Carrier Think Pieces Today

We first saw this looooong piece at USNI from Professor Moore.

Just four days ahead of the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy announced its intention to award Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc (HII). approximately $4 billion to construct the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) super carrier, the second vessel of the new Gerald R. Ford-class of carriers. The cost has raised eyebrows, as the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) experienced cost overruns of 22 percent.

Additionally, debate is raging over the utility of the aircraft carrier and whether it’s even relevant anymore in the face of China’s new, lethal anti-ship missiles. It’s a debate worth having, but it needs to be rooted in realistic naval principles and war precedents, not politics and hype.

And addressing that piece is none other than Bull Halsey! We suspect that might be a nom de plume.

“The New Strategic Realities of U.S. Carrier Operations.”  As much of the East Coast naval establishment sits at home with their Snuggies and bottles of craft beer (or for some, sitting in a tree stand freezing your keester off), this is sure to be heavily forwarded around the web (thanks, Al Gore).

Moore’s piece touches a particular nerve with me:  the American aircraft carrier and how Americans use her.  It is no longer self-evident and requires a generation of both young and old aviators and ship-drivers to safeguard.

First, our ability to justify the existence of the aircraft carrier beyond the battles of WWII is essential.  It’s great to talk about Coral Sea and Midway, but those events took place more than seven decades ago, and for a force that pegs itself as an innovative one, able to counter the threats of today and tomorrow, it strikes as unimaginative.  There are at least hundreds of examples of CVNs providing critical support or comprising the sole option for offensive or defensive American military operations in the many decades that have followed WWII.  Let’s talk about them candidly.

For the most part, US aircraft carriers have been used as supplemental airfields for power projection in our nation’s wars since World War II. What they haven’t much been called to do is act in the sea control role. Or, if you will, fighting a war at sea. Some, but not much.

The primary reason for that is not that carriers are bad at war at sea. Instead, they’re so good no one has realistically been able to challenge our fleet for many years. The Soviet Union was the only nation to come close to mounting a credible threat of parity, and that was through a sea control fleet that couldn’t realistically project power to our shores, whereas the whole point of the Lehman/Watkins Maritime Strategy was to project power against the Soviet Union itself.

Moore spends a good deal of time discussing the threats to modern carrier operations, and not surprisingly, Halsey adds a rebuttal:

Second, the author paraphrases Robert Haddick’s dire swarm supposition of hundreds of Chinese ASCMs descending upon an unsuspecting aircraft carrier.  The problem with Haddick’s logic–and Moore’s, by association–is that it presupposes a sort of inevitable willingness on the part of the People’s Republic to launch such costly attacks that would result in unquestionable war.  Though we all remember Pearl Harbor, we also remember the children’s tale of the “boogeyman” in the closet.  We must not allow the fear of a missile whose very use would be loaded in incredible geopolitical meaning to be the tail that wags the dog.

Of course, that’s a political consideration, a subject that Halsey spends a fair bit of time on, rightly.

What isn’t sufficiently addressed, to my lights, is the actual difficulty China (or anyone else) would have massing missile attacks on a fleet. Probably no other organization in the world has as robust a maritime ISR capability for targeting a surface fleet than the US Navy, and even we can have trouble finding our own carriers.

Alfred Thayer Mahan would find this debate about the threat of shore based ASCMs and missile armed fast attack craft little different than the Jeffersonian vision of gunboats and coast artillery defending the shores from the line of battle of the Royal Navy. The technology has changed much, and the ranges are greater, but the fundamental concept of a fleet in being able to sail to the enemy shore at the time and place of his choosing to impose his will is very much still the case.

And while our skills seemed to have diminished somewhat from lack of practice, it’s not like we didn’t used to know how to place entire carrier task forces well within the range of an opponent shore without them even knowing it.

Control of the air is a prerequisite for success in battle today, and only the carrier can provide that for substantial naval forces far from our shores. Further, the carrier remains the centerpiece of our ability to execute both sea control and power projection in the maritime space. Carriers alone are not sufficient to successfully challenge the Chinese or any other near peer power at sea, but absent the carrier, the any challenge is simply impossible.

The Navy’s Smallest Carrier

The Nimitz class supercarriers are pretty big, at 1,092 feet and 103,000 tons. The Essex class carriers were a good deal smaller, at 820 feet and roughly 27,000 tons when built. Escort carriers were even smaller. The Casablanca class were even smaller, at 512 feet and 7,800 tons.

But the smallest carrier in the Navy was probably the Baylander, at 131 feet and 160 tons.

In the mid-1980s, at the Reagan defense buildup grew the fleet, a major part of the growth was in helicopters for surface combatants such as destroyers, frigates and cruisers. 

http://www.helis.com/database/pics/sis/27_1052.jpg

Take a look at that tiny flight deck on the USS Knox above. Learning to fly a helicopter is one thing. Learning to land on a ship is another. Fixed wing Naval Aviators’s training culminated with their landing aboard the Navy’s training carrier, the USS Lexington. The problem was, the Navy didn’t always have a frigate or destroyer handy for rotary winged aviators to practice landing on.

It occurred to the Navy that you didn’t need much of a ship to practice landing helicopters on. And so, they converted a harbor utility craft by adding a landing platform and having it cruise off Pensacola as needed to allow fledgling birdmen practice at landing aboard. Designated IX-514, she was often called the HLT, or Helicopter Landing Trainer.

http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/46/094651402.jpg

Put into service in 1986, the HLT served for more than 20 years qualifying Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard aviators, in addition to pilots from numerous civilian and foreign agencies.

Recently the Baylander (it cruised around Pensacola Bay and landed helicopters-what else would it be named?) was sold to The Trenk Family Foundation, and it is currently on display at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The ship’s history before its conversion to the HLT was pretty interesting as well.

As the Vietnam War heated up in 1967, the Naval Support Activity Da Nang needed more lighterage to unload the vast sums of materiel arriving in Vietnam. And because the road network in Vietnam was poor and dangerous, the Navy need some coastal freighter capability to move cargoes from Da Nang to smaller facilities along the coast. The Navy’s LCU class utility landing craft were a bit small for the job, and further, most of them were already dedicated to the amphibious shipping fleet. So the Navy went shopping for an off-the-shelf design, and fortuitously found just what it was looking for up in Alaska. Designed to service oil pipeline construction, the Skilak class from the Pacific Coast Engineering Company fit the bill to a “T.”  The Navy quickly bought a dozen as the YFU-71 class (YFU is code for Harbor Utility Craft).  From around 1968 to the end of the war, they operated in  support of operations in Vietnam.  An Army Heavy Boat Company operated 6 of them after 1970, while one was transferred to Cambodia in 1970.

YFU-78 was sunk with heavy casualties from a Viet Cong rocket attack while loaded with ammunition.

http://www.navsource.org/archives/14/141807802.jpg

At the end of the war, the remaining 10 ships evacuated to Guam, where most of them served until the mid-1980s before being sold off or transferred to other government agencies.

Here’s the Baylander in her days as YFU-79.

https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3286/3133569995_ce38e7a403_z.jpg?zz=1

At least one or two of the class are still in service.

Helicopter operations aboard IX-514 in 2008.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPshglize4E]

Old School Carrier Jet Ops

Mostly from a British perspective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mnW1gq5yxQ&feature=youtu.be

A lot of folks around the naval centric blogs roll their eyes at the Chinese aircraft carrier, and reassure themselves that it took the US 50-60-70 years to learn to operate carriers.

No.

It took about a decade.

Take a look at carrier aviation circa 1950. Sure, there were early jets, but most everything else operated just as it did in World War II. Straight decks, hydraulic cats for the jets, but everything else was a deck run take-off, the flat approach via an LSO with actual paddles leading to a “cut.”  Cyclic operations weren’t the norm, but rather the deck load strike was the usual operation. Night operations were still limited to a select group of specialty planes in each air group.

Fast forward a decade, and virtually all that had changed. The prop plane was most assuredly on the way out. The angle deck was in the fleet. The steam catapult was in service, allowing vastly heavier jets to be safely launched. The flat approach to a cut had been replaced by the constant rate of descent to a controlled crash type approach, with the paddles of the LSO being replaced by the “meatball” mirror landing system. Cyclic operations were the norm, and every carrier aviator was expected to fly and fight day and night.

The US accident rate in this period of technical and procedural change was appalling. But we learned. And while the Chinese may not be the most innovative people around, they’re smart enough to study what we have done. Of course, they too will face a steep learning curve. But if they are willing to pay the price, there’s no reason they cannot establish a quite credible carrier aviation ability in a similar time period as we did.

Back to the video, yes, yes indeed that is a jet landing on a giant rubber mat with no landing gear.

The three big innovations in post-World War II carrier technology are generally seen as the angled deck, steam catapults, and the mirror landing system. And all three were British inventions. But as you can tell by the rubber mat, not all British carrier innovations were all that successful, or even well thought out.

I have no doubt that it was quite expensive to refit the carrier with the flex deck for trials. And of course, some sort of dolly would be needed for deck handling and launching. And of course, the time needed to lift the jet from the deck and put it on the dolly would considerably slow the cycle of landing operations.

Still, it is a  fun video, and great to see some lesser known British birds, and some planes better known for their land based operations running the deck.

Carriers, Mobility, Stealth and Initiative

Think Defence today has a post on the difficulty a potential foe faces in finding a carrier at sea. It is (like virtually all content there) well worth reading the whole thing.

Aircraft carriers are difficult to detect.

Perhaps more importantly, they are difficult to identify. Regarding the difficulty of detection, the seas are very big and, in comparison, even the biggest of aircraft carriers are very small. Modern maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) have radars that have ranges of hundreds of nautical miles (nm) but oceans extend for thousands of nautical miles.

Moreover, radar impulses can be detected by electronic support measures (ESM) systems at significantly greater range than the radar can detect the platform (air or surface or even submarine) carrying the ESM. In wartime, an MPA using its radar gives itself away, opening the way to it either being intercepted and shot down before it can locate the carrier, or to the carrier simply altering course and avoiding the MPA.

Of course, MPAs also have ESM, but this works only if the carrier and its task group (Carrier Battle Group: CBG) are emitting electromagnetically.

But if the CBG has adopted strict electromagnetic silence (and it can do so & this is exercised), then there is nothing to detect. So the MPA is reduced to the Mark 1 eyeball as its only useful sensor.

When I think of most post-World War II significant carrier operations, I generally consider their use in Korea, Vietnam, and of course, operations in the Persian Gulf, where they essentially stayed in fixed positions, and acted like additional airfields. The lack of significant enemy ability to interdict our forces at sea allowed us to sacrifice one of the carrier task forces’ greatest assets, mobility, at little risk.

Prior to World War II, it was widely assumed that operating carrier forces within range of enemy land based airpower was a recipe for disaster, and that shore based airpower would quickly sink or damage any carrier force. The first clue that this wasn’t quite so true came December 7, 1941.

Successful, if not highly fruitful, US attacks against Japanese outposts in early 1942 showed that by choosing the time and place to attack, carriers could operate to impede or suppress shore based airpower, and retire out of range before an effective Japanese counterstroke could be brought to bear.

The Fast Carrier Task Force (TF38/TF58) would often operate in wide ranging support of amphibious landings in the Pacific War. While FCTC would of course raid the target of a landing, it would also strike enemy installations far afield, to deny the enemy the ability to reinforce the defense of our objective, and to a degree, to conceal our objective. The ability of the FCTF to move hundreds of miles each day, to attack in unexpected places, meant the Japanese often struggled to counterattack. It was only at times when the fast carriers were tied to an objective that the Japanese were able to mount large scale raids to attack our fleet. The most obvious example of this is the horrible attrition imposed on the fleet while supporting operations at Okinawa.

After the Vietnam War, the Navy looked at what it might be required to do in a World War III scenario versus the Soviet Union. The primary task was to secure the sea lanes to Europe. The primary Soviet threats to the sea lanes were submarines, and long range land based bombers armed with cruise missiles.  We’ll leave the discussion of the submarine threat to another time, but the Navy realized it would be called upon to stop the long range bomber threat, both as a threat to merchant shipping, and to the carrier forces themselves.  Soviet long range aviation had a much longer strike range than the organic airwing of carriers. To charge in and raid the Soviet bomber bases, the carriers would have to be able to avoid detection. And so they spent a fair portion of the coldest days of the Cold War learning to do just that.

The force transits to its objective area in complete electronic silence. Deceptive formations are used dispersed over a broad area to ensure any detection system does not see the classic “bullseye” formation made famous in countless Public Affairs shots and never used in operations. Broad surveillance systems are known so any detection method is countered either by denying sensor information, misleading, or providing expected results consistent with something else. For example, ESM systems rely on active emissions from radars or communication systems. So nothing is radiated. Overhead systems are in known orbits, are predictable, and their sensing capabilities known. So the track is varied, weather is sought out to hide in when vulnerable, blending into sea lanes (while staying out of visual detection range of ships) and such techniques. Deceptive lighting is used at night so that the obvious “blacked out warship” is instead thought to be a merchant or cruise liner. Surface search radar identical to commercial ones are used. Turn count masking is used by the ships. Aircraft maintenance on the CV and other helo equipped ships is limited to prevent transmissions.

In NORPAC 82 using these and other tactics the CV force operated close enough to support each other, but far enough and randomly dispersed to avoid identification by anyone. One night in bad weather a man went overboard when the ship was within 200nm of a Soviet airfield in the Kuril Island chain. Despite launch of helicopters and active search methods by several ships in the successful SAR, including clear voice UHF transmissions, the force is not detected because no Soviet asset was above the radar horizon. No overhead system was cued. The force continued on.

The Chinese have spent the last 20 years developing anti-access/area-denial tactics, techniques, and procedures. And to be sure, any operations against China would be significantly different than operations in the northern reaches of the Atlantic or Pacific.

But to blithely dismiss the ability of a carrier strike group to avoid detection (or at a minimum, to avoid being recognized as a carrier group) is to overlook the long history of carrier groups successfully approaching enemy shores.

NextGen China Carrier?

@SteelJawScribe found a little gem in a Chinese newspaper:

I can’t read any Chinese, so I can’t find the correct link, but the article is about (I guess) the future Type 055 Guided Missile Destroyer. That would be the ship in the foreground. And if you say to yourself, “Whoa, that looks a lot like a USN DDG-51!” you’re not alone.

I’d like a better look at the hull and the deck layout of the notional carrier but a couple things popped 0ut to SteelJaw. First, the carrier is a nuke. No stacks, ergo, nuke. Second, a closer look at the birds on the roof show what looks like the J-20 stealth fighter, and clearly shows the rotodomes of an Airborne Early Warning aircraft.

Mind you, it’s tough to really know what the Chinese are planning just by looking at pics found on the internet. There’s a ton of stuff floating out there, but until there are hulls in the water, it is often just speculation. The Chinese are a bit more tight lipped about their procurement process than we are.