Let the Fleet Design the Carrier

By Captain Pierre G. Vining, U.S. Navy
  • The ship should be large enough so that it can conduct flight operations through a range of environmental extremes. In general, a larger ship is more stable over a wider spectrum of wind and sea conditions.
  • The flight deck must be large enough to support expected sortie rate requirements. This indirectly touches on air wing size; however, there are other factors. How large are the aircraft? How are they to be maneuvered on the deck to stage the strike/flight cycle? How much deck space is required to provide flexibility for rapidly servicing, launching, and recovering those aircraft?
  • How much hangar space is required for maintenance and repair of aircraft during high-tempo operations?
  • How much magazine space is required to support the ship's mission?
  • How much fuel storage capacity is required to support the ship's mission?
  • What level of logistics support (repair facilities, stores, parts capacity, etc.) is required to support the ship's mission?

As can be seen from the incomplete list above, larger ship size brings many advantages that directly support key requirements for the theater commander—firepower operational flexibility, and combat sustainability.

The firepower that CVX brings to the force commander depends not only on the size of the air wing, but on the ship's ability to employ the air wing's assets through a wide range of weather conditions. In the areas in which CVX would be expected to operate, a 90,000-ton CV would enjoy a 50% gain in the flight operations window in severe weather compared to a 60,000-ton design. 1

A key element supporting combat sustainability is the storage capacity in the ship for aviation fuel and ordnance. Clearly, a larger ship has a greater internal volume, so the fuel tankage and magazine capacity can be expanded. The ship can remain on station longer without having to rearm or refuel, making the CVX more available to execute requirements. With an appropriately sized air wing, the ship can produce a more sustained, violent first strike to get a wedge in the door to the theater, enabling the heavy strike forces (ground combat elements and heavy air components) to gain a foothold.

The second problem with a smaller CVX is that it would not have the flexibility of a large-deck design. A larger ship, with more internal volume, would be far easier to reconfigure to suit a particular mission. For example, during the operations off the coast of Haiti, the Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) loaded elements of an Army mountain division on board and supported them through the operation. Embarking the Army's personnel, materiel, and equipment on board put a high premium on shipboard space. A smaller carrier would have forced the Army and the joint force commander to make some unpalatable choices about what would be left behind.

The third flaw in the argument for a smaller CVX centers around the industrial effort required to produce a large warship. At present, it requires about seven years from the time the first pieces of the ship are laid down in the building dock until the ship is ready to enter service. This does not include the time spent in design and procurement before construction, or the time required to form and train the crew to take that ship into combat after commissioning. The average time to construct and deliver a new aircraft is considerably shorter, and aircraft are—relative to the ship—much more appropriate candidates for assembly-line construction techniques. It is much easier to produce aircraft to augment an air wing for a given mission than it is to build an additional CVX in response to an urgent need.

Finally, the smaller air wing is predicated on estimates of the expected threat in the next century. That threat has not diminished; it has merely changed character. If anything, the threat has become even more of a challenge. In the Cold War years, we had one serious potential adversary. Intelligence assets were focused on its systems, on its force strengths and—most important—on its tactics and command and control.

The luxury enjoyed by the intelligence community of a primary focus for their efforts evaporated when the Soviet threat dissolved. Today, the challenge is far more diverse. Technologically sophisticated weapons can be obtained easily in the world market, and philosophies and ideologies—political and otherwise—have proliferated with breathtaking speed. In the past, we could concentrate on Eastern Europe and some areas of Asia. Today we must scan continually a larger field; the Persian Gulf, Korea, the Balkans, and Africa are added to the old areas of concern. The Chinese continue to expand their naval capabilities. Terrorist acts are gaining greater significance, as well. Given this new multipolar threat environment, how does an intelligence community—especially one that has been reduced from its Cold War strength—support the theater commander adequately? How can it be sure that its estimates are accurate? If its fundamental assumptions regarding a potential threat are no longer valid—because they are based on less complete knowledge—is that enough to constrain the capability of a system that is expected to remain in service through the latter half of the next century?

Fundamentally, then, the question becomes: Can the nation afford to field a smaller, less-capable ship? Certainly, for much of what we expect CVX to do in periods of relative quiet and in operations short of war, a smaller air wing may be adequate to serve the national interest. But what if the threat increases? If the mission calls for an increase of 12 to 15 aircraft, the air wing can be augmented with comparative ease—but only if the platform that will transport the air wing to the region of concern is properly sized. If the platform cannot support the additional aircraft, the only alternative is to send a second CVX to the fight. The unit by which the force could then be incremented is larger—50 or 60 aircraft—and the costs of that augment are commensurately higher, in terms of the excess capacity in theater (which may not be affordable from either a political or a resource standpoint), the infrastructure that excess capacity brings with it, and the decrement in capability in some other region that results from shifting the capital asset from it. Clearly it is decidedly easier (and faster) to send additional aircraft to a theater than trying to reposition an additional CVX to have an adequate force in the early days of a crisis.

Why Nuclear Power?

The volume of criticism against nuclear propulsion as an option for CVX has not been countered with a full statement of the benefits to be derived from nuclear power. The ship would have virtually unlimited propulsion endurance. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers can travel farther and at higher sustained speeds and arrive with more available on-station time than their fossil-fueled counterparts. Here are several examples:

1980 —In response to the Iranian hostage crisis, the Nimitz (CVN-68) was directed to proceed from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Arabia as a show of force. The Suez Canal route was unavailable, and the Nimitz made the transit at maximum speed around the southern tip of Africa. Since no refueling for propulsion was required en route, the ship's overall transit speed was not reduced by the time spent in underway replenishment (typically done at about 13 knots). She arrived fully ready to conduct high-tempo air operations. A fossil-fueled carrier could not have made the transit in the same time. Nuclear power gave the force commander the flexibility to respond rapidly independent of navigational "shortcuts" such as the Suez and Panama Canals. This is important because it is easy to close such shortcuts, either through the use of mines or simply by sinking one or more ships in them. Contingency plans that hinge on such easily interdicted paths are doomed to failure, as are those who would depend on those plans.

1983 —The Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) conducted an emergency sortie from Naples, Italy, after the truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. The ship steamed at full speed, arriving on station in less than two days. On arrival, the ship had a full load of aviation fuel and did not require an immediate underway refueling to support either ship or air operations. That would not have been the case if the ship had been required to expend on-board fuel for its boilers.

1994 —The George Washington (CVN-73) sprinted from the Adriatic Sea to the Arabian Gulf, 4,400 miles in seven days. The battle group commander left all but two escorts—all fossil fueled—behind. The George Washington refueled the escorts and conducted flight operations en route, and arrived in theater with more than five days of combat endurance remaining before replenishment was required.

1997 —The Nimitz conducted four days of nonstop flight operations (200 sorties/day) without refueling. Nuclear power provided the propulsion endurance, with no propulsion expenditure of ship's fuel stores, to sustain this high tempo of flight operations within a constricted operating area. The area size and orientation and minimal natural winds required repeated high-speed sprints to remain on station while maintaining the necessary wind over deck for launch and recovery.

These examples highlight the flexibility and sustainability a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier can bring to the combatant commander, and each of them implies another equally important strength: early establishment of the tactical picture. As events of the past four or five years have demonstrated, the relatively small number of these capital assets places a high premium on their responsiveness and their relative freedom from the need for logistic support.

Overdependence on a logistics tail has been the ruin of military operations throughout history, and long lines of support consistently have shown their vulnerability to attack. The lessons are legion, including these:

  • After having his supply lines placed in jeopardy repeatedly as he advanced on Atlanta by small, mobile forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest, General William Tecumseh Sherman rid himself of that anchor—carrying only combat materiel with his army and living off the land during his march to the sea. With this vulnerability and impediment to movement gone, Sherman's army cut the Confederacy in half.
  • A brief glance at sinking statistics for the submarine forces used in World War II reveals that the preferred targets were cargo ships, tankers, and troopships. The submariners on all sides of the conflict understood clearly that strangling the flow of ordnance, fuel, weapons, and fighters to the front line ultimately would be the ruin of the adversary's combat power. Of the 1,387 ships sunk by Allied submarines in the Pacific Theater in World War II, 1,151 were merchant hulls. 2 The German U-boats exacted a terrible toll on the life line between North America and Great Britain. They managed to sink 2,775 merchant ships during the war, 3 and in one four-month period, 420 ships—more than 2,000,000 tons in all—were sent to the bottom, many of them near the U.S. Eastern seaboard or in the Gulf of Mexico. 4
  • The Allied march across Europe after the D-Day landings at Normandy was not arrested so much by the determined resistance of the German forces as it was by the inability to bring fuel and ammunition forward rapidly. The rail system was severely damaged, and the roads that were not destroyed were seriously overburdened by the transport needed to keep the Allied armies resupplied. 5

Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers reduce vulnerabilities to logistic constraints in five key ways:

  • There is no requirement to refuel for propulsion. Underway replenishments are only required for food, aviation fuels, ordnance, and general supplies.
  • Because the volume required for the propulsion spaces is smaller, and because all of the fuel inner-bottom tanks can be dedicated to store aviation fuel, a nuclear ship of the same displacement can carry significantly more aviation fuel. For example, a Nimitz -class CVN carries twice as much fuel as our largest fossil-fueled carrier. Similarly, the saved internal volume above the inner-bottom tanks can be dedicated to storing additional ordnance.
  • Because CVX spends less time with impaired maneuverability during replenishment, the ship can spend more of its time on station, actively conducting flight operations to support the force commander's operational tasking.
  • One of the most vulnerable periods for a ship is during the conduct of alongside replenishment. The ship's ability to maneuver to obtain proper wind-over-deck conditions for flight operations, to unmask batteries to counter a threat, or to totally avoid a threat is severely constrained. Less time alongside means a smaller window of vulnerability to attack, both for CVX and for the logistics support ships.
  • If replenishment is required and the ship's operating area is deemed to be high risk, the nuclear ship can sprint to a rendezvous position outside the threat envelope, refuel, reprovision, and rearm in relative safety (both for CVX and for the logistics support ships), and quickly return to the theater to resume operations.

Many critics have pointed to the higher costs for nuclear propulsion. However, this premium must be placed in proper perspective. During one particularly contentious discussion of a new surface combatant, Admiral Thomas Moorer, then-Chief of Naval Operations, offered an observation on the cost-use technique being employed to make an acquisition decision. He stated that if a golfer contemplating the purchase of a new set of clubs was to keep track of the number of times each club would be used during a round of golf, he would find that the majority of his strokes would be with the putter. The analysis technique under discussion would then lead the golfer to buy a bag full of putters, even though a putter could not serve effectively as a driver or a sand wedge. Clearly, cost must be a consideration in determining the character of CVX, but operational capability and flexibility must weigh heavily. After all, the purpose of the acquisition process is to provide the war fighter the tools necessary to do the job. If the tools are inadequate, the job will not get done, and we fail in our obligation to those who have volunteered to put themselves at risk to carry out the national interests.

We must ask the war fighters—the men and women who have recent experience in going to sea and grappling with the challenges of using those tools to implement the national will—what they need. Fortunately, that is being done, through the series of Fleet Process Teams that have been convened to consider the critical features of the Navy's next-generation aircraft carrier. Their message is clear: They need a large ship that can operate in environmental extremes; that can carry enough aircraft, fuel, and ordnance to deliver an effective first punch and set the stage for follow-on forces to move safely and decisively into the theater; that can reposition rapidly in response to a developing crisis; and that can arrive fully ready to conduct high-tempo operations without having first to replenish while under way. The warfighters need a ship that is at least as capable as the present Nimitz -class CVN to meet the threats of today and, the threats postulated to exist in the next century, and—most important—to provide enough margin and flexibility to surge to the threat that may exist in the next century. They have articulated their need for a large-deck, nuclear-powered CVX. We should listen to what they are saying.

Nathan Bedford Forrest once remarked that the key to winning a fight was to get there first, with the most men. Many compelling witnesses throughout the history of naval as well as land warfare confirm his insights. A highly mobile force that lacks punch can pose a challenge to an opposing commander, but the challenge seldom will be a decisive one. On the other hand, a large force incapable of reaching the objective in time also is valueless. A large-deck, nuclear-powered CVX will accomplish both, and the clearly demonstrable operational benefits to be derived from such a ship far outweigh the relatively small premium incurred. Anything less puts our forces at unnecessary risk.

1CVX Flexibility, Naval Research Advisory Committee Report 97-1, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development. and Acquisition), pp. 30-31.

2 Theodore Roscoe, United States Submarine Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD; Naval Institute Press, 1949), pp. 524-563.

3 E. B. Potter and C. W. Nimitz, Sea Power (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961), p. 563.

4 Samuel Eliot Morison, History of U.S. Naval Operations in the Second World War (New York: Little, Brown, 1947), vol. 1; p. 410.

5 Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (New York: Da Capo Press, 1977), p. 290.

Captain Vining is a 1973 graduate of the Naval Academy, and has commanded a Knox -class frigate and has served extensively in Nimitz -class carriers, most recently as reactor officer in the Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69). In his current assignment as Assistant Chief of Staff for Surface Warfare Programs at Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force, he oversees operational testing on new surface platforms and weapon systems for new and existing surface ships.


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