Is the Supercarrier Dead?

So, is the supercarrier dead? Jerry Hendrix wrote a thought provoking piece titled “At What Cost A Carrier?” Normally, we think Hendrix is pretty sharp, but this piece was not up to his usual standards. First, comparing the roughly $7bn cost of the last in class CVN-77, to the first in class CVN-78 (roughly $14 bn) is a bit misleading. The last in class benefits from the entire learning curve of a production run. The first in class always suffers cost issues because of the same learning curve issues. Further, as much as $5bn of the cost of the new class is in non-recurring research and development costs. So while the cost of the next-gen carrier is still rather appalling, it’s not terribly out of line with recent trends in comparable shipbuilding.

So let’s take a look at some of the alternatives the Wired article I linked explores.

1. Using the new America class or a derivative as baby carriers.

First, the America class are not baby carriers. They are amphibious warships. Sure, they look a lot like carriers, and have better ability to operate larger numbers of AV-8B or F-35B jets than the existing LHD class big deck amphibs. But they are still amphibious warfare ships, designed to carry and land the hear of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Battalion Landing Team, and host the majority of its Air Combat Element (ACE), a reinforced medium helicopter unit.

The biggest drawback of using an LHD/LHA as a carrier is the fact that it cannot operate either the E-2 Hawkeye, or the EF-18G. One of the key lessons of the Falklands War was that while carrier airpower can be decisive, operating carriers without airborne early warning and electronic warfare in range of shore based air is fraught with risk.

LHD/LHA are also quite a bit slower than carriers. That reduces their mobility quite a bit. One of the key strengths of carriers in the power projection role is their ability to close with a coast, launch strikes, and retire before the enemy can mount a coherent counterstrike. But you have to move pretty quick to do that. Even a relatively modest decrease in speed has a significant negative effect on that ability. That reduced speed also makes an LHD/LHA quite a bit more vulnerable to submarine attack.

Further, all of the vulnerabilities that supposedly make the modern supercarrier obsolete are there in any LHD/LHA, only magnified.

2. The “everything’s a carrier” approach.

Not a bad idea, to some extent.

That is, between helicopters and UAVs, more and more ships are capable of deploying at least some form of their own, organic air support.  UAVs obviously extend the sensor envelope for ships. And helicopters not only extend the sensor envelope, but often give much greater reach to the ships weapons, either by carrying their own, or providing much better targeting for ship launched weapons.

But the fantasy that unmanned combat air vehicles can replace the manned strike aircraft is just that- fantasy. For at least the next generation, manned aircraft will continue to be the only viable option.

As for converting merchant hulls to carrier like roles, that too faces severe handicaps. Virtually every challenge an LHD/LHA faces, so to any converted merchantman. Worse, not being built to warship standards, they are far less capable of withstanding battle damage or fire.

The linked article notes for the cost of a carrier, you could buy several smaller ships, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be buying equal effectiveness for your money, nor does it even mean the results would be cheaper in the long run.  Don’t forget, the big cost in operating a ship isn’t fuel, but manpower. And the manpower for several smaller ships would likely be greater than one supercarrier.

3. Submarine Strike

Yes, the converted Ohio class SSGNs are handy. And adding a few more tubes to later flight Virginia class SSNs is probably a good idea. But that’s hardly a substitute for airpower. First, right now, the only viable weapon is the Tomahawk cruise missile. While it is a good weapon, it is both slow, and only very modestly stealthy. It is quite vulnerable to air defense. It also has a rather paltry 1000lb warhead, far too small to hold at risk any number of critical targets in almost any campaign.

Worse, it has only the most limited utility against any target that isn’t a fixed installation. Latest versions can be retargeted in flight, but requires a data-link with an airborne assets. Which implies you can be flying over enemy territory. Which raises the question, if you can fly over territory long enough and far enough to retarget a Tomahawk, why not just use that aircraft as a strike platform anyway?

Submarine launched cruise missile attacks also suffer from “shallow magazines.”  An Ohio SSGN with full magazines only carries 154 missiles. That sounds like a lot (and at roughly a million dollars a pop, it’s a lot of money) but in terms of warheads on foreheads, that’s a day’s work for a carrier.  And the carrier can launch several days of strikes before having to retire to rearm.  Whereas a carrier can rearm at sea, an SSGN has to return to a friendly port to reload.  Such lack of sustained firepower is why URR refers to the SSGN as able to deliver a “strike”, rather than “fires.”

Since Billy Mitchell first bombed captured German warships in Chesapeake Bay, people have been sounding the death knell of the carrier. And yet, it continues to prove itself again and again as not only a viable weapon of war, but a crucial tool of warfighting and diplomacy.

That’s not to say Naval Aviation doesn’t face challenges. The short striking range of today’s air wing, the astonishing cost of the F-35C program (and limited capabilities it provides) and the short-sighted decision to jettison dedicated tanker, ASW and long range strike (as opposed to strike-fighter) assets have lead to the construction of ever more capable carriers, with arguably ever diminishing capability in the main battery of the carrier, its air wing.

If carriers are such obsolete and vulnerable warships, why are so many other countries striving today to build their own carrier capbability?

14 thoughts on “Is the Supercarrier Dead?”

  1. Not every use of a CVN is in a high-threat environment. We get a lot of flexability by having a manned airwing coupled with the mobility of a CV battlegroup.
    In AF, no one planned for multiple- refueled TACAIR support from a CVN off of Pakistan. Yet this was done, and done well.

    The more decks we have, the more options, true. But that E-2 is a major force enhancer.

    For the love the panda crowd, CVs have been a major help in four different natural disasters. The three recent overseas ones gained the US a great deal of local good will.

  2. It is within the realms of US budgetary and technical means to develop platforms that would give the America Class, or any smaller future hybrid amphi-carrier their own organic AEW and their own organic EW platform.

    For example, a tilt-rotor Osprey AEW variant might do the job, if that aircraft can be debugged to be proven as safe and effective, especially when complicated with some type of Wedgetail assembly I guess. The Royal Navy have looked at an Osprey AEW AFAIK, but seem to have opted for Merlins in part because of cost concerns with the Osprey, tech fears about it, and the politics of the Merlin being a British build with a working British AEW radar system which they hope the can probably sell elsewhere. So if your really desperate, USS America clones could carry a S92 variant rigged up to provide an AEW platform. It would not be as good as the improved Hawkeyes, but it could fill gaps if augmented by land based AWACs, which in many scenarios will be present anyhow.

    Furthermore, an EW or SEAD variant of the F35 should be possible to evolve and rig up-mostly with pods added here and there over time. The Growlers and the 99 pod have had anyhow their share of teething problems as far as I understand it. The F35 was looked at by USAF as a next gen. jammer platform but their focus is now towards unmanned vehicles carrying more pods and loitering for longer, and able to take more risks than any manned platform.

    In the longer term, a persistent EW/SEAD role which is intrinsically risky, may be handed over to the X-47B when (or if) it comes on stream. That makes sense for those dodge roles. Not sure what the min/maz take off distance are for the X47 (should be quite rightly confidential) but my guess is that platform could use a USS America ramp no?

    That leaves speed as a weakness. The difference is about 10 knts between the super carrier and the amphi-carrier. Is the difference really worth it? Consider that in low-intensity or humanitarian operations it may not matter that much for either ship because the working assumption should be that it would be relatively safe and desirable to stay littoral, more or less.

    Against an opponent like China however, the idea that moving quickly and in close to Hainan Island for a strike package, and then away to sea again when their all back home, is kinda folksy but a bit fanciful?

    Will it buy you security or is it a dangerous and risky assumption? It sounds like projecting how carriers were used in the 1950s and 1960s into the 2030s. The Chinese are developing long-range counter strike capacity: choose you level of hysteria/hype as to how serious these various missiles and platforms really are, but a significant number combine speed with range, suggesting that simply steaming fast won’t buy you the same level of protection it did last century.

    1. But how many Fords could we buy for the cost of your EV-22, EF-35, or E-47 programs?

      I for one don’t care about the DF-21. We’re not going to be using CVN’s against China, that’s what SSBN’s are for. And the DF-21 has on far too many expensive pieces in its targeting chain to worry about the export threat.

    2. Funny thing about the V-22 … if you look at its actual safety record, it’s not doing nearly as badly as everyone thinks it is.

      Also, 10 knots of extra wind over the deck makes a HUGE difference when you want to launch aircraft with, say, a full load of bombs and fuel.

  3. Point of clarification re LHA-6 America…it doesn’t have a welldeck. This was intentional in order to expand its ability to support the more robust aviation element envisioned to include the F-35B. Consequently, it is restricted in its ability to execute ‘amphibious warship’ ops to air-only support, quite a shift from other LHA/LHD platforms that can conduct air and surface operations simultaneously. To the extent any part of the MEU ground combat element is embarked aboard the America, it will only be able to get ashore via air…and without any meaningful ground combat vehicles. If practical effect, the America is a mini-carrier.

    1. In spite of the lack of a well-deck, LHA-6 is still primarily designed to transport Marines, and move them ashore. It’s troop spaces, cargo spaces, command spaces all reflect this. Yes, it does have significantly more space devoted to aviation than the previous LHA1-/LHD-1 classes, and yes, has effectively forfeited the ability to move heavy cargo ashore.

      But while it was designed with the mini-carrier role in mind, had it been designed as a mini-carrier, it would have quite different internal arrangements. It’s still an amphib, much as the LPH-1 class was.

    2. Wholly concur. I spent a bit of time on LPH-9 so fully understand capabilities/limits of that type platform. For some of the readership that might not be aware of the air-focused aspect of the America class, just wanted to point out its lack of surface capability when compared to the Tarawa and Wasp classes.

  4. V. Interesting comments. Thanks.
    The Chinese copy of the Pershing II, aka the DF 21, is probably massively over-hyped. However, their real target may well be something easier to hit: Andersen, Kadena, etc. If so, this makes any carriers even more important not less. And it makes the case as well for maybe more and smaller carriers, than a few big ones USN cannot afford to lose?
    USA is not plausibly going to use boomers against China if they take Taipei tomorrow or as is more likely….. are simply invited there by a future pro-mainland Taiwanese government as ….cough…..peacekeepers…some 5 years from now.

    1. Well, if Taipei invites the Chinese in there isn’t much we can or should do. They’re free to make their own mistakes.

      As for nukes, I think we’re as likely to use them against China for aggression against Taiwan or South Korea as they were willing to use them against us for invading North Vietnam. It’s something one might get away with, but the costs are far too high for the reward. Of course, if Barry gets his way with our nukes it will be a moot point.

  5. Carriers will always have a strategic role. Even in the event of an all out war with China, I suspect that the real limitation would be a fairly large circle around parts of the Pacific that were labeled as no-go terrain for CSGs. They would continue to have free rein over the remainder of the waterways, and a legitimate role. We have already seen the discussion of the negative impacts on our ability to influence world affairs by sequestration-imposed delays or decreases in CSG deployments world wide. Absent actual hostilties, carriers are often the sole instrument of US power able to be exerted in any region. To say that they are obsolete now, based on a potential enemy’s potential ability to deny them freedom of movement within a small portion of the globe would be extremely shortsighted. But I am preaching to the choir, I think.

  6. EVERY president since Roosevelt has asked this question at least once during their term in office: “Where are the carriers?” Nothing on Gods green earth will give a despot or power hungry asshole pause to think than to see carrier based air taking a look at the potential targets and getting emissions from the E-2C/D and knowing that bad things can happen shortly. First platforms to attack Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11? CVN-65, who was heading for the Suez when the attacks happened and even at the end of a long deployment when people are dead tired and the ship/aircraft are just as tired, was on station and ready to bomb Al-queda back into the Stone Age.

    All those things with the “U” in front of it? Nothing will work better than a human on-site, not susceptable to jamming or cosmic rays. VSTOL aircraft off an amphib? Please re-examine your distance to target, fuel/weapons ratio and available tanking and tell me how well this will work out without placing your very expensive jeep carrier against a lee shoal.

    1. Byron, shoot me an email would you? I’m just getting bounce-backs from s*********@c******.***.

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