Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Let's Get Small

What will our carrier force look like in a few decades?

A few years ago, I wondered if my long doubt about the ability of our large carriers to survive in a network-centric environment would founder on the simple issue of smaller hulls not being cost-effective for the number of aircraft they can hold. Was it really cost effective to lose 50 planes by going from 90,000 ton hulls to 65,000 ton hulls?

The main question at that point was whether we could cram more aircraft on the smaller hulls:

Could we put more than 40 planes (or whatever UCAV number that is equivalent) on a 65,000 ton hull if we went smaller? If we couldn't, it may well make sense--if we should have carriers in a network environment--to go up to 90,000 tons. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes.

UCAVS can be crammed into a smaller hull:

While the navy would prefer to design and build the first generation UCAVs for use on existing carriers, these smaller and cheaper aircraft go together well with smaller and cheaper carriers. This means the Ford class may be the last of the big carriers. That's because UCAVs mean you can get more aircraft on a carrier, and that creates a traffic jam type situation. Moreover, the widespread use of smart bombs means you need fewer bombers over the target. A 50-60,000 ton carrier, with three dozen F-35Bs, UCAVs, UAVs and support aircraft, can be as effective as a Nimitz with 70 F-18s and support aircraft.

I think it is wise to start evolving away from our super carriers. Precision weapons and persistent naval surveillance will force us to spend more time hiding and protecting our behemoths rather than attacking the enemy.

UCAVs with precision weapons will make our stealth carrier fleet more potent in their backup role, too.

Our fleet needs to evolve. Super carriers will remain useful for decades to come (in increasingly narrow missions), but eventually they will cease to be real assets in a wartime environment.