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Lone Carrier … Fact or Fancy?

Some iconoclastic ideas of carrier operation may allow full realization of the potential of the nuclear-powered Enterprise and her combat air group never before available to any navy. It is feasible to operate the carrier independently as a single ship? And how effective would this utilization be? The mere statement of such a suggestion may, of course, cause some professional navy readers to stop reading at this point. New concepts must necessarily involve some shattering of old ones.

A hundred arguments immediately marshal themselves in the mind of the informed as to the obstacles to effective, sustained combat operation of an attack carrier divested of her escorts. The sea teems with threats, submarines lurk to fire their torpedoes, the air fills with jet bombers closing radially on their lone target like the spokes of a wheel converging on the hub. A half dozen or more historical examples of the fate of ships trapped without escorts or train present themselves. Single-ship operations, at least for a large surface vessel armed with sub-caliber guns or no guns at all, merit little discussion among the knowledgeable. The concept has been tried and discarded. But, doesn't Enterprise demand another look?

The capabilities of the attack carrier have been proved repeatedly in two wars and many international crises. There is no necessity to recount here justification for the potential of this weapons system. Certain aspects of the nuclear-propelled carrier, however, may call for a new appraisal of traditional carrier operating procedures and the generation of some new concepts for carrier employment.

Enterprise will be capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots and of steaming more than 350,000 nautical miles without refueling. Her flight deck and aviation facilities make her capable of carrying and operating the most modern, competent aircraft that technology can build. Her hull size provides bonuses in jet fuel, aircraft ammunition, and aviation spares, enough virtually to double the tempo or the duration of the sustained flight operations she can support. These three factors, cruising range, combat aircraft, and logistic capabilities, combine to make her, properly employed, the most potent, versatile weapon for naval warfare that has ever been available to any government.

When the aircraft carrier, which was developed through two decades of world peace, was first operated under combat conditions, it was obvious that protection was a practical necessity. Those few carriers that suffered serious damage in World War II were opera ted outside the task force or in circumstances where the force could not protect them. U. S. Navy tactics were evolved to defend this powerful offensive vessel. She was the heart of the Navy's ability to carry the offense to the enemy, but paradoxically, was most vulnerable to surface, submarine, and air threats. A circular formation with the carriers at the center became the standard. The carrier were ringed with antisubmarine destroyers, and cruiser and battle hips added their considerable firepower to cope with raiders that might filter through the screen. Every Navy carrier pilot who flew in World War II remembers the motto, "Get the flattops!" and every Navy man who fought off Japanese attacks in the Pacific watched the pilot of the Rising Sun follow suit. The carriers were the prime target of every attack.

Today, it appears feasible to equip the carrier with the defensive assets normally provided by other unit of the carrier striking force. The mo t effective defensive weapon aboard a modern attack carrier i her aircraft. They are, in fact, her main battery. There is no dispute regarding the ability of carrier attack aircraft to eliminate any surface threat to the carrier in fair weather. No surface vessel, from torpedo boat to battleship, can survive the withering firepower than can be brought to bear by waves of 500-knot attack planes long enough to bring a carrier into range. At night, however, or in foul weather which might barely low a raiding cruiser, the carrier has been reduced to using her high peed to evade. She has had to rely on her escort to outgun the raider. Coming into the carrier arsenal soon, a true, all-weather attack aircraft, the Grumman A2F -1 Intruder, [See U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1961, page 178] will change the balance in this respect and seal this remaining gap.

Air operations under almost any weather conditions have been routine for many years, but successful attack under these condition has not. Since World War II, we have been able to deliver bombs in a sometimes effective pattern on large, identifiable radar targets in any weather. True all-weather attack operations and the ability to deliver bombs with precision on relatively small, moving targets, will enter the Fleet with the Intruder. Its sophisticated instrumentation will make possible attacks in all weather conditions, as well as routine launch and recovery operations without regard to visibility, ceiling, precipitation, or darkness. Given this capability, the carrier bears her own shield, day and night, against surface threats of any caliber.

The air threat, more than any other, has been a primary threat to the carrier since Billy Mitchell. Subjected to the heaviest imaginable air attacks, carriers in the Pacific needed ever y gun available to fight off their attackers. Radar was in its infancy, and the most certain warning of air attack was likely to come from an alert lookout. When an early missile with a most complex guidance system - the Kamikaze - was added to the attacker's arsenal, the air threat appeared almost insoluble. Guns and more guns, and escorts to carry them, were the answer, and the force grew larger and its operation more complex.

Today, the weapons of antiair warfare are much improved. Fighter performance and weapons have reached new levels, while the real tests of fighter effectiveness, the detection, tracking, and interception of the attackers, appear about to get new answers. The combination of the McDonnell Phantom II, said by Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) to be the best military aircraft in service today, and the Grumman Hawkeye, now in early test flight status, forecast a totally new concept in air warfare.

These two new aircraft will provide a system capable of establishing air superiority independent of surface radar and communications. The Hawkeye carries a radar able to detect targets more than a hundred miles out, at altitudes from the surface to a hundred thousand feet, and able to maintain an automatic plot of more than two hundred tracks. When enemy targets are picked up and identified, Phantoms can be vectored automatically to intercept them. The air-to-air missiles mounted on the Phantom today, and those under development, insure that the enemy will not survive to deliver his weapon, whether nuclear or conventional bomb, or air-to-surface missile. This air superiority system at last enables us to eliminate the signal from surface radar to fighter, and permit operation of the carrier under conditions of complete electronic silence whenever a threat is imposed. The use of doppler radar and other techniques, in both the Phantom and the Hawkeye, will make them effective in severe electronic countermeasures environments.

As part of the air threat to the carrier, we must consider the ballistic missile, newest weapon of our time. Again paradoxically, the attack carrier, like any other· mobile target, is less vulnerable to this weapon than to others which have been in operation for some time. Merely by virtue of their movement, mobile targets can take advantage of the time that must elapse during pre-firing alignment, establishment of firing orders, and flight of the missile, in order to be elsewhere when the missile impacts. An aircraft carrier, like any other ship, is invulnerable to ballistic missiles so long as she is underway. The nuclearpowered ship, however, able to remain at high sustained speeds for weeks, is even more justified in ignoring the threat imposed by batteries of ballistic missiles. Even missiles with high-yield warheads, directed by exotic reconnaissance systems, impose little threat. Operational concepts for the independent nuclear-powered attack carrier would include intermittent, random course changes in the zig-zag pattern of a wartime convoy, to ensure that the ship's position can never be predicted in advance by an enemy.

Finally, the independently operated carrier must be furnished an adequate antisubmarine capability. Two effective antisubmarine warfare assets are already organic to the carrier as she is. First, the attack carrier can attack submarines at their bases and home ports and can also attack their logistic facilities. Second, the attack carrier can outrun most submarines under most circumstances. Her speed tends to limit the threat posed by those submarines which, by design or by accident, lie in the carrier's track. These two means serve to limit, but not eliminate, the submarine threat to the carrier.

Other assets for direct defense against submarines are a requirement. The lone carrier would need a satisfactory submarine search and detection capability and a competent submarine destruction system. Present plans include the eventual installation of sonar in the attack carrier. An evaluation of its effectiveness in an antisubmarine carrier is now underway. Sonar, a short-range, quick-reacting ASW weapon, and the search and attack capability of a detachment of fixed- or rotary-wing ASW aircraft, could provide the carrier with a submarine defense approximately equal to that now provided by escorts. Central control would increase the effectiveness of this ASW capability. Some reduction in the carrier's complement of high-performance combat aircraft may appear necessary to make room for these ASW planes, but Enterprise's flight and hangar decks have ample space for the addition of these aircraft to the normal combat air group.

Admittedly, none of the problems discussed thus far will yield to solution as readily as they have in this discussion. The surface, air, missile, and submarine threats to any surface ship can never be entirely discounted, no matter what measures are taken. Yet, subject to certain compromises, it appears that the attack carrier can be provided with an adequate capability for her own defense in an individual situation.

Generally the effort involved in the protection of a single ship is less complex than the defense of many. Also, the enemy's problem in detection, identification, and successful attack of a single, high-speed target moving on random courses is a more difficult problem than that involved in the attack of units of a large force.

Whether or not the reader concurs in the feasibility of the operation of attack carriers by themselves, the question of what might be gained in effectiveness by doing so is worthy of consideration. Independent operations of a conventionally-powered, oil-burning attack carrier are probably feasible, but it is unlikely that there would be a profitable return. When the attack carrier is nuclear powered, the gains become measurably increased.

Consider, for example, the question of replenishment. The nuclear-powered carrier, as was mentioned, has tremendous cruising range. Enterprise can go 30 knots, 24 hour per day, for a year, and expend something less than three quarters of her fuel. Not generally understood in the present intention that Enterprise will carry a considerable amount of black oil for use in refueling her escorts. As long as she is opera ted in normal task force dispositions, this requirement will continue to be imposed. Relieved of that necessity, significant additional bunker space could be devoted to the stowage of jet fuel, adding to the carrier's capability to conduct sustained flight operations with her combat aircraft.

Once the ship begins planning for this type of operation, her logistic capacity can be optimized for long periods at sea, in the manner in which Polaris submarines are prepared for their own lonely station deployments. Greater use can be made of dry provisions. Ammunition stowage space can be increased and the crew augmented to handle extended operations. Such a ship would require replenishment of j et fuel and aviation ammunition only at infrequent intervals unless she were engaged in combat operations. During long periods a t sea, she could support her normal flight operations without outside help. Her retaliatory nuclear capability could be called upon at any time. When required, she could steam for thousands of miles to the scene of a crisis and arrive ready for action of whatever scope the situation appeared to dictate. In a long period of limited war action, she would require underway replenishment of jet fuel, aviation ammunition and provisions more frequently, but less often than do carriers under present operational concepts. A specially configured replenishment ship, able to deliver large quantities of jet fuel, provisions, ammunition, and aviation spare parts would be used to supply her. Perhaps if the independent carrier concept were fully implemented, this replenishment ship would be a very large transport submarine, able to reach her replenishment rendezvous undiscovered and unopposed.

Assume for a moment that Enterprise, equipped as we have described, is at sea for independent sustained operations. Her air group includes heavy and light attack aircraft capable of nuclear or conventional weapons deli very under almost any condition of weather or visibility. It also incorporates fighter planes like the F4H Phantom II combined with an airborne early warning aircraft like the W2F Hawkeye, to provide the autonomous air superiority capability required. A detachment of antisubmarine aircraft, both fixed- and rotary-wing, able to conduct all phases of submarine search, detection, and attack, with either conventional or nuclear weapons, is also aboard.

Deep under her forefoot, the ship's sonar is in constant operation. In conjunction with the searches maintained by the S2F -3 Tracker, the ship is made the focus of an area in which no submarine can remain undetected and unattacked.

In normal day-to-day operations, the air group operates in a routine manner, maintaining the competence of its pilots to fly their aircraft in combat. Nuclear weapons and the procedures necessary to load, launch, and deliver them, are never neglected. Conventional weapons and the techniques of applying them are given equal emphasis.

Under such operating conditions, it matters little to the carrier's crew, and to the air group, in what geographical location the ship is operated. A single ship like Enterprise can be in the Western Pacific on Monday and in the Indian Ocean on Friday. She can move from the North Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro in two days. She can maintain this constant mobility almost indefinitely. Employed in this manner, she represents a complete, integral package of military power, able to apply any degree of force from a mere appearance at the scene of a developing crisis, to the tremendous destructive impact of thermonuclear weapons, and able to engage in sustained support of ground troops, amphibious operations, or tactical operation.

The Pentagon approach to military force determination today is an analytical one. The contribution to the country's needs that obtains as each dollar is spent, is the major factor in the determination of where the dollars are spent. Thousands of words have been said and written about the attack carrier striking force and the accurate evaluation of its capability versus its cost. Regardless of the outcome of such evaluations, there is no question that the potency of the attack carrier striking force is based on the carrier, not on the escorts. If, in fact, the carrier can be operated effectively without escort, then the cost effectiveness of the single carrier force must prove greater than that of present-day forces. Detailed cost analysis should be left to fiscal experts, but these evaluations must depend upon operating experience for their validity. If a carrier can be provided with the assets needed to permit her independent operation, the economies attained would be substantial, and would produce a bonus of escort ships freed from their present assignment and available for other Navy tasks. This bonus could make more ships available to the amphibious forces, for example, than the combined building programs of the next decade.

Times, techniques, and naval warships have changed. Enterprise differs from Langley by a high order of magnitude. She must be thoroughly examined to determine if it is feasible to operate carriers independently. It is proposed that Enterprise be operated in this manner and made the subject of exhaustive tests to make this determination. Adherence to tradition is a sterling attribute, but failure to change traditional methods to take advantage of new methods and new weapons can be a fatal error. We must ensure that we avoid such errors when Enterprise becomes part of the Fleet.



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