So, is the supercarrier dead? Jerry Hendrix wrote a thought provoking piece titled “At What Cost A Carrier?” Normally, we think Hendrix is pretty sharp, but this piece was not up to his usual standards. First, comparing the roughly $7bn cost of the last in class CVN-77, to the first in class CVN-78 (roughly $14 bn) is a bit misleading. The last in class benefits from the entire learning curve of a production run. The first in class always suffers cost issues because of the same learning curve issues. Further, as much as $5bn of the cost of the new class is in non-recurring research and development costs. So while the cost of the next-gen carrier is still rather appalling, it’s not terribly out of line with recent trends in comparable shipbuilding.
So let’s take a look at some of the alternatives the Wired article I linked explores.
1. Using the new America class or a derivative as baby carriers.
First, the America class are not baby carriers. They are amphibious warships. Sure, they look a lot like carriers, and have better ability to operate larger numbers of AV-8B or F-35B jets than the existing LHD class big deck amphibs. But they are still amphibious warfare ships, designed to carry and land the hear of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Battalion Landing Team, and host the majority of its Air Combat Element (ACE), a reinforced medium helicopter unit.
The biggest drawback of using an LHD/LHA as a carrier is the fact that it cannot operate either the E-2 Hawkeye, or the EF-18G. One of the key lessons of the Falklands War was that while carrier airpower can be decisive, operating carriers without airborne early warning and electronic warfare in range of shore based air is fraught with risk.
LHD/LHA are also quite a bit slower than carriers. That reduces their mobility quite a bit. One of the key strengths of carriers in the power projection role is their ability to close with a coast, launch strikes, and retire before the enemy can mount a coherent counterstrike. But you have to move pretty quick to do that. Even a relatively modest decrease in speed has a significant negative effect on that ability. That reduced speed also makes an LHD/LHA quite a bit more vulnerable to submarine attack.
Further, all of the vulnerabilities that supposedly make the modern supercarrier obsolete are there in any LHD/LHA, only magnified.
2. The “everything’s a carrier” approach.
Not a bad idea, to some extent.
That is, between helicopters and UAVs, more and more ships are capable of deploying at least some form of their own, organic air support. UAVs obviously extend the sensor envelope for ships. And helicopters not only extend the sensor envelope, but often give much greater reach to the ships weapons, either by carrying their own, or providing much better targeting for ship launched weapons.
But the fantasy that unmanned combat air vehicles can replace the manned strike aircraft is just that- fantasy. For at least the next generation, manned aircraft will continue to be the only viable option.
As for converting merchant hulls to carrier like roles, that too faces severe handicaps. Virtually every challenge an LHD/LHA faces, so to any converted merchantman. Worse, not being built to warship standards, they are far less capable of withstanding battle damage or fire.
The linked article notes for the cost of a carrier, you could buy several smaller ships, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be buying equal effectiveness for your money, nor does it even mean the results would be cheaper in the long run. Don’t forget, the big cost in operating a ship isn’t fuel, but manpower. And the manpower for several smaller ships would likely be greater than one supercarrier.
3. Submarine Strike
Yes, the converted Ohio class SSGNs are handy. And adding a few more tubes to later flight Virginia class SSNs is probably a good idea. But that’s hardly a substitute for airpower. First, right now, the only viable weapon is the Tomahawk cruise missile. While it is a good weapon, it is both slow, and only very modestly stealthy. It is quite vulnerable to air defense. It also has a rather paltry 1000lb warhead, far too small to hold at risk any number of critical targets in almost any campaign.
Worse, it has only the most limited utility against any target that isn’t a fixed installation. Latest versions can be retargeted in flight, but requires a data-link with an airborne assets. Which implies you can be flying over enemy territory. Which raises the question, if you can fly over territory long enough and far enough to retarget a Tomahawk, why not just use that aircraft as a strike platform anyway?
Submarine launched cruise missile attacks also suffer from “shallow magazines.” An Ohio SSGN with full magazines only carries 154 missiles. That sounds like a lot (and at roughly a million dollars a pop, it’s a lot of money) but in terms of warheads on foreheads, that’s a day’s work for a carrier. And the carrier can launch several days of strikes before having to retire to rearm. Whereas a carrier can rearm at sea, an SSGN has to return to a friendly port to reload. Such lack of sustained firepower is why URR refers to the SSGN as able to deliver a “strike”, rather than “fires.”
Since Billy Mitchell first bombed captured German warships in Chesapeake Bay, people have been sounding the death knell of the carrier. And yet, it continues to prove itself again and again as not only a viable weapon of war, but a crucial tool of warfighting and diplomacy.
That’s not to say Naval Aviation doesn’t face challenges. The short striking range of today’s air wing, the astonishing cost of the F-35C program (and limited capabilities it provides) and the short-sighted decision to jettison dedicated tanker, ASW and long range strike (as opposed to strike-fighter) assets have lead to the construction of ever more capable carriers, with arguably ever diminishing capability in the main battery of the carrier, its air wing.
If carriers are such obsolete and vulnerable warships, why are so many other countries striving today to build their own carrier capbability?