As I read comments, I can see that there is a lot of misunderstanding about what a carrier does and how it does it. The purpose of a carrier is strike, either directly via its own air wing or indirectly by clearing air space and establishing temporary air superiority for Air Force bombers to attack or by escorting Tomahawk missile shooters (Burkes). Let’s look at the case of a direct strike.
We have a couple of data points to use in our analysis. The
launched a strike against a Syrian
air base in 2017 and against a Syrian R&D center, just recently, in
2018. Those strikes used 76 and 60
missiles, respectively. Those were
small, undefended targets. In the case
of the Syrian air base, the goal wasn’t even to destroy the air base, just to
damage it to some degree. Many buildings
were left untouched. So, 70 missiles is
the very low end of what’s required to destroy a small, undefended target. US
Let’s consider a carrier strike on such a target.
The strike weapon of the carrier is the F-18 Super Hornet. Let’s assume each strike aircraft carries two long range strike weapons such as these:
- AGM-84H/K Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Range (SLAM-ER)
- AGM-88 HARM Anti-radiation missile (HARM)
- AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW)
- AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM)
Thus, we need a minimum of 35 strike aircraft to carry the 70 missiles required for a small, undefended target. The exact number of missiles carried would, of course, depend on the range to the target, the flight profile of the aircraft, the endurance required, the likelihood of air combat maneuvering, the availability of refueling, and other factors. Lacking a specific scenario, two major weapons seems a reasonable load and would probably be combined with some air-to-air missiles and fuel tanks. Again, two strike weapons per aircraft seems reasonable.
Now, who are we kidding? We’re talking about a carrier strike so we’re at war. War means the target will be defended. That means we need to double the number of missiles as many will be shot down. So, now we’re up to 70 strike aircraft needed.
Of course, we’re going to need electronic warfare assistance for the strike. Let’s call it 6 EA-18G Growlers. We’ll also want some dedicated HARM shooters. Let’s call it 6 more aircraft.
Enemy aircraft will decimate the strike so we’ll need some escort fighters. Let’s say 30 Hornets.
We’ll want to set up a few barrier and target Combat Air Patrols (BARCAP, TARCAP) to interdict likely enemy aircraft approach routes. We did this routinely in
and that wasn’t even remotely a
peer combat situation. Let’s say 6
aircraft each for a total of 12. Vietnam
We need tankers. Again, without any specifics we’ll say a dozen tankers. If we don’t have the unmanned MQ-25 tanker then the tankers come from the Hornet ranks.
Now, as we send this strike off, we’ll need to defend the carrier, too. We can’t leave it defenseless. What would suffice for carrier defense? Two or three dozen fighters, maybe? Let’s call it 30. We’ll need some electronic warfare aircraft to help in the defense. Let’s call it 6. We’ll want a few Hawkeyes for airborne early warning and battle management. Let’s call it 3. We’ll need recovery tankers – another 8.
So, where are we at on this strike, so far? Here’s the totals.
Now, recall that an air wing has around 44 F-18s, 4-6 EA-18G, 0 tankers, 4 E-2.
My goodness! Our strike is going to need more aircraft than a single carrier even has! For F-18’s alone, we’ll need 3.4 carrier’s worth and that assumes that we have a dedicated unmanned tanker. If not, we need 168 F-18s which is 3.8 carriers worth.
Of course, all this calculating assumes that every aircraft is available to fly and that the air wings are at full strength and have suffered no attrition from previous combat. The reality is that we need to allow for a 10% unavailability, at least – likely more in war. However, we’ll ignore this aspect for now.
We can’t have partial carriers so we see that we need 4 carriers to conduct a single strike. Hey, isn’t that what ComNavOps has been saying all along?
|Almost, But We Need Four!|
We also note that if the target is larger than a small air base or R&D building, we’ll need even bigger strike packages. Oops! We can’t assemble a bigger strike package. This small effort maxed us out! There’s a lesson here about numbers. Even the mighty, invincible F-35 can’t strike and defend the carrier at the same time. The old Nimitz carriers started out with nearly double the air wing size we have now. The conclusion is obvious - our air wings are not properly sized for high end combat.
It’s also now painfully obvious why carriers have to operate in groups.
Another obvious lesson/conclusion is that carriers shouldn’t be conducting strikes. Attacking peer defended targets is a job for stand-off missiles with significant range – Tomahawks. We need to seriously rethink our carrier doctrine. I’ve stated that I believe the role of the modern carrier is to escort the Tomahawk shooters (Burkes) and establish local air superiority for Air Force strikes. Now you can see why.
Some of you are thinking, 183 aircraft for a single mission? That’s ridiculous. Well, it only seems ridiculous to you because it’s been so long since we’ve had to conduct peer naval combat that we’ve forgotten what real strikes are and what they require. For example, the WWII Battle of the
Philippine Sea (The Great Marinanas Turkey Shoot)
involved 900 carrier aircraft. The Nov 1943 attack on Rabaul involved almost
300 carrier aircraft. And so on. We’ve simply forgotten. US
And, for every idiotic argument along the lines of, “now we have precision guided weapons so we don’t need as many aircraft”, recall that the defenders now have precision guided anti-aircraft weapons so we’ll need MORE weapons and aircraft – it cuts both ways and the net result is a wash.
Now you have a better idea of what a carrier strike is and what it entails.