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  • Size Matters

    Posted by James R. Rummel on October 8th, 2010 (All posts by )

    Earlier this decade, it seemed that the French government was doing their best to oppose the United States. Someone asked me why.

    So I struggled to come up with a way to explain my impressions concerning the foreign policy of The Fifth Republic at the time, finally settling on describing a child that stomped around in a fury, shrilly shrieking “We used to be a world power!” over and over again.

    The reason why this image came to mind was due to the fact that France, like most European countries, had allowed their armed forces to rot away to the point that they had a terrible time projecting force beyond their borders. This loss of military ability corresponds to a loss in influence on the world stage. Instead of biting the bullet and increasing their commitment to building and maintaining a world class force of arms, the French under Jacques Chirac appeared to be determined to browbeat the United States into acting as a proxy branch of their own government.

    The point to the overly long diatribe above is that regimes and cultures which have their own interests at stake are not inclined to listen to what you have to say if there are no consequences for refusing to negotiate.

    Such dusty history sprang to mind when I spied this news article on the UK Telegraph server. It appears that two new aircraft carriers planned for the Royal Navy might just be the victims of budget shortfalls.

    queen elizabeth class future aircraft carrier for great britain

    (Picture source.)

    The top brass, desperate to save the carrier project, have proposed cutting the British fleet in half!

    In a final appeal to the National Security Council, Navy chiefs yesterday offered to make cuts that would reduce the senior service to its smallest since the time of Henry VIII.”

    The Navy has argued that having two carriers is vital if Britain is to retain its place as a top-rank military power.”

    There is nothing quite like an aircraft carrier for getting hostile regimes to sit up and play nice, and it is true that the United Kingdom needs these carriers if they are to retain their present level of influence on the future history of humanity. And yet, reducing the fleet to such anemic levels would make it impossible for Great Britain to meet commitments in other areas.

    You could say that the Royal Navy is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea on this issue.

    If there is one thing this proves, it is that the United Kingdom is not ready to meekly slide down the slippery slope into insignificance. Let us hope that such resolve is enough.

    (Cross posted at Hell in a Handbasket.)

     

    18 Responses to “Size Matters”

    1. Shannon Love Says:

      I think that Britain has been trying fight above its weight class for some time now. I’m not sure they really need carriers.

      I think that carriers have been largely obsolete since the late-40s. They’re very useful for low-intensity “police actions” against opponents who themselves have little sea or airpower but they have long since ceased to be the capital ships of the fleet. Today, sea control depends on submarines and long-range, land-based aircraft and missiles. If faced with even a minor concentration of either, carriers have to flee the area. The Falkland’s War demonstrated how vulnerable surface ships are to modern missiles and the Argentines weren’t even that good.

      I had roommate back in college who was a nuclear tech on IIRC the USS Sunfish. On exercise, they rather routinely sank aircraft carriers and their escorts. One time, they parked underneath the Enterprise and methodically sunk her escorts before attacking the Enterprise. Since modern submarines are as fast or faster than surface ships the Sunfish could keep station under the Enterprise. No one in the fleet could figure out where she was.

      In short, air craft carriers have for decades been in the same situation as battleships at the outbreak of WWII. Everyone sees them as the critical capital ships but in reality they are hopelessly obsolete and can’t survive in serious fight. They played a key role when aircraft had ranges measured in hundreds of miles but now that off the shelf military aircraft can cover entire oceans, the carrier serves little purpose.

      The only reason carriers have survived is because the Pax Americana has prevented any serious naval challenge.

      If Britain really needs the ability to “reach out and touch someone” world wide, I think they would better served by “silo” ships caring cruse missiles. That would give them some serious striking power albeit rather expensive per attack.

      At least Britain could afford to have several ships posted around the world and ready to hit back. Given how fast circumstances develop today, I think it unlikely that one of the two aircraft carriers will be were they need to be when trouble starts.

    2. James R. Rummel Says:

      “They’re very useful for low-intensity “police actions” against opponents who themselves have little sea or airpower but they have long since ceased to be the capital ships of the fleet.”

      What kind of enemy does Great Britain expect to face in the next 50 years? What kind of conflicts do they anticipate taking a part?

      “The only reason carriers have survived is because the Pax Americana has prevented any serious naval challenge. “

      I’m pretty sure that the UK leadership believes the US military will be dominant for some time to come.

      “If Britain really needs the ability to “reach out and touch someone” world wide, I think they would better served by “silo” ships caring cruse missiles.”

      I’m not sure what you mean by silo ships. Something like the arsenal ship concept?

      http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/man/uswpns/navy/surfacewarfare/arsenalship.html

    3. Tim Fowler Says:

      The Falkland’s War demonstrated how vulnerable surface ships are to modern missiles

      When defenses are inadequate (and they where not good even by the standards of the day). If the British had the equivalent of Nimitz class carriers and their air wing, they would have quickly established air dominance, and there is a good chance that no British surface ships would be lost.

      As for long range missile threats, land bases are also subject to attack by such missiles, and they can’t move so they are easier targets (if harder to totally destroy, rather than just temporarily put out of action, since you can’t sink an air base on land).

      Submarines are a real threat, a serious danger, but I disagree with the idea that they relegate carriers to no longer being capital ships. Submarines sunk battleships in WWI (and II), and carriers in WWII, but they where still capital ships, just not invulnerable.

      They played a key role when aircraft had ranges measured in hundreds of miles but now that off the shelf military aircraft can cover entire oceans, the carrier serves little purpose.

      Bombers can cover entire oceans but we don’t have many of them. Fighters can do so with refueling, but that complicates the situation. Either one, esp. fighters, might require extensive overflight of neutral or even hostile enemies to get to the target. Also flying thousands of miles greatly increases your time between sorties.

      I do agree that carriers are relatively less dominate than they used to be, but they are still very powerful elements of force projection.

    4. cjm Says:

      britain is a house on fire, and no amount of military hardware is going to save them from what is going on now. i seriously doubt they avoid a sad an ignominious fate within the next 25 years.

    5. Scott Eudaley Says:

      Shannon, I usually agree with you, but you’re way off base on this one. Tim, you’re right on target.

      Today, sea control depends on submarines and long-range, land-based aircraft and missiles. If faced with even a minor concentration of either, carriers have to flee the area. The Falkland’s War demonstrated how vulnerable surface ships are to modern missiles and the Argentines weren’t even that good.

      This is just so wrong on so many levels.

      A Nimitz-class carrier can easily stay outside the range of most land-based missiles, yet still carry the attack to the enemy. And a single Nimitz’s air complement outclasses the entire air force of most countries. With the modern AEGIS system, attacking a Nimitz task force with aircraft is suicidal. One might be able to flood an AEGIS system with enough aircraft and missiles to overwhelm it, but the cost would be enormous to the attacker. Very few countries will risk losing their entire air force and most of their missiles to sink one ship.

      The concept of “sea control” involves much more than simply denying access to sea lanes. It also involves maintaining open sea lanes. Submarines and aircraft simply can’t do that. Submarines, by their very nature, are supposed to be hidden and stealthy (and become extremely vulnerable if they are not), and their ability to project force onto land is very limited. The presence of land-based aircraft over the sea is ephemeral and can not be maintained.

      Imagine trying to maintain open sea lanes in the Persian Gulf using only submarines and aircraft from Diego Garcia. It can’t be done. There’s a reason why the US sent two Nimitz-class task forces to the straits of Taiwan a few years ago, when the Chinese were threatening Taiwan. Imagine trying to do that with submarines and aircraft from Japan and Guam. It can’t be done. Only the presence of a surface fleet, with aircraft, can force open a sea lane. Nothing projects power onto an enemy’s front porch like a supercarrier task force.

      Your analysis of the Falklands War is completely backwards. It was precisely the presence of British aircraft carriers that made that whole operation possible and it was the lack of a supercarrier that put it most at risk. At the time, the Argentine air force was considered quite good (in contrast to their army and navy), with over 200 airplanes. They were flying Mirage III-Es, Super Etendards (both considered state-of-the-art airplanes) and A-4 Skyhawks (a little dated, but still a very capable aircraft). They also had the best anti-ship missile in the world–the French-made Exocet.

      The British lost 6 ships and 11 were damaged. British after-action analysis revealed the following primary problems: 1) inadequate early warning systems (poor radar and nothing like an AEGIS system), 2) inadequate anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses (no CIWS and the British SeaCat system was pathetically bad), 3) inadequate combat air patrols (too few fighters) and 4) inadequate aircraft (the Harrier is not an air superiority fighter). All of the British warships lost were either frigates or destroyers protecting the actual troop landing. The British aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible were stationed much further to the east and, as far as I remember, not a single missile was ever launched at them. The conclusions reached were that small aircraft carriers operating VTOL/VSTOL aircraft are inadequate to protect a fleet and small ships are vulnerable to missile strikes. A Nimitz supercarrier is in a whole different kettle of fish.

      Submarines are a threat. But among our enemies, only Russia and China have enough modern submarines to seriously threaten an American task force. In any conflict with them, I would expect to lose aircraft carriers, but they would still be vital to carrying the war to them. It would not be possible otherwise. Against all other enemies, the American carrier task force is a very, very potent weapon system.

      I see the Nimitz-class supercarrier as more akin to our nuclear forces, especially vis a vis Russia and China. Their primary role is as a deterrent, often acting to tamp down problems before they explode. But when the sh*t hits the fan, having them is better than not. As Bill Clinton noted, when conflict is on the horizon, the first question any President asks is “Where are the carriers?”

      The day may come when the modern supercarriers are obsolete. But the need for sea-borne air power will never disappear. Submarines, land-based air and missiles simply can’t replace that. I can see supercarriers being replaced by smaller ships operating UAVs, but I think that is several decades in the future.

    6. J. Scott Says:

      With a fertility rate hovering at about 1.7, perhaps the Brits should consider incentivizing breeding; otherwise, who will man such a ship?

      The Brits should spend their precious dwindling resources more wisely.

      If the Chinese have their way, ballistic missiles will make the modern super carrier a big target.

    7. Michael Kennedy Says:

      There is a Grumman UAV the size of an F 18 that is scheduled for its first carrier operations next year. It can also do inflight refueling.

    8. mlyster Says:

      Two fascinating, and diametrically opposed perspectives(Shannon, Scott). For once, I can easily relate to/support either one.
      Carriers are, indeed high value targets. The proliferation of missile systems of every stripe renders them highly vulnerable; they are, effectively ‘fixed’ targets compared to a missile hurtling in at Mach 4. Still, not everyone has such munitions, and a carrier battle group stationed off your coast goes a long way to let you know you’ve annoyed the wrong military power.
      Don’t know the answer. Perhaps larger numbers of smaller carriers, armed with a combination of UAVs and missile systems? I have the luxury of ignorance on this one, so I can speculate until I’m blue in the face.

    9. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Scott Eudaley: “I can see supercarriers being replaced by smaller ships operating UAVs, but I think that is several decades in the future.”

      Excellent contribution Scott. But, I think your time frame is too long. I do not read Aviation Week anymore, but I think the UAV revolution will proceed at warp speed. I would not plan on anymore suppercarriers. A smaller ship can carry a fleet of UAVs, and deploy them without having the size and vulnerability of the current generation. Without life support systems, the UAVs can be smaller than the current generation of fighters and carry the same payload. They can use stronger catapults and landing equipment.

      Smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper should e our mantra.

    10. Scott Eudaley Says:

      Excellent contribution Scott. But, I think your time frame is too long. I do not read Aviation Week anymore, but I think the UAV revolution will proceed at warp speed. I would not plan on anymore suppercarriers. A smaller ship can carry a fleet of UAVs, and deploy them without having the size and vulnerability of the current generation. Without life support systems, the UAVs can be smaller than the current generation of fighters and carry the same payload. They can use stronger catapults and landing equipment.

      I agree, the technological development of UAVs is proceeding very rapidly. But the Navy doesn’t move that fast. It takes many years for the Navy to design a new ship, even when it is a relatively simple upgrade to a well-established design.

      The new UAV carriers involve a radical change in doctrine, as well as fast-moving technological advancement. The Navy is the most hidebound, and conservative, of all the armed services. They will not make this kind of change quickly, or without a lot of internal debate and conflict. That will take many years, and possibly a whole new generation of leaders, to resolve. I don’t see that happening in less than 20 years.

      I forsee a transitional period, where UAVs are increasingly operated off the existing supercarrier decks. I also think that is necessary. There are huge doctrinal questions which must be answered. Do we produce a lot of relatively cheap, low capability UAVs, expecting a lot of them to be shot down or destroyed? Do we really need supersonic capability? One engine or two? How do we partition the workload among airframes? Do we have highly specific airframe designs (e.g., air superiority versus recon versus sea attack versus land attack)? Or do we have higher capability, multi-purpose airframes (like the F/A-18)? How big will the airframes actually be? Much of what drives modern airframe design is the size of the engines. How will that change? Do we need an angled deck? How many elevators are optimal? What kind of G forces can we reliably use to launch/land aircraft and how big do the catapults need to be? We will learn a lot during the transitional period and that operational knowledge will influence the design of the new ships dramatically.

      While I assume the ultimate design of such ships will be somewhat smaller than the current generation of supercarriers, that is not at all guaranteed. Much of the size of the supercarrier is driven by the number and size of the aircraft needed, the amount of fuel required to operate them, the armament that must be carried and the takeoff and landing space required. A Nimitz-class supercarrier is huge, but is not roomy. They are very crowded ships.

      The new UAV carriers will most emphatically not be small ships. They will still be very large compared to all other warships. And they will still be very complicated, very expensive to build and have large crews. Their loss in battle would still constitute a major loss of life, capital and prestige.

    11. Marty Says:

      This debate seems to me to come back to something not mentioned in the post or comments: what are the UK’s strategic interests?

      Answer that one and you’ve gone a long way to deciding whether aircraft carriers are essentisl, useful, or unnecessary.

    12. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Scott: I understand that the Navy is conservative and hidebound, but the country is broke, so a cheaper way of doing things will help keep them in business.

    13. Scott Eudaley Says:

      Scott: I understand that the Navy is conservative and hidebound, but the country is broke, so a cheaper way of doing things will help keep them in business.

      There are no current plans to build any more Nimitz-class carriers. The George H. W. Bush is the tenth and last of them. As I noted above, any new generation of carriers will be a long time coming and to replace all of them will take even longer. I would not be surprised at all to see Nimitz-class carriers still operating in the US Navy in 2050.

      Note that the mere size of a carrier has very little to do with its cost. Most of the cost of a modern aircraft carrier resides in its power plant, electronics, weapons systems and air wings. It is extremely unlikely that any new design will be substantially cheaper, but I don’t expect the Navy to spend any money on new aircraft carriers for quite some time.

      The US Navy is not going out of business.

    14. foxmarks Says:

      I’m with Shannon. The opposing viewpoint is fighting the last war.

      AEGIS is ancient technology. It will work great if attack by stuff from the 1980s, but what will it do against something like Yahont? Take out a few of the screening destroyers and there’s a hole in the AEGIS shield. Cover the SSASMs with swarms of cheap dumb UAVs and how will AEGIS know which is the real threat?

      Missile tech is easier for small enemies to afford, too.

      The supercarrier is a political tool. In that sense, maybe the U.K. would want one. But once the shooting starts, they’re big fat targets.

      If a bad guy wanted to close a sea lane, mines are the way to go. Also cheap, and deliverable by nearly-undetectable d-e subs that minor powers can afford.

      What’s the 4GW equivalent of naval combat?

    15. Tim Fowler Says:

      mlyster – A carrier is effectively a “fixed target” against relatively short range missiles traveling at Mach 4, but then it can send its planes to strike before those missiles are in range. Against very long range missiles a carrier isn’t a fixed target. At sea level and 20 C Mach 1 is 768 mph (depending on the humidity). So the mach 4 missile would be moving at a bit over 3000 miles per hour. If the missile has to travel 1000 miles, that means the carrier has about 20 minutes to move out of the way. If the Nimitz can do about 36 miles per hour, so it would be located somewhere in a circle with a diameter of 24 miles. Make it a 2000 mile attack and its a 48 mile circle.

    16. Tim Fowler Says:

      Foxmarks – Aegis isn’t exactly identical to when it was first designed. True its not as advanced as the best possible new design created today, but its been updated over time.

      If you take out several escorts than yes there will be a hole in the defense. Its not like carrier battle groups are invulnerable. But taking out a few destroyers, when they are supporting each other, and receive support from an aircraft carrier is easier said than done. If facing an particularly powerful enemy with very effective long range missiles, than mutliple carriers, and additional escorts would be sent.

      Generally I’d consider subs to be more of a danger than missiles. Mines aren’t as much of a danger to the carrier unless the enemy gets lucky. Its hard to effectively mine huge areas of sea, more likely you mine narrow channels, or the area close in to your shore. Carriers generally won’t go in to the later. And as for the former, well if you get surprise, if they don’t know that mines are there, then a carrier might strike one (which isn’t the same as “be sunk by one”), but otherwise you’re just slowing down the carrier while a channel is cleared through the mines.

      Against the most powerful of enemies in their own backyard, the carrier is in danger (and from subs even beyond the enemies backyard). But “in danger” doesn’t equal “is useless”. You can lose carriers and still win the war as WWII showed.

    17. mlyster Says:

      Tim Fowler:
      All good points.
      I think the underlying principle, however remains a potent counterargument to the ‘Spanish galleon’ theory of seapower: and, one that has played out on land, sea and air for centuries (not in the air for centuries, but you get the point).
      Big, armored, unitary and expensive, or cheap, numerous, and expendable? One can argue forcefully in either direction, and many have done so.
      I suspect that the chosen solution will be a combination of both, as has been the solution in many forces for centuries—since nobdy has ever definitively answered the question. Footsoldiers plus mounted knights; tanks plus infantry; bombers plus fighters; Deathstar plus starfighters; on and on.

    18. Tim Fowler Says:

      Mlyster – I agree that combined arms, is often the way to go. Rarely is one type of weapon or weapon system so dominate in all areas that it makes sense to totally focus on just that one type. Mixes are are almost always more flexible, and often effectively more powerful, if not in terms of raw power (you could after all focus on one weapon with the highest raw power, and in a narrow sense get more bang for the buck), than at least in terms of the ability to survive on the battlefield.