Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Size Matters

Why Would the Navy build light aircraft carriers when a larger number of smaller carriers will never match the quality of a smaller number of large carriers built for the same price?

It may seem odd that I'm defending large carriers as the primary sea control asset given my questions about how well they'd survive in a war with a peer competitor in a network-centric threat environment.

But we need some type of naval aviation. And carriers remain invaluable in power projection roles, which is different than their sea control weaknesses.

But is building light carriers really the answer to costs and survivability?

The new conventional carriers would be roughly the same size as the World War II-vintage Midway-class—as they were configured toward the end of their service lives—and would carry a formidable air wing. Initially, the new carrier strike groups would be equipped the Lockheed Martin F-35B, but once the new CVLs are built and are operational, they would be able to embark more capable air wings.

“In the near-term, existing LHA/LHD amphibious assault ships would be employed as CVLs using a loadout of twenty to twenty-five F-35B aircraft. As they reach the end of their service life, LHA/LHD-derived CVLs would be replaced by purpose-built CVLs with a displacement similar to a Cold War-era Midway-class aircraft carrier and equipped with catapults and arresting gear,” the report states.

The Navy commissioned the report and seems to be backing it.

I find it odd that the Navy backs this idea.

Smaller carriers of a Midway-class size are not as efficient as a larger carrier and provide capabilities far less than the money they save:

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?

Unless you can build and operate multiple smaller carriers for the price of one big one, plus the escorts, you don't save money and you don't maintain capabilities. (See Bay for more discussion.)

Nor is survivability enhanced much unless you have lots of smaller carriers. If you can replace one big deck with four smaller ones, you could have 40 targets instead of 10. Even if we can do that, is it really that tough for an enemy with far cheaper anti-ship missiles to expand their arsenal to cope with that number?

And yes, we can use amphibious assault ships as light carriers, but exploiting a feature of a ship designed for landing Marines for aviation missions when necessary makes more of what we have. That is not comparable money-wise to building a light carrier specifically for that aviation mission.

Heck, I even suggested moving from the LHA to Ford-class amphibs. Perhaps we could have a total of multi-purpose aviation and amphibious Fords smaller than the current mix of full-deck amphibs and fleet carriers, as long as the Fords could operate as either amphibs or fleet carriers, depending on what is needed.

If we build carriers, they should be big. Although we have to accept that those carriers are primarily for power projection and not for leading the fight for sea control.

The question is really whether we need as many as we have or whether we should start gradually shifting the central player in our sea control mission to non-carrier Navy assets, reserving a smaller number of big carriers for power projection missions or sea control missions in a more permissive environment.