070703-N-8157C-057On July 20, 1997, as part of JTFEX 97-2, USS Nimitz with Commander, Carrier Group Seven (CCG-7) and Carrier Airwing Nine embarked began a high intensity strike campaign. When they completed flight operations four days later, they had generated 771 strike sorties and had put 1,336 bombs on target.

The Surge, as it has come to be known, was unprecedented. It demonstrated the entire process required to put bombs on target in a littoral warfare scenario; it incorporated all facets of strike warfare – from weapons buildup in the magazines to bombs on target. In the post-Vietnam era, no other carrier and embarked airwing have ever generated as much firepower in ninety-eight hours.

The Center for Naval Analysis monitored JTFEX 97-2 and carefully studied the scenario described above, which comes from the introduction of this CNA paper USS Nimitz and Carrier Air Wing Nine Surge Demonstration dated April 1998. “Surge 97”, as it was called, was preceded by six days of an intense, event-driven scenario in which the entire Nimitz battle group conducted offensive and defensive operations. During these six days USS Nimitz and CVW-9 generated about 700 fixed-wing sorties.

Following that six-day period, operations paused for 16 hours, and USS Nimitz and CVW-9 made several preparations for “The Surge” including personnel augmentation, planning augmentation, and replenishment to insure the carrier was fully prepared for the exercise. The resulting average of 192 sorties was touted by the Navy as the benchmark for carrier operations. At the time, this was very important, because naval aviation had taken a hit following the 1991 Gulf War with critics citing low aircraft carrier sortie rates as a reason to reduce the number of aircraft carriers.

While there were obviously agendas at play for the exercise, the lessons learned from that exercise have clearly been demonstrated in Kosovo, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in which, during these operations naval aviation has certainly redeemed itself of the skepticism that may have lingered from the Gulf War. In fact, it was “Surge 97” that highlighted the remarkable reliability of the F-18 Hornet, a significant metric that highlights the high durability and high sustainability of the aircraft. However, in order for the USS Nimitz to achieve the daily 197 sortie rate sustained for 5 straight days of 24/7 flight operations, almost all sorties were conducted a range less than 200 nautical miles, with a large number conducted under 100nms. As real world operations have since demonstrated, that is not realistic. Regardless, sortie rates under strict conditions remain very useful for comparison purposes.

For “Surge 97” USS Nimitz had 14 F-14As, 36 F/A-18Cs, 4 EA-6Bs, 8 S-3Bs, 2 ES-3As, and 4 E-2Cs, but of those aircraft only 9 F-14As, 32 F/A-18Cs, 4 EA-6Bs, 5 S-3Bs, 0 ES-3As, and 4 E-2Cs were mission capable on the first day. I think it is important to note that in real world operations, in this case an aircraft carrier that had been engaged in six days of intense operations, an aircraft carrier could have 20% of her CVW unavailable for operations. I think it is also noteworthy that the older aircraft, F-14s and S-3s, suffered the higher downtime rates.

Aircraft carrier sortie rates have varied since 1997. In 2001 the Navy claimed that Nimitz class carriers can support 207 sorties per day, and in 2004 the Navy claimed Nimitz class carriers could launch 230 total surge sorties per 24-hour flying day for four days. These sortie rates are limited to 200 nautical miles, require some preparation, and cannot be sustained beyond only a few days. Current doctrine and planning operates 2 CVNs together, each carrier supporting 120 sorties per 12 hour flight day, combining for 240 sorties over 24 hour days for extended periods of time.

Why is this important? Because sortie generation is one of, if not the most important metric for naval aviation capabilities, and seems to be one of the first aspects of carrier aviation ignored by critics of big deck nuclear aircraft carriers. For example, take the idea of a CVL, a 30,000 ton light carrier alternative supporting 20 F-35Bs. Let us be super optimistic, and suggest the F-35B is as reliable as the F/A-18C from a maintenance perspective (maybe a very patient aviator can explain to the peanut gallery why this is a super optimistic suggestion). In Surge 97, the F/A-18C achieved the eye popping sortie rate of 4.5 sorties per day, but N88 planning factors for the F/A-18C is 2.0 sorties per day. For the purposes of this exercise, let us assume the F-35B can support 2.0 sorties per day on a CVL.

If we assume 20% of the aircraft are not mission capable, and we should because that is how Murphy’s Law works on an aircraft carrier, we now have a CVL supporting 16 F-35Bs capable of conducting 32 sorties per day at a 2.0 sortie rate, and doing so without the services of carrier based E-2D or EA-18G. If a Nimitz class can support 120 sorties per day, we would need 4 CVLs to match the number of sorties a single CVN can support, and a CVN comes with E-2Ds and EA-18Gs built in. The Ford class, which is not only less expensive to operate than a Nimitz, but is specifically designed to support higher sortie generation rates, is probably going to average $8.5 billion over its lifetime (I am guessing, but using CBO numbers to guess). That means the Navy would have to build 30,000 ton CVLs at a cost under $2.2 billion each, which would be at a cost less than the 9,800 ton DDG-51 destroyer in the FY2010 budget, in order to be less expensive and equally capable in sortie generation as a Ford class.

I hate to break it to the CVL / Small Carrier crowd, but it is 100% MYTH and FUD when it is claimed that big deck nuclear aircraft carriers are somehow inferior to alternatives, including on the cost metric. They are in fact, superior in every costing, capacity, and capability metric one can find. The only consideration where CVLs have a good argument is in terms of risk, because CVNs put a lot of eggs in one basket. It all comes down to the level of risk that is acceptable vs the level of cost, capacity, and capability desired for your naval force. I’ll take the big deck, at least 10 if possible, with its associated conventional launch capability and with the E-2D and EA-18G, I’ll whip any 4 VSTOL CVLs every single day of the century.

Additional reading for those interested in sortie rates, see Langford, CVW Strike Sortie/Aimpoint Improvement, and Dave Ahearn, “Clark Says Each Carrier Can Take Out More Targets,” Defense Today, March 31, 2005, and Range, Persistence, Stealth, and Networking: The Case for a Carrier-Based Unmanned Combat Air System, Thomas P. Ehrhard, PhD and Robert O. Work, CSBA, April 2008

Posted by galrahn in Aviation, Navy

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  • Anathema

    If only Navy could break out of the binary solution game. Either CVN or CVL…why not both? Oh, yes, budget…because as customers we make uneducated decisions and let the manufacturer(aka, the guy we are paying) charge us whatever he thinks is right and fair regardless of the overall quality of the product.

  • If this article had been written before the age of precision guided munitions, displayed before the world first during the 1991 Gulf War, it would be 100% TRUTH. Now deploying 70 warplanes able to perform 200 sorties a day, with each sortie likely a direct bomb hit, is so much overkill. Why have such amazing firepower if you can’t spread it around?

    Then there are UAVs which in our recent land wars are used in individual sorties thanks to precision guided missiles and now even small diameter bombs. Such craft are currently conducting a strategic bombing campaign over Pakistan that formerly would have required whole squadrons, tanker support, AWACS, and electronic warfare planes. Such tactics increasingly have the USAF worried they might soon be out of business.

    If individual aircraft are now so much effective, with one or two bombers able to replace entire airwings, why do we still need giant mobile airwings, increasingly vulnerable and so costly to deploy and defend, it has ensured us a steady shrinking fleet for decades? Likewise have the British gutted their essential escort fleet of general purpose destroyers and frigates, so essential to retaking the Falklands in 1982, to afford giant new flattops which initially will be without their aircraft, without which a carrier is but a hallow shell. When did giant platforms become more important than the weapons they carry, their only reason for existence?

    India has been desperately seeking replacements for their ancient ex-British carriers for decades. Russia’s single supercarrier, the only one of its type anywhere even resembling the USN’s 11 Big Decks, rarely leaves port. We have yet to see China’s mythical naval air force. Every other country possessing or planning new aircraft carriers are of the light variety which this article scorns as ineffective, proving instead that any air-capable warships is an asset to a seapower.

    Sparse budgets are doing what common sense has failed to do. It seems the next QDR will propose reducing the giant decks down to 9, bringing some relief to our stretched thin operating forces, helping to allieve its admitted presence deficit. This is most welcome, though hardly enough. Seeing we already have the 11 Marine Harrier Carriers, over 100 missile armed Tomahawks firing ships and submarines, and precision weapons available on all naval aircraft, further cuts are possible and long overdue IMHO!

    This author once taught me that “you can’t maintain sea control with battleships alone”. Is this essential truth no longer accurate?

  • Byron

    It was never the truth because all the BBs got decom’d years ago. Quit hanging titles on ships that don’t fit.

  • Mr23

    Interesting Discussion. I would say that it comes down to cost vs capability & cost vs survivability. To me it is obvious that a US CVN is greatly more capable and would could hold out longer in a major conflict than the CVL but I agree that the CVN is wasted(“overkill”)in the wars that the US finds itself fighting today. I suppose it all comes down to what wars the pentagon feel they will be fighting in 30 years.

  • CVL’s/small decks do have a use and a place as a force multiplier and risk mitigator.

    I don’t think it is ever a binary question though.

    They do, however, have itty-bitty decks.

  • Total

    “It was never the truth because all the BBs got decom’d years ago. Quit hanging titles on ships that don’t fit”

    Quit assuming that the labels applied to ships is immutable and never evolves.

  • Byron

    Okay…then please give your definition of “battleship”.

  • Chuck

    “They are in fact, superior in every costing, capacity, and capability metric one can find.”

    I absolutely agree. Except in numbers. There are only going to be 10 supercarriers, perhaps even fewer, and they will be stretched even more thinly than they are now.

    I don’t think it should be an either/or question. I think that the F-35B, should it fulfill everyone’s hopes, could be a major step forward for small carriers like the Americas. These carriers could then be a real, viable supplement to the supercarriers. They could deploy for a lot of scenarios short of major war and perform some – I’m saying some – of the same missions a supercarrier does without having to deploy an entire CSG.

    As for AEW & C? Feh. That’s a problem.

  • Mike,

    Your argument noting UAVs over Pakistan skips the reality these UAVs cannot operate from CVLs, because those UAVs will be CATOBAR when supported by aviation ships. Those long range, persistent UAVs are NOT VSTOL. One of the planning factors in the CVF is to include the option to upgrade to CATOBAR, not so the MoD can buy F-35Cs or some other conventionally launched aircraft, rather so the Royal Navy has the option to field long range persistent UCAS platforms on their carriers at some point in the future.

    Individual aircraft capabilities scale for either big deck or small deck aviation platforms. You are talking about aimpoints. The problem is VSTOL aircraft have less range than CATOBAR aircraft, so in order for a VSTOL CVL to exploit the increased number of precision aimpoints on aircraft, you have to also factor in the increased refueling requirement. It should also be noted that as naval aviation moves into the realm of stealth, the number of aimpoints to meet a stealth requirement is reduced significantly. That matters, because it means a lot more aircraft will be required to produce numerous aimpoints during conbat operations when leveraging the stealth investment in naval aviation.

    You exaggerate when suggesting that I am claiming CVLs are ineffective options, indeed they have several merits in support of the platform. CVLs are, however, an inferior option compared to big deck CVNs, which is what the US Navy is currently fielding. Small deck carriers make sense for smaller Navies that cannot afford big deck carriers, or perhaps lack the industry to produce in the first place. For the United States, insuring greater quantity and quality of Navy aircraft is an option offered by big deck carriers, and I believe the risk of fewer aviation ships for more capability from the aircraft is worth it.

    Finally, when it comes to the discussion of risk, I think it should be noted that while the big deck assumes greater risk of attrition at the ship level, the small deck assumes greater risk of attrition at the aircraft level, and aircraft conducting combat operations in the contested enemy battlespace are much more vulnerable than aviation ships far out to sea. A small deck only capable of fielding 20 strike aircraft can be rendered mission incapable by losing just 10 aircraft, which translates into a 50% loss of aviation capability. The loss of 10 strike aircraft on a big deck carrier is only a ~20% loss of total strike capability, and even after such losses a big deck carrier would still be able to field 200% more strike aircraft than a fully functional CVL.

  • Byron

    Not to mention the CVNs ability to support force multipliers: AEW and ECM, not to mention tanking.

  • Mike M.

    AEW is not a luxury item. It’s a necessity. Unless you are willing to go with an LTA solution (resurrect something like the YEZ-2, a BIG blimp with a first-rate AEW radar), you are stuck with a large-deck carrier.

    Which is more economical to begin with. Ship steel is cheap, electronics are not.

  • Derrick

    Personally, I still think the US Navy has more use for big deck CVNs then small deck ones, if simply on the premise that the US Navy’s primary purpose should be global presense, as opposed to actual fighting. Having a carrier strike force with enough firepower to decimate any resonably sized naval force is a huge deterrent to other countries that may have military ambitions beyond just self-defense.

    That being said, for the operations of the 21st century and beyond, they will probably be of a small scale, and in those situations a small deck carrier would be very useful.

    So perhaps the ideal solution would be to spend a little money on small deck carriers that could be sent to small scale conflicts as they arise.

  • Byron

    I’d rather break a peanut with a big hammer, than with a pencil. The pencil might get the job done, but it won’t like the experience.

  • AT1 Berlemann


    Take a look at the lesson’s learned from the Falklands conflict. There you had a pair of CVL’s attempting to defend a beachhead from land based air. They had to depend on picket ships to provide early warning to the fleet and even that was spotty at most. Even with then some of the most advance electronics and air defense weapons, the battle of the Royal Navy off the coast of the Falklands Islands took on an air very similar to the Allied Fleet of the Falklands. Depending on radar picket ships that were being attacked almost constantly, the invasion fleet under almost constant air attack, the need to have aircraft provide air cover of the fleet and beachhead at the same time. The only thing that wasn’t happening was UK had the fleet or even the aircraft to spare to attack the airbases where the Argentine air force was coming from, in an attempt to supress the threat. The RN forget those lessons from world war two and defending a beach head; let alone defending a fleet.

  • Total

    “Okay…then please give your definition of “battleship””

    “The most dominant capital ship” seems to be the meaning Mike is using. It’s a reasonable one, and certainly better than labeling an Arleigh Burke class ship a “destroyer” and putting it in the same category as WWII escorts.

  • leesea

    It all wraps around the binary question. We MUST NOT talk in terms of either CVNs or CVLs. The USN needs a mixed capability fleet. Sure CVNs are the platform of choice for massive power projection operations. BUT How often do we expect to perform another Gulf War?

    The staggering cost of CVN force structure (to include ship, aircraft, crews), protection and support ships, and their astronomical M&R costs MUST be taken into account.

    CVLs can be used more places to perform more (lowly!) missions more effectively and in a less costly manner. I am not talking major power projection. MSO, recce, IRGW support are all possiblities. Yes there will be UAVs operating from CVLs. How you going to count them in this sortie rate metric? Key to this discussion is the success of the F-35B AND the deployment of tactical UAVs. Neither is given both are in test phase.

    A balance of CVN and CVLs (not based on America class amphib design) is a supportable course of action. The lesson to be learned from the Falklands is build the right mix NOW don’t try to throw one together when another big crisis develops. I am in favor of going back to what Adm Zumwalt espoused in his HI-LO mix.

  • jqd

    The key sentence comes at the end of the post, and leaves open to debate and analysis all that comes before it:

    “…the level of risk that is acceptable vs the level of cost, capacity, and capability desired for your naval force.” This sentence is preceded by and followed by many statements and claims that only assert that a big deck CVN is to be preferred over a CVL. Galrahn implies that risk is an equivalent consideration to cost, capacity, capability and other metrics. I think this is incorrect. Risk is one (and only one) of the overarching metrics to which cost, capacity, capability and other “standard” metrics contribute. Risk cannot be ‘measured’ outside of operational contexts. Cost, capacity, capability and other metrics can be (mostly) taken absent any context–they are concrete terms that can be objectively measured (capability is a little tough, I think). This cannot be easily done with risk.

    A more interesting exercise would be to play CVNs and CVLs across a range of scenarios, so that a more reasoned and debatable understanding of risk/reward trade-offs can be gained. Why aren’t we doing this?

    Here’s another thought, leveraging a comment posted by someone else here: what is the opportunity cost of having only one CVN available vs. 4 CVLs? In what scenarios would it be “nice to have” some extra carriers available and what are the consequences of NOT having them? This is the obverse of a risk question, but the point is the same: an emphasis on tactical operations combines with push for economic efficiency to lead us to buy big ships (this is not a phenomenon that is unique to Navies). But viewing the problem through the lens of our current and emerging strategic and operational challenges leads to a different “efficiency” calculation. This may lead us to a different view of what is ‘best’ and what is ‘risky’ in terms of platform acquisition.

  • jqd,

    I think your point is on target. I agree risk is a factor that can be weighed from each side, and in that discussion I would argue for many reasons the risks are higher with CVLs than CVNs, and will gladly debate that if folks prefer.

    I would also suggest another angle to the discussion. What are the most important aircraft the navy needs to field today? I would argue that strike fighters are at least the 7th important naval aircaft today, behind H-60 Romeos and Sierras, BAMS, P-8A MMA, EA-18Gs, and E-2Ds.

    Throw in a UCAS discussion and the need to increase range for strike, the absence of fixed wing carrier ASW, and a heavy reliance on USAF tanking and the whole JSF vs F18 debate is, in my opinion, small stuff. The thing is though, the incredible additions provided by EA-18Gs, more helicopters, and most importantly the E-2D argues even further for the big deck in my opinion, because it is those assets that set US Naval aviation apart from the rest of the world, including most of the worlds Air Forces.

  • Goal Keeper

    Our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan involve zero air to air threats, very limited manpad threats and zero integrated air defense networks. Why do so many assume operating UAV’s in future conflicts will give us anywhere near the capability and flexability that we enjoy today?
    The prospect of UCAV off Navy carrier decks is exciting and necessary but how dependant on data links and satellite comms will UAV’s be by time that next conflict smacks us in the head?
    Supercarriers give the US a tramendous advantage. One that any other maritime power would love to have if they could afford it.
    I understand the presence defecit but i would not sacrifice the 10 CVN force to improve that situation.
    Just do what they did with the Kittyhawk after 9/11, load carriers up with an irregular air wing when needed.
    As far as light carriers, do the same with the Americas and Wasps, load them up with F-35B’s when you need a stronger punched force multiplier.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    So what is the speed of LHA-6? If such is going to be playing the role of light carrier, “20+ knots” doesn’t seem to answer the mail. The Saipan class of CVL was built on the cruiser hull, of course, with speed equal to that of Essex and her sisters (32 kts).

  • We have the experience of two wars to examine when considering the question of a mixed force of carriers. During World War II and the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy relied on big deck and small deck carriers. From these experiences it is reasonable to conclude that a mixed force could have value today.

    During the first year of the Pacific War, it became clear that the carrier was weapon of choice. The problem was that the new Essex-class ships were taking too long to reach the fleet. One solution was to convert light cruiser hulls into the light carriers of the Independence class. Though these ships did not make it out to the Pacific any quicker than the first ships of the Essex class, they increased the available number of aircraft by 40 planes each. The big decks were clearly superior to the small decks, but the CVLs added to the striking power of the fast carrier task force.

    In the 1950s and 1960s, the Navy faced a similar problem. The new supercarriers of the Forrestal class were clearly superior to the Essex class, even those that were modified with angled decks, but each supercarrier would take a long time to build. It would be many years before the Navy had enough of the bigger deck carriers. And then America decided to fight a war in Vietnam.

    The Navy simply didn’t have enough supercarriers to fight the Vietnam War as well as face off with the Soviets elsewhere around the world. There also weren’t enough Essex-class carriers dedicated to the strike role. One anti-submarine carrier, the Intrepid, was quickly converted back into an attack carrier and sent to Dixie Station without any fighters aboard. Then, after a few turns down south, the Intrepid was sent up north to Yankee Station, still without any fighters!

    Today the Navy faces a similar problem. The number of supercarriers in the fleet has decreased since the end of the Cold War and may decrease again due to defense budget pressures. The difference now is that there aren’t any Essex-class carriers to press into service, nor are their any light cruiser hulls to put flight decks on. The question is whether a small deck carrier class can be designed and built from scratch (the LHA/LHDs would reguire extensive design modification, I believe) at a low enough cost in order to be a viable tool to augment the big deck carrier fleet. If so, it might be something worth considering. If not, my vote is for keeping the supercarriers.

  • Maybe I am missing something, but if it is about a mix of platforms, then what exactly does a small CVL add that a LHA/LHD doesn’t do better already?

    When saying a CVL is good enough, what you are saying is we don’t need strike AND intercept, rather just one of those roles are necessary by which the ship is ‘needed.’ OK, then what role would that be where we wouldn’t PREFER a LHA/LHD, or is it that those are too expensive as well?

  • Wharf Rat

    I talked with the designer of LHA 6 in Pascagula in July. He stated that initially LHA (R) potentially had it’s length out to 921′ from Wasp class LHD at 840. This in theory would have made this a more capable warship. He stated that they couldn’t justify the cost with capability – if memory serves. There just wasn’t enough gain to justify the additional length and cost.

    PCU America, even w/out a well deck, will closely resemble Makin Island.

    Bottom line for me is what is the argument here? If we are are arguing for CVL’s, I would argue we already have them. If we are arguing capabilities, there’s no question that CVN’s will do more than our LHA’s/LHD’s.

    There is an outstanding photo from an LHA going through the Straight of Gibralter with two LHD’s following behind on the way to Irag in 2002. I would argue that anywhere these three ‘harrier carriers’ showed up, (or a similar task group) would provide firepower not easily dismissed. This was one mean task group (I think they called it Amphibious Ready Group East and two LHD’s and support were called ARG West from west coast).

  • So for the first couple of days, the big carriers are great.

    But after that–when the fuel runs out–they’re only as good as their weak logistical support network.

    Almost twenty years of wartime-ish operations near the cozy confines of the Gulf has distorted our understanding of of the logistical requirements for sustained high-tempo operations. We’re maintaining our big CVNs with the confidence we’ll continue to have the option of attacking first and hardest. Give other countries a few years, and the Pacific will be an entirely different–and far more uncertain–place to operate.

    So while itty-bitty carriers have their drawbacks, they’d–at least–force us to build a stronger, more resilient logistics network.

  • Herbal

    Defense Springboard Said: So for the first couple of days, the big carriers are great. But after that–when the fuel runs out–they’re only as good as their weak logistical support network.

    So, after how many days is it before the fuel runs out, with a CVN launching 120 sorties per day? I’m not asking for the average number of days between a RAS, I’m asking how many days until the CVN JP5 stores are empty.

    I’m not certainly not discounting the importance of the logistics trail, but I’d think wrt fuel, the CVN is more sustainable than “the first couple of days.” If we start talking spare parts and reliance on O-to-M repairs, then we really start talking about logistics needs. And those are supported by C-2A as much as anything. Start asking where the C-2A replacement aircraft is after it retires.

  • AT1 B


    You mis-understand why the Navy preserved the Essex class while introducing the Forrestall class and later hulls. The reason the Essex hulls were retained for a couple of reasons, the “long hull” Essex (like the Shang-ri La, Oriskany, Tico, etc) was they were used to effectively gap the time frame between manufacturing of the super carriers, plus they were a force multiplier in the number of ships that were capable of carrying nuclear weapons near the Soviets soil. What were termed the “Short Hull” Essex class like the Hornet, Essex, Randolph; ended up assuming the role of the CVS or anti-submarine carrier after the Navy realized the old CVE’s of the Bogue, Commencement Bay, and Casablanca class couldn’t effectively operate the S2F and H-34 series of ASW aircraft. Only after a series of accidents with three carriers from 1967 to 1968, was the need so great that a few of the CVS’s roles were moved from doing ASW and Space Program work over to gapping billets as attack carriers in places such as the 2nd and 6th Fleet AOR. While other fleet carriers were kept on station in places such as Vietnam and North Korea.
    It wasn’t because they were valuable, rather they were starting to show thier age by the middle of the decade even with the SCB-27 series of ship upgrades through out the fifities. Infighting decisions with in BuAir and BuShips regarding how ships should be powered, armed, manned, staffed, etc; all lead to delays with both CV-67 and the early CVN-68 series of hulls. By the end of the Vietnam war the Essex class ships that were left were just hurting us. They weren’t capable of operating the most modern jets at the time (the F-4, A-6, E-2, EA-6B). They were slower then the rest of the fleet carriers, they had a smaller fuel bunkers and had smaller weapons magazine. On a whole they were just tired and old. So that is why a number of them were quickly pulled out of usage between 1973 and 1978. The only reason they were retained on the rolls was as war reserves, but even that by the time Lehman came into service lead to him purging them completely.

  • EG

    There is place for both hulls, but right now the budget and manning does not enable the Navy to have both. The problem is by the time we really need both types of decks we may not be able to build them. The CVN is vulnerable in the littorals. Remember how the Navy operated in the Pacific? Unless you want to go the way of the Wasp and the Hornet with your big decks, you’d better bring back the CVL.

  • leesea

    To follow up on what Defense Springboard said, the Navy consitently under-estimates the number of logistic support ships it needs. Right now the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force is in transition. While the new T-AKEs will help the dry cargo/ammo side of the equation, the Kaiser Fleet Oiller are too few in number and being worn out (Not to mention the single hull versions no longer comply with intl pollution rules). The Kaiser need about $2,5 billion to be upgraded. Has anyone seen that in the SCN?

    Then we go on to other NFAF metrics. Oilers go alongside the carriers about every three days when air operations peak. How is that POL being shipped from terminal ashore to station? Answer the Kaisers are running aroung like tramp tankers hauling the POL products needes ahead of which every TG they are supporting. Get the picture?

    Its wonderfull to argue about the need for CVN and/or CVLs, but do not forget the “rest of the story” when it comes to support ships and the costs associated with any carriers’ sustainment on station.

  • leesea

    IRT Galrahn, I believe what we are asking is how much strike aka power projection capability does the USN need? How many strike sorties as opposed to AEW, CAP, COD, Recce, VERTREP, etc aircraft are needed in the inventory?

    I believe the Navy is working on that now?

    From an objective analysis should result the conclusion about how many of which aviation ships aka platforms are needed. Will there be an objective analysis done by naval avaitors who will see their careers change drastically?

  • Byron

    The most important metric after a conflict is who’s side won, and at what cost. Matter of fact, it’s pretty much the only cost you can analyze. I’d rather go into the fight like King Kong than stand toe to toe and lose sailors left and right like they’re water.

  • Derrick

    Probably the safest approach is to always have at least 1 supercarrier (like the Nimitz or upcoming Ford class) in any naval force, and add in small deck carriers as needed. That way the smaller deck carriers can get closer to shore while having the backing of the supercarrier further out to provide air superiority if required.

    Therefore, continue the current model of carrier strike forces comprised of supercarriers. Set aside some money for maybe 1-3 small deck carriers that can be moved between these carrier strike forces depending on the mission requirement.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Probably the safest approach is to always have at least 1 supercarrier (like the Nimitz or upcoming Ford class) in any naval force, and add in small deck carriers as needed. That way the smaller deck carriers can get closer to shore while having the backing of the supercarrier further out to provide air superiority if required.”

    Well-said, Derrick. The US Navy once did just that with its carrier task forces ISO amphibious operations. Makes sense to leverage “economy of scale” with escort forces/capabilities.

  • AT1B

    That’s a more detailed explanation, but I’m not sure it’s substantially different from what I wrote.

    The Intrepid was one of those “short hull” Essex-class carriers that assumed the CVS role. For whatever reason, there weren’t enough “long hull” Essex carriers when Operation Rolling Thunder got going and the Intrepid was converted back into an attack carrier. Originally intended for Dixie Station, she soon found herself up north.

    The Intrepid deployed to southeast Asia three times between 1966 and 1969. The Tico, had four Vietnam War cruises between 1964 and 1969. The Hancock had seven Seventh Fleet cruises from 1965 to 1972. The “short hull” Bennington three Southeast Asian tours during the Vietnam War, from 1965 to 1968. The Bon Homme Richard, also a “short hull,” had Vietnam War cruises between 1965 and 1970. (source: Naval Historical Center website.)

    The Randolph, btw, was a “long hull” Essex, also sometimes called the Ticonderoga class.

    You are correct that the Intrepid and her sister ships were showing their age by then, but the make up of the air wings were also changing. The Skyraiders, Skyhawks, and Crusaders were giving way to the Corsairs, Intruders and Phantoms. With the end of Rolling Thunder, the Essex-class carriers quickly lost their value.

  • Chuck Hill

    Another reason for CVLs is to give us an alternative to paying what ever price is asked for CVNs from the sole source. We may not be able to have direct competition for CVN contracts, but at least a second source that could build light carriers would provide a modicum of competition.

  • Derrick

    Hmm…perhaps the US Navy and CBO could work together on negotiating those CVN contracts?

    Though I can understand why the price for a CVN would be high. I mean, sometimes things will have to change due to weather, and the technology in those carriers isn’t exactly old and cheap either. The materials cost alone must be enormous…

  • AT1 B

    The US Navy tried to validate the CVL concept when Adm. Zumwalt and President Carter tried to push through the CVV concept back in the 70’s. Remember the CVV was going to be in between the size of the Midway and an Essex operating the XFV-12, S-3’s, and SH-3’s as their air wing. They were going to be forward deployed to places such as NS Suda Bay, Diego Garcia, Yokosuka. It was only going to have two screws and enough weapons/gas/food/stores to kind of hold the line or be a sea control ship. They were then going to wait for NATO’s big deck carriers, such as the Forrestal, Hermes, Foch to come out and relieve them. From there they would operate as convoy escorts in the theater. The costs started to rise even before the ship’s left the drawing board. Arguments about damage control, manning, power plants, unproven aircraft technology, just caused these ships to jump from a relative cheap 500 million to 1 billion per unit up to the current costs (at the time) for a CVN68 class hull. Then the GAO and CBO both waded into the argument under the request of Senator Vinson. Both of them said that for the costs, the plan of the CVV was no gain to the navy as a force multiplier. The needs to maintain it while on a deployment would of been one and half times if not twice as much as a current large deck carrier. So the plans for the CVV was quashed.

    Fast Forward a few years. In the mid-80’s the US Navy preserved both the USS Midway and the USS Coral Sea to help reach the 600 ship plans of Lehman. Both World War 2 vintage carriers that were just barely capable of operating the most modern jets at the time. They couldn’t operate the F-14, so the Navy preserved F-4’s in the fleet until the F-18 enter the fleet. Then the air wings were severely limited. CVW-13 onboard the Coral Sea in the mid-80’s didn’t have organic EW, ASW, or even AEW aircraft at the initial planning stages. Instead they were supposed to depend on NATO land base air or the larger fleet carriers. A few heads clinked together and supplied AEW aircraft, but even that was tight with four F-18 squadrons, one A-6 squadron, and one SH-3 squadron onboard. On their maiden cruise it was realized that CVW-13 would need to have organic EW supplied to even when she was operating in conjunction with the larger fleet carriers. High Demand, Low Density for EW in the modern battlefield. So in the middle of that deployment (1985-1986) an EA-6B outfit was no-noticed deployed to the Med to support CVW-13. After that it became a game of rotating VAQ outfits through CVW-13 until the air wing stood down in 1990. The Midway and her air wing CVW-5 was almost in the same creek. Instead from the on set she had organic EW and AEW, but didn’t have enough room to have ASW aircraft and would depend on land based MPA or other US Fleet carriers to provide that essential protection in case of war at sea. Both of these ships limped on through into the early 1990’s before being removed from service. They just weren’t worth the cost to supply or maintain.

    Even with the advances in modern munitions, there is still a need for high sortie generation from a carrier. The primary reason is that unlike a land base which air ops are constantly available, a carrier has to depend on the search of wind and the need to navigate in deep waters to provide wind across the deck for launches and recoveries prevents situations where an aircraft that suffers a mission abort because of a maintenance gripe it is now a lost sortie. Even if the maintainers on the deck are able to turn it around quickly. The ship still has to recover a previous launch cycle and there is no guarantee that getting your now up jet to fly in the next even will happen. This becomes even more so as you talk about limited numbers onboard such as AEW or EW aircraft. That is why some units will turn to launching flying spares up till and even just across into a hostile country. If the spare is not need then it will go on to a secondary mission or return for recovery at the next chance. Also remember if your talking about a smaller ship size to fill the CVL concept then your talking about sacrificing fuel for ammo or vice versa. Guided munitions take up more space in all of their protective shipping containers then standard piece of iron bomb. So there you have a ship which will have to come off the line more often to resupply compared to a larger fleet carrier. More time off the line means someone else will need to pick up the slack.

    If you want to talk about force multipliers with regards to the CVL concept then the people you need to be asking about why we only have ten CVN’s in the fleet when compared to about twenty years ago we have 15 carriers. Then ask the folks at NavAirSysCom and NavSysCom (formerly BuAir and BuShips) why we weren’t diversifying even ten years ago so all our bags are stuck with a forty year old design. We easily could of have a few CVN(X)’s or CV(X)’s that went a different design route as a way to maintain and diversify our ship building talents in carriers. Remember the GAO has stated a few times there is minor differences between a CV and a CVN power plant. So we could have easily built ships of the size like the CV59 hulls but make them evolutionary designs ready to test out things like the electro-magnetic cats, or the robotic fuel pits, smaller berthing compartments, automated fuel plants etc like they are trying to force into the CVN78 hulls. Also it might give those shipyards like Bath Iron Works, Todd Shipyards, NG Mobile a chance to show whether or not they can build a carrier on time and on budget. Our only source right now with in CONUS is Northrop/Grumman Newport News Shipyard and Dry-dock for carrier hulls.

  • Byron

    Well said, AT1! Now someone get off their butts and make this young man a Chief! And I’m sure his new bride would appreciate the extra pay as well 😉

  • leesea

    AT1 you logic is find IF you assume that both CVNs and CVLs are flying the same power projection mission. BUT what about if the CVLs doing other missions, like MSO, MIO, fwd recce, CAS for small warships/warboats, and doing those in or near green waters?

    Does your adherence to the need for high sortie rates still hold up?

    I agree with the need for organic AEW assets but are there not AEW on other types of a/c like the British H-3 helo? For that matter will the BAMS be able to provide AEW to a CVL centered TG? UAVs will play a bigger and bigger role in more navair missions. They can be operated off CVLs.

    There are a couple of other important technology changes which you do not account for. The JSF/F-35B will not need to launch into the wind (as much I think?). And how could a Navy variant of the V-22 play in a CVLs airwing?

    Sorry to break this to you, but those other yards either can’t or won’t bid on carrier construction. At least conventional powered CVLs might be built at yards othr than NNS? If there is one thing we have learned its there is NO competition in naval shipbuilding. The limited number of “exquisite” hulls and overwhelming influence of congress have put that goal in the trash.

  • Byron

    lessea, this is just fine, provided you can plan to afford both platforms in both weapons, equipment, and most importantly, trained sailors. I expect the personnel costs alone would make the concept too expensive.

  • AT1 B


    Actually to carry anything useful the F-35 will still need to launch into the wind. VTOL alone eats a ton of gas. So to carry a useful armament and the gas to get it someplace then just off the deck and back down again is going to require either tankers or rolling STOL take offs. I haven’t seen a tanker package being installed on an F-35, so that means your opeating with in range of land base air. Even today the AV-8’s through out the world do rolling STOL take offs from thier ships to carry anything more then just the pilot and some ammo for the guns. To do that you still need to steam the ship into the wind.

    Your still talking about the need to generate a high sortie rate in your mission profiles. Again what

    The usefulness of a modern US Carrier Battle Group is not only that it can project air power ashore alone, but that the range and depth of air and sea space it can control effectively. From the 1980’s up today the US Navy was able to control between 200 to 300nm of air/land/sea around the center of the battle group. There was a classic picture from the 1986 Martime Strategy which showed a carrier off Boston was able to project strike aircraft as far inland, un-refueled mind you, to Pittsburgh. Think about that for just a second. If you want your CVL to do other missions like MIO, Mine Warfare, MSO, etc. You still need to be able to effectively control the space around your battle group and prevent the bad guys from achiving a kill against you. The guy with the longer reach will kill you first. For examples of that see early carrier battles of world war 2 where the Japanese were able to outrange all of the allied carrier aircraft.

    As for providing AEW via helos like the AEW.7 Sea King in the RN service. That is great in a low threat enviroment and you know the threat axis of where the bad guys are coming from. However, the US Navy learned during the Battle of Okinawa that just having radar out there isn’t useful unless you get raid warning early enough to vector barrier combat air patrol to intercept the raid. That is why immediately following the war there was a rapid attempt to build AEW aircraft that could fly higher and see longer to protect the fleet. The TBM-3W begat the AD-3/4/5W begat the WF-1/E-1 which has begat the E-2. As it stands right now BAMS and all other UAV technology to provided over the horizion detection is still in theory and sounds good on white papers, but that is it. No one, to my knowledge, has tested out the concept of having something like Global Hawk, Predator, Dark Star, etc provide ISR capabilities to a fleet in a real world enviroment. It would be a good idea, in my honest opinion, to test it out in a fleet exercise and see what the gains are, what the foils are, what needs to be tweaked, and what doesn’t work. Also, we are just getting around to testing large scale UAVs like Predator, X-45, Scan Eagle off carriers. Still, Naval Research Labs, hasn’t gone completely automous with the cycle. That is after the ground crew starts the engine, letting the computer take off from the ship to preforming the mission to landing on the ship. They are still involving a man in the loop. If you are going to do this then where is the operator going to be stationed? Back at CONUS or onboard the ship? What are the maintenance hours per flight hours for one of these UAV’s? How much of it can be repaired by the maintenance crews and how much will depend on artistians? Meantime between Failure of items per flight hour? These are all important questions that have not been asked nor, IMHO, are they being asked as we dive full long into UAV terroritory. Again a real world scenario where UAV’s are being flown constantly off carriers or L-series Amphibs to support troops on the ground to answer some of these questions is something that NavAirSysCom needs to do.

    As for the Navy buying the V-22? Go do a Google News Search on the V-22 for just the last six months. It is again up on the chopping block. The only two forces in the military buying the V-22 is the USMC and the USAF. Everyone else has bailed on the project when it was killed the first time in the early 90’s by SecDef Cheney.

    It sounds very much like you are describing in mission a ship like the Principe de Asturias from Spain or her sister ship the Royal Thai Carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet. The P. de Asturias was designed to be an ASW carrier foremost with the secondary capability of sea control where it could hunt down Soviet surface raiders and trawlers. If you want to build a ship like that then why not bring back the Typhoon Strike Cruiser design of the 1970’s. That combined a flight deck with the AEGIS system. One verison of the ship would of been capable of operating AV-8’s and later FV-12’s along with SH-3’s. Armed with Mk-26 launchers and ABL’s for BGM-109s. The idea is that this ship would of been the US Navy’s answer to the Soviet Kiev and Moskva class of Helicopter Cruisers.

  • Alan Drake

    Two related issues are aircraft recovery and survivability after cruise/guided ballistic missile hits. A large carrier will likely stay afloat after multiple non-nuclear hits – a smaller carrier (unless very heavily/expensively armored) may only take one hit.

    OTOH, a SWAG is that a single hit to the deck has a >50% chance of loss of aircraft recovery for longer than fuel supplies of aircraft. A second carrier could accept some but not all of the a/c flying in a war scenario. If friendly airbases are nearby, fine (except for a much reduced sortie rate due to battle damage the next day).

    Ships of the USS America class should be configurable (on a contingency basis) to serve as CVLs in support of Nimitz/Ford carriers. Perhaps they could launch electronic warfare, refueling and rescue a/c, leaving the larger carriers to do more strikes.

    The most likely “Big Battle” for the USN will be in the South China Sea (Taiwan is #2 IMHO) against China. #3 would be against India.

    Future large helicopter carriers should be designed to be convertible to CVLs in support of Nimitz/Ford carriers.

    • Rocco

      Great points also⚓️

  • Curtis Conway

    “I’ll take the big deck, at least 10 if possible, with its associated conventional launch capability and with the E-2D and EA-18G, I’ll whip any 4 VSTOL CVLs every single day of the century.”

    OK. However, we are NOT going up against ourselves, nor are we likely to find such an adversary in the next decade. The best the most likely adversaries can must at present, and the near future is something like our LHA-6 with CATOBAR facilities, of similar tonnage, NOT a CVN! Until we have an LHA-6 deployment under our belt NO-ONE can make any good guesses as to the real numbers and utility of that battle group and system of systems. Let us wait until we can deal from a position of strength of knowledge before we start making assumptions about anything. ALIS may actually turn out to be our friend, and keep those sortie rates up.

    • Rocco

      Agreed thanks for the link sir. Interesting ! We all won’t know for sure until the America finishes its deployment .⚓️Happy thanksgiving !🐣

      • Curtis Conway

        That first deployment will be the gauge and tell the tale. The USMC have already developed an F-35B heavy deployment package.