The Aircraft Carrier We Need
By Jerry Hendrix
A strategic design update is due
On April 24 the U.S. Navy announced that a fifth weapons elevator had been certified for use onboard the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). (A weapons elevator lifts munitions, such as bombs and missiles, from the storage area to the flight deck.) Six more elevators remain uncertified, requiring additional testing and modifications before the carrier can be deployed. Originally estimated to cost $10.5 billion to build, the ship was officially “delivered” to the Navy in May 2017, some 18 months behind schedule, at an eye-popping cost of $12.9 billion. However, even those cost numbers and dates are misleading, as the ship still does not have all of its essential systems certified, owing to major difficulties with its ship-service turbine generators, electromagnetic aircraft-launch systems, advanced arresting gear (the apparatus that slows down aircraft as they land on deck), and finally its weapons elevators. The upshot of all of these difficulties is that the Navy has been forced to use dollars from its crucial operations-and-maintenance accounts to “repair” a brand-new ship, for which it had already paid $13 billion, that has yet to deploy operationally, despite having officially been in the fleet for nearly three years.
The news on this ship is mixed. While it is true that the ship recently completed its 1,000th electromagnetic launch and 1,000th “trap” using the ship’s advanced arresting gear, and the newly confirmed secretary of the Navy has endorsed continuing to build the Ford-class design, it is also true that the ship recently experienced five days in which it could not launch aircraft due to problems with its electromagnetic launch system. The bad news is expected to continue as the ship is now scheduled to go through normal shock trials, which involve the detonation of a series of underwater charges near the hull and are known to cause havoc with a ship’s internal systems, in the summer of 2021. This may well set back the ship’s already-delayed initial deployment, scheduled for 2022, still further. The Department of Defense has determined that it is necessary to identify any additional significant faults in the design of the Ford, including ones that may be exposed by the shock trials, before proceeding with the construction of additional ships. Even shock trials, however, will not reveal the Ford’s most glaring problems: It has the wrong design and is built around the wrong type and size of air wing, and it is not optimized for implementing the current National Defense Strategy, which focuses on great-power competition with Communist China and, to a lesser extent, a Putin-led Russia.
The USS Ford was conceived during the late 1990s and emerged from an analysis that examined over 75 designs. The final choice was greatly influenced by then-recent operational experiences in the Arabian Gulf and the Adriatic Sea, as well as a 1998 GAO report that provided rigorous comparisons between nuclear and conventionally powered aircraft carriers during those campaigns. The Ford’s eventual design was predicated upon an assumption that the ship would operate in similar semi-permissive, low-threat environments, such as the Adriatic Sea or Arabian Gulf, staying close to enemy shores to optimize the efficacy of the carrier’s short-range (500 nautical miles) light-attack air wing, which was then dominated by the FA-18 Hornet [emphasis added]...
The combination of dramatically enhanced maritime-domain awareness (enabled in large part by remote-sensing satellites) and land-, sea-, and air-launched anti-ship missiles now makes it possible for the PLA to hold U.S. aircraft carriers (and other surface combatants) at risk well over 1,000 miles from China’s shores — which is well beyond the range of the carrier’s FA-18E/F and F-35C strike fighters unless they are refueled. Moreover, even if these planes were to reach designated target areas with aerial refueling, they would be vulnerable to modern, integrated air-defense systems [emphasis added]. Faced with this intensifying threat, the Navy has started shifting away from the land-attack mission in favor of less daunting sea-control and sea-denial missions.
...To remedy this situation, the Navy should invest in new air wings — much as it did in the years immediately following World War II, when it effectively replaced its entire naval-aviation inventory — that can operate effectively from outside the range of a prospective adversary’s “anti-access/area denial” networks to credibly put key targets at risk.
Such an air wing would necessarily retain some legacy components. It would make sense, for example, for each wing to have combat-search-and-rescue (CSAR) helicopters; a squadron of four E-2D Hawkeyes to provide airborne surveillance and command-and-control in carrier-controlled airspace; and a squadron of six EA-18G Growlers to provide jamming and spectrum control around the carrier and its strike group. The new air wing might also have one squadron of ten F-35Cs to perform combat air-patrol missions as well as airborne-coordination roles. Only one squadron should be necessary, since the carrier would be positioned far out to sea, beyond the immediate range of enemy short-range fighters and escorted by cruisers and destroyers capable of providing air and missile defense. Shifting the carrier’s area of operations farther from the enemy’s “anti-access/area denial” forces would make it possible to reverse the modern naval bias towards defensive “anti” missions within the carrier strike group (anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine) and move back towards offensive operations, including power-projection ashore.
As part of this shift, the core of the carrier’s new air wing would be 30 stealthy, heavily armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), organized into three squadrons. Individual UCAVs should be capable of carrying 4,000 pounds of ordnance internally to a combat radius of at least 1,500 nautical miles without refueling [emphasis added]. They should also feature broadband, all-aspect stealth design with a much-reduced radar cross-section (RCS). The design should also integrate an infrared-signature-reduction capability and an advanced passive sensor suite. These 30 aircraft — each armed with two 2,000-pound-class direct-attack weapons (GBU-31 JDAM) or stand-off weapons (e.g., JASSM or LRASM), four 1,000-pound-class direct-attack weapons (GBU-33 JDAMs), or up to 16 GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs — could deliver sustained firepower against a wide array of enemy targets while their host carrier remained in relative sanctuary at sea.
Moreover, unlike aircraft flown by human beings, they would not have to cease operation because of pilot fatigue. With refueling, they could remain aloft potentially for days at a time. With no pilots at risk, there would also be no need to prepare for forward CSAR operations. Based on the Navy’s considerable experience in designing and operating two prototype aircraft under the Unmanned Carrier Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program, an operational UCAV could be fielded both quickly and affordably. For slightly more than the cost of an F-35C, the Navy could have an aircraft with nearly three times the combat radius, significantly more internal payload, and far better survivability. With a UCAV-heavy air wing, the aircraft carrier could get back into the power-projection business...
Accepting the average size of the air wing (the Nimitz and Ford classes were originally designed to support 85 to 90 aircraft but now carry around 65), taking into account new aircraft designs as well as new launch and recovery intervals, and then carefully examining previous carrier designs as well as design studies, suggests that the next carrier should be in the mid-sized range (65,000 to 75,000 tons), with a flight deck approximately 900 feet in length and 135 feet wide and an armor-box hangar deck some 700 feet in length by 95 feet in width by 18 feet in height [emphasis added]...
Jerry Hendrix — Mr. Hendrix is a vice president of the Telemus Group, a retired U.S. Navy captain, and a consultant to the Defense Science Board.