It Isn’t a Cruise Ship

There’s this old joke that the crews manning US Navy submarines keep repeating. It goes “There are only two types of ships in the modern Navy: those that are under the water and those that soon will be.”

I remember some of the criticism that was leveled against the Reagan administration over defense budgets. One big issue was the role of aircraft carriers. Critics said that they were too big, too expensive, too vulnerable. They were outmoded technology, sure to be sunk in an instant if hostilities ever flared up between the superpowers. Anecdotes about pictures taken through attack sub periscopes of oblivious carriers were presented as proof that a flattop’s time had come and gone. I even read a paper authored by a defense analyst that said the only reason more carriers were being built, the sole justification for spending all of that taxpayer money, was so retiring admirals could command a big ship before they trotted off to pasture.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. The critics were wrong.

Oh, they might have had a point when it came to a carrier’s survivability during a war between superpowers. I wouldn’t want to bet on their chances if we had to fight a USSR armed with a vast fleet of attack subs, the largest air force in the world, and space based surveillance satellites that would pinpoint a carrier group’s position. But the unavoidable fact of the matter is that this never happened. Considering how Russia’s military circa 1980 had rotted away to a shadow of its WWII glory days, I’d have to say that the carriers wouldn’t have faced as deadly a threat as was assumed at the time.

When the Soviet Union came apart under it’s own inept Communist weight, the US suddenly found itself facing a shockingly new defense landscape. The supposedly monolithic block of iron-fisted Communist dictatorships unraveled with the collapse of their former master, and after the Iron Curtain came crashing down the huckster that had built the Wizard was revealed. Instead of a gleaming worker’s utopia, it turned out to be a collection of technologically backwards countries that were all bankrupt, or nearly so. It was as if Kirk yelled “Energize!” and Scotty transported huge sections of the 3rd World into Europe’s backyard.

So there wasn’t going to be a conventional military struggle between the Free World and the Evil Empire. The visions of huge armadas of bombers streaming overhead with the Soviet star on their wings, the nightmare of thousands of anti-ship missiles wiping the seas clean of our fleets, was all proven to be false. The new threats were going to be diffuse, spread out, springing up wholly formed from unexpected quarters. We were going to have to be everywhere at once, and carriers were the only way we could project power over the entire globe without assuming that unreliable “allies” would always be there to grant us basing rights. Suddenly what had seemed a flight of nostalgic fancy from a senile ex-actor looked an awful lot like a prophetic vision from America’s most successful Cold Warrior.

I’m going over all of this for a two reasons. First off is this article that I found on the Jane’s Defence server, which states that the US is going ahead with plans to build some new carriers based on an advanced experimental design. The new warships will be cheaper to operate, as well as being able to launch and recover more planes in a day, than the current Nimitz class carriers. This means that the new ships will be able to project more power than anything else afloat, which is the main reason why someone builds and operates carriers in the first place.

The second reason is this post over at The Ministry of Minor Perfidy. The author, Buckethead, discusses why he thinks that building new carriers is a mistake. His reasoning is sound so far as it goes, and he’s produced an enjoyable and thought-provoking read that I highly recommend. I just don’t agree with most of his conclusions.

It appears to me that BH claims that large surface warships are soon to become obsolete because of a variety of reasons. (I hope the author will correct me if I’ve missed his point.) The most significant is that precision missile technology is becoming ever less expensive while the costs of defenses and countermeasures are spiraling out of control. Robot kamikazes will soon be so cheap that anyone that nurses a grudge with the US can stock up on thousands of them, so many that it would be absurd to think that any countermeasure will be effective. The future of naval warfare lies with small stealthy ships and submarines. (BH also mentions floating barges laden with thousands of cruise missiles, but it’s very unclear to me why we couldn’t just launch such missiles from the US instead of a barge.)

All of this leads BH to the conclusion that aircraft carriers are on the verge of obsolescence, and they’re a waste of money. In fact, building any large and expensive surface warship is a mistake. Instead we should be constructing small and virtually disposable ships, and use the money we save to develop space-based capabilities. The only Navy left should be a fleet of submarines and a few surface ships on par with Coast Guard cutters.

I have a few reservations about Buckethead’s conclusions. The first is that they appear to be built on a great many unproven assumptions, the largest two being that brilliant anti-ship missiles will become common and cheap while countermeasures to protect against same will be expensive and rare. This is odd, since it assumes that missile technology will advance while developments in other weapon systems remain frozen in place. This is unlikely to happen.

As an example of what I’m talking about, consider that the new DD-21 class of destroyers (otherwise known as the DD-X)is designed to accommodate a rail gun even though such a weapon is not yet ready to be fielded. When it does come online it will allow our warships to launch solid darts at unimaginable velocity. These projectiles will be going so fast that anything peeking above the horizon will be almost instantly destroyed, smashed into oblivion by a dirt-cheap iron spike moving at such speeds that it would be impossible to dodge. Anti-ship missiles might very well become so cheap that any tin pot dictator will be able to afford a few hundred, but they still would be wasted money if launched against a ship equipped with a rail gun.

The smaller ships that Buckethead advocates would also be a waste, since it would take large power plants to operate rail guns. It could very well come to pass that larger, nuclear powered ship will come to rule the world’s oceans. Build the mast as tall as possible and mount a rail gun up there to increase line-of-sight lethality. Even the space based weapons that BH mentions wouldn’t last very long, since rail gun projectiles are moving so fast that they can easily reach out into orbit.

Think of that, dear reader, for just a moment. A weapon so efficient and cheap that it allows a destroyer to shoot down satellites, and smash ICBM warheads long before they can threaten peaceful civilian cities.

So all of Buckethead’s projections will fail with the introduction of a single variable. Build reliable rail guns, something that the Navy thinks is inevitable, and sophisticated missiles will have to be as common as 9mm cartridges before they could overwhelm on-board defenses. At the same time, the very technology that BH claims will sound the end of carriers could very well ring in a continued age of flattop dominance. Cheap missiles with enough on-board computing power to be called “brilliant” means even cheaper UAV’s and UUV’s with the same silicon brains. Why can’t the carriers maintain a CAP consisting of thousands of robot planes armed with anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down any threat, while deep below unmanned craft untiringly hunt for attack subs? You’d need some awfully big ships to maintain, fuel and transport a swarm like that. It wouldn’t surprise me if we would need to build even bigger carriers to accommodate it all.

What I’m trying to get at in my rather long and torturous way is that the reasons to build new carriers right now are rather compelling, while the arguments against aren’t. It’s certainly possible that new technological breakthroughs will mean that we’re wasting time and money, but it’s much more likely that these craft will be extremely useful for decades to come. If the US is to maintain the overwhelming naval superiority it now enjoys we’re going to have to get cracking and build a few ships. That’s a good enough reason for me.

(After looking over the rather long post above, it’s apparent that I’ve been bitten by the same Muse that used to gnaw on Steven den Beste. I just wish I could write as well as he can.)

23 thoughts on “It Isn’t a Cruise Ship”

  1. UAV’s are definitely gearing up to be a big player in the near future… and not just little predator drones doing recon, either. (See: here)

    Carriers aren’t on their way out… not until we have an enemy that can actually mount a successful attack on one. I doubt we will any time soon…

  2. The fly in Buckethead’s ointment is directed radiation weapons. I’ve long had a deep suspicion that the Aegis system has a special mode where it can crank out a beam of many kilowatts and track a bogie with it. The beam would not be enough to physically destroy the missile, but it would be more than enough to induce intolerable amounts of EMI in the circuits of the “smart” guidance system, causing a fatal malfunction. A missile hit by such a beam would suddenly seem to go off course, and would dive into the water for no reason apparent to observers.

    It would only take a couple of seconds to knock out a missile in that way. And since the Aegis system uses a phased array antenna, steering the beam to another bogie would only take milliseconds.

    Moreover, it should be possible to run multiple beams of that kind through a single phased array, and to target multiple missiles at once. (If nothing else, they could rapidly time-slice.)

  3. This history of military technology is shot through with the kind of assumptions that buckethead makes.

    (1) Assumptions about the enemy: One can argue that carriers would be useless in a fleet-to-fleet battle with a foe of equivalent technology but there hasn’t been such a battle since WWII. Carriers have proven useful for fighting asymmetrical wars which is the kind we have actually fought for the last 60 years. There is always more than one type of enemy. Building a military around an assumption that it will face only one kind of enemy is fatal. Had the navy decided to dispose of carriers after the development of the nuclear sub, the navy would have been completely useless for fighting the kind of conflicts we have seen in the last 40 years. Diversity of systems very important. Flexibility is more important than efficiency or firepower: Carriers have proven capable of missions ranging from airstrikes to humanitarian relief. Dedicated missiles ships couldn’t do that.

    (2) Exaggerated efficacy: The efficacy and dominance of new technologies is always much lower than advocates believe. Countermeasures always exists. Before WWII high altitude precession bombing was thought to be the near perfect unstoppable weapon yet it proved nearly worthless. Belief in high altitude bombing severely warped allied planning. Swapping out a proven system for the latest shiny new thing is often a mistake.

    (3) Obsolete doesn’t mean useless: Even in WWII, battleships proved useful in fighting nighttime battles where carriers were useless. Even in daylight they were dangerous except when one side had near total air superiority. Had the air war in the pacific not turned so lopsided we might have seen some major battleship action.

    Personally, I think the end of the carrier will come not because the ships themselves are vulnerable but because their aircraft will be. Railguns and directed energy weapons will render aircraft useless. I suspect we will evolve back to a form of heavily armored battleship that uses railguns and DEWs to control its airspace and giant railguns to attack inland targets.

  4. A couple quick points, and then a longer argument:

    Missile barges will probably exist because the Navy will insist on them, just like they insisted on ballistic missile subs. There is no reason why hypersonic missiles couldn’t be launched from Nevada, and in fact I used that example in a comment on the post.

    I wasn’t making the argument that carriers would immediately become obsolete, or that they wouldn’t have utility (just like the battleships) even after the point of obsolescence.

    The genesis of my original post was an argument that the old Iowa battleships should be maintained in service, largely for use as shore bombardment platforms to support army and marine forces in amphibious assaults. In restating the case for the obsolescence of battleships, I moved on to stating a case for the obsolescence of other weapons systems, centering on the carrier. In doing that, I focused on the trends that will threaten the now sixty year dominance of the carrier.

    So, let me scale it back just a bit. I am aware of at least several technologies that, combined with the information technologies that will drive the brilliant weapons of the near future, will make for some fearsome defensive weapons. Probably first to reach service is something like the Australian metalstorm technology. Systems based on this technology can reach rates of fire of up to a million rounds a minute. Combined with an Aegis-like defensive sensor system, this could be very effective. Second, directed energy weapons. Naval vessels, more than any other weapons platform, are best suited to mount next generation laser and other systems, as the ship’s power plant offers a convenient source of energy for the weapon. Rapid targeting from, again, an Aegis-descended sensor system would provide effective defenses. The same is true of the railgun.

    Nevertheless, computers are getting ever smarter, and ever cheaper. At some point, we will reach a point where pattern-recognizing, self targeting missile guidance systems will be exceedingly cheap. Put that on a cruise missile which can be made for thousands of dollars, and you have a recipe for the saturation of a ship, or fleet’s defensive grid.

    In a regime where the means for attack is so much cheaper than the means of defense, big ships that represent enormous capital investments in both monetary and human terms may become liabilities. At the very least, their deployment options will be severely constrained – as for example most of our aircraft, excepting only the F-117, were unable to fly the most dangerous attack missions in both the first and second gulf wars. When those constraints sink in, we may find ourselves looking for other options, or only using those platforms once we have achieved total air/sea supremacy, and then moving in the carriers/planes/etc.

    Since I posted my original essay, I’ve been thinking more about the topic. The implications of the information technology, space technology are going to be profound. We really are in the middle of a revolution in military affairs. These things, and new weapons, will drive the new military reality for both offense and defense. And to a certain extent, defense and offense will merge in a way that hasn’t been seen since the advent of gunpowder. And I think that the down the road in say, 2040, will be a combination of the death of the big ship and the scenario that James outlined in the second-to-last paragraph above.

    Dig this: space-based sensors and communications combined with really clever electronic brains will be the root of all military development over the next half century. The primary modes of expression for this synergy will be drones and missiles. The boundary between the two may be fuzzy at times, but in general, drones will have longer duration, and be reusable weapons platforms (and generally ‘smarter’) while missiles will be disposable, consuming themselves in the process of carrying out an attack.

    For long range attack, assume that we have deployed a frigate sized ship. It’s stealthy, highly automated, and has a dedicated powerplant for charging up capacitors for both a railgun and point defense lasers. It’s defensive systems include a Aegis-descended phased array radar, the ability to process other targeting data from drones, missiles, satellite sensors, and other ships. It has metalstorm close-in weapons systems. It has several missile launchers capable of moderate-range missiles. By today’s standards, it has a small crew, but with broadband satellite communications it is highly networked both back to remfs in the states and other ships in its task force.

    Other ships in the task force might include a pocket carrier that can launch hundreds of small, fast, armed drones. These drones operate as eyes, and as a kind of immune system. They have a variety of weapons – missiles, guns, torpedoes; to deal with a variety of threats. And in extremis, they can also become missiles themselves. The same carrier might also operate undersea drones, designed to secure the bottom half of the threat envelope.

    Some frigates might be dedicated to fleet defense, heavy on the defensive systems, others to attack. The fleet will be dispersed, but thanks to highly integrated defenses, unified. And should an enemy manage to saturate one part of the defensive network, the loss will not be so great as if we had a couple huge ships. Networked warfare on the ground allows many soldiers to act as one. The same is true of war at sea, and will obviate the need for large ships – dispersed weapons, defenses, and control can defend all the ships in the fleet, and attack all the fleet’s targets.

    On the attack, a rapid firing railgun will be able to fire guided projectiles like the old brilliant pebbles idea for enormous distances. Drones carrying missiles and bombs will fly off the decks of mini-carriers. Longer range missiles will be launched from subs, surface vessels, and from even inside the US.

    I think all that will happen. Defenses will certainly increase in their capabilities over time, just as with missiles. IT will be a driving force behind both of them. But the advantage for the next several decades will lie, I think, with the offense. Only a few nations will have the resources to build navies that will survive the future battlefield, due to the high cost of building survivable platforms. They will do this because they either want to retain or gain the ability to project power. We will still need surface ships for a variety of reasons, not least supporting invasions, and maintaining a bubble of air/sea supremacy to achieve our goals. Other nations can spend their military dollar on missiles. And they will be able to deny the surface of the sea to most any traffic except the most advanced naval vessels thanks to the economics of cheap missiles v. expensive ships.

    We will move toward smaller carriers because drones are smaller than regular planes, and because traditional carriers are big, expensive targets. Smaller ships will retain the power of their larger predecessors, thanks to new technologies like railguns. (A destroyer with a single rapid fire railgun might actually be the new battleship.) There will be no incentive to build large when smaller ships will be so capable, and so easily integrated with other ships; and when the cost of a single failure in defense could be so high.

    Is there an vaccine for den Besteitis?

  5. I tend to agree with everyone that Carrier tasks forces were not very survivable against Soviet attack. The big threat (I think) was cruise missles, especially those with Nuclear warheads. I think this situation remains the same in litorial warfare or going through straights the Navy remains vunerable. The enemy can overwhelm defenses with lots of missles. This is where the Navy intends to fight.

    Look what a couple of old Exocets did the the British Sheffield or the US Stark. The economic tradeoffs are huge a 10 to 100 million dollar cruise missles can wipe out a Billion dollar warship.

    Rail guns are a nice theory. I will believe them when they are here. The big problem is finding the targets, that are trying to hide and increasingly steathly. 100 – 250 MACH 3 steathy cruise missle from 100 miles aways. Very Hard to Survive. I think China and Soviet Union are already there. Iran via Chinese Silkworms and suicide patrol boats can cause huge problems now. In five years they will buy enough Soviet, Chinese, and European technology to be a huge threat in the Persian Gulf. Their aim is to destory the US fleet in these waters and/or keep it out. For the most part the US Fleet does not enter the Persian Gult.

    You had similar problems in the old Battleship era. With torpodeos there was a constant danger of being sunk of a cheap patrol boat. The Italians did this to the British a few times in WWII. Hence, a whole fleet of smaller cheaper ships (cruisors, battle cruisors, destroyers, etc.) were deployed to protect the Battleship. Submarines made this problem even more difficult and of starting with Billy Mitchael planes proved that ships were relatively easy to kill from the air.

    On the other hand the defense does not always have the edge. The German Bilzkrieg strategy showed that smaller, fast, well-led forces can defeat larger forces.

  6. A topic worthy of Den Bestian efforts; efforts I miss.

    But space based sensors and communication are not the only hook on which I would want to hang all military development for the next half century. At least not until we have the ability to defend them.

  7. I think a better analogy for space militarization is the rise of regular navies in the 15th-19th centuries – the value of seaborne commerce became so crucial to national economies that it justified the vast expense of building and maintaining ocean-going, long-service naval fleets.

    So much of our economy rides on communications and other satellites that I expect the rapidly shrinking US Air Force to position itself as the logical choice for their armed defense fairly quickly. There’ll be money for flotillas of space-based gunboats (or the equivalent) riding herd on satellite fleets.

  8. And the US Navy thinks very long and hard about anti-air and anti-missile defenses. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to punch through all the layers of defense surrounding a fleet carrier. For example, the F-14 was built around the Phoenix missile, which was designed more or less for the purpose of splashing bombers and/or anti-ship missiles at extremely long range.

  9. A major advantage of missile barges and/or carriers is that they can be much closer to the point of action than a launch site in the continental US. Advocates of “advanced technologies” (iron bombs in WWII, then guided missiles, etc) have always been fond of making comparisons along the lines of “a missile containing 1,000 pounds of explosives costs only X$, while an airplance capable of delivering the same 1,000 pounds of explosives costs 5X$; therefore the missile must be MUCH more cost effective than the aircraft.”

    The problem with this type of comparison is that it ignores the fact that the bomb carried by the airplane is much cheaper than the missile, and, so long as the aircraft can survive the deliver additional bombs, it is a much more cost effective way of delivering given amount of explosives.

    The survivability issue has now forced aircraft to use various “standoff weapons” —Precision Guided Weapons of various kinds — but since they don’t need the range of a missile to be launched from the United States, they are much cheaper per “pound of explosive delivered” WITHIN THEIR RANGE than the long ranged missile.

    This “amortized cost of the delivery system” is the reason that ICBMs made sense only the nuclear warfare scenario. They could deliever high explosive warheads (and with quite credible accuracy in today’s conditions) but the cost for the delivery would be unbelievably high on the “price per pound delivered basis.”

    The types of arguments have been used the “aircraft vs artillery” debates. In the days just before WWII many people thought we didn’t need artillery, just close support aircraft. This was ultimately proven to be false based on the much greater effectiveness of artillery within its range (and upon such factors as all weather availabiity, etc.)

    A related factor is “response time.” Even if you can afford to launch missiles from the US to a distant target, it’s going to take them a lot longer to get there than a missile/aircraft launched from a closer location. That may make it impossible to hit targets with the long range weapon that can be hit by the closer weapon, or make it impossible to deliver time critical close support to US troops.

    Great Discussion.
    As long as the US is going to be a world power, we will need the ability to deploy significant amounts of combat power close to the point where it is needed. For the foreseeable future, aircraft carriers are likely to be a major component of that effort. That doesn’t mean that they’ll continue to operate primarily manned aircraft, I can easily see large numbers of “Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles” becoming their primary weapons , but those UCAVs themselves will be much more cost effective if they don’t need to have intercontinental range.

  10. Robot kamikazes will soon be so cheap that anyone that nurses a grudge with the US can stock up on thousands of them, so many that it would be absurd to think that any countermeasure will be effective.

    I’m not real sure I buy this argument. Easy to say, really, really hard to do in practice.

    *What is to be the range of these micromunitions? If they’re to have a range of more than a few tens of kilometers or achieve substantial speed they need to carry lots of fuel. That means more airframe. And that means a bigger engine to carry that airframe. Now you’re no longer a micromachine. Now your flying a big airframe, running a big engine, emitting lots of heat, making noise, etc.

    *They could be dispensed from a heavy lift aircraft but that aircraft has to get within striking distance of a carrier group. You might fool them once with a deception of some kind, but not twice. If they lose one carrier to that sort of thing they’ll start killing every large aircraft that gets within 200 miles (320 KM) of them.

    * If the munitions remain small they won’t have much killing or damaging power compared to a carrier battle group. They also won’t be able to generate much velocity.

    The micromunitions concept might work well close to shore, where a dispenser could be fired from a heavy duty launcher inside a long range, high velocity vehicle, but that’s about it. In that case, it will force the Navy to increase its’ standoff distance, which will reduce time-on-target for attack planes, but that will hardly be decisive.

  11. “If the munitions remain small they won’t have much killing or damaging power compared to a carrier battle group. They also won’t be able to generate much velocity.”

    Accuracy has a power all its own. If a small drone or missile could pinpoint, say, the propellors on a ship — a la Tom Clancy — it might not destroy the ship, but could destroy its mobility and combat utility. Same sort of thing, suppose a small attacker could put a whole bunch of little craters or “pot holes” in the deck of a aircraft carrier. Ship per se might not be ruined, but the ability to launch and recover bombers from such a deck could be drastically impaired.

  12. Warships aren’t that easy to sink.

    The last US fleet carrier (CV) to be sunk was USS Hornet in 1942, which came under massive Japanese air assault and took 4 bombs, 3 torpedoes and 2 suicide crashes which left her dead in the water but not sinking. While under tow, she took 3 more bombs, which still didn’t sink her. But since Japanese surface ships were known to be in the region, they made the decision to scuttle her. American destroyers put 300 5-inch shells and 9 torpedoes into her and she still didn’t sink, at which point they gave up and abandoned her. When the Japanese found her, they finally sank her with 4 more torpedoes. She was less than one third the size of USS Nimitz.

  13. While I agree with much of Mr. Rummel’s thesis, I must take issue with this:

    “You’d need some awfully big ships to maintain, fuel and transport a swarm like that. It wouldn’t surprise me if we would need to build even bigger carriers to accommodate it all.”

    The primary driver of the size of aircraft carriers is the size of flat deck needed to land its aircraft. The US has decided to build ships large enough to launch fixed-wing, front-line combat aircraft that require a very large deck. Smaller drones and UAVs require much less space for landing, and if cheap enough could be disposable munitions rather than recoverable assets.

    It is my understanding that warship cost is much more closely related to mass (proportional to the cube of the length) than length, but deck length is proportional to hull length and hangar space is proportional to the square of the hull length. Using this crude measure, four ships of half the length would cost half as much (in aggregate), yet have something like the same capability while adding durability through redundancy.

    Note that the smaller hulls would individually be less durable, but the loss of one would only degrade rather than eliminate the capability of the group.

  14. Navy’s are built and deployed based on the ship’s ability to perform a mission. It is the mission that drives the development of the ships.

    That said, I could go out today to a local Radio Shack, or computer store and spend about 5 to 6 hundred dollars for all the guidance hardware required to build a cruse missile. With a bit of effort, I could build a cruise missile using off the shelf components for less then 10 thousand. Would it be as good as existing cruise missiles? no but then again, put 2 to 3 hundred of these missiles in the air and you have an formidible threat.

    Enter reality. The US for the foreseeable future will be facing threats from countries with limited combat potencial. (Armed forces with a mixture of mostly marginal military hardware with pockets of advanced weapons.) There is no country on earth capable of extended combat with the US.

    Thus, while its a interesting intellectual exercise to contimplate the future of the Navy in an era of space based weapons, hypervelocity missiles, and swarms of missiles, the reality is, not going to happen. At least within the next 30 years or so. If it is going to happen, it will be the US with this capability and not the US having to defend against that capability.

    IMO, developing current weapons against the hypothetical threats 20-30 years down the line, that most likely will be on your side, is a prescription for disaster.

    Build your weapons to face current threats and likely threats(5-10 year range). Build your weapons in modular formats so that tech advances can be incorporated.

  15. Modern Ship Cost is driven more by the cost of the installed weapon systems than by ship size per se. The HULL STRUCTURE costs are, indeed, a function of the displacement, and can be roughly estimated from the ship’s displacement since they largely relate to the tons of steel in the hull. (That’s a first approximation, of course, since particular designs may require more hull structure for a given displacement, etc.) Still, the actual cost of the hull structure is a comparatively small part of the ships cost.

    The power plant cost can be estimated on the basis of required horsepower, but here there tends to be an inverse correlation with ship size since assuming that ships are to maintain the same design speed, say 30 knots; the longer ship requires far less horsepower per ton. This is the result of the “wave making resistance” that is a function of waterline length. Basically, it becomes a VERY important part of the required power when you attempt to drive a ship a speed in knots that is greater than the square root of the waterline length in feet.

    An illustration of this is that WWII destroyers needed 60,000 horsepower to move a 3,000 ton ship at 33knots, while an Iowa Class battleship needed “only” 212,000 horsepower to achieve the same speed with a ship of something like 57,000 tons displacement (that’s “full load,” not the 45,000 ton standard displacement that’s often quoted and that was primarily a treaty defined “convention.”)

    One can see the impact of specialized systems versus the “basic ship” by looking at the difference in cost for Very Large Crude Carriers as compared with warships. Supertankers of even several hundred thousand tons of displacement cost less than AEGIS cruisers of roughly 10,000 tons displacement.

    This is one of the major reasons why the “small cheap carrier” idea has never taken hold. There is an argument in favor of it from a protection standpoint — particularly in a nuclear environment — IF each or the small carriers can have at least close to the same sensor suites as the large carrier. The problem is that an SPS-48 air search radar, for example, costs the same whether you put it on a 30,000 ton carrier or on a 100,000 ton carrier. If you try to build three 30,000 ton carriers for the same money as the cost of a single 100,000 ton carrier they will be FAR less capable. IF they have the modern sensor suites they need, you simply cannot do the job. Additionally, since the “base crew” required for such things as operating the sensor suite is fixed by the size of the sensor suite, it will take up a greater percentage of space on the small carrier than the large one, leaving less room for offensive mission equipment.

    One major simplification that may be possible is that UAVs may well be able to dispense with catapults and they are a major cost of a carrier (though we’re only talking perhaps a 10% savings at most by eliminating them.)

    Another factor in favor of large size is seakeeping ability. It is simply a fact of physics that a large ship can perform its mission in worse seas than can a small ship. Sea states that don’t bother a 100,000 ton carrier at all will serious hamper the effectiveness of a 30,000 ton carrier.

    Once you decide on the basic “equipment suite” required for a mission in terms of offensive and defensive systems, you’ll find that simply making the ship physically larger has a comparatively limited impact on the total cost of the ship, that’s the reason that designs have tended to get bigger over time. The extra size offers increased flexibility, and comes at a comparatively minimal cost.

    There’s also the fact that a bigger ship is, quite simply, much harder to kill. The “swarm of cheap missiles” idea sounds neat, but they have to be big enough to do some serious damage, and the larger the ship, the bigger they have to be. Hand grenades will not take out a major carrier.

    That’s not to say that there’s not room for change, but I’ll always bet on the “big battalions.” Historically they’ve ALWAYS won.

  16. Your points about improved seakeeping by larger ships and economies and efficiencies of scale in propulsion are well made. In part, that’s why I broadly agree with Mr. Rummel’s thesis. Adding to these, the ability of a large ship to sustain larger-scale shore operations (specifically the ability to provide logistical support of various sorts) is also dependant on the size of the ship.

    On the other hand the cost of the ship’s hull has been changing at a much slower rate than the cost of its most expensive installed systems, and the crew required to run those systems has also been falling rather quickly.

    Further, assuming that your opponents will be unable to match your technical sophistication is courting disaster. For especially obvious examples, see the experiences of the Russian Pacific fleet in 1904 and its Baltic fleet in 1905 against the lightly regarded Japanese fleet.

    Now, to be fair, the technical slope is higher and perhaps steeper now for a new competitor. You are right that the primary mission must be to meet the near-term threats, but you cannot ignore the longer-term, nor can you assume that your opponents will continue to be unserious.

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  18. Two nits:

    –Aegis is old hardwired closed architecture 1970s-era tech. Adding new things to it is *hard*. And expensive.

    –It wasn’t in battle, but USS America was sunk last week. There’s data that’s from that sinking available to the right people.

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