Thursday, January 13, 2011

Let's Get Small?

Apparently, the Navy is quietly thinking about whether our big-deck super carriers are the way to go to provide sea-based air power:

There has recently been some talk in the U.S. Navy among some senior uniformed personnel and serious strategists about the long-term impact of UAVs. A few people are suggesting the era of the 100,000 ton carrier may be over. With smaller UAVs likely to comprise as much as half of all the aircraft on a carrier, and increasing automation of many ship functions, some strategists are thinking about something in the range of 65,000 (about the size of the Charles de Gaulle or the new Queen Elizabeths) to 85,000 tons (a bit more than the full-load displacement of the old JFK, the last non-nuclear carrier, and a little smaller than the Enterprise’s 93,000 standard). ...

The navy knows it needs more money for new tech, like combat UAVs operating from carriers. These are smaller and burn less fuel than manned fighter-bombers, further increasing the combat capabilities of existing carriers, or a new class of smaller class of carriers, in effect, "mini-Fords." The subject has generated a lot of rancor in the Pentagon, and no press releases at all.

I'm one of the people questioning the survivability of big carriers or the need for them to generate offensive naval power (heck, long-range guns might take back their primary role as an anti-ship weapon, which the carriers wrestled away in World War II). The issue is obscured by the great value our big deck carriers provide in conflicts against enemies who have no means of attacking those carriers. They are very valuable in a low-threat environment to provide a platform to project air power ashore. But that does not mean that they can fulfill this role in a fight against an enemy that can strike our carriers.

My main question was whether a smaller platform could carry out air missions as well as the big decks can. If we are going to have aircraft carriers, it might not make financial sense to build small carriers that can't carry out their mission. I figured the answer to that might depend on the use of combat drones (UCAVs). I later concluded that UCAVs could indeed be the answer. Going down to 65,000 ton hulls could allow us to build more hulls or at least risk less of an asset should it be hit.

I don't think that going down to 25,000 ton or smaller hulls for our carrier aviation makes sense. But UCAVs would make our amphibious warfare ships designed to haul Marines around a very valuable reserve carrier fleet. Heck, we'd have options to create escort carriers using container ship hulls, if UCAVs work out.

Our big deck carriers will remain useful for decades to come--even if their scope of action is eroded over time because of the spread of precision and surveillance to even smaller enemies--so it makes no sense to abruptly decommission them given the money we invested in them. But it is good that the Navy is beginning to explore the idea of whether the super carrier's time is passing. Defenders of the big decks should not pretend that the super carriers are robust enough to survive modern precision weapons (and that was true before the DF-21 issue) based on Enterprise's survival after a number of its own bombs went off on the deck (which actually took place 42 years ago, tomorrow). There is a vast difference in stationary bombs going off on the deck and plunging weapons that penetrate the deck and go off inside the ship. (I couldn't believe it when a retired admiral in the pages of the Naval Institute Proceedings used that incident to defend the super carrier's survivability even in the face of plunging ballistic missiles like the DF-21.)

If you can see it you can hit it, and if you can hit it you can kill it. That's the truth of precision that has grown over the last forty years. And if "its" loss is too much to bear in a war, it does us no good to pretend our biggest ships simply can't be seen, hit, or killed.

UPDATE: Oh, I should add that with the development of persistent surveillance networks, we're getting to the point where you can drop the "if" off of the seeing part of the linkage. Unless we can find a way to stealth a carrier task force, I just don't see how the big decks can survive to carry out their missions--missions other platforms could take care of, at least partly.