It started a year or so ago with Secretary Gates begging the question “Does America need 11 plus supercarriers when our competitors don’t even have one?” This was the beginning of the painful process of America rationalizing its military might. Now we are hearing about delaying and even cancelling some of America’s future supercarriers (see article below). With this in mind, I have always been interested in small Midway Class sized modern carriers, something similar to the English/French Queen Elizabeth class carriers that are currently under construction. The reality is that in the past America’s nuclear carriers would deploy 85+ airframes when on tour, now that number is more like 60 or so. Is it really necessary to relegate all of the Navy’s fixed wing fast jet forces to hulking supercarriers whose decks are often sparsely populated with aircraft? Is there possibly a great benefit in procurement and operational costs to be had by going with a smaller more efficient design? I think there may be.
We see the great value in the mission flexibility of smaller carriers to some effect with our current inventory of Helicopter Landing Docks (LHDs) and their associated Amphibious Strike Groups. These have become mini carrier strike groups, complete with cruiser, destroyer and even submarine escorts. In fact an Amphibious Strike Group was chosen to take center stage during the initial Libyan conflict known as “Operation Odyssey Dawn” instead of the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group nearby “fighting pirates” in the Gulf Of Aden. In reality the reason for a Carrier Strike Group being diverted from the Libyan cause was probably more political than strategic, but were a handful of Harriers and Helicopters really suited for such a conflict? Hardly. wouldn’t a smaller, more flexible and efficient carrier have been a better choice than an Amphibious Strike Group for Odyssey Dawn, offering the relative efficiency of the Amphibious Strike Group while packing a serious fixed wing punch? I think so.
In the end America’s military footprint is about to shrink while others begin to grow. When it comes to blue water navies, mainly India and China are of great interest as both are in the process of growing their carrier fleets, in China’s case the budding Shi Lang will be their first carrier. I think a drawback in America’s naval force structure is inevitable, but lets not just take this as a black and white fact, lets see it as an opportunity to create more flexible and efficient capabilities. Its time to learn to do more missions with less dollars. I think taking a good look at procuring smaller 55,000-65,000 ton fixed wing carriers may be a great place to start. We could even merge the LHD’s capabilities with a smaller fixed wing carrier’s to make one class that can do both missions. Alternatively, we could partner with our French and English friends in the new Queen Elizabeth Class design and procure them at a much lower cost than at$13 billion dollar Ford Class supercarrier while at the same time benefiting from the economies of scale, cross decking and even cross crewing possibilities with both partner nations in the future.
As far as possible force structure changes go, we could replace some of our Nimitz class carriers with these designs while still procuring Ford Class supercarriers at a lower frequency. For instance, we could by 1.5 smaller carriers for every Nimitz Class that goes out of service while retaining five supercarriers in the fleet persistently. This would leave a fleet of 9 smaller carriers and 5 supercarriers. Assuming the average supercarrier costs 15 billion over the next 10 retirement cycles and the smaller carriers cost 6 billion this would make for a savings of 30 billion while increasing the fleet size by 4 carriers. This force structure would offer much greater deployability and surge capability than the current supercarrier only inventory.
One must ask themselves does the Navy really need a supercarrier to fight pirates, provide basic Combat Air Patrols and train pilots in carrier qualifications? No they do not. No matter what I think it is clear that the DoD’s current one size fits all mentality simply doesn’t work when that one size is GIGANTIC in both procurement and operational costs as well as physical size.