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The U.S. Navy: Carrier Questions—and Some Answers

By Norman Polmar

With estimated 50-year service lives, these ships ensure that the Navy will have a major carrier force well into the next century.

A new design carrier—now designated CVX—is planned for funding in fiscal year 2006. The Department of Defense has accepted that the ship will be relatively large, i.e., capable of operating more than 55 conventional fighter/attack aircraft, and undoubtedly will have nuclear propulsion. She is planned to replace the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 2013.

Events of both the Cold War and the post-Soviet era have brushed aside most opposition to continued large carrier construction. President Jimmy Carter vetoed the fiscal year 1980 defense budget because it included funding for a CVN (the Theodore Roosevelt [CVN-71]; Congress overrode his veto), but since then, five more nuclear-powered carriers have been funded with hardly a ripple. This is not to imply that there is no opposition; a few years ago the Air Force projected the relative costs of a formation of B-2 stealth bombers striking a target compared to a carrier air wing—with the B-2 being the cheaper and more effective option. And retired Army Lieutenant General William E. Odom recently published a strongly worded argument proposing more effective alternatives to large carriers.

But three factors should have an impact on considerations for the CVN-77 and CVX:

Threats : While displaying a high degree of flexibility and effectiveness during the past 50 years, aircraft carriers also have demonstrated a high degree of immunity to hostile action. This was seen in the Korean, Vietnam, Falklands, and Persian Gulf conflicts. In the post-Cold War environment, however, we can expect more effort from Third World countries and terrorist groups to embarrass the United States by attacking a carrier.

This situation must be considered in context of the proliferation of high-capability sensors and weapons. Guided missiles, shaped-charge projectiles, advanced torpedoes, high performance aircraft, and other weapons are readily available to those with hard currency. The threats that could be arrayed against a U.S. warship range from the simple—e.g., a Piper Cub-type aircraft loaded with napalm attacking a carrier during a port visit, to the sophisticated—e.g., a cruise missile with a conventional or possibly a chemical or biological warhead. Royal Navy Admiral Sir John "Sandy" Woodward has speculated that a nuclear weapon could be employed by a rogue state against a U.S. carrier.

Alternative Systems : Carrier-based aircraft in the Cold War era generally have been equal or superior to their land-based counterparts—indeed, the F-4 Phantom, F-14 Tomcat, A-1 Skyraider, A-4 Skyhawk, A-6 Intruder, and several other aircraft were the top performers of their era—but today, several "systems" can substitute effectively for carrier based aircraft in many scenarios. These include, for example, satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and surveillance, with advanced UAV concepts being considered for future air-to-air fighter, attack, and electronic warfare roles. The Tomahawk land-attack missile already has demonstrated its effectiveness in the strike role, without risking the lives of pilots. With a 1,000-pound payload, the Tomahawk now comes in several variants, with a unity warhead, bomblets, and carbon-fiber spools. Future payloads could provide it with even more flexibility in the strike role, and global positioning system upgrades and other features are providing accuracies within a couple of meters at ranges of several hundred miles.

Carrier Aircraft : Carrier air wings have changed to a configuration that some observers believe provides less capability than in the recent past. With the retirement of the A-6E Intruder at the end of 1996, they now consist of 50 fighter/attack aircraft: 14 F-14 Tomcats, upgraded for an attack role; and 36 F/A-18C Hornets. Two of the ten active air wings currently operate a second 12-plane F-14 squadron in place of a third F/A-18 squadron, until the F/A-18E becomes available beginning about 2001.

The improved F/A-18E will become even more prevalent on carrier decks as it replaces the F-14. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), now in development, is intended to become operational in 2008, but that program is not assured. It is a multiservice aircraft, but the Air Force appears to prefer expanded procurement of the F-22 Raptor and the Marine Corps and Royal Navy will buy it only if it has an effective short-takeoff/vertical-landing profile.

Thus, the future of the JSF is not clear, and at this writing there still is no demonstrated solution to the stability problems being encountered with the F/A-18E. The "E" variant is critical for carrier air wing effectiveness because of the shortfalls of the F/A-18C now in the fleet. The "C" has a high degree of flexibility, but it lacks the range, payload, and all-weather capability of the A-6E.

When the A-6Es were retired the Navy also lost the KA-6D tankers; this has become an issue because of the shorter range of the F/A-18. Each active carrier air wing has an eight-plane S-3B Viking "sea control" squadron, and these antisubmarine aircraft are being employed in the tanker role in place of the KA-6D. In addition, the S-3Bs increasingly are used in surface surveillance tasks. These activities are detracting from their antisubmarine training and efficiency.

Similarly, the active carrier wings' helicopter antisubmarine squadrons, consisting of four SH-60F and two HH-60H Seahawk helicopters, increasingly are involved in other activities—including cargo and personnel transfer, special operations support, and surface surveillance. In fact, the SH-60F variants are to be upgraded to the multipurpose SH-60R configuration, which will provide an antiship missile capability, among other features. Again, the trend appears to be away from antisubmarine warfare

The CH-60 cargo helicopter eventually will be assigned to aircraft carriers. And subsequently, the CH-60 and SH-60R will be replaced by a single new rotary wing aircraft, now known as the Joint Replacement Aircraft (JRA).

Each active wing also has four E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft and four EA-6B Prowler electronic countermeasures aircraft. These platforms have been in the fleet since 1973 and 1971, respectively; both have been extensively upgraded, but they, like the S-3 Viking (1974), are expected to reach the end of their service lives in about a decade. The Navy plans to use a single air frame—now referred to as the Common Support Aircraft (CSA)—to replace the E-2C, EA-6B, and S-3B, as well as the ES-3A Shadow electronic surveillance aircraft and C-2A Greyhound cargo aircraft.

The Navy plans for the Common Support Aircraft to carry different mission suites of sensors and avionics to fulfill different roles. It also will be suitable for the carrier-based tanker and cargo configurations. Based on the "worst case" (i.e., the largest, heaviest) avionics suite, the baseline CSA will be sized around the E-2C Hawkeye system. Advanced technology, including commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment, should enable development of the CSA, although several previous attempts at such a concept—such as the Advanced Tactical Support (ATS) aircraft of the late 1980s—failed to materialize.

There appear to be many questions concerning the future of aircraft carriers: the changing threat, the development of alternative systems, and uncertainties about future carrier air wings. These factors demand that future carrier considerations be subjected to careful and objective analyses.

The current carrier fleet plus those ships now under construction will provide a viable carrier force well into the 21st century. But what comes beyond must be open to question.


Norman Polmar is an analyst, consultant, and author specializing in naval, aviation, and science and technology issues. He has been a consultant or advisor on naval-related issues to three U.S. senators, the Speaker of the House, and the Deputy Counselor to the President, as well as to the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has written or coauthored more than fifty published books and numerous articles on naval, aviation, technology, and intelligence subjects.

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