Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Whither The Carriers?

USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70),USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108) and USS Lake Champlain (CG 57) participate in a photo exercise with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers: JS Hamagiri (DD 155), JS Samidare (DD 106), JS Umigiri (DD 1), JS Yudachi (DD 103). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kurtis A. Hatcher)
I will, from time to time, disagree with someone who leaves a comment. It doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen from time to time. If it's an intelligent comment and not some hysterical ranting diatribe, I will often leave the my own counter-comment "We agree to disagree." Hysterical ranting diatribes nearly always get deleted. It's my blog, I make the rules. However - comma...

Some comments with which I disagree do make me think. Sometimes I'll rethink my position and go forth a better man. Sometimes I still disagree, give it an "Oh well" and continue with life.

Now there are two fellows who comment here, with varying frequency, with whom I actually served in the Air Force. Both of them were Staff Sergeants on Okinawa when I was nobbut a lowly airman. I learned from both, both were good men to have around in a pinch. Especially if maintenance on the Weapon Control Systems of the mighty F-4 Phantom II was involved.

And what, pray tell you are asking yourself, does all this have to do with aircraft carriers? (For those of you of a certain age, I'll bet you thought I was going to say, "the price of tea in China," neh?)

Anyhoo, the two SSgts were yclept Russ and Bruce. Russ comments here under his actual name, Bruce prefers a pseudonym for his family name. Not a problem either way. Before I go too far off track, let's get down to it.

In my post from last month regarding the flattop, aka bird farm, aka aircraft carrier, Bruce left this comment. I gathered that he's not a fan of Uncle Sam's aquatically mobile airfield -

Bruce Brews March 24, 2017 at 9:43 AM
I'm going to voice what may be an unpopular opinion: I think building supercarriers is not the way to go. Compared to land bases they're obscenely inefficient, extremely vulnerable, and "too many eggs in the basket" both financially and in terms of morale.
Land bases are a much cheaper way to base aircraft than any carrier battle group ($4.5B to $13B for the carrier alone, depending on how you price it out, plus at least as much--maybe double--for the escorts). Land bases can be hardened so that you will only take out one plane or key building with a bomb (Tab-Vees, hardened maintenance facilities). You can't sink a land base: you can hole the taxiways and runways, but that's a relatively quick fix compared to months in dry dock for a damaged carrier--assuming the carrier makes it back to a friendly port. Land bases are also much more flexible in terms of the aircraft they can deploy: you can always use land bases for carrier aircraft. Using land-based planes on a carrier is much more problematic, the Doolittle Raid to the contrary.

Aside from the enormous financial cost, there's also the cost to morale if a carrier is lost. The Japanese were able to hide the loss of four carriers at Midway due to their total control of the press, but if we lost one or two supercarriers that's also a loss of 5000 sailors apiece: 100 per U.S. state. We could never hide that from the public. Can you imagine what a blow that would be?

I suggest it would be better to build smaller carriers with about 1/3 the displacement (50% heavier than the first Yorktown, 100% heavier than the first Wasp) and crew size of a super-carrier. I'm not a naval designer, so this is a pure guess on my part, but I think such a ship could carry up to 50 modern aircraft and would cost a lot less, maybe under a billion dollars. In terms of "showing the flag," a smaller carrier would be just as effective as what we have now. In terms of combat mission, a 40- or 50-plane air group would be adequate to carry out strikes in the initial stages of most wars. After the first days of the war, more carrier- and land-based aircraft (plus cruise missiles) could beef up the attack.

The biggest argument for carriers is their mobility, which allows you to apply airpower where you might not be able to. This is true. On the other hand, if we reduced the super-carrier force to five (one Atlantic, two Pacific, one Indian, one in drydock at any one time) and added seven to ten smaller carriers (let's say one North Atlantic, one South Atlantic, one Mediterranean, two Pacific, one Indian, one or two in drydock) we could have at least as much effective airpower around the globe.

The big-carrier lobby will never go for this, of course, but the battleship admirals would never have gone for a strategy that centered on submarines and aircraft carriers before the Pearl Harbor attack. I think it's something to be considered.
At the time I responded with a simple, "We agree to disagree."

In my defense for this less than cogent rely, I was under the weather suffering from the slings and arrows of diverticulitis. So to speak.

Now that I am once again the picture of semi-good health, I felt a more reasoned reply was in order. However, as I am an inherently fair fellow, I thought, "Why not give the readers a shot at this?" As many of you have actually served on those floating airfields and held key staff positions while serving, I count you as perhaps better qualified to answer Bruce's comment. He makes some good points, though again, we agree to disagree.

I will say one thing first, and it's something I believe in, heart and soul...
Si vis pacem, para bellum.
What say the commentariat? Have at it!


  1. I will start by saying that I never served in the USN, but the idea of smaller carriers make sense to me. My two cents.

    Paul L. Quandt

  2. Bruce makes some good points. My two years as a snipe on Forrestal does not qualify to discuss the issues he brings up. (of course I have an opinion, but an opinion is only that)

    I am looking forward to reading the comments later today.

  3. The carrier topic is an ongoing debate, with strong arguments for both sides. One of the best discussions I've listened to on the subject was by Bryan McGrath and Dr. Jerry Hendrix via a USNI debate. With the cost for the new Ford class carriers jumping up to around $14 Billion was almost irresponsible with the services crying for dollars. America has a serious debt problem at about $20 Trillion so the services need to temper their lust for the bleeding edge toys with that in mind.


    (Previous post deleted in error, not enough coffee in my system!)

  4. Decent debate between people who honestly disagree makes the final position better thought out.

    As to the carrier issue, sometimes you have to sell your soul to get a land base where you need it.

    One area of the world is North Korea, the Paracels, and the Spratlys. Osan AFB is gone in an instant now. If not nuked, shelled into rubble. So what then? Carrier air, and Taiwan, are the only reserve left. You can move a carrier. A land base is either gone for the foreseeable future, or rubble, or simply in the wrong place.

  5. The small versus large carrier debate goes back to at least the 1970s (See: "Sea Control Ship"). Pretty much every legitimate (i.e. assumptions are not cherry picked to get to a particular result) analysis I have seen comes out that the large carrier is more cost effective. That is not to say, IMO, that we would not benefit from having small carriers to supplement (NOT supplant) the large ones. In some ways we already do in our large deck amphibs (e.g. LHD). The basic issue is constrained funding, to which one answer is to move a bunch of budget items which are currently characterized as "mandatory" over to the "Discretionary" side, and then do the "Guns or butter" analysis. No, we cannot probably get to "Guns AND Butter" without large tax increases.

  6. Good arguments are made by both. But I'll throw another wrinkle in the mix. A carrier's pretty naked without her task force. And so, we have the Arleigh Burkes and Ticonderogas. But they have to go to the local gas station on occasion (either fixed, or mobile, take yer pick) and buy some petrol to keep running. This makes our carriers, though nuclear-powered, de facto dirt burners. Just because they get uncomfortable if they are running around nekkid. That said, we really needed to keep our surface nuclear fleet active, and thriving too. We didn't, with the last CGN being decommissioned in the mid-90s. (Full disclosure: I served aboard Bainbridge, CGN-25 in the late 70s, early 80s.)

    The other thing is, carriers are like cars. No matter the size and appointments inside, there is a minimum fixed cost. all cars need tires, a power plant (see how I gave a nod to the electric vehicles there?), brakes, suspension, steering, some semblance of a frame, cabin, &c. The only difference, in the end, is just how fancy and powerful. But that is why a Chevy Vega is not orders of magnitude cheaper than a Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Brougham. It *should* be, but for the fixed costs. I suspect the same would go with the small carrier fleet. The costs would not be directly proportional. A catapult will cost the same, no matter if it's on a biggun or a pee-wee. Same with the power plant. A reactor is a reactor. Both will be made of unobtanium, and lots of it.

    Still, all I've mentioned is just opinion, and not deeply researched. So. Take it with a grain of salt. :)

  7. Like Captain Steve said, the Marines seem to agree that some smaller carriers are a good idea. http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/8798/heres-the-usmcs-plan-for-lightning-carriers-brimming-with-f-35bs?iid=sr-link1

    Hard to imagine an effective strategy for the Pacific without any carriers, however. There's a lot of water out there, China seems to be building air assets focused on killing tankers, and an F/A-18E has about half the combat radius unrefueled as an F6F-5 had seventy years ago.

  8. I believe that is a interesting repeat of ww2. Remember, they did a "jeep" carrier. Just for resupply of the air groups. And ended up using them to start the defense process to protect the main battlefleet. So then you would eventually need double or triple the amount of carriers and resupply vessels. There are seven seas, so fourteen main carriers, three or four keeps for each main carrier, durn, that doubled the side of the Navy right there.

  9. Let's start with the straw men, efficiency and vulnerability. You cannot have bean-counter efficiency in a military designed to actually fight (as opposed to just for show). There's simply no way to measure costs versus benefits short of war, then the outcome is measured only in win or lose and there's still no way to quantify efficiency. You can argue until you're blue in the face and it won't change a thing. As for vulnerability, everything is vulnerable. Some things are more survivable in some circumstances. Flip the circumstances and survivability looks very different. A CVN can take suicide rhibs all day; an lcs-styled small carrier can be mission-killed or sunk by one. Neither can survive a nuke hit. Both could be captured or taken out by a daring and well executed special forces raid.

    Two more straw men. Finances and morale. We're spending what, three percent GDP on defense? While at the same time utterly destroying twenty or more percent of GDP on growing government and buying votes for bigger government which wants to cut defense to free up that three percent for destruction? Any critique of defense spending is a load of malarkey in the present spending environment. It's a splinter in a finger compared to an upper chest gunshot wound so it's really a non-starter. As for morale, that's another thing that can't be quantified. My gut feeling is that if Russia were to declare war tomorrow, more than half of all 'merkins would want to take the French solution. From what I've read of history, I'd probably have made the same assessment on December 1, 1941. But everything was different on December 8. My thought is that counting morale chickens before they hatch has never worked out well.

    As for land bases versus carriers it doesn't have to be either or. In fact it better not be. The same goes for fleet makeup. You make things far too easy for the enemy if you put all your eggs in one basket. It made sense to have a lot of robust cvbg's during the cold war but that wasn't all we had.

    Now to the real issue. The whole debate is obscenely and malignantly obtuse in the absence of an overall national defense strategy. Raise your hands, everyone who thinks we have such a strategy.

    In fact, we haven't had one since the day Reagan walked out of the White House for the last time, and that strategy was already being destroyed by people in government and defense who said that the emperor wasn't actually nekkid and that everyone really could have guns and butter.

    It's no use blaming the swindlers, either. You can only swindle a swindler.

  10. The more I learn, the less easy the answers are.
    The older I get, the less I even want to argue about it.
    The real problem is people.
    If they'd just go away...

  11. Whither the carriers? Wheresoever they wanteth! I mean, assuming the water's deep enough.

  12. There should be a combination of super carriers, smaller carriers and land bases. We currently have all three, in various means, available. Problem is...

    Our current super carriers are behind on maintenance, and their air-groups are devoid of functioning aircraft (the F-18 debacle is just one example.) Our small carriers no longer carry the Harrier and have been waiting the F-35 VTOL for, like, forever. Our land bases have been compromised by the politicians and nerf-herders in the State Department.

    Ideally, we will rebuild our naval air fleet to where we actually have extras in the form of excess air groups and excess planes, to provide rapid turn-over and replacement of vital air resources.

    Getting the F-35B or a navalized A-10ish plane (or both) available for our landing ships would provide the air-to-ground and anti-ship needs of escorts and to supplement the super-carriers. (Hell, a properly worked up F-35B could be run off of a container ship - semi-ski jump ramp, containers of stores and workshops, and 2-4 of the 'Bs and there goes more convoy escort, and an expanded maritime range patrol. Gee, isn't that the fantasy that they kind-of promised in the beginning?)

    As to land bases, there are all sorts of issues with them. Politics being the biggest. All you have to do is ask how many minor nations in the Pacific have the US politics pissed off in the last 40 years. How many air bases have we closed or lost, or allowed to go fallow? The Pacific is full of bases from the island hopping campaign (I know, I lived on one for 3 years) that are still there. Many have been left to rot, but could be brought up to reasonable standard relatively quickly. Central Pacifica could be covered easily if... If... If we only had the aircraft and crews, both Navy and Air Force, to cover the expansion. If we only had the resources to supply and maintain those fields as mini-bases or fixed-carriers. If we only had the political backing from the Pacific peoples to allow us to return our military to those bases.

    Eh, nothing that tossing lots and lots of money, people and materials (all of which we don't have) can't fix.

    So yeah, would be nice to have a combination of big carriers, mid to small carriers and fixed-carriers (islands) available to provide us an offensive and defensive depth in the Pacific not seen since WWII, but we lack the cash. With more cash (and the commitment of that cash over a long (multi-presidential term time, no matter who sits in in the seat of power) we could get the ships (both carriers of all sizes and shorter range escort/attack ships(hey, you have an island, you can base ships there also,) the planes (to go on the ships and bases and the extras to replace the broken and the extra air-groups and squadrons to allow quick replacement/reinforcement), the personnel (pilots, crews, support, and civilian support) and the logistics and materials to support this grand plan.

    Realistically, that is a lot of cash that needs to be allocated for a long time.

    As much as I would love to see this happen, I just don't believe that it will. But wouldn't it be nice to get back basing in all the places we used to be, and to have a functioning (and armed) active air and naval defense in depth? One can only hope.

  13. Both sides make very good points. Carriers project power around the globe. The C-in-C for the last 8 years has been averse to projecting power, further imposing 50% of the budget cuts on the military, which does not comprise 50% of the Federal budget.
    I'd be in favor of whatever gets more keels in the water. Whether Congress is willing to loosen the pursestrings for one big one or two little ones, whichever they can get approved, I'm for it.

  14. Thanks all for the comments. I have much to ponder. There will be a follow up post, eventually.

    Once I've digested all of this. Great back and forth, most of you seem to lean towards keeping the bird farms. As do I.

    Freedom isn't free. Nor is it cheap.

  15. Consider the modern aircraft carrier. I think we all agree that it is armed with a plane with a very small combat radius which means the carrier has to get much closer to the enemy and as we have seen, that's what it's been doing since 1995. We didn't used to put carriers into the Persian Gulf and we didn't for a damned good reason. Our enemy now has a thousand land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (C-801/802 and even SSN2) that can fire at carriers in the Gulf all day and not miss. They have radar that accurately tracks the ships, MARPAT that do the same and an endless supply of dhows that can broadcast the exact location and vector of the ships. Then, there is the unfortunate slam the door behind the carrier option should Iran decide to try to trap one or two in the gulf. All they have to do is dump a handful of mines in the SOH and it's going to be awhile before the navy sends the ships out or more ships in. (See OPERATION INTENSE LOOK for carrier behavior in mined waters).

    The situtation in the Far East is almost as dire. Same short range, an infinite number of landbased antiship cruise missiles, regiment sized raids like we talked about back in the old days when we sweated the AS-4 and their ilk and those were ancient missiles. Throw in in some increasingly capable submarines and MARPAT and even the ballistic missiles but also consider the Kalibre cruise missiles the russians launched into Syrian targets from little tiny ships and submarines a 1000 kilometers away. If they have good targeting (no Downbeat required anymore so no clue if you're actually being passively targeted or targeted from space) and the first thing you know is a flock of sealevel mach + missiles moving at you very fast. If, say, 20 TELs fired 20 missiles for a TOT at your battle group, the cruisers and destroyers are going to be hard pressed to keep them from rolling over your carrier and escorts. If they're followed by 20 more 5 minutes later the bad news gets worse.

    Ripper purely massacred the carriers in the last real wargame I saw the Navy play. He did so well they tried to pretend that general never lived since he kicked the navy's butt. I'd be curious to see what the latest wargames in the FE and PG show for the role carriers will play in the solution to the crisis. This brings up the final point, what exactly is it that modern carriers achieve when they do wage war? They've been doing it now for 15 years without, so far as I can tell, having one single impact on the outcome of the wars. Afghanistan was a bit of a stretch but then the USAF was basing its bombers out of Barksdale or Diego Garcia and that's a longer stretch and quite insane.

    The carrier wings have been dropping bombs on 'targets' for 15 years and the Taliban is still there and winning, ISIS is still there and battling on in both Iraq and Syria. The point was raised above about the National Strategy. We have one and we have a National Naval Strategy but it's very hard to see where carriers are going to play any kind of a meaningful role in the current wars or in a war in Asia. The point of war is to win. How does a carrier based strategy help to win?

    So, I tend to agree with Bruce. As configured and deployed, the modern carrier is an extravagance.

    If you want to play the wargame, project what purpose you believe the carriers are there to accomplish and then get out your map, draw arcs of fire for C801/802 missiles and Kalibre type land based missiles. Put them on every single Chinese rock in the South China Sea and along the entire coast of China and then work out how your carrier air wings are going to play a meaningful role in any kind of battling with China. You can do the same for the Iranian coast and islands in the Persian Gulf. We've been seeing how it works off the coast of both Yemen and Lebanon. I think Al Quaeda even got an Egyptian warship with a beach launched missile.

  16. Another complicating factor, as if we need more, to consider is the care and feeding of the air wing. Many moons ago (1980s) the Navy did a thing called a Sea Based Air study to see what would happen if we had all kinds of vertical/short T/O and landing aircraft that could be based on just about anything with a flat deck. All kinds of funny cruisers, imagine a DD963 with a couple VSTOL F-14s on the deck, etc. The limiting factors for fancy whiz bang airplanes turned out to be support. How many people does it take to service the a/c and provide O level maintenance? How about I level maintenance? Where are the shops full of ATE, spares, technicians, etc? So even if you could take the aircraft of a CV air wing and spread them out on smaller decks you still have to have some place or places to fix the aircraft or their subsystems. This shows a practical limitation of basing modern aircraft on smaller ships.

    With all due respect to the notion of LPHs and LHAs being small carriers they are/were not. They do not have the depth of resources to provide in-depth support to an air wing. They are fine with servicing rotorwing (and whatever V-22s are) but do not have the space to really repair aircraft systems or maintain sufficient spares to support their air wing for a significant amount of time, even if you could find enough $s to buy all the spare LRUs you needed, which you can't.

    The F-18 range problem was pretty well known since OPTEVFOR tested the earliest ones. Not much different than the A-7. How about some tankers to extend the range? How about a longer range F-18?

    What do modern carriers achieve when they do wage war? Well, we haven't had a real all out war to demonstrate. Carrier air wings have delivered ordnance on target and all the other air tasks same as the Air Force aircraft and we do not have to kiss the (fill in the blank) of any dictatorial ruler of some forsaken dump to get the right to invest hundreds of millions to build some type of air base, with the long term tail of diplomatic and economic complications that will keep on giving for the next 50 years or so.

    Rant over

    1. Write On!
      Anyway, we have not really been waging war but flying bombing missions in a permissive environment. I'd be curious to see what happens when the air wing goes up against front line russian SAM systems and the export versions they're selling to places like Iran. OTOH, I'm a big believer in combined arms warfare and that sort of thing is just down the cruise missile's alley. Let them take out the radars before the alpha strikes go in. OTGH, it might be interesting in a prospective wargame to overlay those killer SAM systems like the ones that the Russians have installed in Syria and see what that does to the operating envelope of the F-18 and B1.

  17. Great discussion so far. Keep going, this old Phantom Phixer is getting a lesson!

  18. Before I began reading the comments, I ensured that I had plenty of Guinness on hand (for strength!), and popcorn just in case. Good planning on my part.
    A lot of good points here; I tend to agree with Shaun. I'm a former carrier sailor myself (CV-67 & CV-59), although that doesn't mean I know anything.
    This isn't something that should really be considered pertinent to this subject, and it's certainly no argument for spending that amount of money, but I thought I'd toss it in anyhow: there's nothing quite like a big-ass carrier to impress folks in places that don't have them. I can't tell you how many favorable comments I heard from civilians on the beach, slightly agog at the sight of a full-bore American CV just sitting at anchor in their familiar harbor, doing nothing at all except being huge. Like Andre the Giant, no comment was really necessary other than its simple presence.
    --Tennessee Budd

  19. Curtis and Iron City speak Heap Big Medicine..


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)