The Aircraft Carrier We Need


The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Midway, with assigned Carrier Air Wing 5, entering Subic Bay, Philippines, 1981 (PHCS Steven Harris, USN/U.S. Defense Imagery Photo/VIRIN DN-ST-84-00324)

A strategic design update is due


On April 24 the U.S. Navy announced that a fifth weapons elevator had been certified for use onboard the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). (A weapons elevator lifts munitions, such as bombs and missiles, from the storage area to the flight deck.) Six more elevators remain uncertified, requiring additional testing and modifications before the carrier can be deployed. Originally estimated to cost $10.5 billion to build, the ship was officially “delivered” to the Navy in May 2017, some 18 months behind schedule, at an eye-popping cost of $12.9 billion. However, even those cost numbers and dates are misleading, as the ship still does not have all of its essential systems certified, owing to major difficulties with its ship-service turbine generators, electromagnetic aircraft-launch systems, advanced arresting gear (the apparatus that slows down aircraft as they land on deck), and finally its weapons elevators. The upshot of all of these difficulties is that the Navy has been forced to use dollars from its crucial operations-and-maintenance accounts to “repair” a brand-new ship, for which it had already paid $13 billion, that has yet to deploy operationally, despite having officially been in the fleet for nearly three years.

The news on this ship is mixed. While it is true that the ship recently completed its 1,000th electromagnetic launch and 1,000th “trap” using the ship’s advanced arresting gear, and the newly confirmed secretary of the Navy has endorsed continuing to build the Ford-class design, it is also true that the ship recently experienced five days in which it could not launch aircraft due to problems with its electromagnetic launch system. The bad news is expected to continue as the ship is now scheduled to go through normal shock trials, which involve the detonation of a series of underwater charges near the hull and are known to cause havoc with a ship’s internal systems, in the summer of 2021. This may well set back the ship’s already-delayed initial deployment, scheduled for 2022, still further. The Department of Defense has determined that it is necessary to identify any additional significant faults in the design of the Ford, including ones that may be exposed by the shock trials, before proceeding with the construction of additional ships. Even shock trials, however, will not reveal the Ford’s most glaring problems: It has the wrong design and is built around the wrong type and size of air wing, and it is not optimized for implementing the current National Defense Strategy, which focuses on great-power competition with Communist China and, to a lesser extent, a Putin-led Russia.

The USS Ford was conceived during the late 1990s and emerged from an analysis that examined over 75 designs. The final choice was greatly influenced by then-recent operational experiences in the Arabian Gulf and the Adriatic Sea, as well as a 1998 GAO report that provided rigorous comparisons between nuclear and conventionally powered aircraft carriers during those campaigns. The Ford’s eventual design was predicated upon an assumption that the ship would operate in similar semi-permissive, low-threat environments, such as the Adriatic Sea or Arabian Gulf, staying close to enemy shores to optimize the efficacy of the carrier’s short-range (500 nautical miles) light-attack air wing, which was then dominated by the FA-18 Hornet. To maximize the Ford’s sortie-generation rate (the number of aircraft it can launch and land in a day), the need to launch and recover its historically small, short-ranged air wing multiple times per day became the driver of the ship’s design. That design was also meant to hold down operating costs through the extensive use of automated systems, thus shrinking the crew size.

However, as often happens in combat-system designs, the enemy got a vote. Beginning in the mid 1990s, China’s government observed the U.S. regime-change strategies in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia with growing alarm. It saw how both Iraq and Yugoslavia allowed the United States to build up forces close to their borders without resistance. Beijing was also deeply embarrassed by the U.S. deployment of an aircraft-carrier battle group, centered on the USS Nimitz supercarrier and the USS Belleau Wood amphibious-assault ship, through the Taiwan Strait in 1996, in response to China’s attempt to sway approaching elections in Taiwan by conducting offshore gun and missile exercises. In addition, China interpreted the U.S. bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy in 1999 with a precision-guided munition dropped from a stealth B-2 aircraft as a deliberate act of military intimidation (the U.S. insists it was a mistake). In reaction to these events, the People’s Republic of China began to invest in a series of new weapons systems designed to push American naval forces farther out to sea, limiting their ability to project power against potential targets in the mainland. Soon aircraft, ships, and (most of all) missiles with increased lethality and range began to appear within the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) order of battle, with the DF-21 and DF-26 “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles being the centerpieces.

The combination of dramatically enhanced maritime-domain awareness (enabled in large part by remote-sensing satellites) and land-, sea-, and air-launched anti-ship missiles now makes it possible for the PLA to hold U.S. aircraft carriers (and other surface combatants) at risk well over 1,000 miles from China’s shores — which is well beyond the range of the carrier’s FA-18E/F and F-35C strike fighters unless they are refueled. Moreover, even if these planes were to reach designated target areas with aerial refueling, they would be vulnerable to modern, integrated air-defense systems. Faced with this intensifying threat, the Navy has started shifting away from the land-attack mission in favor of less daunting sea-control and sea-denial missions.

Pursuit of these missions, which the Navy calls “distributed maritime operations,” is a throwback to the strategy employed during the early days of World War II, when limited aircraft range forced the United States to ponderously island-hop across the Pacific until it captured islands close enough to Japan to launch direct bombing missions. The hard-learned lessons of World War II led the Navy to build the Forrestal class of supercarriers after the war, because a larger ship was required to launch and recover a new 80,000-pound bomber that could carry atomic weapons more than 1,000 miles into the Soviet Union on the first day of a new war. It was the anticipation of that mission, known as a “penetrating deep-strike,” and the composition of the air wing of the early 1950s, dominated by large A-3 Skywarrior long-range bombers, that drove the Navy to build supercarriers. Today, however, all those lessons have seemingly been forgotten. Put simply, the carrier should be designed around the air wing, and the air wing should be designed to implement the nation’s defense strategy.

According to the most recent National Defense Strategy, the U.S. military exists to “provide combat-credible military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of our nation. Should deterrence fail, the Joint Force is prepared to win.” To implement this strategy, the Joint Force needs to be able to strike quickly at specific enemy military, economic, and even political centers of gravity in increasingly contested environments. Today’s military, using air-based and space-based surveillance assets, has ever-increasing abilities to identify targets, but dwindling capacities to strike them. To remedy this situation, the Navy should invest in new air wings — much as it did in the years immediately following World War II, when it effectively replaced its entire naval-aviation inventory — that can operate effectively from outside the range of a prospective adversary’s “anti-access/area denial” networks to credibly put key targets at risk.

Such an air wing would necessarily retain some legacy components. It would make sense, for example, for each wing to have combat-search-and-rescue (CSAR) helicopters; a squadron of four E-2D Hawkeyes to provide airborne surveillance and command-and-control in carrier-controlled airspace; and a squadron of six EA-18G Growlers to provide jamming and spectrum control around the carrier and its strike group. The new air wing might also have one squadron of ten F-35Cs to perform combat air-patrol missions as well as airborne-coordination roles. Only one squadron should be necessary, since the carrier would be positioned far out to sea, beyond the immediate range of enemy short-range fighters and escorted by cruisers and destroyers capable of providing air and missile defense. Shifting the carrier’s area of operations farther from the enemy’s “anti-access/area denial” forces would make it possible to reverse the modern naval bias towards defensive “anti” missions within the carrier strike group (anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine) and move back towards offensive operations, including power-projection ashore.

As part of this shift, the core of the carrier’s new air wing would be 30 stealthy, heavily armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), organized into three squadrons. Individual UCAVs should be capable of carrying 4,000 pounds of ordnance internally to a combat radius of at least 1,500 nautical miles without refueling. They should also feature broadband, all-aspect stealth design with a much-reduced radar cross-section (RCS). The design should also integrate an infrared-signature-reduction capability and an advanced passive sensor suite. These 30 aircraft — each armed with two 2,000-pound-class direct-attack weapons (GBU-31 JDAM) or stand-off weapons (e.g., JASSM or LRASM), four 1,000-pound-class direct-attack weapons (GBU-33 JDAMs), or up to 16 GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs — could deliver sustained firepower against a wide array of enemy targets while their host carrier remained in relative sanctuary at sea.

Moreover, unlike aircraft flown by human beings, they would not have to cease operation because of pilot fatigue. With refueling, they could remain aloft potentially for days at a time. With no pilots at risk, there would also be no need to prepare for forward CSAR operations. Based on the Navy’s considerable experience in designing and operating two prototype aircraft under the Unmanned Carrier Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program, an operational UCAV could be fielded both quickly and affordably. For slightly more than the cost of an F-35C, the Navy could have an aircraft with nearly three times the combat radius, significantly more internal payload, and far better survivability. With a UCAV-heavy air wing, the aircraft carrier could get back into the power-projection business.

The need for a “mission tanker” (aerial refueler) within the new air wing could be met with eight simplified (that is, lacking stealth accoutrements and advanced sensors) tanker versions of the strike UCAV, each potentially capable of passing nearly 20,000 pounds of fuel some 500 miles away from the carrier. Tanker UCAVs could also serve as communications relays between airborne E-2Ds operating at the edge of carrier-controlled airspace and forward-striking UCAVs, thus mitigating the risk of satellite-communication disruptions. Taken together, this proposed air wing amounts to approximately 65 aircraft, about the same size as today’s carrier air wing. Design differences between the UCAVs and legacy fighters, however, would allow for subtle but very consequential changes in the design of future carriers.

A UCAV-heavy air wing with tailless aircraft, for example, significantly reduces overall carrier flight-deck and hangar-deck space requirements, especially in the vertical dimension. Current carriers’ hangar bays are designed for legacy aircraft with tall vertical tail assemblies, but these are leaving the force and are not likely to return, as stealth characteristics, which preclude such assemblies, become the norm in aircraft design. Given the UCAV’s long endurance and extended mission time for long-range strikes and sea denial, the sortie-generation rate is less important, so fewer catapults to launch the planes would be needed. Automatic takeoff and landing protocols, which are already improving the safety of carrier operations, would allow for a reduction in arresting-gear wires. Carrier-design features that will likely remain constant are speed (30-plus knots, to generate wind over the deck for launch and recovery), ordnance-magazine capacity, and the size of the aviation-fuel bunker to maintain the air wing. Designers should allow for future growth in electrical-power requirements to enable the integration of more-advanced radars, communications systems, and eventually, defensive directed-energy weapons (those that use lasers, microwaves, or streams of particles to attack the enemy). Finally, given that there are no longer any large fossil-fuel steam-boiler manufacturers in the United States (and the U.S. Navy is unlikely to repeat the British Royal Navy’s mistake of powering a large carrier with gas-turbine engines), the Navy’s next carrier will almost certainly be nuclear-powered.

Accepting the average size of the air wing (the Nimitz and Ford classes were originally designed to support 85 to 90 aircraft but now carry around 65), taking into account new aircraft designs as well as new launch and recovery intervals, and then carefully examining previous carrier designs as well as design studies, suggests that the next carrier should be in the mid-sized range (65,000 to 75,000 tons), with a flight deck approximately 900 feet in length and 135 feet wide and an armor-box hangar deck some 700 feet in length by 95 feet in width by 18 feet in height.

In addition, the carrier should have at least two long-stroke, heavy catapults in the bow and one in the waist (centered on the carrier’s angled deck) in order to maintain redundancy in battle, two arresting-gear wires, and three deck-edge heavy elevators to move aircraft to and from the hangar bay. The new carrier should have the storage capacity to accommodate 1,500 tons of aviation ordnance and 1.5 million gallons of aviation fuel. Lastly, to power all this, in terms of both speed through the water and electrical-power generation, the carrier will likely need two nuclear reactors (for combat redundancy) capable of generating 240,000 shaft horsepower. The United States no longer has the capacity to build large conventional maritime steam turbines, but if it ever does, this option should be considered. Such a carrier should cost no more than $5.5 billion, about a third of the cost of the current Ford-class carrier. This effort would take, at a minimum, ten years to design and build.

Before arguing that this proposed carrier is too small, its catapults and arresting gear are too few, and its aviation-ordnance and fuel capacities are too slight, critics should pause and consider that the carrier parameters described above, with the exception of the two nuclear reactors, lie directly between those of the Midway-class carriers built during World War II and the Forrestal-class carriers built during the 1950s. Both served in the Navy until the mid 1990s and operated heavy, long-range, penetrating-strike air wings. The USS Midway (CV-41) served on the battle line in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm for 43 days alongside larger carriers and was able to maintain an average sortie-generation rate of 70 aircraft per day, second only to the Nimitz-class carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. On most days, the Midway launched well over 80 missions, on a few days even 90, and on three days she launched no missions at all as her crew did maintenance on her aircraft and flight deck. Midway, at this stage of her life, was operating two long-stroke, heavy catapults for larger attack aircraft and one medium catapult for lighter aircraft. Given the ranges to be spanned, the duration of missions, and the anticipated smaller air-wing size, there is no reason for the next carrier to be built with more than three steam catapults.

All these proposals are put forth with the goal of better supporting the National Defense Strategy, but also with the hope that the Navy’s new leadership is keeping a weather eye towards the fiscal storm that is bearing down upon the fleet, and the entire Department of Defense, in the “terrible Twenties” that stretch out ahead. Past profligate spending combined with the large successive stimulus packages that have accompanied the COVID-19 global pandemic will increase competition for limited funds, and $15 billion supercarriers that cannot generate meaningful offensive firepower to deter and, if necessary, fight the next war will almost certainly become targets for cuts. It would be wise for the Navy to better align its carrier-procurement plan with the nation’s defense strategy and, in particular, its ability to conduct conventional power-projection operations against rival great powers such as China and Russia. To do so it must fundamentally restructure the carrier air wing, shifting away from manned, short-range fighters with insufficient survivability in the expected threat environments, and towards stealthy, heavily armed, long-range UCAVs. To support that air wing, the Navy should design and build less complex, mid-sized carriers that are far more affordable than the Ford class and could be built more quickly, perhaps even in multiple shipyards. The Navy says it needs carriers to deter enemies and win wars. It should move rapidly to a new design that can fully support the National Defense Strategy by efficiently doing both.

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