The supercarrier is dead. Long live the supercarrier.

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. 

The actual article by Hendrix and Williams is at The US Naval Institute. 

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.

15 thoughts on “The supercarrier is dead. Long live the supercarrier.”

  1. With the demise of both A6 and S3 the Navy also lost their tanker platform. I think the E/F Hornet is taking on the role now.
    BTW, the E/F Hornet was a replacement for the Tomcat, not for the C/D Hornet. The C/D platform still has a lot of life left in it.

    1. I guess I was a little unclear on the progression of the Hornet development. but the Supers, while the are in fact the replacement for the A-6/F-14, were originally intended to be replacements for the legacy Hornets, with NATF, and its follow on programs as the Tomcat/Bombcat replacement. But the Navy screwed up every single program.

      And while the legacy Hornets may see a lot of use in the future, they don’t really have a lot of life left in ’em. They are over their design life limits, and fleet squadrons are having to use rebuilt F/A-18A++ birds because there aren’t enough Charlies around with structural life left.

  2. No, no, no, no, no. Nobody in the civilian world gets what the real problem is, because our leaders won’t come out and admit it. It’s not whether or not CVNs are capable and/or effective. Only the Air Force and bean counters try to have a serious go at that argument. It’s not the size of the individual ship, either. No, the issue is about getting things in the right order. To wit:

    1. What is the mission?
    2. How many people and how much stuff do you need to get the mission done? (No, the answer is not “how many would you like to be able to accomplish the mission with.”)
    3. What’s it gonna cost?

    At that point, you’ve reached the diamond in the logic diagram. Either you pay for the mission you want, or you pay less and do the mission you can do. Our leaders are pretending that this choice does not exist. Until they make a responsible choice and live with the consequences, this will be the wrong question, and we’ll keep at at until we bust our people and our stuff trying to do what we’re not manned and equipped to do because our leaders and representatives are not willing to pay for it.

  3. I can certainly believe that there are plenty of advantages to big carriers over small carriers, but I still feel like the concept of the carrier task force will eventually disappear with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A task force makes a big, slow, impossible to hide target that could be eliminated with a single nuclear shot, with little or no civilian casualties to boot – the temptation would be too great.

    1. I seriously doubt that will happened, even if the PRC deploys the much-touted anti-CV IRBM. Among other reasons, there is no reason why a CVBG can become even more effective at defending itself against nuclear attack, even from ballistic launchers. That is what the current version for the AEGIS system is suppose to be good at. And no, you can hide a task force – it is not easy, but you do it. The list goes on.

      Besides, that argument that single hits from nukes can apply to ANY force, land, sea, air (The airbases, for example.). The ways militaries have handled that issue seem to indicate they do not regard it as likely as people think (i.e., if we are using nukes to destroy task forces, we probably have far more serious things to worry about in the war.) – and the proposed solutions are in many ways, even worse than the threat (Pentomic Infantry Division, anyone?).

    2. The Navy started worrying about nukes at sea back in 1945. But still they were driven to larger carriers.

      And if you can target a 100,000 ton warship at the center of a task force, you can target a 45,000 warship at the center of a task force. So the temptation is still there for the enemy.

      But there’s a price to be paid for that. If the enemy DOES step over the nuclear threshold, they have no way of knowing that we won’t retaliate against his population centers. It is worth Beijing to sink a Nimitz class?

  4. Excellent points on the news that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the supercarriers’ death has been exaggarated. I would add that there is no assurance that a UAV designed to operate like high performance combat aircraft is going to be significantly smaller than manned aircraft. Thus designing a small carrier to carry the same numbers of UAVs as a big carrier carry manned fighters, is potentially locking the Navy into a dead-end. Whereas big carriers can operate more UAVs if they are deployable, and still operate sufficient numbers of manned fighters if the UAVs are NOT deployable.

    The fact that the PRC, India, and other nations are either interested in, in the process of acquiring, or have acquired new CVs, seem to indicate one party or the other in this debate is wrong. I suggest the authors of the article and their various cohorts (Including SECDEF Gates.) get that distinction.

  5. The E-2 operated from Essex class carriers when if fist came out. I doubt, however, the D model could. Maybe a Midway class CV, but it would be close. Too close perhaps. Comfortably ( or at least as comfortably as you can off a ship) off Nimitz and later ships.

    The only major problem I see is the fact we have not been truly tested since 1945 and we operate our ships with impunity these days. Having said that, I doubt we will be tested any time soon. The major barrier I see is our economy is on the ropes. We are in a depression now, not merely a recession, and the US Economy is now hollowed out through the efforts of the left, and free traders on the center-left. We aren’t coming back anytime soon.

    It takes a first class economy to operate a first class military. It takes money to do it since you have to build hardware, then pay people reasonably to operate it. You also need a decent educational system, something Fredrick The Great realized even way back when before the industrial Revolution. Ours is going in the tank. Rapidly.

    We are on the verge of losing the ability to make Subs, and will we if cut orders any further (those are the next capital ship if we are seriously tested).

    One could go on with a veritable laundry list of things, but the most dangerous thing is the economy. The clueless left is doing all they can to destroy ours, and while the domestic results won’t be pretty, the result for the world will be absolutely ugly.

    1. “The E-2 operated from Essex class carriers when if fist came out. I doubt, however, the D model could. Maybe a Midway class CV, but it would be close. Too close perhaps. Comfortably ( or at least as comfortably as you can off a ship) off Nimitz and later ships.”

      Hilariously, that brings to mind how the French had to change and extend the flight deck design on the Charles de Gaulle so their CVN could operate Hawkeyes. Probably should expected a carrier that suffered weathering problems to her innards while being built that have other issues…

  6. As a potential long range strike aircraft with stealth (and I know the Navy has at least looked at it), the F-22 would probably be best. Modifications would be required, of course (I seem to remember a delta wing version idea tossed out there, with added fuel and weapons bay space, but slower speed and lower maneuverability) but I think the airframe has promise, and as you mentioned with the F-35, the engines, most of the avionics, pretty much half the plane minimum is already developed.

    I love the idea of a C-2/E-2 multirole airframe covering tanking, some ASW, and of course AWAC. Brilliant. Though honestly, I don’t see nearly the ASW need. SSNs are still the king by far of ASW, and there’s always one close by, and the HH’s can fill in to help out.

    I’d love to see a complete replacement of the F/A-18 airframe. The new one wouldn’t have to be stealthy, because with the proposed F-35 or F-22 based long range stealthy precision strike aircraft, and the C-2/E-2 multirole airframe (maybe even make it modular?), what’s missing is CAP/Anti-Air fighters. They’d have to be high performance and long range (so the AEGIS boys can work freely when things get within 80-100 miles), with good radars, but because their role is primarily defensive, they wouldn’t need to be stealthy. They’d just need to maneuver on par with the F-22 or SU-37, so that they can maintain air superiority. Stealth would be useful for them, as they’d likely be going up against stealth soon, but not required.

    1. Having a SSN with a CVBG is the best ASW defense, but it should not be the only one. I think the a S-3 ASW aircraft replacement would be a good idea, since it adds another layer of capability against submarine attack behind the Seahawks and surface ship ASW (Well, whatever is left of surface ship ASW in the US Navy right now.). Submarines are deadly enough against surface ships – restoring our capabilities against such threats would be a very good idea, especially since many nations not are acquiring new submarines.

      …And who knows if we can always keep a SSN with the CVBG? We are currently looking at a shortfall in those numbers too, given the slow production rate of the VIRGINIAs and the retirement of the 688s.

    2. Any S-3 replacement would also provide much needed Surface Surveillance and Control capability, as well as ISR, SAR coordination, and a host of other capabilities, and free up strike aircraft to conduct, well, strike missions.

  7. Great post. I concur on the current state of naval aviation, but even worse that the types of aircraft in service is the lack of numbers. 20 years ago, a carrier never deployed with fewer than 70 aircraft, and generally they had between 80 and 90. Today, they’re lucky to go to sea with 50, and often alot less than that. Not only has the quality and diversity of CV aircraft types declined, but the numbers have fallen through the floor, as well. I blame both the service and the Bush Administration for much of that – for a period after 9/11, the Administration could have asked for, and received, almost any defense budget. But they chose not to, and spent hundreds of billions on misguided efforts in many areas.

    Someone mentioned hiding a carrier task group – this link ( http://navweaps.com/index_tech/tech-031.htm ) is a bit dated, but all the basics still apply. The USN was quite capable of hiding entire CVBGs from the Soviets in their heyday, if the operational art has been retained, they should be able to do the same with the Chicoms.

    Or, maybe it was just Midway Magic.

    1. The incredible shrinking airwing is another issue. And I blame the Navy for that far more than any political administration. As you say, the Navy could have made a case for procuring larger numbers of aircraft, and they didn’t even try.

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