The notion of a lightning carrier keeps coming up. So many people are enamored of this 'lightning carrier' concept without really understanding its capabilities or limitations. I guess it’s time to examine this concept.
So, what is a lightning carrier? For this discussion, the concept refers to the use of a big-deck amphibious ship operating an all fixed wing, F-35B, air group. An example would be an America (LHA) or Wasp (LHD) class amphibious ship with an air wing of around 18-22 F-35B.
Alternatively, though less common, proponents envision an amphibious ship with a ski ramp and arresting gear allowing the ability to operate F-18 Hornets. However, this variation on the concept is simply not feasible and we’ll address that a bit further on.
Any discussion of a lightning carrier must start and end with the air wing. In fact, the term ‘lightning carrier’ really means ‘lightning air wing’ because a carrier, any carrier, is its air wing. With that in mind, let's review some of the limitations and constraints of a lightning air wing.
Lightning Air Wing
-The F-35B would operate at half the range and payload of an F-35C which is, itself, inadequate for the Pacific theater. F-35 fanboys won’t accept this but it was clearly stated in an interview with the Ford program manager and documented in an older post. The range/payload limitation, alone, is reason enough not to pursue lightning carriers!
-A lightning carrier cannot operate a tanker aircraft and the lack of a tanker only emphasizes the aircraft’s lack of range. Even if a tanker could magically be added to the air wing it would take away a combat aircraft slot from an already meager air wing. It is possible to take off light on fuel and refuel after take off from some other, unspecified tanker source but there is no way to take off light in weapons and load more in the air!
-Similarly, the lack of an E-2 Hawkeye (AEW) precludes effective air wing control, combat direction, and situational awareness. It has been proposed that a V-22 could be equipped with a radar as a substitute, however, any AEW V-22 would be a poor man's version of an E-2, at the very best. It would have a smaller, less powerful radar - whatever type that would be - with resultant shorter effective sensor range which would, necessarily then, place it closer to danger to achieve the required detection and discrimination. It would lack the room for sufficient consoles, computers, communications gear, and operators for the battle management function which is the true purpose of an E-2. It would lack the endurance to provide long term coverage. In short, it would be nearly useless in a high end combat scenario. It is this same lack that renders the British carrier and air wing nearly pointless for anything other than very low end, low threat work. Even if a V-22(AEW) were developed, each one added to the air wing would remove a combat aircraft.
-The above also applies to electronic warfare (EW) aircraft although it is, at least, possible to imagine an EW version of the F-35B being developed someday. Of course, an F-35B(EW) would, again, eliminate a combat aircraft slot.
-We’ve previously demonstrated, in multiple posts, that a carrier needs to retain around two dozen aircraft for self/group defense. Given that a lightning carrier can only accommodate around twenty aircraft, what does that leave for offensive operations? Nothing! At best, the carrier can barely defend itself and without AEW, EW, and tanker aircraft, not even that. A lightning carrier would exist only to defend its existence which is pointless.
-Now, consider a lightning carrier with a theoretical maximum of 20 F-35B. Now, add two AEW-modified helo/V-22 and two tankers of some unspecified sort. That’s four aircraft added to the air wing which means four F-35B combat aircraft have to be subtracted. That leaves a usable combat component of 16 F-35B. Is that a useful combat component? Is it worth operating – and risking – a $4B ship, 1000+ crew, and several escort vessels just to operate 16 F-35B aircraft with limited range and payload?
We’ve examined the air wing. Now, let’s take a look at some characteristics of the ship, itself.
-With no cats or arresting gear, half the deck is dedicated to landing spots. Below is a photo of the USS America during an Oct 2019 Navy experiment in which the ship was operated as a lightning carrier. Note the jam-packed deck that contained only 13 F-35Bs and note that half the deck is consumed by the landing spots which are kept clear for normal or emergency landings.
|USS America Oct 2019|
-Some have postulated a ski ramp on an amphibious ship in order to operate F-18s. Boeing claims that an F-18 can launch from a ski ramp although the conditions of launch (weight, weapons, etc.) are unknown. Boeing tested the concept from a land based mock up of a ramp as shown in the photo below. The maximum weapons load that I’ve seen in photos of the tests show two small bombs. The internal fuel load of the aircraft is unknown.
|Hornet Ski Ramp Test|
Boeing conducted F-18 ski ramp take offs as a preliminary to possible sales of the aircraft to India.
A ski-jump launch may well impose a penalty in terms of the payload the jet can take off with, but Boeing says it has conducted multiple tests with different, undisclosed, kinds of payloads.
According to the company, these tests “show that the Super Hornet would do well with the Indian Navy’s Short Takeoff but Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) system and validate earlier simulation studies.”
Note that Boeing carefully omits any information about payloads which is, undoubtedly, due to the fact that the ski launch requires reduced payloads/fuel. If it did not, Boeing would be loudly and proudly trumpeting the fact … but they’re not.
A ramp might, at least, enable the use of EA-18G (EW) aircraft but could they take off from a ski ramp with a full load of EW pods? That’s unknown. Regardless, every EA-18G means one less combat aircraft from an already very small air wing.
Ski ramps take up huge amounts of deck space and, in the case of operating F-18s, would also require conventional arresting gear which, without an angled deck, prohibitively ratchets up the danger factor of recovery when the inevitable bolter occurs straight down the deck and into the aircraft parked and operating forward. Danger aside, the combination of ski ramp and arresting gear would consume ¾ of the available deck space which would severely reduce the number of embarked aircraft.
In fact, from visual estimation, I’m fairly sure that a ski ramp and arrested landing area could not fit on an America/Wasp class ship given that they are around 200 ft shorter than a conventional carrier and do not have angled decks.
Below is an overhead schematic of the USS America with my wild estimates of the area needed for a minimal ski ramp and arrested landing area. In fact, the ski ramp area is probably too narrow for safe take offs. It should probably be the width of the bow.
|Lightning Carrier Ski Ramp and Arrested Landing Gear Area|
For comparison purposes, here’s a photo of an Indian carrier (932 ft long, overall) with both a ski ramp (the entire bow!) and an angled recovery (almost the entire midships and stern!). There is simply not much room left for parking the air wing. Indeed, the air wing is only 26 MiG-29K plus some helos and that’s for a carrier that is nearly the size of a US supercarrier.
|Indian Carrier - Note Ski Ramp and Angled Deck Arrested Landing Area|
-An unmodified amphibious ship could operate a maximum of 18-24 aircraft. The largest amphibious ship, USS America, intentionally designed for maximum fixed wing capacity, can only operate 22-24 aircraft according to the Navy. Any other amphibious ship will have even less aircraft capacity.
-An amphibious ship could be modified and rebuilt to operate larger numbers of aircraft but it would require a true rebuild of the ship involving large scale structural changes such as removing bulkheads to create hangar space, reinforcing other areas to compensate for the removed bulkheads, creating new compartments for aircraft maintenance and parts storage, creation of new magazines for added weapons storage, likely construction of additional munitions elevators, creation of additional aircraft control and communication compartments, a greatly enhanced hangar fire suppression system, and so on. In other words, it would be hideously expensive, with costs likely rivaling or exceeding the original purchase.
So many people are fixated on the idea of comparing our carriers to some other country’s carriers or some multiple number of other country’s carriers and proclaiming that if we have more naval aircraft then we are somehow superior. Well, unless some country or countries challenge us to a one-on-one carrier match, it’s utterly irrelevant how many carriers or aircraft we have compared to someone else. What matters is how our overall military force compares to an enemy and, within that context, how our carriers contribute to that overall force and to our overall military strategy (you know … assuming we had one).
The relevant question, then, is does a lightning carrier with its acquisition/conversion cost and operating cost of a crew of a thousands plus a dozen or so escorts justify the meager contributions of twenty or so significantly limited aircraft and, more importantly, could the cost of this contribution be more effectively spent on any of dozens or hundreds of alternatives? This is the opportunity cost. Could the immense operating cost of a lightning carrier group buy us more and better overall military firepower in some other form? For example, for the operating cost of a lightning carrier group, we could buy untold numbers of cruise missiles, or we could significantly harden multiple forward bases, or we could buy umpteen thousands of tanks, or many dozens of dedicated minesweeper ships, or … the list of alternatives is nearly endless.
One of the arguments put forth for the conversion of amphibious ships into lightning carriers is that, if we’re getting rid of them anyway because of the Marine’s refocusing on small, hidden, forward bases - and there is no evidence of that, yet - then we could, at least, get some stop-gap use out of them as lightning carriers until they’re retired instead of retiring them early. Again, this is an opportunity cost issue that goes back to the operating cost for a very meager capability. Early retirement would free up a lot of operating cost funds that could be applied to any number of other weapon systems, each demonstrably more effective than a handful of limited aircraft.
Another argument for lightning carriers is that, while they are not equal to a conventional carrier, they could supplement conventional carriers by adding their small numbers of aircraft to the CVNs carrier group and the CVN can, in turn, cover the shortcomings of the lightning carrier.
Good grief, NO! A limited, constrained 'carrier' added to a CVN doesn't enhance the CVN, it pulls down the overall capabilities of the CVN group. This would be analogous to adding a high school basketball player to a professional team. The high school player doesn't add anything to the pro team, he pulls the overall effectiveness of the pro team down.
By having to split and further spread the CVN's AEW, EW, and tankers to cover the shortcomings of the lightning carrier, the overall effectiveness of the CVN is diluted and decreased. At best, the handful of limited capability aircraft on the lightning carrier can defend their own carrier. The lightning carrier would, as we previously noted, exist to defend its existence … the self-licking ice cream cone.
While a lightning carrier offers little to the high end air/strike war, it can offer a potentially useful short range strike capability in support of amphibious operations. Twenty or so F-35Bs operating in support of ground combat could prove somewhat useful although, again, the limited payload and inability to carry some of the larger munitions internally (2000 lb munitions, for example) limit the usefulness. High end ground combat requires constant ‘artillery’ support and aircraft, any aircraft, can only provide that support sporadically and in very small quantities. Still, the concept offers some degree of usefulness although at an enormous operating cost. Think about how many self-propelled artillery vehicles could be purchased for the operating cost of a lightning carrier!
Despite the enthusiastic support of so many naval observers, a rational examination of the lightning carrier concept clearly demonstrates that the combat capabilities of the carrier and its air wing are so minimal that it is not worth the operating cost. More damning is the opportunity cost associated with the concept which shows that we could acquire far more combat capability, in any number of alternate forms, for the operating cost than can be supplied by the lightning carrier and air wing.
It seems clear that the limited combat capability makes the lightning carrier appropriate for only low end, low threat operations which then takes us right back to the opportunity cost issue. It’s not even suitable for peacetime patrol type operations because we categorically refuse to use force during routine peacetime operations. That being the case, there’s no point having a carrier and aircraft around because we won’t use them.
Unfortunately, despite the enthusiasm so many people have for the concept, it just can’t be justified. It brings too little combat capability for far too great an operating and opportunity cost.