One of the seeming absolute characteristics of US Navy ship design is the presence of a helo flight deck and hangar. Further, almost every observer/commenter automatically includes a flight deck and helo(s) for any new ship design discussion.
In recent times, the closest we’ve come to building a warship without a helo was the early Burke Flt I’s which had only a flight deck and no hangar and that was quickly abandoned in favor of the Flight IIa’s which have a flight deck and full hangar.
But, does every ship need a helo?
Well, helos are certainly useful for a variety of tasks but so is an elephant and very few naval ships are equipped with elephants. The question is not whether a helo is useful but whether its usefulness is sufficient to justify the expenditure of ship’s deck space (the flight deck), internal volume (hangar, machine/repair shops), fuel storage volume, weapons magazine space, spare parts storage, and additional crew accommodations. This is all square and cubic footage that could go to other weapons, sensors, and ship’s functions. In other words, there is an opportunity cost associated with ship’s helos.
Let’s look a bit closer.
Let’s look at the percentage of ship’s deck space consumed by the flight deck and hangar. On a Burke DDG the flight deck makes up around 15% of the ship’s overall length and the hangar accounts for another 18%, by eyeball estimation. Together, the flight deck and hangar use around 33% of the ship’s overall length. That’s a lot of length and square footage devoted to the helo especially when it only supports one or two helos – let me say that again … a third of the ship’s length to support one or two helos.
The Perry FFG is similar with the flight deck and hangar accounting for around 38%, by eyeball estimation.
Consider the number of VLS cells, large and small caliber guns, electronic warfare systems, RHIBs, UNREP stations, etc. that could be carried if a ship had no helo. Is a helo worth the loss of 64-128 VLS cells? Is a helo worth the loss of two 8”+ major caliber naval guns?
In some cases, possibly so. For instance, a dedicated ASW vessel would benefit greatly from a couple of helos since helos are our primary shipborne ASW weapon.
On the other hand, a ship that is primarily an AAW escort, such as the Ticonderogas and Burkes, gains little from having a helo. Ticonderogas will never perform ASW and Burkes, many or most of them, will never perform ASW. No sane commander is going to want a $2B Burke playing tag with a submarine. Thus, a Burke’s helo is used for transport duties rather than ASW. Even those transport duties are more a matter of convenience than necessity. A ship’s boat could provide the needed transport in most cases – ships transported all the people and supplies they needed via the ship’s boat in WWII. Again, dedicating a third of the ship’s length to a transport helo is a poor use of ship’s space and, more importantly, contributes nothing to the ship’s combat capability.
What about surveillance? Won’t a helo provide extended surveillance for the host ship? Possibly, in some circumstances, but only poorly. Helos have limited range, limited sensors, and, being helos, limited availability. Helos are always down for maintenance! Besides, Burkes and Ticonderogas are escorts for carriers and big deck amphibious ships, both of which have ample numbers of helos, Hawkeyes, and the vaunted F-35 which sees everything for a thousand miles, or so we’re told. Thus, there is no need for the Burke or Tico’s single helo.
Now, if the Burke is going to operate alone or as part of a surface group then, yes, a helo may make sense though one still has to wonder if it’s worth the loss of other weapons, sensors, and functions. Even in this case, UAVs may provide better sustained surveillance coverage than a helo.
The conclusion, then, is that most Burkes and all the Ticonderogas could easily do without helos and would, in fact, be more combat capable without helos thanks to the added weapons, sensors, and functions that could be accommodated in the space/volume now dedicated to helo support. There is probably a case to be made for equipping a portion, say 25%, of the surface ship fleet with helos for those situations when a surface ship is going to operate independently. Realistically, the number of times a surface ship will operate independently are likely to be few and far between.
The Navy needs to stop automatically including helos in every ship design and start thinking through the actual combat use of the ship and whether that use requires a helo – hey, that kind of thinking sounds a lot like a Concept of Operations (CONOPS), doesn’t it? The automatic inclusion of helos indicates a laziness in ship design thinking – we’ll include one because we always have – and a failure to develop a CONOPS prior to design.