Navy Contemplates Results of a Future Aircraft Carrier Study - Will New, Smaller Carriers Emerge in the Future?

The Navy is analyzing the results of an extensive study into the future of aircaft carriers - will the Navy change shape, design or size of its future carriers? Do modern weapons make the carrier, in its current configuration, too vulnerable and therefore obsolete? What will the Navy recommend?

 The Navy may change the size, shape, technological configuration and mission characteristics of its aircraft carriers in the future after careful service and think tank study of the emerging global threat environment, senior service officials said.

Senior Navy officials worked with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments to explore whether alternative configurations, engineering models, shapes, sizes and technologies were needed to address anticipated future threats to the platforms.

Many by now are familiar with ongoing debates about whether aircraft carriers themselves could soon become obsolete with the advent of longer-range, precision-guided anti-ship missiles and next-generation hypersonic attack weapons. 

The Navy may consider alternative aircraft carrier configurations in coming years as it prepares for its new high-tech, next-generation carrier to become operational later this year, service officials have said.

Configurations and acquisition plans for the next three Ford-class carriers - the USS Ford, USS Kennedy and USS Enterprise are not expected to change – however the study could impact longer-term Navy plans for carrier designs and platforms beyond those three, service officials have said.

Although no particular plans have been solidified or announced, it seems possible that these future carriers could be engineered with greater high-tech sensors and ship defenses, greater speed and manueverability to avoid enemy fire and configurations which allow for more drones to launch from the deck of the ship. They could be smaller and more manueverable with drones and longer-range precision weapons, analysts have speculated.

At the same time, it is possible that the Ford-Class carrier could be adjusted to evolve as technologies mature, in order to accommodate some of the concerns about emerging enemy threats. Navy engineers have designed the Ford-Class platform with this ability to adapt in mind. As a result of the unfolding trajectory of carrier technologies and other defensive weapons, many senior leaders have been clear that future carriers will indeed be able to operate in extremely high-threat environments. 

According to a report from Scout Warrior's Michael Fabey, the CSBA report recommends a high/low mix of traditional carriers along with new, more agile smaller carriers. 

“The Navy should also pursue a new “high/low mix” in its aircraft carrier fleet,” CSBA says in its report, CSBA “Restoring American Seapower, A New Fleet Architecture for The United States Navy,” released Feb. 9 of this year.

“Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat near-peer competitors, but other day-to-day missions, such as power projection, sea lane control, close air support, or counterterrorism, can be achieved with a smaller, lower cost, conventionally powered aircraft carrier,” CSBA says “Over the next five years, the Navy should begin transitioning from large deck amphibious ships into smaller aircraft carriers with the goal of delivering the first such ship in the mid-2030s.”

The CSBA refers to the ships as light aircraft carrier (CVL), saying it “initially be a legacy LHA/LHD, but eventually replaced by a purpose-built 40,000- to 60,000-ton CVL with catapults and arresting gear.”  -- To Read Fabey's Report on the CSBA Study - CLICK HERE --

The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, has told The National Interest that Russian and Chinese weapons will not keep carriers at bay. --To Read The National Interest Report Click HERE--

Also, given evolving ship defense technologies such as radar, lasers, fire-control improvements, aerial sensors, electronic warfare and other systems, the Navy and other analysts are also considering that the existing configuration of the Ford Class carriers remain fundamentally unchanged. Carriers also travel in "carrier groups" with nearby well-armed cruisers and destroyers designed, at least in part, to defend carriers from enemy attack. 

The USS Gerald R. Ford is the first is a series of new Ford-class carriers designed with a host of emerging technologies to address anticipated future threats and bring the power-projecting platform into the next century.

Once its delivered, the new carrier - or one of the first several Ford-Class Carriers -  may go through “shock trials” wherein its stability is tested in a variety of maritime conditions such as its ability to withstand nearby explosions; the ship will also go through a pre-deployment process known as “post-shakedown availability” designed to further prepare the ship for deployment.

 

Future Carriers

The Navy plans to build Ford-class carriers for at least 50-years as a way to replace the existing Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis. This schedule will bring the Ford carriers service-life well into the next century and serve all the way until at least 2110, Navy leaders have said. 

Regarding the potential evaluation of alternatives to carriers, some analysts have raised the question of whether emerging technologies and weapons systems able to attack carriers at increasingly longer distances make the platforms more vulnerable and therefore less significant in a potential future combat environment. Some have raised the prospect of having faster, more agile smaller carriers better able to maneuver away from enemy fire and potentially launch more drones; equipping carriers with additional ship defensive technologies or missile interceptors is also an option being discussed. 

Some have even raised the question about whether carrier might become obsolete in the future, a view not shared by most analysts and Navy leaders. The power-projection ability of a carrier and its air-wing provides a decisive advantage for U.S. forces around the world.

For example, a think tank study from the Center for New American Security says the future threat environment will most likely substantially challenge the primacy or superiority of U.S. Navy carriers.

“While the U.S. Navy has long enjoyed freedom of action throughout the world’s oceans, the days of its unchallenged primacy may be coming to a close. In recent years, a number of countries, including China, Russia, and Iran, have accelerated investments in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities such as advanced air defense systems, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines, and aircraft carriers. These capabilities are likely to proliferate in the coming years, placing greater constraints on U.S. carrier operations than ever before,” the study writes.

In addition, the study maintains that the “United States will be faced with a choice: operate its carriers at ever-increasing ranges – likely beyond the unrefueled combat radii of their tactical aircraft – or assume high levels of risk in both blood and treasure,” the CNAS study explains.

Navy officials told Scout Warrior that many of the issues and concerns highlighted in this report are things already being carefully considered by the Navy.

With this in mind, some of the weapons and emerging threats cited in the report are also things already receiving significant attention from Navy and Pentagon analysts.

 Emerging Threats

The Chinese military is developing a precision-guided long-range anti-ship cruise missile, the DF-21D, a weapon said by analysts to have ranges up to 900 nautical miles. While there is some speculation as to whether it could succeed in striking moving targets such as aircraft carriers, analysts have said the weapon is in part designed to keep carriers from operating closer to the coastline.

A principle element of this strategy includes backing carrier off to a range that carrier-launched fighter aircraft cannot reach. 

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional panel of experts, published a detailed report in 2014 on the state of Chinese military modernization. The report cites the DF-21D along with numerous other Chinese technologies and weapons. The DF-21D is a weapon referred to as a "carrier killer." The Chinese are also reported to be working on a more lethal follow-on precision-guided anti-ship missile, The National Interest reports. 

--For a Detailed Report on threats posed by the DF-21D from The National Interest CLICK HERE

However, as reported in "The National Interest" by Dave Majumdar, (CLICK HERE FOR STORY) - senior Navy leaders are developing additional defensive strategies aimed at countering the DF-21D threat. Furthermore, they maintain that credible long-range threats posed by the Chinese missile assumes that China can successfully integrate the requisite ISR and targeting technologies sufficient to strike carriers on-the-move. 

Majumdar's report also cites senior Navy officials explaining that carrier will increasingly have improved electromagnetic, cyber and ISR defenses designed to jam enemy fire or throw approaching anti-ship missile off course 

The commission points out various Chinese tests of hypersonic missiles as well. Hypersonic missiles, if developed and fielded, would have the ability to travel at five times the speed of sound – and change the threat equation regarding how to defend carriers from shore-based, air or sea attacks.

An April 27th report in the Washington Free Beach cited Pentagon officials stating that China successfully tested a new high-speed maneuvering warhead.

“The test of the developmental DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle was monitored after launch Friday atop a ballistic missile fired from the Wuzhai missile launch center in central China, said officials familiar with reports of the test,” the report from the Washington Free Beacon said. “The maneuvering glider, traveling at several thousand miles per hour, was tracked by satellites as it flew west along the edge of the atmosphere to an impact area in the western part of the country.”

The Air Force Chief Scientist recently told Scout Warrior that the US expects to have operational hypersonic missiles by the 2020s. ---For a full Scout Warrior report on Hypersonic Weapons CLICK HERE---

While China presents a particular threat in the Asia Pacific theater, they are by no means the only potential threat in today's fast-changing global environment. A wide array of potential future adversaries are increasingly likey to acquire next-generation weapons, sensors and technologies. 

Enemy sensors, aircraft, drones and submarines are all advancing their respective technologies at an alarming rate - creating a scenario wherein carriers as they are currently configured could have more trouble operating closer to enemy coastlines. 

At the same time – despite these concerns about current and future threat environments, carriers and power projects – few are questioning the value, utility and importance of Navy aircraft carriers.

MQ-25 Stingray - Carrier Launched Refueling Drone 

 Engineering an unmanned aerial refueling tanker able to take off from a carrier deck and support fighter jets en-route to attack missions is a vital aspect of the Navy plan to meet emerging enemy anti-ship missile threats.

The new carrier-launched stealthy tanker, called the MQ-25A Stingray, will be designed to extend the combat range of key carrier air-wing assets such as F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters. Such an ability is deemed vital to the Pentagon’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial phenomenon wherein long-range precision guided anti-ship missiles are increasingly able to target and destroy aircraft carriers at distances as far as 1,000-miles off shore

The range or combat radius of carrier-based fighter jets, therefore, is fundamental to this equation. If an F-35C or F/A-18 can, for instance, only travel roughly 500 or 600 miles to attack an inland enemy target such as air-defenses, installations and infrastructure – how can it effectively project power if threats force it to operate 1,000-miles off shore?

Therein lies the challenge and the requisite need for a drone tanker able to refuel these carrier-launched aircraft mid-flight, giving them endurance sufficient to attack from longer distances.

Aerial Refueling Key to Future of Carriers

An existing large fuselage tanker, such as the emerging Air Force KC-46A, would endanger and on board crew and have  large radar signature -- and therefore be far too vulnerable to enemy attack. This, quite naturally, then creates the need for a more agile unmanned drone able to better elude enemy radar, minimize risk to manned aircraft crews and refuel attack aircraft on their way to a mission.

While there is not much public information available about the MQ-25A Stingray as it is an emerging system very early on in the developmental process, Navy officials did explain the key strategic concepts behind its existence to Scout Warrior.

“Greater endurance” is described by Navy officials as a fundamental impetus for the new platform.

Navy developers said that "when fielded, MQ-25A Stingray will deliver a high-endurance organic aerial refueling and ISR capability.  Unmanned aerial refueling will extend the performance, efficiency and safety of manned aircraft and impart longer range and greater endurance to enable the execution of missions that otherwise could not be performed."  

As a result, an aerial drone able to refuel and extend missions for carrier attack aircraft could address or ameliorate some of these concerns.

Also, despite the emergence of weapons such as the DF-21D, senior Navy leaders and some analysts have questioned the ability of precision-guided long-range missile to actually hit and destroy carriers on the move at 30-knots from 1,000 miles away. Targeting, guidance on the move fire control, ISR and other assets are necessary for these kinds of weapons to function as advertised. GPS, inertial measurement units, advanced sensors and dual-mode seekers are part of a handful of fast-developing technologies able to address some of these challenges, yet it does not seem clear that long-range anti-ship missiles such as the DF-21D will actually be able to destroy carriers on the move at the described distances.

Furthermore, the Navy is rapidly advancing ship-based defensive weapons, electronic warfare applications, lasers and technologies able to identify and destroy approaching anti-ship cruise missile from ranges beyond the horizon. One such example of this includes the now-deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air system, or NIFC-CA. This technology combines ship-based radar and fire control systems with an aerial sensor and dual-mode SM-6 missile to track and destroy approaching threats from beyond-the-horizon. Ship-based laser weapons and rail guns, in addition, could be among lower-cost ship defense weapons as well.

 The MQ-25A Stingray is evolving out of a now-cancelled carrier-launched ISR and attack drone program called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS. A Northrop demonstrator aircraft, called the X-47B, has already performed successful carrier drone take-offs and landings. Accordingly, the ability of the Navy to operate a drone on an aircraft carrier is already progressing.

--To Read a recent Scout Warrior Story on the MQ-25 StingrayClick HERE--

Future Carrier Air Wing

The Navy is working on number of next-generation ship defenses such as Naval Integrated Fire Control –Counter Air, a system which uses Aegis radar along with an SM-6 interceptor missile and airborne relay sensor to detect and destroy approaching enemy missiles from distances beyond the horizon. The integrated technology deployed in 2015.

Stealth fighter jets, carrier-launched drones, V-22 Ospreys, submarine-detecting helicopters, laser weapons and electronic jamming are all deemed indispensable to the Navy’s now unfolding future vision of carrier-based air power, senior service leaders said. Several years ago, the Navy announced that the V-22 Osprey will be taking on the Carrier On-Board Delivery mission wherein it will carry forces and equipment on and off carriers while at sea.  

Citing the strategic deterrence value and forward power-projection capabilities of the Navy’s aircraft carrier platforms, the Commander of Naval Air Forces spelled out the services’ future plans for the carrier air wing several years ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C think tank.

A Russian S-500, able to hit ranges of up to 125 miles is now under development, The National Interest reports.

Navy planners believes the F-35C is likely to have some success against even the most advanced Russian-build surface-to-air missiles such at the S-300, S-400 and emerging S-500. 

The Navy plans to have its F-35C operational by 2018 and have larger numbers of them serving on carriers by the mid-2020s.

----To Read a Special Scout Warrior Report on Landing an F-35C on a Carrier Click HERE----

The service plans to replace some of its legacy or “classic” F/A-18s with the F-35C and have the new aircraft fly alongside upgraded F/A-18 Super Hornet’s from the carrier deck.

While the F-35C will bring stealth fighter technology and an ability to carry more ordnance to the carrier air wing, its sensor technologies will greatly distinguish it from other platforms, Navy officials said.

At the same time, more than three-quarters of the future air wing will be comprised of F/A-18 Super Hornets, he added.

 The submarine hunting technologies of the upgraded MH-60R is a critical component of the future air wing, Navy officials have said.

The MH-60R is equipped with an anti-submarine warfare package. It has an airborne low frequency sensor, an advanced periscope detection system combined with a data link, electronic warfare suite and forward looking infrared radar, Navy leaders said.

Also, the Growler will be receiving an electromagnetic weapon called the Next-Generation Jammer. This will greatly expand the electronic attack capability of the aircraft and, among other things, allow it to jam multiple frequencies at the same time.

The Navy is also moving from its E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft to an upgraded E-2D variant with improved radar technology.

---To Read a Scout Warrior Report on Navy Osprey Carrier Preps Click HERE--

Ford-Class Technologies

The service specifically engineered Ford-class carriers with a host of next-generation technologies designed to address future threat environments. These include a larger flight deck able to increase the sortie-generation rate by 33-percent, an electromagnetic catapult to replace the current steam system and much greater levels of automation or computer controls throughout the ship, among other things.

The ship is also engineered to accommodate new sensors, software, weapons and combat systems as they emerge, Navy officials have said.

The ship’s larger deck space is, by design, intended to accommodate a potential increase in use of carrier-launched technologies such as unmanned aircraft systems in the future.

The USS Ford is built with four 26-megawatt generators, bringing a total of 104 megawatts to the ship. This helps support the ship's developing systems such as its Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, and provides power for future systems such as lasers and rail-guns, many Navy senior leaders have explained.

The USS Ford also needs sufficient electrical power to support its new electro-magnetic catapult, dual-band radar and Advanced Arresting Gear, among other electrical systems.

As technology evolves, laser weapons may eventually replace some of the missile systems on board aircraft carriers, Navy leaders have said. Laser weapons need about 300 kilowatts in order to generate power and fire from a ship. 

Should they be employed, laser weapons could offer carriers a high-tech, lower cost offensive and defensive weapon aboard the ship able to potential incinerate incoming enemy missiles in the sky.

The Ford-class ships are engineered with a redesigned island, slightly larger deck space and new weapons elevators in order to achieve an increase in sortie-generation rate. The new platforms are built to launch more aircraft and more seamlessly support a high-op tempo.

The new weapons elevators allow for a much more efficient path to move and re-arm weapons systems for aircraft. The elevators can take weapons directly from their magazines to just below the flight deck, therefore greatly improving the sortie-generation rate by making it easier and faster to re-arm planes, service officials explained.

The next-generation technologies and increased automation on board the Ford-Class carriers are also designed to decrease the man-power needs or crew-size of the ship and, ultimately, save more than $4 billion over the life of the ships.

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