June 22, 2011
For seven decades, they’ve been the ultimate symbol of American power. When conflicts break out across the globe, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers — fast, mobile and each packing more firepower than most countries’ entire air force — have been the first responders, more often than not. “When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: where is the nearest carrier?” Bill Clinton famously said.
But today’s 1,000-foot-long, nuclear-powered supercarriers and their air wings are expensive, costing up to $15 billion just to build. Plus, the latest anti-ship missiles could render them vulnerable to attack. It’s for those reasons that one influential Navy officer is proposing the Pentagon rethink its approach to building and deploying carriers.
Instead of today’s small number of gigantic carriers, the Navy of the future should operate a larger number of smaller flattops, Capt. Jerry Hendrix asserts in the pages of Proceedings magazine. “Moving away from highly expensive and vulnerable supercarriers toward smaller, light carriers would bring the additional benefit of increasing our nation’s engagement potential.”
It would also spread out U.S. naval air power instead of concentrating it in just a few places, where it can be more easily knocked out.
Hendrix’s controversial argument is the subject of my first piece for AOL’s new military website.
To be clear: no one, including Hendrix, is claiming big carriers will become totally obsolete overnight. Besides the U.S., Britain, India and especially China are all building brand-new large carriers, though none quite as big as America’s 11 Nimitz- and Enterprise-class ships, each displacing around 100,000 tons. Hendrix insists the Navy keep some of its nuclear supercarriers as a “heavy surge force” capable of steaming into action during a major crisis.
Outgoing secretary of defense Robert Gates echoed that sentiment in a speech last year.
But for routine patrols, the Navy should have a larger number of smaller flattops. Hendrix doesn’t propose a specific number, but he does point out that three, 40,000-ton light carriers could be had for the price of one supercarrier.
A light carrier is viable because of a shift in the way air power is used. During the Cold War, the Navy’s focus was generating at many fighter sorties as possible within the first few days of a full-scale conflict. After all, big shooting wars weren’t expected to last very long. Supercarriers are optimized for that kind of “big and fast” fighting.
Today, conflicts tend to be drawn-out, low-intensity affairs requiring fewer but longer sorties by sea-launched planes. Carriers don’t need to embark as many fighters, or launch them as often. That’s why a smaller carrier is possible, according to Hendrix.
He believes the future light carrier is already taking shape at a shipyard in Mississippi, though the Navy doesn’t call the vessel that. America, the first of a new class of amphibious assault ships, “has the potential to be a new generation of light aircraft carrier,” Hendrix writes.
America, slated to enter service is designed to carry more than a thousand Marines into battle, shuttling them ashore with V-22 tiltrotors. Like previous assault ships, America can carry Harrier jump jets (pictured) and, eventually, the Marines’ vertical-landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. The difference is how many fighters America can carry: up to 30, compared to the four or five Harriers routinely embarked on today’s assault ships and around 50 F/A-18 Hornet fighters on each supercarrier.
Unlike many observers, Hendrix has high hopes for the late, over-budget F-35 — particularly the B model, which has been the most troubled of the three variants. “I’m concerned about the cost overruns on JSF, but I see that this [plane] could be very important in the future,” Hendrix tells Danger Room.
Armed, carrier-launched drones could complement the F-35B, Hendrix adds. The Northrop Grumman X-47B, the world’s first’s carrier-capable combat Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, flew for the first time in February. The Navy wants a follow-on killer drone to start populating carrier decks before 2018.
Small flattops carrying drones and stealthy jump jets would help “adapt the fleet away from its current course to a new design for a new era,” Hendrix writes. But he admits his proposal faces stiff opposition from the Navy’s entrenched supercarrier boosters. “A lot of people don’t like the America,” he tells Danger Room.
Even Gates was forced to backtrack after his speech last year criticizing the Navy’s over-reliance on huge flattops. “I am not going to cut a carrier. Okay?” Gates said. “But people ought to start thinking about how they are going to use carriers in a time when you have highly accurate cruise and ballistic missiles that can take out a carrier.”
To Hendrix, that means having more carriers. And that means they need to be smaller.