Author Topic: The Aircraft Carrier Debate - The Ironside Report  (Read 369 times)

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Offline DaveIronside

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The Aircraft Carrier Debate - The Ironside Report
« on: January 07, 2020, 08:56:37 PM »
Over the last couple of weeks or so there have been numerous discussions about aircraft carriers following an in context RP post in which East Moreland was first thinking of giving up its aircraft carrier fleet and then more recently following what has become known as the Samuelson Report where the East Moreland Minister of Defence laid out recommendations to replace them with something as of yet undetermined. This has lead to quiet a few people asking me questions related to this topic, I suspect to inform them on IC decisions, some of these discussions have taken place on Discord while others have been via PM. While the Samuelson report is clearly not in favour of aircraft carriers this is a purley IC stance. In order to perhaps answer questions people may have consider this an attempt at a rather more balanced view.

Let us first consider the purpose of an aircraft carrier and the tasks it is expected to undertake. Defensively a carrier's air arm serves two main roles, the first is to help inform of an incoming attack either through the use of an airborne early warning system to spot incoming air threats and the second an anti submarine role (normally carried out by specially equipped helicopter). The second of it's defensive tasks if to neutralise an incoming threat. In attack the carrier air arm is tasked with a whole host of missions ranging from engaging with targets on land, sea and air, carrying out reconnaissance by overflight of targets, suppressing enemy air defence, providing close support for ground troops (perhaps as part of say an amphibious landing) or simply striking ground targets such as depots. There is no doubt that in 2020 the best way to do this far from home is by the use of an aircraft carrier however on a more and more regular basis the offensive aspects of a carriers purpose are being undertaken by unmanned aircraft. This is for several reasons, the first is that these drones can often remain airborne and "on station" for a much longer period than a manned aircraft. Take for example the US Navies F-18 assuming it does not have to engage in combat of any sort it can remain airborne over a fleet or ground of soldiers on the ground for approximately 2 1/2 hours. Compare this to X-47 which is likely to become the US Navy's first dedicated UAV and it's estimated 5 hours on target. The advantage of a UAV is also that it tends to be smaller than a regular fighter aircraft, the X-47 is roughly six meters shorter, 1.5 meters lower and has a much flatter profile meaning a much smaller radar cross section. The X-47 is therefore likely to be much more able to avoid enemy air defence and make the hit on targets within the territory of an enemy. Additionally if such an operation is undertaken against a modern air defence then the risk to aircrew increases, if using a UAV this threat is totally removed. There is then many advantages a UAV would have over traditional aircraft carrier operations, however it has one major downside as well as several minor ones. First the X-47 when in service is likely to hold two weapons bays for a total of around 2,000kg of weaponry and its smaller radar cross section also means a small space in which to hold the weaponry thus limiting the variety they can hold. An F-18 on the other hand has 11 hard points for a total of around 8,000kg and as the weaponary is held on the outside of the aircraft it is not limited by the size of weapon thus allowing it to carry a wider variety of weapon. As I write this in early 2020 then the aircraft carrier still in many ways will remain in its traditional form. It allows more flexibility than a drone based carrier and as the next paragraphs will show has several other advantages

The first of these advantages is the way missions can be changed as they unfold. The wider variety of weapon carried by something such as the F-18 means that should the aircraft spot targets of opportunity while airborne it can take them out. Many sorties carried out during situations like the Vietnam War saw pilots given a target for their air raid and then a whole list of secondary targets. The vast amount of firepower a pilot can carry coupled with their ability to utilise onboard sensors and even their own eyes allows immediate verification of targets availability and coupled with the firepower the chance to eliminate it when presented. On the flip side a X-47 or similar would fail to be able to do this, it would rely on imagery collected by earlier overflights or satellite and the the smaller bomb bays would likely mean that only designated targets would be able to be struck. An F-18 is able to carry, and generally does, a combination of air to air and air to ground weapons allowing the pilot to defend themselves against air attack. The X-47 is likely to have to choose between air to air operations for which current UAV's are ill prepared or choose to carry air to ground weapons thus rendering it unable to defend itself against enemy aircraft.

The second advantage of an aircraft carrier is its ability to allow its operator to go anywhere and hit anything. Roughly 80% of the world's population lives within a hundred miles of the sea, so having the ability to put what is essentially a  floating air base capable of hitting hundreds of targets per day for months at a time without logistics support is a powerful tool. This though assumes such attacks are carried out against a nation or enemy incapable of manning a strong air defence. An aircraft carrier is often cited as the power projection tool the mere presence of which sends a strong diplomatic message. While operations in places like the Middle East during Desert Storm took place from allied air bases in places such as Saudi Arabia recent events have shown situations can change denying the use of such bases at other times. An aircraft carrier does not need an ally in the region to be operational allowing its owner to operate anywhere on the planet. The aircraft carrier is also a more difficult target than these land based air strips. The location of every enemy airbase and air-strip is likely to be well known to the enemy. This is why during the Cold War the concept of the A-10 operating from under Autobahn bridges in Germany was seen as such an important aspect of the aircraft. An aircraft carrier can constantly be on the move making a strike against it a case of first having to locate it before beginning the work of somehow penetrating its air-defences which can be extensive if utilising a system of using the carriers own aircraft and then a carrier escort of Destroyers and/or Frigates.

The third reason to keep carriers is they are cost effective. The average life expectancy of a carrier is 50 years and essentially as carrier are floating air bases they often rely on their escort for sensor data on sea traffic and other threats. Meanwhile a Destroyer in the 21st Century is likely to see around 25-30 years. A smart bomb dropped by a F-18 is likely to cost somewhere between $20-50k while a cruise missile is somewhere in the region of $500k - $1.5million. This essentially means you can get much much more bang for your buck with an aircraft carrier. The carrier also frees you from having to purchase, lease, bribe, etc your way from having to acquire territory to build a land base. This can also at times mean working with people/nations you do not fully respect or identify with thus politically compromising yourself.

Clearly then so far the argument seems pretty strong to keep aircraft carriers and in fact expand them. This then begs the question of why are real-life debates taking place about whether the aircraft carrier as we know it has seen its days. First as I have hinted at is the issue of danger to aircrew and aircraft. It is likely if a conflict between two technologically similar nations like the USA and say China were to take place and everything else was equal the attacking nation would struggle to penetrate the others air defence and would see a rather high number of losses in its air arm. The same would likely be the case should a X-47 or similar aircraft be used however this would have the benefit of saving the life of the aircrew.

The second reason to perhaps see the death of carriers is the development of ultra-modern anti-ship weapons. The most prominent of these is the Zircon from Russia. While some of you may be aware of this in terms of RP the real life version has legitimatly made nations panic. It is, assuming Russian propaganda is a lie, capable of hitting around Mach 4 and flying around 650km as well as being highly manoverable while flying a non-linear flight path (Should Russian propaganda be correct this would be Mach 5-6 and a range of 1000km). The sheer speed of this missile and its flight path would make it difficult for a carrier and its escort fleet to process data at significantly fast enough rates to get systems to shoot it down. Additionally even if the system could the missile is likely to be flying at such a speed and be so close to the carrier when taken out the ships structure would still potentially suffer damage. This has caused legitimate concern that a single missile could destroy a carrier with ease.

The third reason to consider removing carriers is their cost. The Gerald R.Ford class is estimated to have cost in the region of $13billion and is thought to be costing in the region of around $2.5billion to run a carrier which has undertaken active duty. This is significantly more than any other ship in the fleet. Arguments can be made that there is no mission profile that a carrier can conduct that a fleet made up of say Destroyers and Frigate's couldn't. Using cruise missiles they could take out ground targets and utilising laser targeting provide extremely close air support. Their on-board helicopters can be equipped for anti-submarine operations and satellites can undertake the reconnaissance role. This is all before aircraft such as the X-47 are finally developed. It is then likely when the X-47 becomes fully online that a much smaller carrier, or even adapted amphibious warfare ship, could operate aircraft. The issue here however is the lack of manned aircraft may mean less flexibility as I discussed was possible earlier. In terms of being able to strike at targets far from home the removal of carriers would be a major blow, however as weaponry develops the need for such a capability will diminish as missile ranges increase significantly meaning a theatre to theatre response may be the way forward.

So what do I believe the future of carriers will be. I firmly believe nations such as the US will be able to stick with the "supercarrier" concept. They have the finances to be able to do so and the things have served them very well over the last 50 years. Nations such as the UK, France etc will I believe begin to revert to smaller carriers. Take the new Queen Elizabeth Class, it is over 100meters shorter than the Gerald R.Ford, weighs 40,000 tonnes or so less, however the Gerald R.Ford can put around 75 aircraft in the air compared to 50 with the QE Class, not a significant difference. This is largely due to the development of the F-35, an aircraft capable of short or vertical landings and ultra modern, this development has also seen the likes of Japan and South Korea begin looking at using its helicopter carriers such as the Hyūga or Dokdo as kind of mini-carriers. These ships are much more affordable and will not significantly lack firepower. They will allow nations such as the UK to have elements of power projection at a fraction of the cost.

So where do "Drone Carriers" come in? At the moment the simple answer is they don't. The carriers have around another 50 years in existance in their current form as decisions made in the late 1980's and early 1990's dictated that this was a route to go down. I suspect in around 2030 nations will begin discussing in earnest the idea of a true drone carrier. To date the UUXV Combatant is possibly the most well thoughtout concept, it is this that became the RP "Cyborg Class" Drone Carrier in the Independent Order as East Moreland determined to go in the direction as obviously we were not tied to long term projects such as the US Navy and Royal Navy in RL. Add to this the fact that UAV's are still at a point where they are only just beginning to get used extensively at sea the concept is yet to be truly tested. I believe "Drone Carriers" will not perhaps be the long term replacement for aircraft carriers but more likely be the next generation of amphibious warfare ships. The concept UXV Combatant would have featured the ability to carry a decent sized Marine compliment and some amphibious landing capability joined with genuine firepower in the skies.

If I was the British Minister for Defence having to make the same decision as the East Moreland Harry Samuelson my conclusion would have been very different. I would have said follow the path the Royal Navy have by commissioning two QE Class carriers, I'd ideally have backed this with a new ship along the lines of the Dokdo or the old HMS Ocean that would have been more amphibious leaning but capable of operating the F-35 as a kind of almost "Backup carrier."

If this is the case then why did the Samuelson report in RP go against what I actually believe?

The answer to this is simple, with few exceptions our RP universe has every nation own a decent air-defence network. Should any nation turn up with a carrier therefore it does not perhaps present the same threat as in RL. If we take the recent move of a Rokkenjiman carrier to Quintellia in RP terms there is very little if anything for Quintellia to worry about. They have a decent military and be more than capable of defending their air-space from carrier launched attacks. What Quintellia should be concerned about would be cruise missile attacks eliminating their air defence umbrella or more likely punching holes in it. This would then allow aircraft to operate but these would still be under threat from the decent Quintellian air force. More than likely Rokkenjiman ships would also be in the range of Quintellian bombers and thus have a whole different threat. A fleet of more destroyers, frigates supported with the "Drone Carrier" is not more frightening in anyway however imagine it being an EM Drone Carrier replacing a Rokkenjiman aircraft carrier. We would still face the same problems of trying to penetrate air-defence but could achieve the same results with a lot less people. An aircraft carrier requires around 3,500 people, the UXV Combatant is likely to have a crew more in line with a Frigate, additionally we are not putting aircrew at danger. In the atmosphere of a super modern equipped Mundus the need for a pure traditional carrier is, in my view, less significant. However keep in mind nations like Rokkenjima will have committed to Aircraft carriers for the next 50 years or so, Tytor I believe have reached a point where their carrier is approaching the end of its service. They therefore sit at a cross-roads, to carrier or not to carrier. If Tytor were a real life nation on our Earth I would 100% suggest "get a new aircraft carrier" however on a Mundus the way we have it I would perhaps be advising a route similar to modern day Japan or South Korea, or follow the East Moreland.

If anyone has questions, comments etc feel free to add them. I've tried to answer most of the types of questions people have been asking me via PM and Discord but may have missed things.