Humphrey was lucky enough to be tipped off about the existence of an extremely thought provoking article by a US Navy officer (Captain Hendrix) on the future viability of the US carrier fleet. This was an alternative thinkpiece, produced in an unofficial capacity, but one that does raise some extremely searching questions about the viability of the long term future of the US carrier fleet.
The author conducted a detailed analysis of the cost of the CVN fleet, and also of the airwing attached to it, and broadly concluded that in terms of delivering effect, there were other means that could deliver similar effect for less cost (e.g. stand off missiles, more escort vessels etc). He was also scathing about the overall cost effectiveness of a current airwing, suggesting that large amounts of an aircraft’s use was linked to carrier qualification and not necessarily the delivery of effect. At the same time, the increased use of long range anti-ship missiles will make it more difficult to operate close in to an enemy coastline without being at increased risk. He believes that because of this, in future the F35 will simply not have the range to be able to penetrate enemy air defences, and that instead efforts should focus on development of a navalised UCAV to take over instead of the F35, with any future force structure being built around UCAVs and SSGNs using land attack missiles.
It is a genuinely fascinating paper to read, although Humphrey personally felt it relied quite heavily on the use of statistics to deliver metrics, which is a peculiarly American military phenomenon – for example the author extrapolated date to show that statistically in the last 10 years each USN fixed wing aircraft has dropped a total of 16 bombs.
What is perhaps interesting about the paper is that in many ways it revisits a lot of the long term arguments about the validity of carriers, and revisits them to show that the perceived weaknesses remain the same as they always have. One only has to think of the argument in the UK in the 1960s, when the decision was taken to move away from fixed wing carriers that they were inherently vulnerable to attack and could be sunk with ease. Humphrey is always somewhat sceptical of claims about ‘wonder weapons’ that can take out a carrier battle group from nowhere with ease. While there are indeed many very potent long range weapons out there, the problem remains one of getting accurate enough real time intelligence to be able to ensure accurate targeting of the carrier in the event of war.
While technology has changed a lot, its worth remembering that historically finding and killing an aircraft carrier is actually remarkably difficult to do. In the 1970s the old ARK ROYAL was operating on exercise off the coast of the US and spent days operating undetected without the US being able to find her, whilst her airwing caused (simulated) carnage ashore. It is a truism to this day that without a very comprehensive ISTAR network at your service, it is remarkably difficult to find a ship which doesn’t wish to be found. Therefore, although things can always go wrong with a carrier, they are not perhaps the vulnerable giants some make them out to be.
One of the key thrusts of the paper was to argue in favour of stepping away from the F35 and instead focusing on the move towards development of a UCAV which can be used fleet wide, not just on carriers but also lighter amphibious ships too. The author is personally somewhat sceptical that the technology exists at a sufficient level of maturity now, or for the forseable future for this to be credible.
The challenge though is that the F35 feels as if it is being buffeted about as a victim of events, and that whether it remains affordable is still to be seen. Mark Collins at the excellent 3Ds blog (LINK HERE) has charted the ongoing woes of the F35 development. Several countries that were certain to purchase are now reviewing their commitments and slipping entry to service, or going back to the drawing board- for instance Canada has reopened its fighter competition, and Australia is now slipping back delivery of the airframes too. At the same time, there is much internal debate within the US military about the total numbers likely to be purchased, with the programme looking vulnerable to sequestration cuts which could reduce the overall number of airframes purchased. But, the reality seems to be that even if F35 is looking exposed at present, it is hard to see any other credible contender emerge as a replacement for it within the US system. There is no chance at all of Rafale meeting the requirements for the US, while Typhoon, although an outstanding combat aircraft, is also unlikely to be sold to the US. This means that the choice seems to be between either cancelling outright, with further buys of F15 and F18 as a stopgap between a UCAV finally entering service, or continuing with the JSF programme.
The issue for UCAVs at present is that they are probably not at a sufficient level of maturity to conduct the wide range of operations that are being envisaged for JSF. It is worth considering that while there is plenty of use of so-called ‘drones’ like the Predator, these are fundamentally fairly simple aircraft designed to not be used in hugely complex missions. To meet the requirements of a new UCAV, you would essentially need to design an entirely new platform from scratch, adding in technologies never used before and then integrate it with all the likely weapons systems expected to be used. You’d then need to ensure the platforms were capable of flying the missions expected of them, which are likely to be very different to the so-called ‘racetrack’ circuits flown by drones in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Its worth considering that the average development period of modern combat aircraft takes 15-20 years from initial requirement to flight testing, and then probably 5-10 years to see it in squadron service. JSF will only really be entering full squadron service in the UK in the mid 2020s, some 30 years after the initial discussions were held on replacing the FA2 and GR7 Harrier. Even if we started development of a UCAV tomorrow, having cancelled JSF, there would still be a quite literally decades long gap between the programme commencing and having a fully operational platform in service. In the interim, there would continue to need to be buys of manned aircraft, if only to replace the fatigue life expired ones in service – one only has to look at the USN F18 fleet, where many of the airframes are coming close to the aircraft fatigue life following 10 years of combat operations.
So, while a UCAV will almost certainly emerge at some point, and it is very likely that one would replace JSF in a few decades time, the reality is that switching of JSF now does not mean that a UCAV will enter service in the same time frame as the JSF was planned to.
Its a fascinating area for consideration, and one worthy of following over time. The authors personal view is that Aircraft Carriers remain extremely valuable assets, but the cost of operating them is and will continue to be extremely high. However, one has to consider what the alternative would be to not having them in service at all. Humphrey would strongly recommend to anyone with an interest in aircraft carriers to take a look at the paper by Captain Hendrix – it is genuinely fascinating and thought provoking. The paper can be found here - http://www.cnas.org/node/10190