Here’s a companion piece to the recent post describing how to build a better, cheaper aircraft and in only five years (see, "How To Build A Better Aircraft"). In this post we examine how to build cheaper carriers that still operate a full combat air wing.
We’ve noted the precipitous decline in air wing size and the corresponding, if utterly illogical, increase in carrier size (??!!!!). We’ve also noted the exploding cost of carrier construction (yikes!!!!). The logical implication of these observations is that we can get by perfectly well with a smaller, cheaper, carrier. The overarching attribute of such a carrier would be simplicity. Simplicity is the foundation that leads to size and cost reductions. The simpler the carrier, the smaller and cheaper it should be. With that in mind, let’s design a smaller, cheaper, simpler but still highly effective carrier. Bear in mind that when I’m talking about a smaller carrier, it’s smaller only relative to a Nimitz/Ford supercarrier. I’m, emphatically, not talking about the usual escort type carrier that so many people seem to want. That kind of mini-carrier is of very limited use in combat.
As I’ve long harped on, the secret to a good ship design is a solid concept of operations (CONOPS). With that in mind, the carrier I’m going to describe would operate paired with a regular supercarrier and two such pairs would constitute a carrier task force in combat. I’m not going into any great detail on the CONOPS because that’s not the point of this post. I mention the general usage simply to provide a context to understand where and how this ship fits into the overall fleet structure.
Anyway, here are the design points.
- Ship size target should be the Midway of the 1980’s.
Length = 960 ft (vs. 1100 ft Ford)
Displacement = 50,000 t (vs. 100,000 t Ford)
- Air wing size and composition should be a full size wing less helos other than a couple for Search and Rescue.
F-18/35 = 44
EA-18G = 6
E-2D = 4
Non-existent Tanker = 6
- Catapults = 2 at the waist positions
- Elevators = 2 or 3
- Radar = TRS-3D or equivalent
- SeaRAM / CIWS = 4
- Power will be conventional rather than nuclear. Naval engineers can determine whether we need 2 or 4 propeller shafts.
Air Wing. The air wing will be a nearly full, standard wing. Current air wings have 44 Hornets and so will ours. We will also have 6 EA-18G Growlers, 4 E-2D Hawkeyes, and 6 non-existent tankers (if we have to pull S-3 Vikings out of the boneyard, we will). The old Midway operated a larger air wing than this so we know we can fit this wing on a much smaller carrier than a Nimitz/Ford.
The reduced helo component means a significant savings in less maintenance space, parts storage, machine shops, magazine storage, and fuel storage. The reduced pilot and maintenance tech numbers means less berthing, smaller galley, fewer heads, and less food and water storage.
Catapults / Elevators. Carriers rarely operate all four catapults simultaneously. Most of the time, only the two waist catapults are used and the bow is used for parking aircraft. We’ll simplify and not even install bow cats. We’ll go with two waist cats and call it a day.
Without bow cats, we gain space under the deck at the bow that can be used for hangars or any other function. Without the need for bow cats, we can also reduce the length of the bow and, thus, the overall length of the ship. Further, with no bow cats, the bow deck space can be devoted exclusively to parking which “increases” the size of the carrier while actually making it smaller – meaning, that the parking area increases while the actual size decreases!
Sensors. Carriers are always accompanied by Aegis escorts. Further, carriers don’t radiate during combat. Finally, carriers have no long range, advanced weapons that require sophisticated sensors. Thus, there is no need for advanced radar suites. The $500M Dual Band Radar and the $300M Enterprise Radar can be replaced by a simple TRS-3D, or equivalent – just enough for navigation and a bit more. Both the SeaRAM and CIWS have their own radars so, again, there is no need for sophisticated ship sensors.
Weapons. Carriers are always accompanied by Aegis escorts. We’ll let the escorts do their job and provide the area AAW defense. Our carrier will have only short range and close in self-defense weapons. Four SeaRAM or CIWS will comprise the carrier’s weaponry. Note that both SeaRAM and CIWS have self-contained radars which, again, is why we don’t need a sophisticated sensor suite for the carrier.
Crew. The smaller ship size, less equipment, less complex equipment, fewer helos, smaller conventional power plant, etc. all translate to a smaller crew. A smaller crew translates to smaller hotel services support staff – for instance, fewer cooks and food service staff will be needed. Add in some judicious use of automation and crew size should be around 1/2 to 2/3 of the Nimitz. Let’s call it 3000, total, including the air wing personnel.
Cost. The ship will be 87% of the length of a Nimitz and have 50% the displacement which should significantly cut costs. Admittedly, the basic hull components are the least expensive portion of the ship but the reduction in length and displacement still offers significant savings. Let’s call it $700M in hull construction savings.
The use of conventional power will result in significant construction cost savings and if we can get by with only two shafts/props we’ll save even more. The 2002 Shipbuilding and Conversion budget shows a line item for “Nuclear Plant Propulsion Equipment” of $1.47B. Let’s call it $1B in savings from the use of conventional power.
The minimal sensor suite will save hundreds of millions of dollars. Let’s call it $300M.
The elimination of two catapults will save additional money. Let’s call it $200M.
The various reductions in equipment will allow a reduction in crew size which means fewer berthing areas, smaller galleys, less food/water storage requirements, and generally less of all the ship’s hotel services which, in total, provides significant savings. Some of that is reflected in the smaller overall size which we’ve already accounted for. However, a great deal more savings comes from the reduced equipment, utility demands, hotel service equipment, etc. Let’s call it $300M.
The various savings total up to $2.5B. That means that compared to the cost of the last Nimitz built, we can build a smaller carrier for $2.5B less. So, for $2.5B less than the last Nimitz, we can have a fully functional carrier that operates a full size air wing (less helos).
Since you’re wondering, the last Nimitz class carrier, the Bush, was commissioned in 2009 and cost $6.2B in then year dollars, according to Wiki. That’s $7.2B in 2017 dollars. Thus, we can build our carrier for [$7.2B - $2.5B = $4.7B] versus the $14B+ for the Ford class.
Why wouldn’t we do this?