The other distinguishing feature of the APA compared to today’s amphibious ship was the absence of any aviation capability. True, the helo had not yet been developed but it would have been possible to build a combination carrier-troop transport, just as we have today, and yet the ship designers opted not to do that for a variety of reasons.
I don’t claim to know the thinking of ship designers of that time but here are a few considerations that I would assume impacted their thought process and which should impact ours, today:
Volume of Firepower Delivery – Aviation simply can’t provide the volume of explosives delivery required to support an assault. An aircraft, then or now, is limited to a small handful of bombs/missiles and can generate, at most, a few sorties per day before maintenance needs ground the aircraft. Pilot rest is also a factor. So, three sorties per day per aircraft is simply, woefully inadequate when the requirement is for continuous bombardment for days on end.
That being the case, that aviation can’t even begin to provide the requisite firepower delivery, why design a ship dedicated to that purpose? Firepower delivery was left to the heavy gunned naval ships and aircraft chipped in when and where they could.
Yes, aircraft can supply small scale, close air support to ground forces (weather and aircraft availability permitting, of course, and assuming no enemy air forces in the vicinity) for use against a few, specific targets but that hardly justifies the expense of a dedicated aviation-centric amphibious-troop ship.
Fleet Defense – No fleet, no assault. The fleet’s existence comes first. Thus, ALL available aircraft will be used for establishing air superiority, first and foremost. The aircraft of WWII and those of today had, and will have, as their primary responsibility, fleet defense. Today’s LHA/LHDs, with their F-35Bs, will be tied up fighting for air space and defending the fleet in any peer defended assault scenario. Those F-35Bs will not be available for ground support – not that a handful of F-35Bs constitute an significant firepower delivery, anyway. Later, days or weeks into the assault, when air superiority has been established, the F-35s will become available for ground support but, of course, by that time it won’t matter. The assault will have already succeeded or failed.
Risk Dispersal – Today’s LHA/LHD encompasses 1500 troops, their supplies, ship to shore connectors, F-35Bs, combat helos, transport helos, medical facilities, etc. That’s a LOT to risk in a single ship. WWII ship designers were all about dispersal of risk. This alone dictates to any reasonable force designer that the aviation and troop transport functions should not co-exist in a single ship. The risk is too geat. Lose an LHA/LHD and you lose a third+ of a MEU plus most of the MEU’s aviation assets. That’s a foolish risk to take.
Cost – A WWII APA was just a short term (term of the war) troop transport. Indeed, many were converted from commercial liners. The purpose built APAs were bare bones, no frills, troop transports. Troop comfort was not a consideration, nor was ship longevity. These APAs were not the glorified luxury cruise ships of today. APAs were quick, easy, and cheap to build. Adding an aviation capability would only drive up cost and reduce the number of vessels that could be built. Then, as now, the addition of aviation would either cut the troop and cargo capacity in half or double the size of the ship.
Troop Delivery Efficiency – As noted, APAs stored their landing craft (ship to shore connectors, as we now refer to them; aside: when you start giving basic functions fancy names, you know you’ve lost sight of what’s important) above deck, launched them over the sides, and disembarked the troops over the side. This method allowed for the carry of large numbers of landing craft without impacting troop capacity by taking up precious internal volume with well decks. The addition of a flight deck to an APA would have forced the landing craft to be stored internally or, in reduced numbers, in boat pockets on the ship’s sides. The LHA/LHD of today demonstrate this with their landing craft (those that even have them!) carried in large well decks. Proponents might argue that the well deck allows easier, more efficient loading of the landing craft. This may or may not be true. An APA could load two dozen landing craft with troops in a remarkably short time and all of them nearly simultaneously. Today’s amphibious ships can certainly load their landing craft easier but is degree of ease really the issue in combat? The real question, though, becomes whether the benefits of a well deck (if there are any) outweight the immense loss of internal volume, larger resulting ship size, increased cost of ship construction, and lengthened construction times?
Flexibility – Troop and cargo transport requires that the ship be in a specific location for the duration of the assault unloading. In contrast, aviation works best when the carrier is free to roam and able to take the best position for whatever task is at hand. Thus, the two functions are almost diametrically opposed as far as what each needs the host ship to do. A carrier/transport that is tied to a specific location can’t reposition to meet an enemy assault without abandoning its troop and cargo landing responsibility. Shades of Guadalcanal !
With the above considerations in mind and the lessons of WWII firmly in hand, we have to ask, does it make sense to combine aviation and troop transport in one ship? The answer seems clear – aviation and troop/cargo transport should be separated.
|Return To Troop Transports|
We need to return to smaller, cheaper, easier to build APA type troop transports. I would go so far as to say we should abandon the LCAC and return to a modern version of the venerable Higgins boat landing craft – but that’s a topic for another post. These modern APAs should not be cruise ships. They should not be sent on peacetime deployments. They should be war vessels - manned and operated when needed but otherwise left pierside in idle status. If we design such a ship and keep it cheap and quick/easy to build, we don’t even need to keep many in service. We can simply build them when war comes and just keep enough in service to maintain an institutional knowledge of how to operate them.
The separated aviation component should be simply our standard carriers. As we noted, the first responsibility of any aviation component is fleet defense so it makes the most sense to leave the aircraft with the aircraft carrier. When air superiority has been established, the carrier air wing can turn its attention to ground support. That would provide far more ground support aircraft than the half dozen F-35Bs that a LHA/LHD carries and, after all, isn’t that why the Marines have been so insistent on having their own aviation assets – to ensure and maximize the number of aircraft supporting the ground force?
Optionally, given the shrunken size of our air wings, a additional one or two squadrons of strike aircraft could be added to the regular carrier air wing, specifically to conduct ground support (you know, when not needed for fleet defense!).
USS Nimitz - 1997
Put Amphibious Aviation Back Onto Carriers In The Form Of Extra Squadrons
Get Back To 90+ Aircraft
The only sticking point is the Marine’s desire for attack and transport helos. For this, it might make sense to have a very small, dedicated helo carrier. Such a ‘carrier’ would not be a conventional carrier in any sense of the word. Instead, it would be, essentially, a converted commercial cargo ship with a flat deck As with the troop transports, it would be a no-frills, non-deployed vessel that is kept pierside other than for training. Again, just a few are needed to maintain institutional knowledge.
An alternative might be to design a smaller, full-fledged carrier intended to carry a ground support air wing which would include attack aircraft and helos. The problem with this approach is it provides a much less capable and flexible air wing at nearly the same cost as a regular carrier.
The current path of $4B combined aviation and troop ships is unaffordable and inefficient. We also need to abandon the peacetime cruise ship mentality, cease deployments, and return to building utilitarian WARships.