The Next Carrier Piece by Piece

By Commander Donald Bouchoux, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The design histories of the aircraft carrier and its embarked aircraft are inextricably linked. Two clear examples of this are the changes to launch and recovery systems required by the advent of jet aircraft and the 1960s modification of the Midway (CV-41)—incorporation of a much larger and stronger flight deck with commensurate changes in sea-keeping and maneuverability-to make her compatible with the ill-conceived TFX (F-111B) aircraft. These changes sometimes are planned in concert, but (as in the case of the Midway redesign) often are reactive to decisions that may have been made in programmatic isolation by the aviation community.

A separate consideration is how the design and capabilities of a carrier relate to the larger set of capabilities of a carrier battle group. Since its first use in combat, the carrier has operated in company with other ships. From the 1950s until the end of the Vietnam War, carriers sometimes filled specialized roles, such as attack and antisubmarine warfare. The early post-Vietnam era saw the advent of the CV—a carrier and air wing that could cover all missions to some, albeit limited, degree: strike, antiair, antisubmarine, antisurface, electronic, and mine warfare—but these carriers still deployed as part of a group of ships whose capabilities complemented their own.

Given its impressive firepower, a CV could conduct several types of warfare concurrently, but the specter of massed Soviet land-based air power and a sizable Soviet surface and undersea threat prompted the design and procurement of non-carrier-based defensive systems. The evolution of the surface antiair warfare fleet to the Aegis system not only provided a formidable defensive posture but also relieved the carrier air wing of a portion of antiair warfare.

A similar case could be made for advances in antisubmarine warfare with the incorporation of advanced helicopter systems on board surface ships. In strike warfare, the fielding of Tomahawk enabled certain targets to be attacked by surface combatants; these targets, while accessible to the air wing, may have posed an unacceptable attrition rate.

The Aircraft Pieces of the Puzzle

The take-off and landing characteristics of an aircraft may impose the severest constraints on the design of an aircraft carrier. If, for example, the decision were made to continue the procurement of a conventional take-off and landing aircraft such as the E-2 for use on the CVX, a flight deck of 750 feet by 100 feet would be minimum; and this size would not include the requirement to launch and recover aircraft simultaneously, which itself has flight deck design implications. The use of catapults may have implications for the carrier's propulsion suite; pending the development of an electromagnetic or hydraulic catapult, steam pressure would be required to power the launch system. This then drives decisions on power plant for the ship. The ties between ship design and aircraft design are so close that an alternative design for one can result in radical changes in the other.

The current Nimitz -class air wing incorporates six aircraft: the F/A-18, F-14, EA-6, S-3, E-2, and SH-60. The CVX could operate as few as three or four: the F/A-18, joint strike fighter, common support aircraft, and an advanced SH helicopter. Considering that the F/A-18s may play a role in only the first few years of the CVX's service life—if at all—its constraints likely will not be a major factor in design decisions for the carrier. The existence of the joint strike fighter might enable the CVX to operate only that aircraft in the strike role, consigning the F/A-18s to operating from the remaining Nimitz-class ships. It is the designs of the other three aircraft—particularly the joint strike fighter and common support aircraft—that potentially will have the most impact on the design of the CVX.

The First Piece: Joint Strike Fighter

The joint strike fighter program is developmentally more mature than the CVX. Programmatic and design decisions already have been made that will shape the direction of this relatively low-cost future aircraft. Current plans envision a family of aircraft sharing common components and systems where possible, with each version—Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps—tailored to the individual service's needs. Primarily, the Air Force and Navy requirements are for a conventional take-off and landing aircraft to replace the F-16 and the F-14 and F/A-18, respectively; the Marine Corps proposal is for a short takeoff, vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft to replace the AV-8. Procurement will begin in the early part of the next decade, and the joint strike fighter will be the predominant strike fighter asset on the CVX well into the 21st century.

The relationship between the CVX and the Navy version of the joint strike fighter will include several characteristics. The aircraft will depend on the CVX design for launch and recovery systems; weapon storage and movement systems; command, control, communications, and intelligence systems; aircraft maintenance facilities; and the like. Similarly, the weight of the aircraft, its speed while launching or recovering, and requirements for special weapon handling or certain types of information will drive the design of the CVX.

The element of the joint strike fighter program that could change the value of some of these relationships, however, is the Marine Corps requirement for a short take-off, vertical landing aircraft. If this version were operated from the CVX, the launch and recovery systems would have to change dramatically—which could lead to a radically different carrier design.

The Next Piece: Common Support Aircraft

The common support aircraft is envisioned as a possible replacement for a variety of current support aircraft: the E-2, S-3, C-2, and possibly others. It is not as mature as either the CVX or the joint strike fighter programs; aircraft functions, basic operating envelope, and basic design characteristics all are yet to be determined.

Given its neophyte status, the common support aircraft has not yet levied any requirements on the CVX that would affect the carrier's design. This is an important opportunity to seize. Combined with the possibility of a STOVL joint strike fighter, choosing a short take-off and landing (STOL) design here would allow naval aviation to move away from conventional takeoff and landing aircraft in the air wing. The greater weight and larger size of support aircraft may make a STOVL capability technologically infeasible, but a STOL aircraft could be possible—and could reduce the reliance on arresting gear and catapults and the attendant size constraints. This could result in the use of a ski jump or similar take-off improving system. Even a decision to ensure that STOVL/STOL were included as design options would allow the Navy to plan for the eventual evolution of the CVX to a nonconventional aircraft design.

The second aspect of the common support aircraft that must be considered is what functions it will perform. The same is true for embarked helicopters. The design of any follow-on helicopter—a Super SH-60R or its successor—is not likely to have as large an impact on the CVX design as the support aircraft, but whether they would be deployed on board the carrier, in what numbers, and for what purposes will affect how the CVX relates to the other platforms within the battle group.

The Penultimate Piece: The Battle Group

In littoral warfare, the carrier—CVN or CVX—is a power-projection asset. There are other power-projection assets in the fleet—notably Tomahawk—with others possibly to follow, but strike warfare should remain the primary role of carrier aviation. For each of the other, non-strike warfare functions, what is the feasibility of supporting that function from the CVX? For example, does air dominance, in which defensive counter air and control of air battle space are grouped, require missions flown from the CVX? Can other battle group assets conduct this warfare area without those sorties? What if a visual identification is required? What if the carrier assets that could conduct this mission are multirole aircraft that also serve the strike warfare function?

There are more questions at the next level: As the common support aircraft develops, what support functions must be supported by aircraft assets from the CVX? Which could be assumed by other battle group assets, including unmanned aerial vehicles (which may or may not be CVX-based)? What other programs—the 21st century surface combatant, arsenal ship, cooperative engagement capability, and New Attack Submarine, for example—are on the horizon whose design can be influenced to incorporate different roles within a battle group? How are those programs being managed in the larger context, to ensure that overall battle group effectiveness is being optimized? Considering their potential impact on the design of the CVX, these programs must be managed in a coherent way.

The Final Piece: The Joint Arena

Some functions could be assumed by non-battle group, non-naval assets, especially surveillance functions that may be covered only marginally by carrier air wing assets today. With the promise of data flow of unprecedented proportions to—and an impressive flow returning from—the battle group, how will command, control, communications, and intelligence systems be managed to take advantage of such information?

Assembling the Puzzle

The CVX may be the most important procurement for the Navy in the next century; it will shape 21stcentury naval warfare. With 16 years to commissioning, this new carrier design is some distance from realization, but to be revolutionary, we must consider new ways of doing business now. Those new ways could include aircraft that don't depend on catapults and arresting gear or a carrier that performs fewer missions exceedingly well and then relies on other battle group assets to perform those other functions exceedingly well. From a requirements, operational performance, and programmatic approach, the CVX must be viewed in a common context with these other aircraft, ship, and joint programs.

History has offered the Navy few opportunities to make such a leap. Only by viewing the puzzle in its complete context can it become a possibility.

Commander Bouchoux is the manager of operations at Whitney, Bradley & Brown, a defense consultant group based in Northern Virginia. A retired naval officer, he served as commanding officer of Fighter Squadron One and taught operations research at the Naval Postgraduate School.


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