Monday, February 4, 2013

Aircraft Carrier - What Future?

Despite being arguably the most potent naval weapon system ever developed, the aircraft carrier has always been the subject of doubts and debate.  The battleship Navy of pre-WWII wanted no part of it.  The post-WWII leadership of the country wanted to do away with the carrier in favor of long range Air Force bombers.  Today’s opponents argue that the age of the carrier is over and that carriers are just floating targets;  relics of a past age, rendered obsolete by modern carrier-killing missiles.  Even many supporters wish to replace supercarriers with smaller “escort” or “jeep” carriers. 

Is today’s supercarrier a relic or does it have a vital role to play in the future fleet?

Let’s start by stipulating that the carrier has played a vital role, historically.  There’s no denying the power of the carrier as demonstrated in conflict after conflict.  However, all of the carrier’s proven power in the past does not necessarily make it suitable for the Navy fleet of the future.  Let’s look closer, analyze the situation, and see if we can logically determine the future of the carrier.

The carrier has three general uses:  peacetime operations, limited conflict operations, and all-out war operations.

Peacetime operations can be considered as those actions which provide a stabilizing influence on events.  While useful and important, this role can be filled by other ships or, often, land based air power, and hardly justifies the cost of a carrier. 

Limited conflict operations involve regional or localized conflicts such as Desert Storm, Viet Nam, and Iraq, historically, and N. Korea, Iran, or other Mid East or Third World countries in the future.  These conflicts would likely involve relatively little naval combat and the carrier’s role would be to provide inland strike and local air supremacy.  This role demonstrates the flexibility and power of the carrier.  The ability to roam up and down the coast of N. Korea, for instance, delivering strikes that aircraft based in S. Korea would be hard pressed to accomplish is a potent capability.  Or, consider the freedom of action the carrier offers in various Mid East scenarios where we might or might not be granted operational rights and overfly permission from “friendly” countries.  Africa presents a host of possible future conflicts and we would have few bases available to us for land based aircraft to operate from.  The carrier would represent an enormous amount of power and flexibity. 

Future of the Fleet or Relic of the Past?

The carrier with its manned aircraft will be vital in providing strike and close air support in these scenarios.  Certainly, Tomahawk equipped ships can and will provide strikes against larger fixed targets but until we develop ship launched strike missiles that are capable of target discrimination, flexibility, and extended loitering, manned aircraft will remain the weapon of choice and only the carrier provides this capability.  Armed UAVs will be able to provide some degree of support but their limited payloads and manpower and resource intensive support requirements limit their use to a niche role for the foreseeable future.  UAVs will be highly useful but nowhere near capable of replacing a carrier air wing.

All-out war, at the moment, means China and the carrier’s role would be to conduct naval warfare, inland strike, and strike group escort.  Entire research papers and books could be written about the conduct of a future war with China and the strategy and tactics that would be employed.  The actual usefulness of a carrier would depend on the strategy and tactics required and such a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this post.  We’ll consider a few fairly obvious uses. 

The carrier still offers the most effective means of finding and destroying enemy naval forces.  While some may argue that Air Force bombers with standoff anti-ship missiles could do the job, that argument assumes that surveillance and targeting can be provided in a timely fashion.  Given the geography and distances involved, it will be very difficult for aircraft based in Guam or the U.S. or wherever to respond in time.  A carrier group, on the other hand, provides its own surveillance and targeting on a localized basis and can respond instantly with massive force.  Others may argue that submarines can fill the role of anti-ship combat and that’s true except that the submarines are going to be busy conducting Tomahawk strikes, ASW, and surveillance.  Certainly, submarines will be able to contribute to the naval warfare operations but in a somewhat haphazard fashion as opportunities present themselves.  Bear in mind that submarines have a limited field of view, sensorwise, as compared to the hundreds of miles offered by a carrier group’s Hawkeyes and Aegis.

A carrier’s strike range is limited by its aircraft to a few hundred miles, at best.  Thus, in the early stages of a war with China, the much discussed Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) will prevent the carrier from conducting much in the way of useful inland strike operations since the initial operational area for a carrier group will, presumably, be a thousand miles from the Chinese coast.  However, what the carrier can do is provide escort protection for other strike platforms that do have the range to strike from A2/AD distances.  Currently, Burkes and Ticonderogas armed with Tomahawk missiles represent the Navy’s long range strike capability.  It will be the job of the carrier to escort and protect the Burkes/Ticos so that they can carry out their strike role.  It’s ironic that at this stage of conflict, the carrier will be the escort for the destroyers and cruisers rather than the other way around, as has been traditional.  Of course, submarines also carry Tomahawks but they don’t require escort and, therefore, don’t enter into this aspect of the discussion.  Clearly, the only way Burkes/Ticos can survive to penetrate to Tomahawk shooting distance is with a very strong, layered defense.  Aegis alone won’t do it.

As the A2/AD threat is neutralized and the operational distances are greatly reduced, the carrier can revert to its traditional strike role.

It is important to note that at all times the carrier will be vital for providing area air supremacy for itself, for other surface groups, for nearby land forces, and for Air Force units.  It is going to be very difficult for the Air Force to provide continuous coverage given the distances involved.  Carriers are going to frequently be the only source of air cover for friendly forces.

To sum up, carriers will be vital for conducting strike operations in future regional conflicts and will provide both escort protection and strike in an all out war.  Of course, the caveat here is that the value of a carrier lies wholly in its air wing, as we’ve discussed previously.  If the air wings continue the trend towards fewer numbers and less capable aircraft, the value of the carrier, and the conclusions drawn here, become less.  On the other hand, if the Navy increases air wing size and develops long range, hard hitting aircraft the value of the carrier becomes greater.  Honestly, the carrier is teetering on the edge of unjustifiability (is that a word?) due to the declining air wings.  The theoretical case for the carrier is easy to make but the reality is that the air wing trends are driving the carrier’s value down to the point where it’s getting tougher to make the real case.

Of course, at this point some of you are saying, sure, carriers are useful and powerful but they’ve been rendered obsolete by modern carrier-killing missiles.  Large, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and intermediate range anti-ship ballistic missiles make the carrier nothing more than a large, floating target.  Throw in the submarine threat and carriers just can’t be justified given their obvious vulnerability.  Well, that’s the next post.


  1. I think the future is that Aircraft carrier become multi purpose carriers

    1. What are some examples of additional purposes you see that the carrier hasn't already shown itself capable of? I may be misunderstanding your comment?

    2. I think the future, you may see carriers have massive use of automation, which would cut down on crew size. You may see Carrier's having the same accommodations as a Mistral BPC. I think the distant future, the future Carrier may combine a conventional carrier with an Amphibious assault carrier in one.

    3. That's an interesting thought. The high automation levels you mention are being applied to the new Ford class which is supposed to reduce crew size by several hundred although based on the Navy's botched crew sizing for the LCS, we should take that goal with some skepticism until we see it work out in practice.

      As far as combining conventional and amphib in one vessel, remember that every Marine bunk, extra head, additional food service, etc. added to a carrier to make it amphib capable either makes the carrier bigger or reduces the conventional aircraft capacity. Similarly, every additional transport helo and V-22 Osprey for assault purposes makes the carrier bigger or reduces the conventional aircraft capacity. Further, the massive Marine equipment storage and heavy weapons, tanks, vehicles, etc. will have the same impact on the carrier. Finally, a well deck would seriously impact a carrier's hangar space, fuel storage, and magazine capacities. I'm not saying that an acceptable balance can't be achieved but it would be quite a challenge. The new America class LHA's are actually an attempt in that direction, I think. I wrote a post about them a bit ago, if you want to take a look.

  2. The most likely reason why the big deck aircraft would eventually lose its place as the centerpiece of America's power projection forces would be if the aircraft the CVN carries are no longer up to the task of handling the variety of jobs they are now being tasked with handling.

    The F-18 E/F is a good compromise airplane as such things go, it was the right airplane for the era it was built for, but it is not a true replacement for either the F-14 Tomcat or the A-6 Intruder.

    And the F-35 is very much an open question at this point.

    The oncoming UCLASS unmanned strike airplane will have its place, but as you have pointed out in the past, that airplane will not likely have either the range or the payload capacity the A-6 had.

    As for Tomahawks?

    In a heavy-duty war, how many thousands of Tomahawks would be needed to deliver the same effects on target that a fleet of properly escorted, modernized A-6's could deliver?

    The answer is, many more Tomahawks than we will ever have in our arsenal.

  3. For peace and limited war, the carrier is king,
    For all out war, its hard to argue a carrier sized ship with flat deck devoted to VLS not runway doesnt provide more firepower than cats and traps.

    1. You see, though, that the issue isn't simply numbers of warheads (conventional !) carried, right? It's about flexibility and multi-tasking.

      The carrier can defend itself, its group, and all the area out to a few hundred miles - limited only by the combat radius of its aircraft. A VLS carrier (barge, essentially, in your example) can only strike (Tomahawk) or defend a fairly short range (Standard missiles). Carriers can conduct ASW and anti-surface (ASuW). A VLS barge can't. Aircraft have the ability to apply a range of firepower (from guns up to 2000 lb bombs or air launched cruise missiles). A VLS barge is all or nothing - Tomahawk or nothing. There's no ability to dial the appropriate firepower. The carrier's aircraft can perform surveillance via signals analysis (ESM) and active sensors (E-2C/D Hawkeyes) out to ranges of several hundred miles. A VLS barge can't.

      So, your statement about relative firepower might be true depending on whether the number of VLS cells containing Tomahawks is greater than the number of bombs in a carrier's magazines (it may, actually, not be true!). Remember, though, that a carrier can be replenished at sea and can conduct strike ops continuously whereas a VLS barge is done when its missiles are fired. There's no at-sea reload capability.

      Have I changed your thought on this? If not, what would be your counter argument?


    2. I can see a future where carriers have VLS for Tomahawk missiles, with a high degree of Automation, which would cut down on crew size.

    3. Nicky,

      Just remember that every VLS cell (presumably mounted on the flight deck) would decrease the flight deck space and, hence, aircraft capacity as well as impacting the below deck hangar space. The VLS cells have pretty significant below deck volume requirments. Are you sure that's a good trade off?

    4. A fully equipped carrier has so much flexibility that it is not really replacable, even longrange UAV need some flightdeck.Do not forget that the carrier planes can launch longrange attack missiles too.
      The problem lies in sustainability and affordability.
      At actual numbers, one carrierkill reduces the total force by 10 percent approx...A way should be found to reduce carriercost and augment numbers so as to delute killoppotunities and have a kind of "swarm' capability. The actual supercarriers cannot be kept in reservefleet due to overall cost.A carrier like the french "Charles DeGaulle" could be a future format and tripple the forcenumbers for the same price..and get rotation and deploymentrates back to a more sustainable rate.

    5. William,

      OK, that's an interesting thought. However, you probably know that there have been numerous studies conducted about carrier size versus capability and cost - exactly what you're talking about. Every study has concluded that the optimum ratio of cost to capability lies with the supercarrier.

      Setting that aside, let's look at the idea of supercarrier's constituting and inactive but ready reserve force. Where would the 2500 core crew for each carrier come from if the carrier were activated? Even if sufficient numbers of sailors could be assembled, they would be totally untrained in carrier ops and that's a surefire disaster in the making. Carrier jobs are incredibly complex. Along the same line, where would the air wings for the carriers come from?

  4. "Have I changed your thought on this? If not, what would be your counter argument?"

    You've not changed my mind, although I agree, sort of.
    Carriers are useful, but they are no longer the strike kings they (or battleships) once were.

    If anyone wants to work out the number of missiles a super carrier could carry, I'd be interested :)
    A conventional bomb load would be higher, but with a deployment timetable measured in weeks, rather than hours.

    A carrier makes great sense for fleet protection, intelligence gathering and limited, sustained strike. But for an opening Salvo, I'm afraid I'm firmly behind a missile barge.

    1. TrT, you say that carriers are no longer the strike kings they once were and I tend to agree mainly due to the decline of the air wing numbers and capabilities. I think that's a good and valid observation.

      Regarding an "opening salvo", again I agree with some caveats. What you're describing is called a pulse - the amount of firepower in a single attack. There's no question that a large VLS (Tomahawk) barge (of whatever type, including an SSGN) can deliver an enormous pulse relative to a carrier. Of course, how a VLS carrier barge survives to get into position to deliver its pulse is a challenge without the layered protection provided by a conventional supercarrier! Whether you intended to or not (I'll assume you meant this - my readers are a cut above!) you've pointed out the value of the SSGN - 150 or so Tomahawks delivered from a single platform that needs no escort and is virtually undetectable (until it launches!). Perhaps you're actually arguing for more SSGN's which are, essentially, underwater VLS barges?

      Good thoughts!

    2. I'm not sure what historic sortie rates were, but the UKs CVF is rumoured to manage something like 110 sorties on day one and two (each), 90 on days three and four, and then 70 per day till day 30.
      Even if we assume 4 bombs per sortie, and all strike sorties, 400 in four days, 2220 over a month?

      Make half of those CAP/ISTAR and its down to 1100 bombs.

      A ford class is 330m long and 78m wide
      If we say 300x70 to account for shape, I get that to be 21,000 square metres.
      The A70 occupies 6sqm of deck space for an 8 cell module

      21000 / 6 * 8 = 28,000 missiles.

      Even if we half that, it still just an outrageous number.

      My understanding of carrier operations was that the US liked to operate them in triplicate. Would much be lost if a pair of carriers were teamed up with an arsenal ship?
      Plenty of carrier space for fighters, interceptors, ISTAR, limited strike ect, and a huge amount of strike power.

      Obviously, a carrier sized ship is probably excessive, but it certainly opens up possibilities, and it begs the question, how much of a threat is an enemy airforce thats just eaten 10,000 of our missiles?

    3. TrT, I know you're making a point about VLS firepower density so I won't comment on an actual carrier converted to a VLS barge because there are a thousand problems with that and I'm pretty sure that's not what you're really suggesting.

      So, to your point about VLS density. I'm not an RN expert so I don't have good knowledge of the A70 VLS and Aster 15/30 missiles so correct me if I misspeak. From what I understand, the A70 is not capable of launching a land attack missile although there has been speculation about adapting it to Tomahawks. That seems odd though since the Aster 30 is 7 inches diameter and the Tomahawk is around 21 inches. Seems like a launch tube size mismatch! The US Navy's Mk41 VLS system is quite a bit bigger, apparently, than the A70 since both the Standard missile and Tomahawk are much larger than the Aster 15/30.

      The US Navy buys around 200 new Tomahawks per year and has a current total inventory of a few thousand.

      What you're describing is the old Arsenal Ship concept which was, pretty literally, a VLS Tomahawk barge. I don't remember what its VLS capacity was supposed to be. The concept was seriously discussed for quite a while but was eventually dropped for reasons I'm unsure about off the top of my head. One of the problems with an Arsenal Ship is that that level of concentration of firepower represents both an enormous capability and an enormous weakness. To make up numbers, suppose we have a total inventory of 4000 Tomahawks and we build a VLS barge that can carry 1000. Do we really want to risk losing a fourth of our total inventory by the sinking of a single ship?

      Still, on a much scaled down level, the SSGN carries 150 or so Tomahawks which represents a pretty good pulse of firepower while not risking an undue portion of the inventory in a single platform.

      So, is it time to reconsider the Arsenal Ship? Maybe. Should we have more than the four SSGNs that we do? I think so.


      The A70 can fit the SCALP NG, which is reasonably similar to the tomahawk, dimensionaly.
      But I am happy to accept another number.
      The tubes are 22", but can have a multimissile innsert

      "The US Navy buys around 200 new Tomahawks per year and has a current total inventory of a few thousand."

      So buy more.
      Its like argueing against building more carriers for lack of planes.
      (lack of funding for planes is another matter)

      I think in the end my thinking (UK based) settled on around 500 missiles on a barge and 6-9 barges, coupled with three carriers, divided into three fleets.

      However, I think its extremely sloppy thinking to dismiss the idea of deploying 10,000+ missiles, simply on the grounds that we dont do it that way currently.

    5. Initially naval aviators were not happy with the introduction of Tomahawk to the fleet. But after exercises and conflicts like Desert Storm they came to the conclusion that Tomahawk wasn't going to put them out of work, it would just do the most dangerous, first-day missions.

      I think what killed the Arsenal Ship concept was that it would be as big and as valuable as a carrier, without the flexibility and toughness. It would be dependent on other assets for targeting and very vulnerable.

      As proof look at the new Mk-57 VLS. It is peripheral instead of concentrated like the Mk-41 to reduce the chance of a catastrophic cook-off. Imagine if an arsenal ship had some Mk-41s detonate.

    6. TrT, just a quick cost reminder. A single Tomahawk costs around $1.5M USD. So, 10,000 would cost $15B, if I got the number of zeros correct. Does the RN budget allow for that kind of spending?

    7. A fighter costs us £60,000 per hour, for 200 hours per year.
      £12mn per year.
      Over 25 years, thats enough for over 300 weapons.

  5. The narrative after WWII is that the pre-war Navy was dismissive of carriers and their potential until Pearl Harbor, when they reluctantly embraced them and then used them to great effect. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Navy put enormous resources into naval aviation of all kinds, and required new construction to be carrier-compatible. All the battleships built in the 1940's like the North Carolina had carrier ops in mind, with higher cruising speeds to allow for combined task forces, even at the expense of other attributes like armor.

    And admirals like King and Halsey were required to fly before commanding carriers. Admiral Joseph Reeves was an instrumental and far-sighted officer who saw the potential of aircraft before 1939.

    1. The pre-WWII US Navy clearly had two distinct camps: the BB Navy and the carrier Navy. The Navy had conducted a great deal of experimentation with the carrier and its day was coming, without question. However, the BB Navy was still strong and, as best I can tell, dominated the tactical and doctrinal thought. The battle line and the massive fleet engagement was still the centerpiece of naval tactical thinking. Witness the Navy's total unpreparedness for the Guadalcanal naval battles.

      I've done a lot of research on the issue of BB speed, meaning the myth(?) that the fast BBs were designed to operate with the carriers. I have yet to find a single document relating the BB speed to the carrier's. Friedman and others have also looked at this and come to the same conclusion. Remember, the design specs for the North Carolina were established in the early to mid '30s, if I recall correctly. That was well before anyone had any inkling of linking the BBs to the carriers. In fact, no one has produced any evidence that even the Iowas speed was linked to the carrier's although by then their minimum speed was sufficient and it was a moot point.

    2. In the three volume series on battleships by Garzke and Dulin they explain how Reeves and others saw the writing on the wall with the future of big guns. The USN volume goes into some of the thinking behind the final generation of battleships. One initial idea for the North Carolina had catapults and seaplanes replacing some of the main battery!

      The war games or "fleet problems" of the 1920-1939 era showed the great promise of aviation. And naval advocates like Moffet believed Billy Mitchell's sinkex showed the future, just not the immediate future.

      The issue was potency and availability. Aircraft such as the Vought Vindicator and Douglas Devastator were bad designs. They struggled to fly with their weapon loads. Only when planes like the SBD and TBM entered service could they hit their targets effectively. Even then, the aircrews had to place themselves at great risk to get good hits. In theory a dive or torpedo bomber could sink a warship. In theory. But the first ship sunk by carrier planes that was larger than a destroyer only happened in 1940!

      The availability issue is neglected by most historians. Prior to, and for half of the Pacific war, carriers did not operate at night or bad weather very often. By the end of the war necessity, first on the jeep carriers hunting U-boats in the Atlantic then on fleet carriers, drove them to have 24/7 all-weather operations. Radar aided tremendously in that regard, both on the ships and in the planes.

      No one in 1934 or 1939 could foresee such advances occurring so soon. The Navy leadership saw the carrier as a potential game changer, which was why two battlecruisers were turned into flattops in the twenties. And yes, the fast pace in aviation pointed to future aircraft getting better, but not when or how. But the naval constructors knew a North Carolina or South Dakota might serve into the 1950's, based on the longevity of the Standard battleships. While other navies were building faster battleship/cruiser types, the USN knew carriers were here to stay. The dreadnoughts had to be faster for combined operations, in spite of the USN's tendency historically to design slow battleships.

      But aircraft at the time only worked well in daylight, fair-weather conditions. What if the weather was bad? That very thing happened to the carrier HMS Glorious, which was ambushed by German battlecruisers in 1940 and sunk. A battleship's guns could work at night or in bad weather; not as well as during the day, but well enough. That, along with huge anti-aircraft batteries, made the fast battleships part of carrier task forces. The Navy didn't want a Yamato or a pair of cruisers sneaking by and hitting a bunch of Essexes unopposed. Like with Taffy Three off Samar.

    3. Remember the WNT forced a lot of carrier construction, by limiting battleships and cruisers.

  6. The current Nimitz class and follow-on Fords have tremendous flexibility. Like you I believe they are severely underutilized and could carry additional aircraft. Top on my list would be an updated S-3 Viking and a specialized KS-3 tanker.

    Drone/UAV/UCAV, whatever the nomenclature, are the future. The multi-billion dollar question is how do we get to that place where drones are superior to manned aircraft but allow real flexibility regarding basing. The X-47, the UCLAS, the RQ-8C are all physically large. If we didn't have a CV, we'd need to invent something close to it for these drones.

    If you want something to fly straight and level with a couple of Hellfires in a benign environment, a Predator will do. But maneuverability, stealth, significant payload, and the big one, range, all drive up the size of the eventual design. It seems a lot of people are disappointed that naval UAVs are so much larger than what we've seen on the news in the last decade.

  7. The USN looked at a supersonic VTOL design, the XFV-12, in the seventies that would allow for smaller carriers. The problem was it couldn't take off vertically. Only the Harrier can, and it sacrifices a lot of payload to do that, which is why all operators use rolling take-offs.

    The XFV-12 was part of a serious attempt in the 1970's to make carriers smaller, and hopefully more affordable. But what proponents found was that F-14/F-18/A-6 aircraft needed a minimum length of flight deck to land on, and if they missed the wire, roll out and take off from. The same was true to a lesser extent with catapults. The CVV concept of the time had two catapults and elevators but ended up being nearly as large and expensive as a full-size carrier.

    The French found out about minimum lengths when they bought the E-2 for the Charles De Gaulle. They had to lengthen the angled landing deck for that very reason.

    1. Correct but they lengthed it for 4m only! Now everything got bigger after the 50ies but new technology could reverse this again.

  8. I see an opportunity with the Common Support Aircraft (CSA) program. A common airframe with 3 types of aircraft.
    (3)Transport/ aerial refueler.
    Long range patrols could be mounted which included all 3 types of aircraft above, along with hornets and the growler. ie 2 awacs aircraft in the air, one with the patrol package, and one for the normal cover of the fleet.

    The MPA version would be able search for surface ships and subs: A cheaper version of the P-8. I would also like it to be able to carry land based cruise missiles.

    The transport refueler could also carry cruise missiles.

    With the reduced number of aircraft on the carriers, I would like to see the numbers made up with:
    6 awacs
    4 MPA
    4 transport/ aerial refulers

    This would give the carriers far better strike and patrol range in the pacific.

  9. Nimitz carriers are capable of carrying 95+ F-18s. Actually they have capacity of 120+ but it can't be operatable. Aircrafts are weapons of a carrier. We seriously underarm our carriers with small number of short ranged aircrafts. What makes them obsolete is our attitude.

  10. CAPT Tal Manvel, USN (Ret), the first Navy Program Manager for Future Carriers, discusses designing the Ford-class aircraft carrier on 7 January 2015 at the US Naval Academy Museum's Shifley Lecture Series:


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