Carrier Battle Group: Potent Weapon or Paper Tiger?

By Michael Cohen

This statement was part of congressional testimony delivered, not by the Chief of Naval Operations after a recent Mideast crisis, but by Admiral H. G. Rickover to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in 1971 as he described a response to the 1970 Jordanian crisis. The scenario has been replayed numerous times in the quarter century since, and Rickover's observation is neither any less factual nor, in view of the fact that nuclear propulsion is again falling out of favor, any less appropriate today. We have continued to build nuclear submarines and nearly the entire Nimitz (CVN-68) class of carriers, but we are now in the final steps of decommissioning the cruiser escorts that are just as important to the survivability of a task force. In addition, it is far from certain that the CVX will have nuclear propulsion.

In Admiral Rickover's absence, we have been left without strong proponents for nuclear propulsion and the clear tactical advantage it affords. With no current threat to our sea power, we have forgotten that conventionally powered ships—which can operate no more than a few days at high speed, or a week using the best conservation practices—are extremely vulnerable. Indeed, the limited nature of wars over the past several decades has created a dangerous level of overconfidence among those responsible for budgetary decisions affecting the national defense.

In wartime, our supply ships and bases will be priority targets. Once the tankers are disabled and the ports are rendered inaccessible—which can be accomplished with a few well-placed conventional weapons—nonnuclear vessels are rendered virtually impotent. An enemy strategist need not even engage warships if he can effectively eliminate logistic support. Even the most technologically advanced ship, without a reliable power source and without the ability to survive at sea for long periods, is literally a paper tiger.

Keeping perspective on threats to a nation's security becomes more difficult the longer that nation is at peace, and great civilizations have fallen when they underestimated the ability of potential enemies. Indeed, our control of the seas has not been challenged seriously for more than half a century, leading to the ill-advised assumption that it will not be in the foreseeable future.

Despite the lessons of history, we have found ourselves playing catch-up in virtually every war. There are, in fact, many parallels between our current posture and our situation prior to World War II. In the 1930s, there was a reluctance to become involved in another conflict, and both the submarine and surface fleets and the military industrial base languished; there was a mind-set that Japanese and German aggression would remain confined to distant continents and therefore posed no direct threat. Today, in the wake of the fragmentation of the USSR, the same public complacency and gross underestimation of enemy threats exist, diminishing the sense of urgency to maintain our technological advantage. The fact is, however, that the decline of the Soviet Union merely has allowed its threat to disperse among many less-rational nations.

The fact that we cannot focus on one large enemy makes mobility of our forces, a larger number of battle groups, and their ability to operate independently that much more important. Clearly, the power source will determine the degree of mobility and independence of those units.

With the end of the Cold War, and with a larger percentage than ever of our civilian leaders having no military experience, defense expenditures are becoming more difficult to justify. Making matters worse, funding that is approved is more likely to be driven by politics than by tactical necessity. As a result, short-term "bang for the buck" has become the overriding consideration in defense spending. This overemphasis on cost-effectiveness regardless of its impact on tactical advantage, in addition to some self-serving economic analyses, has led to some very ill-advised spending decisions, particularly where our ships are concerned.

Perhaps the most obvious danger sign is the consideration of conventional power for the CVX on the basis of cost. The program manager for this vessel, addressing engineers at Newport News Shipbuilding late in 1996, clearly articulated that nuclear propulsion is far from a foregone conclusion, because we may not be able to afford it.

The GAO recently performed a study for Congress specifically on the cost-effectiveness of conventionally and nuclear-powered carriers. In typical GAO fashion, however, the study is superficial and does not reflect the degree of research and analysis needed to support a strategic decision of this magnitude and historical importance. To begin with, the approach is fundamentally flawed in that it looks back several decades at outdated designs, rather than reflecting any research into the projected costs of a completely redesigned ship. It bases its life-cycle cost models on the John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and Nimitz (CVN-68), both of which were built on hull and propulsion technology that is more than 30 years old.

The CVX, on the other hand, will be a dramatically redesigned ship. The study makes no effort to take into account hull and propulsion technology improvements, as well as simplified, smaller, longer-life reactor plant designs that may narrow the cost difference between nuclear and conventional power significantly. A ship specifically designed to take advantage of the space savings and unlimited endurance of nuclear power, combined with improved energy conversion and propulsion technology, may yield even greater tactical improvements over a platform based on conventional power. Making a comparison between two propulsion systems driving identical hulls simply is no longer a valid approach.

Second, the study's maintenance cost comparisons are based on past schedules and costs, not on any improvements resulting from technology, and they do not consider the inferior material condition of current conventionally powered carriers. It is no secret that maintenance of conventional carriers is less expensive (because less money is budgeted for their maintenance from the outset), but it also is true that such ships historically have been permitted to operate with their plants at marginal levels of readiness.

During my tour as an engineering officer on the Kitty Hawk (CV-63), for example, that ship—then not quite 12 years old—was capable of full-power operation less than 10% of the time, suffered frequent major propulsion system failures, and often went to sea with less than half her propulsion capability. Such performance was typical of other oil-fired carriers. Two decades later, with decreased defense budgets, there is no reason to assume any higher level of reliability.

Further, although the study touts the ability of conventional ships to be surged more rapidly from overhauls to meet a wartime situation, this is hardly a mission enhancing attribute. Conventional ships are, without exception, in much worse material condition than their nuclear counterparts when they enter overhaul, because their interim maintenance and their components in general are of lesser quality. Premature activation means mission-critical maintenance that will not be performed, leaving their material readiness highly questionable. These ships therefore will be far more susceptible to spontaneous breakdowns and, worse, more easily disabled from combat damage because they lack the reliability and redundancy of nuclear-powered vessels.

The most fallacious aspect of this study is the way it compares the tactical capabilities of the two types of carriers by dumbing down operational requirements to those of a limited offshore support role. To be fair and complete, such a study should give equal attention to a scenario where the task group is under attack, noting the shortfalls of a conventional force when compared with the capabilities of an all-nuclear task force.

The study uses a Desert Storm-like operation as its wartime scenario, and makes the naive statement that this is the type of engagement for which we must plan for the foreseeable future. We are considering ships designed for a 50-year service life, and we also must consider the capability many nations currently possess for projecting power with submarines and modern surface combatants. A nuclear carrier may not have needed its superior acceleration capability during Desert Storm for launching aircraft, for example, but the study does not even consider such maneuverability in terms of evasion of torpedoes, missiles, and other surface combatants.

The study assumes that, as in Desert Storm and Vietnam, a task force will have an unimpeded logistics chain on which to depend, ignoring the fact that these supply lines will be among an enemy's first targets. In addition, it does not take into account the reductions in capability that would result from losses that a task force would suffer.

Finally, the study gives no consideration to the ability of an all-nuclear task force to perform operations that a conventional task force cannot, including the capability of a nuclear-powered cruiser to break away from a task force and operate independently in an area where the carrier may not be needed.

The GAO study began with fallacious assumptions and therefore reached fallacious conclusions. To use it as the basis for budgetary decisions would be a serious mistake.

Although we have continued to produce nuclear-powered submarines and Nimitz -class carriers, a critical link in the tactical chain was broken when we reverted to fossil fuel for escort cruisers. Like the GAO study, the economic analysis on which this decision was based was flawed and arguably self-serving.

This analysis, conducted before the decision to inactivate the Long Beach (CGN-9), presumably showed that, for the projected $500 million cost of her refueling and overhaul, approximately 50 selected restricted availabilities and overhauls of gas-turbine-powered ships could be performed. The CGN-9 was an old warship that had outlived her usefulness, but it should concern us that the same logic has led us to decommission more modern and more capable nuclear-powered guided-missile cruisers, even though their overhauls would have been less expensive.

As a shipbuilder since 1977, I have experienced virtually every phase of ship construction and repair, both nuclear and nonnuclear. This experience includes, most recently, oversight of selected restricted availabilities on Spruance (DD-963)-class gas-turbine-powered destroyers. I offer several reasons why the Long Beach study was somewhat misleading: Nonnuclear ship availabilities are less expensive because less money and lower quality standards are allotted to these activities from the outset—i.e., the lower maintenance cost is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Using the Long Beach for comparison was fallacious. Its projected overhaul cost necessarily took into account the worst-case radiological problems that could be encountered, not to mention the highly specialized and difficult-to-obtain materials that would have to be purchased. It is fair to estimate that the more modem cruisers, such as the Virginia (CGN-38) or South Carolina (CGN37), could have been overhauled for at least one-third less and more easily fitted with upgraded weapon systems.

The projected cost estimates for availabilities were quite optimistic. Significant growth work (about 60% beyond that specified in the original contract) was necessary on every one of these ships, much of it to correct the as-built condition of the ships to install certain SHIPALTs (ship alterations) required by the contract. As these estimates and those of overhauling a modern cruiser are adjusted for reality, the number of availabilities performed for the price of a nuclear cruiser overhaul drops dramatically.

Nonnuclear ships are not built to the same standards as those under Naval Sea Systems Command 08 (Naval Reactors) cognizance. While 08 often has been regarded by the nonnuclear Navy as some sort of extremist group, the reliability of components designed under its system is legendary. Since reliability is difficult to quantify, however, it does not show in budgetary estimates.

The cost differential is therefore not as great as Congress may have been led to believe—and the substantial advantages of a nuclear ship in terms of reliability and endurance must be weighed equally with budgetary considerations.

In addition, is important to keep in mind why those cruisers were funded in the first place. Contrary to what seems to be a justification for their decommissioning, it had little to do with the size or shape of the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear conflict. Rather, it was based on a variety of conventional war scenarios. The need for those vessels was based on the simple rationale that escorting carriers with conventional ships seriously limits the capability of the task force.

Some self-proclaimed naval analysts—not to mention the GAO study—suffer the misconception that most of our future missions will simply involve offshore support or limited engagements with enemy fleets. Because the ship is unlikely to spend much time in open-ocean transit, the argument goes, endurance is of less importance. History, however, proves otherwise. In Vietnam, even in an offshore support role, ships could be called on to operate for long periods without a port visit. This was possible because there was no real threat to our replenishment vessels—a situation that simply will not exist in the next war.

Worse, these "experts" forget how rapidly the world can change. Despite their relatively compact geography, both Germany and Japan managed to assemble formidable fleets during the 1930s; and the Soviet Union mounted an unprecedented naval buildup during the Cold War, despite the fact that it had never previously been a global sea power.

With the accelerating proliferation of shipbuilding and weapons technology, it is folly to underestimate the ability of any determined nation to project its power on the seas. The crudest diesel submarines still can be a significant threat to shipping and a deadly threat to our surface combatants, just as they were half a century ago. Russia continues to produce nuclear submarines at the leading edge of technology. To suggest that there will not be a blue-water threat to our security in the foreseeable future—and to ignore it in the formulation of our shipbuilding strategy—is incredibly shortsighted.

After several years of operating with these mixed-propulsion task forces, their limitations have become a matter of record. Escorts must be refueled at least weekly—more often during high-speed operations. In addition, they are not able to break away from the battle group for independent operations, which will be a necessity in many areas of the world. Unfortunately, the vulnerability created by these limitations has been masked by the minor nature of the few conflicts we have experienced and the unimpeded operation of our replenishment vessels. In wartime, we will not be able to call "time out" while we refuel, as we do in combat exercises or in such limited conflicts.

During any large-scale conflict, our most critical installations and replenishment vessels will be among the most heavily targeted, disrupting our supply lines, We also must assume that our best-equipped battle groups will be focused on destroying enemy installations and supply lines as well, and that this action will not go unresisted. It is in this scenario where the vulnerability created by the need for frequent refueling is truly exposed.

Previous studies have assumed that because a conventionally powered vessel, with its huge amount of fuel to feed relatively inefficient engines, can make a transoceanic transit without refueling en route, that validates its capability. Every one of those vessels, however, must refuel upon arrival, either from a prepositioned tanker or from a shore base. In a war, both sources may have been eliminated, rendering the vessel virtually useless. In addition, the need to refuel limits the selection of transit routes that vessel may be able to take. A nuclear-powered vessel or task force, on the other hand, has unlimited options in that regard, and can take a circuitous route to evade enemy forces or even prolong its transit if necessary.

Nuclear propulsion also brings a space advantage: with no need to carry propulsion fuel, a CVN has virtually double the capacity for aviation fuel and other stores. The fact that all of its escort ships will be conventionally powered, however, seriously limits that advantage as well, making the carrier a sitting duck while it refuels its escorts.

Finally, there is the significant infrared signature that the exhaust of a fossil fuel propulsion plant leaves for incoming missiles, and the lack of such a red flag in the cased of nuclear-powered vessels.

Nuclear propulsion is a more expensive option, as is any program that brings tactical advantage, higher reliability, and superior manpower. There is always $50 million for that advanced fighter or $2 billion for a stealth bomber, but when it comes to the ships that are just as strategically important, paying for superior endurance and tactical advantage seems to be a different story. That assessment will bring a price of its own.

If we continue on the present course, the U.S. Navy of the 21st century will be cost-effective. Whether the carrier battle group of that Navy will be a potent weapon or a paper tiger, however, is for us to determine.

Mr. Cohen , a 1971 graduate of U.S. Naval Academy and a licensed professional engineer, is a contract administrator at Newport News Shipbuilding. Nuclear trained, he served on the Sea Devil (SSN-664) and the Kitty Hawk (CV-63); since leaving active duty, he has been a nuclear test engineer for Virginia Electric and Power Company, a reactor plant shift test engineer on the SSN-688 project at Newport News, and a product manager for Babcock & Wilcox.


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Wed, 2016-11-02

You are cordially invited to: The Role of Space in Maritime Operations A discussion with RADM(SEL) Christian "Boris"...

Defense Forum Washington 2016

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Sun, 2016-10-30

Book Launch Party

Wed, 2016-11-02

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership