Navy Ponders New Breed of Smaller Carriers

With advanced targeting, missiles and other advanced tools at the disposal of rising and resurging adversaries, the U.S. Navy must rethink the way it structures its carrier fleet with an emphasis on legacy full-scale aircraft carriers and a new breed of smaller carriers.

With advanced targeting, missiles and other advanced tools at the disposal of rising and resurging adversaries, the U.S. Navy must rethink the way it structures its carrier fleet with an emphasis on legacy full-scale aircraft carriers and a new breed of smaller carriers, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) says in a recent report.

“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.

“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.”

When the Navy modernized the USS Midway in 1963, CSBA notes, it added catapults, arresting gear, and an angled deck. “This grew the displacement of the ship from 40,000 tons to 60,000 tons and increased its aircraft capacity from about forty to about sixty aircraft. The proposed CVL would not be as large as the modernized USS Midway, but between the two versions in terms of aircraft capacity.”

As the Navy builds CVLs with catapults and arresting gear, CSBA says, the CVL air wing will evolve to add one to two unmanned aerial vehicles (UCAVs), one to two utility/tanker unmanned vehicles, one to two electronic warfare (AEW) aircraft, and electronic attack (AEA) aircraft needed “for the threat environment. This evolution will require Navy-Marine Corps air wing integration, as is done today in CVN (traditional carrier) CVWs (carrier air wings).”

The CSBA offers an example for CVL operational concepts.

“The Deterrence Force in the Philippine Sea and Western Pacific, would be centered on the CVL (or LHA/LHD) from the ARG (amphibious readiness group) associated with the small-deck amphibious ships inside the first island chain. CVL strike-fighters would conduct strike, SUW (surface warfare), and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) operations to help deny Chinese aggression inside the South and East China Seas or attack Chinese naval and other targets outside the first island chain. It is to be expected that the CVL would be targeted and attacked by China’s reconnaissance-strike complex in time of war, so this Deterrence Force would include DDGs (guided-missile destroyers) to protect the CVL and a modified Counter-ISR Group to reduce the effectiveness of Chinese targeting.”

In the wake of the release of the CSBA report, which was done for and with the help of Defense Department and naval officials, Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, refrained from releasing official comments about some of the recommendations in the report, but released the following general statement:

“"The Navy is at an inflection point where we are back in competition. Many of the ideas from these studies will help us win that competition. To win, our thinking must sharp and these studies help us - they give us exactly what we want...some fresh ideas. Each study provided ideas that in some cases validated and advanced the Navy's current thinking. Some of the recommendations from the studies are so sound that we will act on them quickly. Other ideas show promise and we'll study those hard. The studies will be rolled into our program of analysis, war games, experiments, technology demonstrations, and prototyping."

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----Michael Fabey is a Scout Warrior Pentagon Correspondent----


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