Thursday, October 04, 2007

Air Force Balks at Giant Navy Carrier

Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) and USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). The old argument returns-Big carrier or Small? US Navy Photo

No surprise there, but they make a valid point at its huge expense and viability in this new era. From Air Force Magazine:

The Navy’s position paper on its new class of carriers declares: “Nuclear aircraft carriers provide the nation with the capability to quickly bring significant firepower to the theater of operations, remain there for extended periods of time without the need to rely on bases from other nations, control the battlespace, and project power ashore.”

That is true, however, only if the warships and their air wings also have access to air refueling and resupply, which, of course, in turn require access to bases on land and, usually, the support of Air Force aircraft. USAF fighters usually can deploy in force to a theater faster than can carriers, and can provide a heavier sustained punch, if they have access to theater bases. And Air Force bombers can, if necessary, conduct strikes from extreme distances—including from US bases.

I agree that rather than placing all our naval strike assets in a few vulnerable carriers, we should spread them around into cheaper and more survivable platforms. Submarines armed with cruise missiles for sea control and overland strike, bombers and land fighters for close air support, and when bases aren't available, small carriers equipped with vertol Harrier aircraft. Here's another valid reason that the time of the small carrier has arrived:

...each of today’s naval air wings, equipped with precision munitions in large numbers, could effectively hit six times as many targets as it could about two decades ago.

Ultimately, I think it will be the cost of such weapons that will spell their doom, the same reasoning which eventually sunk the battleship long after the lessons of Pearl Harbor were learned:

The first of the line, not expected to enter service until 2015, will be named after the late President Gerald R. Ford. Polmar, in two recent articles in Proceedings, the journal of the US Naval Institute, said Ford would require research and development of $12 billion followed by $12 billion in construction costs. Excluded from those figures are the cost of aircraft themselves.

Many Americans don't know that besides the 11 supercarriers within the Fleet, there are also 11 Marine Amphibious carriers, at 50,000 tons weighing about half, and costing about half as much as the big ships. They already are loading the vertol planes I mentioned above and will soon ferry the new F-35B, the short-take off version of the Joint Strike Fighter.

As I mentioned over the weekend, the British are being forced to gut their excellent Navy to pay for a new fleet of large carriers. It's become increasingly apparent that the US is doing the same, though not quite as noticeable as in the UK. While extra funds would solve many problems, it won't reverse the slow cancer the carrier has on our ship numbers which has been steadily plaguing us since the end of the Cold War.