The issue matters now, not only because it is relevant to whether we should build new small aircraft carriers. It is also goes to the question of how badly the United States and its allies need the overbudget, far behind schedule F-35B, which is supposed to replace the aging AV-8B Harrier used by the Marines and most of the nations that own small aircraft carriers.
The following comment from a [purported] Marine at a military policy blog argues that the smaller carriers don't make military sense:
I'm a Marine and a firm believer that the USMC does not need VTOL or VSTOL as currently engineered. It gives us too little firepower for greater risk and price and reduced performance in every metric. We lay down expeditionary airfields everywhere we stay for any length of time - we can support fixed wing from there just fine. We don't need stovl for the amphibious ships, because there isn't enough space to carry enough aircraft to perform any contested airspace mission, and if it is contested airspace, we will have joint and carrier support as well. Again, once we are ashore, we can support normal fixed wing from EAFs we build.
I'm not necessarily convinced that this argument is right. He may be right that they are ill adapted for battles to take control of a "contested airspace" and he may be right that an STOVL fixed wing aircraft doesn't add much on missions where it makes sense to establish expeditionary airfields. But, these aren't the only possible missions for these aircraft. Instead, the right comparison might be whether one would prefer an STOVL F-35B to a helicopter gunship to provide air support to other forces when you do not have "contested airspace."
One of the military roles that the U.S. Marines has filled repeatedly in the past is to provide an off shore base from which to mount a limited military involvement in Third World countries with weak military forces like evacuation of expatriots, or destruction of an isolated military facility that could pose a threat to neighboring nations (like a medium term missile base or chemical weapons factory), or to provide a show of force that discourages the use of military force in the first place.
In this kind of limited, short term or symbolic mission, setting up an "expeditionary airfield" might be impractical or inconsistant with the mission. It isn't wrong to have military capabilities to engage in conflicts other than all out war intended to produce regime changes or gain control of someone else's territory on a prolonged basis.
A small number of F-35B aircraft might provide bombing capacity that helicopters could not, and the fact that these planes might be operating in at least nominally contested airspace, makes their stealth features particularly attractive.
Fixed wing STOVL fighters like the F-35B might also more effective defenses from opposition surface warfare craft or land based artillery or missile units than the alternatives. An F-35B can engage opponents farther away than any naval gun or torpedo, can carry more of a payload and go faster than a helicopter, and provides more flexibility and ability to evaluate potential targets than a cruise missile.
And, of course, nothing prevents the U.S. military from deploying more than one small aircraft carrier to a conflict to increase the number of available aircraft, rather than putting all of our eggs in one basket.
These possibilities still don't necessarily mean that small aircraft carriers make sense. An expeditionary airfield isn't the only one can deliver explosives to targets in in a distant land without STOVL technology. One can use long range bombers like the B-2, unmanned armed drone aircraft, ship or B-52 or submarine based cruise missiles, or ordinary fixed wing aircraft whose range is extended with tanker aircraft.
All of these alternatives have drawbacks. The trouble with the B-2, B-52 or ordinary aircraft whose range is extended with tanker aircraft, is that it takes more advanced planning; these options are less well suited to rapidly reacting to new developments on the ground. The gap isn't as great for helicopters, but helicopters are still slower, fly lower and have smaller bomb and missile payloads than STOVL fixed wing aircraft. Ship or submarine based cruise missiles also have limitations: they are blunt instruments that may be harder to use when your friends and your foes are close together in a rapidly evolving situation on the ground. Meanwhile, armed drone technology isn't quite ready to deliver the capabilities that an F-35B would provide, although it appears that this kind of capability might be available in the near future.
Given this analysis, the question then becomes whether the narrow kind of mission for which the F-35B is optimal is superior enough to the alternatives and important enough to overall U.S. military power to justify its great expense, and how many of them are necessary to adequately provide the capabilities where it is optimal.
For example, it might make sense to make a smaller F-35B buy, on the assumption that small aircraft carriers would use a "just in time" basing approach to them. Rather than assigning a full fleet of F-35B's to every small carrier, air tanker ferrying might be used to deliver F-35Bs to small carriers only when they arrive at destinations where there is a chance that they will be needed. A compliment of F-35Bs can be delivered as quickly as a Fed Ex package, and fresh pilots could be delivered separately so that the exhausted pilots who make the long delivery trip wouldn't have to be ready for action at a moment's notice when they arrived at their destination.
An Outline And Analysis Of A Smaller F-35 Buy
Since the kind of operations where an F-35B would be most useful are rare enough that they wouldn't be necessary in more than two places on the globe at any one time, it might be possible to have ready to go F-35Bs every place they were needed with a fleet of fewer than 40 F-35Bs (assuming that 50% of the fleet would be unavailable for maintenance reasons at any one time). If the Marines made a smaller buy, they would also need to buy a few hundred ordinary fixed wing aircraft for missions that didn't require STOVL capabilities; but while the Marines might not prefer to have two models of fighters to deal with, they currently use a combination of F-18s and AV-8Bs, so it isn't anything that Marines haven't had to deal with already. A mix of F-35As and F-35Bs would be less of a gap to bridge than the current mix for the Marines.
The current plan is for the U.S. to buy about 2,400 F-35s (about 1,760 of the F-35A variety and the remaining 640 of the F-35B and F-35C variety), including about 90 of the F-35B and 45 of the F-35C supercarrier variety in the next four years or so.
If the F-35C model were scrapped entirely in lieu of the still in production F-18, and the domestic F-35B model buy were reduced to perhaps 80 (40 for the Marines and 40 to add to the mix of aircraft available to Navy carriers), then the only one of the F-35 models being produced solely for U.S. consumption could be discontinued, and the share of the total buy allocated to the least technology risky, least expensive of the three types of F-35s could be increased. The total domestic buy of the more expensive B and C models would be reduced from 640 to 80, with less expensive F-35As and F-18s making up the remaining 560 aircraft buy.
Also, while the F-35A is clearly necessary to replace the aging F-16 fleet, it isn't obvious that we really need 1,760 F-35As for the Air Force and 560 combined F-35As and F-18s for the Navy and Marines. Given the dramatic improvement that have been made in bombing run accuracy, we may not need 2,320 new top of the line jet fighter aircraft (plus 180 or so F-22s) to replace the existing fleet of F-15s, F-16 and F-18s. Those numbers assume close to 1 to 1 replacement of existing aircraft. But, it is already common for U.S. supercarriers to be deployed only half full of aircraft (and the just in time approach suggested for small carriers could also be used for large carriers). Some roles proposed for the F-35A by the Air Force (like homeland defense and close air support) could probably be filled just as well by less expensive aircraft that don't suffer from the F-35's feature bloat. And, it may not be necessary to replace old planes with new planes at a 1-1 ratio in a post-Cold War era in light of improved bombing accuracy and stealth technology.
It certainly wouldn't be unreasonable to think that the Air Force, Marines and Navy combined could be adequately operated with 80 F-35Bs, a couple hundred new F-18s, and 1,420 F-35As (perhaps 1,100 for the Air Force and 320 for the Marines). This 900 plane reduction in the total F-35 buy (offset by a couple hundred more F-18s than planned and perhaps four hundred less expensive existing design, narrower capability Air Force aircraft at $30 million each) might reduce the total cost of aircraft purchases by $60 billion or more. These freed up funds could be used partially for other more pressing defense budget purposes and partially to reduce overall defense spending.
Certainly, this would leave the U.S. military with a smaller aircraft fleet than it has requested. But, this would still provide:
* An Air Force with 180 F-22s, 1,100 new F-35As, and 400 less capable new planes designed for homeland defense or close air support in environments where we control the air space and potential foes don't have radar. Also, perhaps 200 of our newest F-15s and F-16s would be retained until the end of their useful lives.
This would also probably reduce the size of the active duty Air Force by at least several thousand airmen.
* A Marine Corps with 320 new F-35As and 40 new F-35Bs. The F-35Bs would be deployed on a just in time basis.
* A Navy with 200 new F-18s and 40 new F-35Bs. Perhaps 160 existing F-18s would be retained. A significant share of carrier based aircraft would be deployed on a just in time basis.
How Would This Force Measure Up?
A combined U.S. military fighter fleet with 2,640 fighters would still be the largest in the world in raw numbers, and would be particularly powerful considering how advanced these fighters would be technologically compared to many of its potential opposition forces. China, for example, has about 1,420 fighter aircraft, many of which are old and technologically inferior. Russia has about 1,520 fighter aircraft, which while more advanced than the Chinese fleet, is still not as advanced as the U.S. fighter force would be after even a scaled back F-35 buy.
It is also almost inconceivable that the U.S. would start an air war requiring almost all of its fighter resources without supplementation from allies who also have numerous fighter aircraft. Taiwan, for example, has about 440 fighter aircraft, Japan has about 260, South Korea has about 470, Germany has about 265, Italy has about 190, the U.K. has more than 300.
Combined with likely allies in foreseeable conflicts, the smaller buy would still be large enough to outnumber either Chinese or Russian fighter forces by a 2-1 margin with the larger force also being technologically superior, something that the U.S. people were told when they were purchased would provide a decisive advantage in their military missions.
Savings from cuts to the F-35 program (also also to some planned U.S. Navy acquisitions) could free up considerable funds for other urgent military procurement needs, even if only half of the funds freed up were retained by the Department of Defense.