Well, the Navy has decided the role of the aircraft carrier for the next couple of decades. Is it a deep strike platform using long legged strike aircraft whether manned or unmanned? Is it an air superiority platform to carve out large swaths of airspace from enemy control in order to support Air Force deep strike bombers? Is it an escort platform to protect Burke Tomahawk shooters as they sail to their launch positions? All of these are potentially viable roles depending on the overall strategy being undertaken. So, what’s the Navy’s choice?
Ahhhh ……. They punted. They opted for none of the above.
As reported by Breaking Defense website, the Navy has decided that the UCLASS is dead. In its place the Navy will pursue a non-stealthy, unmanned tanker, more Super Hornet E/F’s, and more F-35Cs (1). ComNavOps has no problem with dropping the UCLASS. I’ve doubted its feasibility and applaud the decision. The problem lies with the other actions that the Navy is now committing to. Let’s look a bit closer at what this means.
On the plus side, the Navy desperately needs a dedicated tanker. Using Super Hornets, the front line strike fighter, as a tanker was an example of stupidity of monumental proportions. At least now the 4-6 Hornets being used as tankers on each carrier will be able to return to being combat aircraft.
The decision to purchase more F/A-18E/Fs is a place holder decision. It accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t move the combat needle forward. It’s just more of what we have. The Hornets are a solid, capable aircraft at the moment but will become increasingly outclassed as
and China continue to produce new, top end aircraft. Worse, the Hornet is short ranged and buying
more just solidifies the air wing’s inadequacies, especially in the Pacific. Russia
Buying more F-35C’s is doubling down on an already bad bet. We’ve beaten this poor horse to death but the F-35 has neither the range to operate effectively in a thousand mile A2/AD zone, the weapon carrying capacity to fight other stealth aircraft, nor the maneuverability and combat characteristics to be an air superiority fighter. To paraphrase, it’s a jack(ass) of all trades – bad at everything and good at nothing. It’s a misfit for the roles that the carrier should be performing.
We’ll now have a carrier with an air wing that is short ranged, not very stealthy, can’t establish air superiority, and has no long range strike capability. So what can the carrier do? Well, that’s the $14B purchase price question for the Ford and subsequent carriers, isn’t it?
These capabilities describe a carrier and air wing that is limited to low intensity, third world operations. In a high end fight against a peer, our carriers will be marginal contributors with this air wing. This leads inexorably to the question, “Are carriers worth the cost, anymore?” I can no longer say yes.
Well, that takes care of the problems but it’s easy to criticize. What’s the solution? What should the Navy have done?
The answer begins with the deep strike mission. After all, strike is how you win wars. The UCLASS two thousand mile, deep penetration, autonomous, super stealthy unmanned miracle aircraft is just a fantasy that is technologically unachievable, as yet, and would just have become the next F-35 – decades overdue, technologically failing, and utterly unaffordable. So, where does that leave us?
There are only two sources of long range strike: Air Force bombers and cruise/ballistic missiles. We’re talking about the Navy’s role so that means cruise/ballistic missiles which, at the moment, means Burke and submarine Tomahawks with their barely adequate thousand mile range. Thus, there is no high end combat strike role for the carrier. That means the carrier exists to escort and protect the Burke shooters and to establish air superiority in support of the Air Force. To do that requires a top end, long range, air superiority fighter. Unfortunately, that is not the Hornet or the F-35. Buying more Hornets and F-35s simply extends the lack of capability further into the future.
What should the Navy do? The Navy should drop the F-35 and procure the Advanced Super Hornet (ASH). That would at least move the combat needle forward a bit and provide a bridge to a new design air superiority fighter. The ASH offers increased range, conformal tanks, improved stealth, better avionics and sensors, etc. The bits of the F-35 and other aircraft that have been proved out, like radars, sensors, and weapons, can be incorporated into the ASH. It doesn’t get us to an F-22-like performance but it improves on the Super Hornet and, unlike the F-35, is already available and nowhere near as expensive. It buys time to develop a new design fighter while improving air wing capability.
|Advanced Super Hornet|
A new design air superiority fighter should be akin to the F-22 but the main design emphasis has to be achievability. Every function and capability must already exist. Trying to develop a ship or aircraft that depends on non-existent technology is how we got the LCS, Ford, and F-35 fiascos. Beyond that, the aircraft must have great range and a large weapon payload. Payload is paramount given that we’ve already identified that shooting down stealth aircraft will require many missiles per kill. Limited payload is one of the major weaknesses of the F-35. As we’ve stated, stealth versus stealth air combat may well devolve into classic eyeball dogfights so maneuverability is mandatory. In short, a new design air superiority fighter needs to be all the things that the F-35 isn’t.
If we can stick to existing technology and maintain a sharp focus on the mission and nothing more, we should be able to field production aircraft in 5 years. The reason the F-35 is taking so long is that its technology is non-existent. The F-35 program isn’t trying to simply verify existing technology, it’s attempting to develop brand new technology while testing. Of course that takes forever!
The unmanned tanker is fine if it can be procured cheaply. That would offer valuable incremental experience in operating unmanned, presumably autonomous, aircraft on and around the carrier.
At the same time, the Navy needs to develop a supersonic, stealthy, longer ranged Tomahawk replacement and an intermediate range (2000-3000 miles) ballistic missile.
Finally, if the Navy thinks long range, unmanned strike aircraft are the way to go (and I have severe doubts about that), then they can work on it as a strictly research project.
A carrier that is only able to operate in low end combat is not worth the $14B price tag. If the Navy won’t upgrade the air wing then we need to get out of the supercarrier business and revert to small carriers for handling the low end, “peacetime” tasks like plinking terrorist pickup trucks.
If the Navy wants to remain a credible high end combat force then it needs to understand the role of the carrier and being redesigning the air wing to support that role.
(1)Breaking Defense, “Good-Bye, UCLASS; Hello, Unmanned Tanker, More F-35Cs In 2017 Budget”, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.,
Feb 01, 2016,