Monday, June 22, 2020

With Carriers: Go Smaller to get Bigger?

In what will hopefully jumpstart another chapter in The Carrier Wars, our friend Jerry Hendrix has an article in National Review, “The Aircraft Carrier We Need” where he doesn’t argue that we don’t need carriers, just that we don’t need – or want – the one we’re building.

I’m in alignment with some his points, only slightly in others, and have a few points of my own that I think need to be part of the conversation.

As always, read it all, but here are a few pull quotes to get you interested.
… the Ford’s most glaring problems: It has the wrong design and is built around the wrong type and size of air wing, and it is not optimized for implementing the current National Defense Strategy, which focuses on great-power competition with Communist China and, to a lesser extent, a Putin-led Russia.
We really do not have a coherent National Defense Strategy and being that a CVN has a life of a half century, what it is “designed for” now will not exist in 20-50 years while it is still a capital ship.

This has always been the worst argument against specific platforms and it represents a line of thinking that can have bad results because you try too hard to specifically tailor a ship to your snapshot view of what is “optimized” for the challenge at hand in any specific POM cycle. That is how you get LCS and DDG-1000.

Instead, what we need are broadly flexible platforms built to be scalable if needed, fitted with a variety of known and unknown systems as the future tells us are needed at that time the need reveals itself. Flexibility and a design based on the ability to modify later are what is needed. That way, when the actual future – not the future we imagine – reveals itself, we’ll be able to adjust to it.
The Ford’s eventual design was predicated upon an assumption that the ship would operate in similar semi-permissive, low-threat environments, such as the Adriatic Sea or Arabian Gulf, staying close to enemy shores to optimize the efficacy of the carrier’s short-range (500 nautical miles) light-attack air wing, which was then dominated by the FA-18 Hornet. 

…the air wing should be designed to implement the nation’s defense strategy.
This is the real weakness. We have discussed here over the years the utter professional malpractice from short-sighted thinking that begat the 2020 airwing. People excused away the long range capability brought by organic tanking, heavy fighters, and strike aircraft. Instead, we think in terms of incredibly efficient decks of strike-fighters and their support aircraft. Much of the vulnerability of the carrier – and remember carriers have always been vulnerable because everyone is trying to kill them because they are so effective – derive from the pyrrhic victory of the Light Attack mafia against the Fighter and Attack mafia in the 1990s.

The next pull quote is a regular area of friction between Jerry and me. While we agree that unmanned aircraft will be part of the future airwing, we are at opposite ends of the UAS Overton Window. I believe we are about 1 decade away from knowing what we can actually “do” with unmanned systems so we can line up the next generation and will have a better idea of their use in 20, but Jerry thinks we know enough to make grander assumptions now. I think he is just too optimistic on the program risk, the technology risk, and the ability to do what he wants in a non-permissive EW environment.
As part of this shift, the core of the carrier’s new air wing would be 30 stealthy, heavily armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), organized into three squadrons. Individual UCAVs should be capable of carrying 4,000 pounds of ordnance internally to a combat radius of at least 1,500 nautical miles without refueling. They should also feature broadband, all-aspect stealth design with a much-reduced radar cross-section (RCS). The design should also integrate an infrared-signature-reduction capability and an advanced passive sensor suite. These 30 aircraft — each armed with two 2,000-pound-class direct-attack weapons (GBU-31 JDAM) or stand-off weapons (e.g., JASSM or LRASM), four 1,000-pound-class direct-attack weapons (GBU-33 JDAMs), or up to 16 GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs
More important than UCAV right now is the replacement for the F/A-18 series of aircraft. Not only does it need to be manned, it needs the option to have a 2-seat version for strike and electronic warfare. I know I jinx it by saying it needs to lean in the direction of a heavy strike-fighter, but it needs to lean in the direction of a heavy strike-fighter.

As for the size of Jerry’s carrier – it sounds familiar for a reason;
In addition, the carrier should have at least two long-stroke, heavy catapults in the bow and one in the waist (centered on the carrier’s angled deck) in order to maintain redundancy in battle, two arresting-gear wires, and three deck-edge heavy elevators to move aircraft to and from the hangar bay. The new carrier should have the storage capacity to accommodate 1,500 tons of aviation ordnance and 1.5 million gallons of aviation fuel. Lastly, to power all this, in terms of both speed through the water and electrical-power generation, the carrier will likely need two nuclear reactors (for combat redundancy) capable of generating 240,000 shaft horsepower. The United States no longer has the capacity to build large conventional maritime steam turbines, but if it ever does, this option should be considered. Such a carrier should cost no more than $5.5 billion, about a third of the cost of the current Ford-class carrier. This effort would take, at a minimum, ten years to design and build.

Before arguing that this proposed carrier is too small, its catapults and arresting gear are too few, and its aviation-ordnance and fuel capacities are too slight, critics should pause and consider that the carrier parameters described above, with the exception of the two nuclear reactors, lie directly between those of the Midway-class carriers built during World War II and the Forrestal-class carriers built during the 1950s. Both served in the Navy until the mid 1990s and operated heavy, long-range, penetrating-strike air wings.
This is a strong selling point to me for this reason alone; one of my greatest concerns about our present fleet design is that the cult of efficiency has led us to build a lot of very big platforms that cost a lot of money because the spreadsheet tells us that is the right thing to do. At war, what this does is make any loss unacceptable as it is one thing to lose 1 of 5 of your ships in an engagement, it is another thing to lose 1 of 3. One is a bad day at sea, the other means defeat; at tactical defeat that undermines your operational plans and puts your nation at strategic risk – all to make the peacetime spreadsheet optimized.

Can we trade 3 FORD’s for 5 HENDRIX’s? Would that be the right move … not on the spreadsheet, but for where it matters … at war?

An extended war? A war of attrition? The kind of war I’ll write about later this week?

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