Thursday, January 23, 2014

Build More Ford Class Carriers

The immense cost of our Ford class carriers will raise the question of affording these behemoths. We'll need a real carrier debate. Could the Marines save the Fords?

Carrier debates seem to generally be fought be proponents of carriers who tout their effectiveness in power projection missions while critics question their ability to survive in sea control missions. The two sides can make entirely accurate arguments while talking past each other, perhaps not even realizing they are arguing different things altogether.

After getting some doubts about the affordability issue of smaller versus large carriers, I've basically come around to the conclusion that if we are going to have carriers, bigger hulls are more cost effective.

I recently read that the Navy had studied medium carriers with 55 planes versus large carriers with 75 planes and found that the large ships and wings generated twice the sorties at a ship and plane cost only 13% more than the medium ships.

And interesting enough, even a wing of 55 planes on the large carrier generated 40% more sorties than the same wing on a medium carrier.

That's because our carriers are planned to be able to use 2/3 of the wing at the same time. So a big carrier's deck can handle a higher percentage of the smaller wing's planes.

So, yeah, we couldn't build enough smaller carriers at the same price to be more survivable and we'd have less sortie generation capacity.

If we build carriers, they should be big. But that doesn't end the carrier debate. Then the question is, do we need carriers at all?

At that point, the different missions of the big carriers must be evaluated. As I discussed in the first link above, carriers have power projection missions (operating against land targets of a nation that lacks the power to challenge our off-shore fleet) and sea control missions (operations against enemy sea and air assets both on and under the sea and ashore).

If we assume from post-World War II history that we will continue to need carriers for power projection missions against smaller powers that cannot effectively strike our naval power, we absolutely need aircraft carriers.

But if we want these carriers for sea control missions, we have a lot of our money invested in very few hulls. That's where my worries are still in play.

I don't care how many times that carrier defenders say one of our super carriers is tough to target or sink. Our carriers will be hit. And even if they are as difficult to sink as is claimed, they can sure be mission killed a lot easier. If a carrier is put out of action for a couple years or even several months for repairs, it's probably out of the fight for the duration.

And in a network-centric world, the pinnacle of platform-centric warfare--the carrier--makes no sense. Spreading out the firepower over multiple platforms is the way to survive and win a sea control mission.

So the question is now how many big carriers do we need for power projection missions (and to play a supporting role in sea control missions) while building enough missile-armed ships and subs to fight for control of the seas?

Clearly, it would be better to use money for some Fords and their air wings to build more surface warships and submarines.

Recall also that the Navy maintains large amphibious warfare ships, and that the new ships are bigger than World War II fleet carriers and which can function as a stealth fleet of small reserve carriers.

There is some controversy on this, but the new amphibious ships are optimized for aviation operations and lack a well deck to use small amphibious craft as past ships had to move Marines ashore.

Why not build amphibious warfare vessels even larger than America class ships that would be real reserve strike-capable aircraft carriers if needed.

What if we made our amphibious warfare ships based on the Ford hull? Which is the pinnacle of aviation optimized ships.

We did use a big-deck carrier for special forces missions in the initial Afghanistan campaign, in 2001.

And we used a big-deck carrier to carry Army forces in a Haiti mission before that, in 1994.

But build the amphibious warfare Fords without much of the gear needed for the first line fleet carriers but with the ability to add this equipment if we need more strike carriers.

I assume we'd need fewer Ford amphibious warfare vessels than America class because of the greater size of the former.

And as big-deck carriers, we'd save money on needing vertical take-off versions of our fighter and strike aircraft. The Marines could simply use the Navy version of the F-35, for example. [UPDATE: To my surprise, the Marine version is actually cheaper. If there is to be savings, it would be from decreasing Navy costs per unit by buying more. And maybe some savings by having just two types of aircraft to build and support.]

Knowing we have an operational reserve carrier fleet dedicated to moving Marines, we could build fewer of the fleet carriers and put that money into surface combatants and subs to achieve sufficient numbers for our fleet.

Heck, the Fords could supplement amphibious lift if we needed that, since we've shown big carriers can function that way.

For the foreseeable future, we sea-based air power for power projection missions and even sea control against minor naval powers. So we need aircraft carriers. Which should be big.

But for sea control, in a network-centric environment, we need numbers of ships and subs whose individual loss doesn't cripple our combat capability.

Building Fords for both the Navy and Marines (I know they are still Navy ships, but you know what I mean) would mean more Ford hulls in the water than the ten we plan. That would make them cheaper per unit.

But it would mean truncating the America class in favor of Fords.

I realize this thought, if it has merit, would have been better about a decade ago, given that the Marine America class amphibious carriers are coming on line now and that the Marine F-35 is already designed.

But these ship and aircraft building programs will go on for decades. And like the Littoral Combat Ship, any one of them could be put on probation, too, if money continues to be tight.

My thoughts on this may be ill-informed or just lacking key information. I was once a proponent of more but smaller carriers, after all. But when I realized that we couldn't afford many more medium carriers than large ones and that the total sortie capacity would be inferior, I changed my mind. All other things being equal, I'd rather have more hulls to reduce the impact of losses. But all other things are not equal. Bad luck there.

And accepting that big carriers are more cost effective than medium carriers doesn't mean the big ships are any less vulnerable or that their loss isn't as crippling. That problem still exists even if one solution I thought would work really wouldn't solve the problem. So consider this a point of departure just to get a real carrier debate going. We need one.

I want a Navy supreme at sea. I'm just not invested in any particular platform to get that.