S-3. You know what would make a good replacement for the S-3? The S-3. Failing that, a replacement Common Support Aircraft that can perform many S-3 type missions and provide the basis for a tanker variant would be a relatively simple program. The Navy would be well advised to avoid trying to wrap an E-2 replacement in that program. The E-2D is about to join the fleet, and will serve well for the next 20-30 years. In fact, the smart idea would be to consider building a Common Support Aircraft around the E-2/C-2 airframe.
The Navy has operated smaller carriers almost since they started operating carriers. But every time they have, they have relearned the lesson that bigger is better, both from a warfighting perspective, and in fact, in spite of the mindboggling up-front price tag, cheaper in the long run.