Sunday, 17 March 2013

'At What cost a carrier'? Captain Hendrix (USN) paper on the future USN fleet

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 -


  1. The USN has failed to rebuild a a strong aerial interceptor and ASW plane through it complaency in the post CW period. With Obama's focus to re pivot to Asia, it will have to face its shortcomings.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly that the aircraft carrier had some way to run yet. and that to date 'finding a ship that does not want to be found' is difficult (I do still wonder how good satellite technology has become once comanded to search a particular area of ocean, though). The 'UCAV panacea' is undoubtedly overplayed; current UAVs seem pretty vunerable to loss, on way or another, whilst advancing technology is never a 'cheap' option - the UCAV you have to be capable of all a pilot's brain can achieve, and more so, presumably - the cost of developing that will be immense.

    1. Very much agree that UCAVs are overplayed. To do away with manned combat aircraft would increase the risk of opening defences. Dogfighting needs to be regenerated.

  3. There are lots of things that are historically difficult to do that have now been made rather easy and cheap thanks to the march of technology.

    Fundamentally, carriers aren't getting substantially easier to hide. But building autonomous platforms in any number of shapes and sizes that could observe a carrier as it went past and communicate that back to its owners is already far cheaper than it was 10 or 20 years ago, and is likely to continue to get cheaper and easier to do.

  4. Interesting paper. However, the author has taken the (currently) common viewpoint that the carrier exists only to - as Norman Friedman once elegantly put it - "sit off a third-world sh1thole and threaten to burn it down".

    A carrier offers vastly more than that - primarily it enables all the other components of maritime power to operate relatively unhindered. The last twenty years since the end of the Cold War have resulted in a relatively permissive environment where a real air threat to both land and sea bases has been conspicuously absent. The one example where an air threat has occurred (Op Corporate) is usually treated as an aberration, particularly by those with an anti-carrier agenda. While it is certainly not a model for future conflicts (nor should it be used as the pure example to justify carriers) it does demonstrate what can happen when air supremacy is not guaranteed. In those types of operation the air defence capability provided by a carrier is indispensible. Missile armed ships can only solve the problem out to the radar horizon - 15 nautical miles.

    The argument remains one of elective rather than existential conflict. All the operations of the last twenty years have essentially been elective - a combination of factors have allowed construction of overwhelming air supremacy in theatre to the extent that the OpFor air threat has been neutered almost immediately - but where there is a substantial air threat (Syria, Iran, possibly North Korea) there has been a strange reluctance to use military force.

    There may well come a time where the US (and her allies?) may need to undertake a military operation where the conditions for air supremacy do not exist. In the Pacific or the Indian oceans it is possible / probable that land bases are either non-existent or denied. How then might the US and her allies exert military power when it is deemed essential?

    UCAVs have currently shown themselves capable of dropping air to ground weapons in relatively straightforward profiles. There is growing concern as to the security of their control - if Iran can "pirate" video feed off an RQ170, what might China be capable of?

    The analysis on "presence" actually leaves more questions unanswered than it answers. The presence index related to "destroyers" ignores the fact that presence is (in it's most basic terms) actually a gang "face-off". A nation is unlikely to have a go at a small vessel carrying teh flag of the US, because it knows what may turn up to administer a stiff talking to, if it does. If that "threat" is reduced, the likelihood of an attack against the smaller asset increases.

    It is interesting that the analysis of effect from flying hours is actually used to "justify" UCAVs, rather than a real analysis of benefit delivered. It appears that the "carqual" hours have also been attributed to that alone, rather than some of the other training serials that can be undertaken during those sorties.

    If I was being really provocative, I might at this point start the argument that if the US operates essentially two fleets (three if you count the USMC) of tactical jets and is feeling the financial squeeze, it might do better to rationalise on one fleet that can be based afloat or ashore, deliver effect when deployed, defend CONUS when not deployed and leave the USAF to deliver long-range heavy bombing, heavy AAR and AEW and transport.

    It's different argument when applied to the US where the relative sizes and capabilities of USAF and US Naval Air Force are much closer..........

  5. The CVA-01 was abandoned because it made no sense to commit such a significant sum of money to a programme which would deliver only one ship. It was the correct decision at the time given that the future priority for the RN would be ASW rather than power projection.

    In the late 1960s the UK was in the process of withdrawing from all commitments east of Suez, defence spending was being cut and a severe manpower crisis developing. Spending the equivalent of 20+ frigates on one ship (significantly more when aircraft and infrastructure are taken into account) which, realistically, would have provided a deployable capability for less than 200 days per year was pointless. The CVA-01 was a highly compromised design and, if built, would probably have been mothballed, sold or scrapped in the defence cuts of the late 1970s and early 1980s, leaving the RN with no flat tops whatsoever.

    Once all the sentiment and emotion are stripped away, the truth is that there was no coherent argument for continuing with CVA-01 programme other than as a means of maintaining the status of the senior service. By 1966 we could no longer afford to do this.

  6. Thanks for the nod. By the way Canada does not yet have a formal fighter competition (unlike Denmark), rather an "options analysis" using a questionnaire.

    Mark Collins

  7. Carriers are useful because they are useful. I don't mean that glibly but back in the early days they were developed because there was much utility in having aircraft first spot, then scout, then have a go themselves and finally evolving into the carriers we know today.

    I don't see why they are less useful? They may face a new threat but isomorphically it is the same as all other threats - a projectile fired at it. The whole concept of a CVBG exists because these things are designed to fight and operate in high threat environments.

    The thing the article fails to mention though is just how good these things can be at remaining hidden.

    Once they stop being useful they'll stop being useful. But as of yet operating manned fixed wing aircraft off of mobile sea bases still remains a useful and powerful capability.

  8. Key thing about the Ark Royal anecdote. They were on an exercise. If it had been a real war, the Ark Royal would have been sunk by the U.S. Navy long before it got near the U.S. coast.

  9. "Carriers are useful because they are useful." - Succinctly put.

    As NaB says, we can get too fixated on the strike aspect of a carriers' capability while forgetting that a ruddy great flat deck and huge storage space make for a very versatile platform. Just because it's labelled "carrier" doesn't mean it has to be crammed with fast jets.

    What's this rumour I hear that we might build a third? ;-)

  10. WiseApe

    You're misconstruing what I said. Enabling all components of maritime power to operate relatively unhindered means defending them against threats, which actually means providing Fleet Air Defence & warning, ASuW and ASW capability.

    There's no harm in using a big flight deck and voluminous ship for other stuff, but be in no doubt, its principal value is in deploying fast jets. The point was that people were identifying carriers with "just" dropping bombs overland.

  11. Apologies Nab.

    Someone else has posted an article in response to Hendrix's from the US perspective. IMHO the comments which follow are actually more interesting than the article itself. Wouldn't be allowed round here.

  12. You never know when a dozen or so ASW helos might come in handy.

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