The aircraft carrier inventory question has always been up for debate, but it has largely centered on the number of hulls and not the physical size of each carrier. In an age of shrinking defense budgets, smaller wars, and the Pacific Pivot, the U.S. should ditch its supercarrier-only policy and build smaller, less expensive aircraft carriers.
In 2010, the magic carrier question turned from more of a theoretical academic exercise to a hardcore fiscal one, with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates positing: "Does America need 11 plus super carriers when our competitors don't even have one?"
This was the beginning of a painful process that would see America's defense apparatus attempt to rationalize its military might, much of which was built up over a decade of almost totally unbridled spending spurned by the events of 9/11, along with retaining costly elements of the Cold War that had dissipated some two decades before.
Now, close to a half decade later, Robert Gates has long retired but the budget wars in Washington have not. Our leaders are now regularly debating about delaying or even canceling some of America's future supercarriers in an attempt to navigate the rough seas of sequestration. Budgetary battles have also called into question something that would have seemed ludicrous to do so a decade ago, choosing not to refuel a supercarrier that has more than half of its service life left on it.
The ship in question is the relatively young Japan-based USS George Washington, CVN-73. Refueling a nuclear carrier is extremely expensive, costing around $3.5-4.5B, and the process can last almost half a decade. Along with reinvigorating a supercarrier's nuclear reactors, the ship gets totally overhauled, with the addition of some entirely new subsystems and defensive weapons being a common aspect of the process. The whole exercise is deemed necessary to keep the massive ship running efficiently and keeping its combat capability relevant for the last 25 years of its design life.
Currently, it appears the George Washington will get its refueling, but this may end up in delaying future carriers, or canceling them altogether. The stated number that the Navy sees as the minimum carrier force is 11, but with the iconic USS Enterprise CVN-65 retiring last year, and her replacement, the USS Gerald Ford, the first in her class, still at least a few years away from becoming operational, the current supercarrier inventory stands at ten.
According to Vice Admiral Peter Daly, a Carrier Strike Group commander who was recently quoted in Stars and Stripes, the justification for having 11 supercarriers is that 3.5 of the mega-ships would be available for operations at any given time.
The half carrier value is because an extra ship is at sea while heading to relieve another coming off station. With 10 carriers in inventory this number drops down to 3, and going down to a 9 carrier force would leave that number at 2.5, which means only two supercarriers would be on station during combat operations at any given time, not to mention the demand of Air Wing training duties and other exercises. When you drop the carrier force down to 8 supercarriers it is said that even two carriers would be tough to maintain operationally available at any given moment.
This analysis does not take into account the vulnerability of having a numerically smaller force when it comes to attrition. Carriers are more survivable than land bases by a large margin but they are still vulnerable, especially in the dawning age of widely proliferating quiet submarine technology the anti-ship ballistic missiles such as China's evolving DF-21D. Also, since the majority of America's carrier force is in port at any given time, they are more vulnerable to attack, especially at super-bases such as Norfolk, Virginia where around half the force is located.
If we were to move to a smaller fleet of supercarriers, dispersing these assets would be logical, and reactivating Naval Station Mayport as a carrier base may be part of such a strategy. Mayport would also be clearly useful if our carrier force is augmented, or partially replaced by conventionally powered smaller carriers (more on this in a moment), as the port would not have to be upgraded to handle the complex and volatile nuclear powerplants found on all of America's active supercarriers.
Really, one has to marvel at a furious debate that makes little mention as to the scale of the high-cost subjects in question. It is as if only 100,000+ ton displacement supercarriers can operate Super Hornets or offer a valuable contribution during combat operations. This is certainly not the case, and for decades large fighter aircraft operated off of smaller conventionally powered aircraft carriers. It was only after Operation Desert Storm that the sub-65,000-ton USS Midway was finally retired, with her sister ship, the USS Coral Sea, being retired in 1990.
With all this in mind, wouldn't it be prudent for the Navy to take a closer look at a Midway Class sized modern carrier, something similar to or directly based on the UK's recently christened HMS Queen Elizabeth, albeit in a catapult and arresting gear configuration?
But What About The Size Of The Carrier Air Wing?
Before the post-Cold War military draw-down of the 1990s, America's supercarriers would deploy close to 90 aircraft when on cruise. Fast forward to the present, and that number is somewhere usually between about 60 and 70.
So how is it that even though technology has shrunk many components classically installed on a naval ship, and the aircraft operated from them are no bigger (and in some cases smaller than those they replaced, not to mention current Carrier Air Wings are compromised of about 25-30% less aircraft with about half the types as their predecessors) are we building the same sized aircraft carriers that we did decades ago?
Some would say it's because we can surge our all supercarrier fleet with more aircraft during a time of war. Seeing as there are far more Carrier Air Wings (CVWs) than there are available carriers at any given time, this makes some sense. Yet it seems pretty arbitrary to say we need a carrier capable of operating 90 aircraft even though we rarely plan on sailing with more than 70 or so, and in some cases less than 60 aircraft.
The cause behind the ever-shrinking Carrier Air Wing (CVW) is no mystery. The ability for one aircraft to perform many roles including counter-air, strike, close air support, reconnaissance and tanking means that we don't necessarily need as many aircraft as the days where there were many types of combat aircraft on deck to do each individual mission. For instance, a CVW in 1983 would have looked something like this:
- 2 fighter squadrons (VF) of 12 F-4s or F-14s
- 2 attack squadrons (VA) of 12 A-7Es or 2 strike fighter squadrons of 12 F/A-18s
- 1 all-weather attack squadron (VA) 10-12 A-6E (plus 4 KA-6D tankers)
- 1 early warning squadron (VAW) of 4-6 E-2Cs
- 1 tactical electronic warfare squadron (VAQ) or Marine tactical electronic warfare squadron VMAQ) of 4 EA-6Bs
- 1 anti-submarine squadron (VS) of 10 Lockheed S-3A Vikings
- 1 helicopter anti-submarine squadron (HS) of 6 SH-3H Sea Kings
- 1 detachment of EA-3B ELINT aircraft from a fleet air reconnaissance squadron (VQ)
- 1 detachment of C-2A Greyhound aircraft for Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD)
- 1 detachment of RF-8Gs from a light photographic reconnaissance squadron (VFP) or RF-4s from a Marine photographic reconnaissance squadron (VMFP)
- If one of the F-14 squadrons was Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod Systems (TARPS)-capable, the RF-8 detachment would be deleted.
Today the Carrier Air Wing has been highly streamlined with F/A-18 Hornet multi-role fighters doing the work that was previously done by multiple types and the S-3 Viking's fixed wing sea control mission has been deleted entirely:
- 1 strike fighter squadron (VFA) of 12 F/A-18F Super Hornets
- 1 strike fighter squadron (VFA) of 12 F/A-18E Super Hornets
- 2 strike fighter squadrons (VFA) or Marine fighter attack squadrons (VMFA) of 12 F/A-18C Hornets
- 1 electronic warfare squadron (VAQ) of 5 E/A-18G Growlers
- 1 early warning squadron (VAW) of 4 E-2Cs
- One Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron of 6 MH-60S Seahawks
- One Helicopter Maritime Strike (HSM) Squadron of 6 MH-60R Seahawks
- 1 detachment of C-2A Greyhound aircraft for Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD)
Although a Carrier Air Wing's force structure has diminished in size, they have never been more deadly. The introduction of precision guided munitions and fused sensor and communications systems has allowed for Carriers Strike Groups to have a much larger punch than ever before. This is not necessarily true when it comes to pounds of ordinance deliverable, but it is true in terms of how many targets can be hit successfully on a given day.
The days when a whole Carrier Air Wing would launch the majority of its inventory in what is known as an "Alpha Strike" just to go after one primary target such as an airfield, bridge or oil refinery are long gone. Now a single Carrier Air Wing with the same amount of aircraft, or even less, can go after many dozens of similar targets on a single mass launch and do so with a much higher probability of success than ever before.
All this brings into question the necessity of relegating all of the Navy's fixed-wing fast jet forces to hulking supercarriers whose ever-larger decks are more sparsely populated with aircraft than in decades past. Are there clear and quantifiable benefits in terms of cost and flexibility that can be realized by procuring smaller, more efficient aircraft carrier designs?
To some effect, we see the great value and mission flexibility of smaller carriers with our current inventory of Helicopter Landing Docks (LHDs) and their associated Expeditionary Strike Groups. These Marine-centric flotillas have become mini Carrier Strike Groups in their own right, complete with cruiser, destroyer and even fast attack submarine escorts.
An Expeditionary Strike Group was chosen to take center stage during the initial phase of the Libyan conflict known as "Operation Odyssey Dawn," instead of the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group that was available in the Gulf Of Aden. In reality, the reason for a Carrier Strike Group not being diverted to Libya was probably more political than tactical.
The Expeditionary Strike Group performed very well during the operation, but were a half dozen AV-8B Harriers and another couple dozen helicopters and Ospreys really suited for such a conflict?
Would a hard-hitting traditional aircraft carrier, albeit one smaller than a massive nuclear powered Nimitz Class supercarrier, have been a better tactical choice for an operation like Odyssey Dawn, while offering the same "limited involvement" strategic message as using an Expeditionary Strike Group?
The F-35B has the potential to turn Expeditionary Strike Groups into much more potent "first day of war" weapons than they are today, although certain technologies have to be fielded in order to realize this unique dichotomy's full potential. This is elaborated upon in full in this past Foxtrot Alpha special feature.