Monday, October 19, 2015

Are Modern Aircraft Carriers Less Capable Than Cold War Era Equivalents?

The high-cost, high-controversy centerpieces for the future Navy fleet — the Ford-class aircraft carrier and the F-35C fighter — not only take it in the wrong direction, says a report out today. They double down on a strategic mistake made 20 years ago, when the Navy shortchanged range, argues Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain now with the Center for a New American Security in a new study.

Only investing in new, unmanned aircraft with longer range — ideally launched off smaller, cheaper carriers — can restore the carrier’s relevance in the face of Russian and Chinese ship-killing missiles, Hendrix argues. Like a recent study from the Hudson Institute, Hendrix sharply criticizes the modern carrier air wing for being too short-ranged and argues the Navy’s UCLASS drone (Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance & Strike) should be optimized for long-range raids.

In fact, both studies were at least partially inspired by a public debate Hendrix had with one of the Hudson co-authors, Bryan McGrath, back in January. Unlike the Hudsonites, however, who stoutly defend big carriers in general and the Ford class in particular, Hendrix takes issue with the ships as well as the airplanes flying off them.

“I still think that the Ford is too damn expensive. I still think we can do aircraft carriers more cheaply,” Hendrix told me. And he’s hardly alone: The retired Navy pilot who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, repeatedly has hammered the Ford program for being over budget and behind schedule. Hendrix notes that McCain himself flew off the USS Forrestal, considered America’s first modern “supercarrier” but still 20 percent smaller than the subsequent Nimitz class or the Ford (80,000 tons at full load versus 100,000).

Yet despite being smaller, the Forrestal launched larger, longer-ranged aircraft than carriers do today. McCain, for example, flew the A-4 Skyhawk, whose range exceeds both the current standard strike fighter, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the forthcoming F-35C. (Skyhawk combat radius: 550-625 nautical miles. Super Hornet: 500 nm. F-35C: officially 615 but Hendrix estimates, based on how the F-35A variant is falling short of its range spec, that the C will end up closer to 550). Other retired carrier aircraft had even longer ranges, the greatest being the A3D Skywarrior introduced in 1956, the largest plane ever to fly from a carrier and boasting an 1,800-nm combat radius.

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