Rethinking the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Fleet
In guiding his design teams for the crucial Royal Navy reforms in 1905 — an effort that produced HMS Dreadnought and a new generation of battlecruisers — Britain’s First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir John “Jackie” Fisher, said that “in approaching … ship design, the first essential is to divest our minds totally of the idea that a single type of ship as now built is necessary, or even advisable.” His point was to break his team away from orthodox thinking and to encourage them to develop new ideas. Fisher did not want their creativity constrained by traditions and legacy designs.
In stark contrast, last month the incoming U.S. Navy secretary called a halt to a study on the future of the country’s fleet of 11 aircraft carriers. The “Future Carrier 2030 Task Force” was asked to test how large, nuclear-powered carriers might stack up against the new generation of long-range precision weapons being fielded by China and Russia. While the loss of an individual study doesn’t necessarily mean that the Navy has stopped thinking about the future of its carriers, it is nevertheless a great shame. The Navy’s new shipbuilding plan is still very much under development, and reportedly “reliant on new classes [of aircraft carriers] that don’t exist yet.” There has never been a better moment for a fundamental reassessment of the country’s naval posture. In the words of one analyst, “If the fleet were designed today, with the technologies now available and the threats now emerging, it likely would look very different from the way it actually looks now.”
Specifically, the worry about cancelling the Navy’s own study is that the questions the service ought to be asking itself will probably not see the light of day. Yes, the Pentagon’s Future Navy Force Study will continue, but this is more concerned with the Navy’s contribution to an overall Department of Defense effort, and is not focused on the Navy’s force structure questions per se. In the past, such losses in naval thinking have not gone well. For the carrier force, the key questions would have to include the following: First, is it necessary that all new carriers can deliver a whole air wing capability, which is taken to include fighter and strike aircraft, airborne early warning, electronic warfare, and tanker capabilities? While the United States needs this capability, particularly when dealing with sophisticated rivals, it’s not clear that all carriers need to have it. In fact, it may be possible to carry out future missions with a “Hi-Lo” mix of carrier capabilities, in which the less demanding missions would still be ably accomplished by the smaller, less-capable ships. Second, given the expected budgetary pressures after the pandemic, will the United States actually be able to afford the current plan to buy 10 to 11 Ford-class carriers without hopelessly disrupting the balance of the fleet in the process? History and the experience of U.S. allies would suggest that this is unlikely. Some are even suggesting that the Navy will have to be prepared for drastic reductions in its size.
The idea of the Navy trading off a proven capability for the many uncertain new technologies included on the Ford-class carrier has been contentious from the start. Moreover, a full Ford-class program is likely to be financially unsustainable in the long-term. As a result, the time is ripe to cut the number of Ford-class carriers from 10 or 11 to six, and instead build four to five smaller carriers to maintain the congressionally mandated numbers. At the same time, the possibility exists to augment these still further with a “lightning carrier” derivative from the amphibious ship fleet. While the Navy faces an increasingly austere budget environment, the service still has opportunities to grow the fleet if it thinks outside the box. Moreover, it needs to adopt the “distributed lethality” concept as a fundamental pillar of naval operations. The greater flexibility that such a combination will provide will more than compensate for any loss of individual carrier capability.
What the United States Needs from Aircraft Carriers
Aircraft carriers enable four key missions for the Navy: gaining maritime situational awareness, neutralizing enemy naval power, carrying out short-term raids and strikes against specific targets, and acting as an “airfield at sea.” The first two form a part of the broader idea of gaining sea control. The oldest of them all, the “eyes of the fleet” — that is, the gaining of intelligence and maritime situational awareness — is as valid today as ever, and is a necessary precursor to almost all other maritime operations. It directly links to the second (and arguably the most important): the neutralization of the enemy’s naval power. For both of these, the modern carrier air wing offers the opportunity for long-range effects; effects that theoretically can be delivered outside the range of an enemy’s defenses. Only a complete carrier air wing capability would be sufficient in a conflict with China or Russia. In other words, these two missions need a carrier that can operate such an air wing which, at the moment, means a Ford or Nimitz type of carrier. It is inconceivable that a world-class navy would willingly walk away from these two missions.
The third and fourth missions are also linked. In the “raiding” situation, it is often appropriate for a carrier air wing to conduct limited power projection or a “strike” over contested land in order to accomplish a given objective or to influence events ashore. In this case, the effects are likely only temporary, just sufficient to accomplish the goal and recover to the safety of the open ocean.
Alternatively, such coercive pressure may be required for an extended period, in which case the carrier falls into the fourth and final mission: that of the “airfield at sea.” In this situation, a permissive environment is necessary, or else one in which the necessary sea control has already been achieved by earlier operations. In either case, the actual act of deploying airpower over land may not require the full capabilities of a carrier air wing, particularly when operating against less sophisticated opponents, for example powers like Libya or Syria. This would seem to offer some flexibility, particularly for navies that have a range of carrier capabilities. Since World War II, the U.S. Navy’s carriers have operated almost exclusively in these latter two roles.
Is a High Sortie Generation Rate a Misleading Metric?
In measuring airpower, the numbers of combat sorties that a given air force can generate over the enemy in a 24-hour period has long been a respected metric. In short, the more sorties that can be generated, the greater chance that the necessary effects will be realized. Since carrier air wings basically operate as small, detached air forces, such a metric is attractive in this debate, although it can actually be dangerously misleading if applied too simplistically.
Long a selling point of the large carrier, sortie generation rates have been controversial for decades. A recent RAND study that was commissioned by the Navy to look at future aircraft carrier options was unconvinced that this metric remains useful for today’s potential conflict scenarios. Citing the key performance parameter for the Ford class of 160 to 220 tactical sorties in a 12-hour period, with a short “surge” capability beyond that, the study found that a number of conditions would have to be in place for this to be realized. First, the carrier would have to be operating close to the coast and the air wing flying relatively short distances. Second, the tactical and planning conditions would have to be ideal.
The study analyzed the Gulf War and the Iraq War, scenarios where these provisos were considered most likely to occur, and clearly demonstrated that high sortie generation rates are rarely needed in practice. In fact, the listed sortie generation rate for the Nimitz class of 120 sorties in a 12-hour period has never been achieved in normal operations, nor has it been necessary in the ships’ lives thus far. It would seem that whatever capabilities carrier aviation brings to the fight, these very high sortie generation rates are not the most important. Also, given the reality of the improved anti-access capabilities of powers like China, it would appear that, for the foreseeable future, such figures will be impossible to achieve in any case, since the carriers will necessarily be operating further from the coast, at least initially. Therefore, analysts need to move beyond solely judging carriers in terms of their sortie generation rates.
Why a “Hi-Lo” Mix Makes Sense
The U.S. Navy should pursue a “Hi-Lo” mix of Ford-class carriers, a smaller and cheaper fleet carrier, and even smaller “lightning carriers” in its fleet. When it comes to carrier operations, one size does not fit all. After World War II, the fleet carrier found favor in the U.S. Navy, most likely because of its flexibility and the fact that it can accomplish a multitude of missions. However, U.S. carriers have been conducting missions that rarely require their full capabilities. In other words, they are over-specified for the tasks at hand. This begs the question: How much more flexibility would naval planners have if they had a range of carrier capabilities to use?
Interestingly, the three navies who have made significant use of carrier aviation during the last century (the American, British, and Japanese navies) have found that a fleet composed solely of large fleet carriers was out of their reach financially, no matter how much they may have wanted them. As a result, all three nations resorted to a combination of fleet carriers augmented by a greater number of less-capable ships: the numerous light carriers and escort carriers of World War II fame. In the case of the United Kingdom and the United States, this was resoundingly successful. While it’s true that the wartime budget added to the perception that each country could afford to develop different types of carriers, resources during the war were not unlimited. In addition, the limited capabilities of the lesser ships actually enhanced the availability of the fleet carriers in their prime mission areas.
Both London and Washington tried to reserve their scarce fleet carriers for the more important sea-control missions while using the less-capable light carriers for specialist missions such as anti-submarine warfare, convoy protection, and amphibious landing support. The idea was that the large, fast fleet carriers would first gain wide-area sea control so as to facilitate the access of the supporting forces. Lighter, less-capable carriers would then take over the local sea-control requirements to allow amphibious operations or the protection of the sea train. This, in turn, would free up the fast carriers to continue with their wide-area operations elsewhere. In effect, the possession of a range of carrier capabilities allows the fleet as a whole to achieve much more.
As Fisher’s reforms in early 20th-century Britain show, times of austerity have also produced great naval advances. As the expression goes, necessity is the mother of invention. In theory, there is absolutely no reason to doubt that such a useful symbiosis is equally achievable today. For example, the same RAND study mentioned earlier looked at four modern carrier options aimed at saving money. These options included building a “de-tuned” Ford class of similar dimensions but with fewer systems (e.g., electromagnetic aircraft launch systems, volume search air defense radars, passive defense systems, and a reduction in reactor core life, etc.); a lighter, cheaper, nuclear carrier of around 70,000 tons; a developed America class optimized for F-35 operations; and a smaller, 20,000-ton “escort” carrier with even more limited capabilities. Interestingly, however, the study made light of the idea of a “Hi-Lo” mix of capabilities, perhaps because it was focused on alternatives to the Ford class.
Given its initial aims, the authors of the study rightly dismissed three of the options — “de-tuning” the Ford class, developing an “escort carrier,” and pursuing an LHA-6 America-class carrier optimized for F-35 operations. Of these options, the first was dismissed as not offering sufficient savings for the loss of capability incurred. Similarly, the “escort” carrier was dropped because it offered no advantages over the larger, America derivative and would be even more disruptive to the Navy in terms of its employment doctrines. Finally, the America derivative was rejected on account of its inability to host a complete air wing capability, specifically the early warning and electronic warfare missions. This left the 70,000-ton nuclear carrier as the only option that the study felt was worthy of further discussion.
The study offers helpful insights, but it also misses the point of the original Sen. John McCain white paper that commissioned the task force in the first place. The white paper specifically asked for an investigation into moving from “large deck amphibious ships to small aircraft carriers,” while the study only explores one aspect of this, namely a cheaper aircraft carrier. Whereas the smaller nuclear carrier was aimed at reducing the “fast carrier” bill, the “lightning carrier” derivative with F-35Bs can offer a huge capability in its own right, even without a complete air wing and particularly as an augmentation to conventional carrier operations. In other words, the “lightning carrier” would represent more of a re-purposing of the amphibious warfare segment of the budget (to provide it with more effective airpower), which in turn would take some load off the fleet carriers. Obviously, minor deck modifications to the America class platform and the inclusion of an early warning MV-22 vertical lift aircraft variant would improve things still further.
Skeptics highlight a variety of reasons why smaller carriers are a bad idea. Smaller carriers are slower, harder to sustain, less productive on station, and arguably more vulnerable than large carriers. There is no doubt that smaller carriers are more limited than larger carriers in terms of their operating parameters and endurance. But that is not the point. When operating in tandem with a smaller number of large fleet carriers, they can offer the air planners flexibility by assuming much of the routine air tasking. This in turn gives the fleet carrier the freedom to focus exclusively on the high-end fight. Also, so many of the objections are based on the original AV-8/Harrier jump jet limitations and do not take into account the game changing capabilities of the F-35.
Suggestions for a Range of American Carriers
If anything good is to come out of the tragic USS Bonhomme Richard fire in San Diego last week, it just may be that the disruption it causes to the Navy’s deployment cycle, and the prospects for furthering the Marine Corps’ “lightning carrier” ideas in particular, might force a debate about the size of the Navy’s carrier and amphibious assault ship fleet. Numbers are crucial in the development of flexibility. To this end, the Navy should consider a reduced Ford–class buy and purchase fewer large-deck amphibious ships. These latter units should instead be progressively replaced with two carrier types with fewer capabilities.
First, the Navy should cap the Ford class at six units. This will allow some headroom in the budget while still providing the minimum number of carriers required by the Indo-Pacific theater for the high-end fight. The assumption here is that, for the foreseeable future, China will continue to be the only maritime threat that mandates Ford-level carrier capabilities. The fleet carrier should also return to her historical roots as a platform to perform the essential missions associated with wide-area sea control and the occasional very long-range power projection over land in sophisticated air defense environments. Essentially, this means a switch in priorities from power projection from the sea (airfield at sea) to power projection over the sea with the object of gaining and maintaining wide-area sea control. Priority should also be given to developing the MQ-25 drone tanker (or equivalent) to increase the effective range of the air wings.
Second, the service should replace the remaining Nimitz units with four cheaper, 70,000-ton nuclear carriers, as recommended by the RAND study, to fulfill the congressionally mandated figure of 11 carriers. This responds the nuclear infrastructure concerns and offers a complete carrier air wing capability, albeit with a reduced sortie generation rate, to less vital theaters and missions. While a useful option for other navies, a conventionally powered variant of this platform probably does not make sense for the U.S. Navy, given its experience planning around nuclear-powered carriers.
Finally, the Navy should develop six “lightning carriers,” or variants of the America platform, optimized for the provision of medium-range airpower, including the deployment of F-35Bs. These can provide the Marine Corps with improved air support, thereby taking more weight off the fleet carriers. The provision of an early warning variant of the MV-22 vertical lift aircraft should also be a priority. Such carriers should be capable of taking exclusive control of carrier missions at the lower end of the range of military operations, again giving navy planners more flexibility. These platforms would be partially “paid for” by the gradual retirement of the large-deck amphibious ships.
This program is unlikely to save the Pentagon much money. It would, however, generate crucial operational flexibility for the Navy. Provided that the designs utilize as much technological commonality with the existing America and Ford classes as possible, supply chain concerns can be minimized. With careful project management, it should be possible to stay very close to the current expected costs of the 11-unit Ford program and the existing amphibious ship budget.
Even though the Navy has shelved a study on the future of the aircraft carrier fleet, the service should continue this important conversation elsewhere. These suggestions represent low-risk improvements, and yet the operational flexibility benefits would be enormous. In the words of Julian Corbett, only the U.S. Navy has the true freedom to make far-reaching strategic choices. It does so secure in the knowledge that well-chosen steps will cause competitors headaches by driving them into areas that are less advantageous to their aims. This is no time for the Navy to shy away from the tough choices.
Angus Ross is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He spent 25 years on active duty in the Royal Navy as an anti-submarine warfare specialist before retiring as a commander in 2000. He has taught ever since at the Naval War College and is a distinguished graduate of that institution. He also holds a masters in history from Providence College. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author alone and are not an official policy or position of the U.S Naval War College or the Department of the Navy.