Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Not a Carrier

Oh good grief. I want a smart carrier debate--but this is not it.

Seriously? I know that Ford class carriers are very expensive, but America class amphibious warfare ships are not aircraft carriers no matter what you think you see:

We call it the USS America, and technically, it's not an "aircraft carrier." The Navy calls it a Landing Helicopter Assault ship, or LHA -- but as you can see in the following picture, an LHA does look an awful lot like an aircraft carrier.

The author thinks more America class ships are an alternative to the Ford class.

They are not. The America is an amphibious warfare ship designed to put Marines ashore by air that can, if it carries F-35s, function as a small, way less capable carrier.

But America lacks a catapult to launch planes with heavier loads. It lacks an angled flight deck to launch and recover aircraft at the same time. It lacks recovery systems to land non-VSTOL or helicopter aircraft, which means it lacks all the support aircraft that allow the big deck carrier air wing to be effective. It lacks stores for sustained aircraft sorties.

It lacks all these things because it is not, in fact, an aircraft carrier. Just because I can hammer a nail with my stapler does not make my stapler a cheaper hammer. Because technically, it isn't.

So America cannot--because it is not designed to do it--generate sorties at anywhere near the rate of a Ford.

Add all those things to get a better sortie rate and the America class would get more expensive and the per-ship savings would be closed considerably.

But we'd need multiple America class ships to replace a single Ford's air wing, yet multiple America class ships still would not provide the same capabilities as the single Ford.

The fact is, greater size leads to greater efficiency and effectiveness. To be fair to the author, it took me years to accept that size matters for carrier hulls. I had developed some doubts along the way and saw America class ships as reserve--not replacement--carriers. But eventually I was swayed. To be fair to me, after decades of reading the Naval Institute's Proceedings, I only recently read of the studies on the subject that convinced me.

Remember, the carrier debate is about two roles for naval aviation: power projection with air power used against weaker targets ashore (think Afghanistan) and sea control with battles against enemy fleets and aircraft.

Carriers are great for launching strikes either independently or in support of ground operations against enemies without the ability to strike back.

For the power projection role, we should have Ford class carriers and not America class ships instead.

But carriers become vulnerable when facing an enemy fleet and air force. That's when their expense becomes a liability. Even if they are difficult to sink, they can be mission-killed for the duration of the war.

For such sea control missions, I'd keep any carriers away from the battle and rely more on missile-armed surface ships, submarines, and aircraft ashore until the threat level is reduced.

And for real fun on this topic, I'd like to explore the option of building more Ford class ships instead of America class ships.

I think we need a carrier debate. Calling America an alternative and affordable carrier is a non-starter.