Aircraft carriers are just big fat targets
WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: During World War II in the Pacific, aircraft carriers were primarily used to defeat enemy carriers and battleships at sea. The whole point of island-hopping was to gain airstrips on land, to launch bomber attacks on the enemy troops on other islands. That was the plan until the Doolittle Raid in 1942, where the USS Hornet launched sixteen long range B-25 bombers to hit Tokyo.
Are aircraft carriers obsolete? Like everything else we have discussed about warfare in this series, the question is complicated. It depends on what you mean by aircraft carrier. If we talk about large ships that can launch and recover fighter jets, there are 19 operational aircraft carriers in the world. In February 2017, Brazil retired their only aircraft carrier, so my number could be off by one.
The U.S. has 11 carriers, but our first nuclear carrier (USS Enterprise) was decommissioned in Feb 2017, leaving ten. However, the USS Gerald Ford is at sea trials, so we are back to eleven. Another Ford class carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, is under construction at Newport News, and the next USS Enterprise is in the planning stages. From what I can put together from the web, the U.S. has built, and retired or lost, 56 aircraft carriers since the 1930s. All big U.S. carriers are nuclear powered today. No other nation has nuclear-powered carriers. The U.S. also has nine smaller helicopter assault aircraft carriers (conventional-fuel powered). These carriers can launch STOL (short take off and landing) fighter aircraft like the Harrier and the new F-35B used by the Marines, as well as attack helicopters.
Concerning our enemies, neither Iran nor North Korea have carriers. Russia has one (the Admiral Kuznetsov) and China has one (the Liaoning), both built in Ukraine before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Both these carriers use a 12 degree angled ski-jump to get their planes airborne. And both can carry about 30 fixed-wing aircraft and 12 helicopters. Using the ski-jump (instead of the steam-powered catapults on the USS Nimitz class, or the new electromagnetic launchers on the USS Ford class), their planes are limited in fuel and weapons loads, thereby restricting their missions. By comparison, our older Nimitz-class carriers can carry up to 130 F/A-18 Hornets, or 85-90 aircraft of different types. The Russian and Chinese carriers have about half the water displacement weight of our present Nimitz and Ford class aircraft carriers.
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The Russian Kuznetsov seldom goes into deep water without an ocean-going tug alongside. It’s a cold war relic running on eight unreliable boilers driving four unreliable steam turbines, and the propulsion systems break-down regularly. At full steam it belches black smoke so thick, it looks like the ship is on fire. The onboard water pipes freeze in cold climates, so they shut-off the water lines to the cabins and half the bathrooms onboard to keep the pipes from bursting. Additionally, the Russians have very little experience at launching and recovering planes on a carrier deck in combat conditions. When the Kuznetsev was deployed off the coast of Syria recently, a MIG-29 crashed while landing in November 2016. An SU-33 crashed on landing in December 2016. Both incidents occurred in perfect weather.
As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!.” As I was polishing this article the Russians announced on 26 April that they are dragging the Kuznetsov to the docks in Roslyakovo for $700 million in repairs and upgrades. It seems that the carrier took a beating on its short but crash-prone mission in Syria. They will replace some of the boilers, rewire the electrical systems on the ship, and repair the flight deck from the previously-mentioned crashes. The Kuznetsov is not expected to back to sea until late 2020.
The Varyag (the Russian name for the Liaoning before it was sold in 1998) was about 70 percent complete when the Soviet Union dissolved. The newly independent Ukraine needed money, so they sold the rusting hulk to a Macau company, Chong Lot, for $20 million. Chong Lot claimed they were going to make it into a floating casino and hotel. The hull was towed to Dalian shipyard in China in 2005. There, the Chinese finished the build-out and got the original boilers and turbines working. The Liaoning went to sea trials in 2014 as the Chinese navy’s first aircraft carrier. They actually launched and recovered a J-15 fighter jet on the deck in November of that year. U.S. carriers probably launch and recover more fighter jets in a day than the Liaoning or the Kuznetsov will ever see in their operational lifetimes. So, we’re not going to see another carrier battle like Midway in the future. China is building their next carrier themselves (code name: Shandong) in Dalian, reusing the Russian ski-jump design. But they redesigned the spartan crew quarters of the Liaoning design to make the crew more comfortable, and moved the water lines further inside the ship and insulated them. This carrier is slightly larger than the older Liaoning.
In another Gomer Pyle moment, while I was reviewing this piece, the Chinese secretly launched their new home grown Shandong, on 26 April. It will be some time before this new carrier sees blue water, but it is floating in Dalian harbor right now.
There are military opinions at high levels today, that aircraft carriers are big expensive vulnerable ships whose missions have been replaced by missiles, submarines, and long range bombers. Our carriers never go out alone. They travel in a strike group consisting of one or two nuclear subs, an AEGIS cruiser, two or more destroyers, 60 to 70 aircraft, a supply ship, oilers (to refuel the conventionally-fueled destroyers and cruiser), and about 7,500 sailors. Those warships are there to protect the carrier.
Our enemies with coastlines (Russia, China, Iran, NorK) have all adopted A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategies against our carrier groups. All four have anti-ship missiles (ASMs). Therein lies a problem.
Time for some definitions again, to avoid confusion. A missile has a maximum range, since it’s on a one-way trip. But carrier-launched aircraft have a maximum combat radius: it’s a two-way trip to come back to the carrier. And the combat radius is not half the aircraft’s range, considering that fuel is burned to maneuver around air defenses to the target, and the plane may need to make several approaches to land on the carrier deck. So, we must compare the range of our enemy’s anti-ship missiles to the combat radius of our fighter planes and how far offshore the carrier needs to stay. The F/A-18 Hornet has a combat radius of about 450 miles. An F-35C (carrier version) has a combat radius of about 690 miles. The F-22 fighter was not designed for carrier takeoffs and landings, so we can eliminate that one. Some of the numbers used below were listed in km (kilometers) or nm (nautical miles) on the web, so I converted them to the English mile. Clear comparisons are harder when mixing different units like nautical miles (6,076.12 feet), kilometers (3,280.84 feet), and English miles (5,280 feet).
- Russia’s longest-range anti-ship missile is the SS-N-12 Sandbox, deployed on their submarines and cruisers. It has a range of 340 miles. They also have the SS-N-22 Sunburn. It has a range of about 150-180 miles, and is deployed on ships, aircraft, and ground-based launchers.
- China’s longest range carrier-killer missile is the DF-26, mounted on land-based mobile launchers. It has a range of about 1,900 to 2,500 miles. They also have their older DF-21D anti-ship missiles, with a range of about 900 to 1100 miles.
- Iran has 150 of the Russian SS-N-22s (with a range 150-180 miles), according to web sources. And they announced their home grown Khalij Fars ASMs in 2014, based on the Russian Kh-35 design (SS-N-25 Switchblade). It has a range of about 185 miles.
- According to intelligence reports, the missile fired in North Korea in April 2017, that exploded just after launch, was probably their new home grown KN-17 anti-ship missile. Analysis suggests that it is similar to earlier Chinese DF-21 missiles, with a range of a few hundred miles. But that is pure speculation, since it blew up early in the boost phase and we didn’t get much radar/telemetry data on it. North Korea missiles have been dropping into the Sea of Japan during their recent tests, and Japan is only about 600 miles from North Korea. However, intelligence reports also suggest the North Koreans have some Russian Kh-35s too (SS-N-25 Switchblade). They may have bought them from Russia, or from other countries Russia sold them to in the past. Worst case right now, the North Koreans seem to have reliable ASMs with a range of about 185 miles.
From the numbers above, our carriers need to stay at least 400 miles off Russia’s shores, to avoid coming into ASM range. The F/A-18s and F-35s would both need refueling on missions. For China, our carriers would need to stay 2,500 miles offshore. Guam is just 2,100 miles from Hong Kong. The F/A-18s range is about 1,250 miles. The F-35Cs range is about 1,600 miles. So you can do the math to see how many refuelings are needed. For Iran, our carriers would need to stay about 200 miles offshore. At the widest point, the Persian Gulf is only 210 miles wide. And for North Korea, our carriers need to stay about 200 miles offshore. Now you can see the complications created by our enemy’s anti-ship missiles and A2/AD strategies.
Does this mean that aircraft carriers are obsolete? The answer is yes and no: yes if we don’t develop weapons and strategies against A2/AD, and no if we do. The Navy is working on the MQ-25 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) carrier-launched refueling tanker, to give the fighters a longer combat radius. Work is continuing on Hypersonic missiles, that can hit anywhere in the world in less than an hour. Our stealthy B-2 and B-21 bombers can avoid enemy air defenses. Our electronic warfare capabilities may disable enemy radar, anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-ship missiles. These are just a few techniques to overcome enemy A2/AD strategies.
What about our aircraft carrier’s vulnerability to enemy submarines? That’s the subject of our next episode.