31 January 2006

British Aircraft Carriers Are Cheap (Or Are They?)

Budget estimates for the next American aircraft carrier run about $14 billion for a ship similar in size to the 97,000+/- ton carriers that are the centerpiece of the American Navy today. (Some general background on Naval issues can be found here.) Compare what the British plan to spend:

The two 50,000-metric-ton conventionally powered carriers now under development for Britain's Royal Navy are expected to cost a minimum of $2.5 billion each.

Aircraft not included.

But, a British conventionally powered carrier looks a lot more like an American amphibious assault ship like the Tarawa and Wasp class amphibious assault ships. The American ships typically carry six Harrier STOVL fighters and a couple of dozen helicopters, while the British carriers currently carry eight Harrier fighters and a dozen helicopters, which is a complement of aircraft that the American ships could accommodate instead. Like the American Tarawa LHA class ships and the Wasp LHD class ships, which are both about 40,000 tons each (v. 50,000 for the British ships), the British ships will be conventionally powered rather than nuclear powered. The American amphibious assault ships are also closer in cost. "The projected price-tag for the last of the Wasp class is approximately $1.8 billion." This ship, the LHD-8, is scheduled to enter service in 2007.

The aircraft carriers of Italy, Spain and Thailand are all quite similar to the British ones. The aircraft carriers of Russia, Brazil, France and India are larger than the British ones, but have about half the capacity of the American CVNs. All of these countries have just a single carrier. Britain currently has three.

The United States has twelve CVNs (soon to be eleven, the Kitty Hawk is due to be replaced in 2008 by the George W. Bush and budget planners are seriously considering retiring the John F. Kennedy sooner than planned without a replacement) and five Tarawa (one of which will probably be retired when the eighth Wasp class ship is completed next year) and seven Wasp class ships. The U.S. Navy would like to begin construction on a first replacement for the Tarawa class ships called the LHA(R) in 2007, but doesn't even have specifications for the proposed ship yet.

American CVN aircraft carriers, in contrast, which are nuclear powered and run about 97,000 tons, can carry up to about 85 aircraft, mostly more conventional fighter aircraft, although they are usually not filled with the maximum possible compliment of aircraft (fighters don't come cheap). Typically, at least forty fighter aircraft are carried, along with about thirty other supporting aircraft, anti-submarine/anti-surface ship planes, and helicopters. The argument for having this large class of ships is that for only twice as much ship, you get four times the capacity to carry aircraft, and that a nuclear powered ship can have a thinner supply line than a conventionally fueled one. But, prices apparently track aircraft carrying capacity more closely than they do the raw number of tons in the ship.

Substituting a larger number of Wasp/British carrier type ships, for a plan to maintain the status quo in the U.S. Navy is one issue being seriously considered by Congress. Building two, three or even four smaller "Harrier carriers" would be cheaper than building one full sized American CVN carrier, and the STOVL version of the F-35 called the F-35B which the smaller carriers would carry, is also projected to be less expensive than the simpler F-35C version designed for CVNs.

The linked story has a lot about Chinese ambitions to get an aircraft carrier, but that is for another story.


This story was linked at Murdoc Online, a military blog, where readers posed a number of questions. Some go beyond the scope of this post by cutting to the chase on the issue of whether or not this is a good idea, rather than simply comparing the facts about the options, as this post does, without really taking a position one way or the other. But, one question that did come up concerns the cost of the aircraft and questions about how many crew each option would involve. I posted a comment there to respond to those questions and reprint it here for my regular readers:

A Nimitz class carrier has a crew of about 5900 people (ship's crew and air crew combined). A Wasp class ship has a 1146 member crew in addition to 1893 Marines. Something on the order of 600 Marines are probably air crew, most of them are probably not (carried aircraft require on average about 20-30 crew each). Thus, the crew of a Wasp class vessel configured simply to be a mini-carrier instead of a full fledged troop ship, would probably be about 1750.

By comparison, an Invincible class British VSTOL carrier has a crew of 1089. The combined air and ship's crew for an Italian Harrier carrier (exclusive of their version of non-air crew Marines) is about 880. Spain's Harrier carrier has a crew of 764. France's Charles De Gaulle (which is intermediate in aircraft capacity) has a crew of 1950 exclusive of troops, which is still a third of the crew of a Nimitz. India's VSTOL carrier has a crew of 1550. Thailand's Harrier carrier has a crew of 601. Brazil's Sao Paulo carrier (transferred from France) has a crew of 1800-1900. Even Russia's Kuznetsov Supercarrier has a crew of 2,586, about half of that of an American Nimitz class carrier.

All crew data from here for sake of consistency.

Thus, you could staff at least three (and maybe four) mini-carriers with the same number of crew it takes to staff one supercarrier, a lower ship acquisition cost, a comparable aircraft cost per aircraft.

Global Security.org pegs the costs as follows: "Current program estimates peg the recurring JSF unit flyaway costs at $37 million for the Air Force conventional takeoff and landing variant, $46 million for the Marine Corps short takeoff vertical landing variant and $48 million for the Navy carrier version, in 2002 dollars." I relied on this as my source.

Wikipedia, relying upon the Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, September 2005, pegs the cost at $45 million U.S. for F-35A, $60 million U.S. for the F-35B and $55 million U.S. for the F-35C. The F-35C is a somewhat larger and more robust plane than the other two which is why it is more expensive. Apparently, cost overruns have disproportionately run up the F-35B costs in the last couple of years. Still, certainly, aircraft price is not a big factor in the small v. large debate.


Murdoc said...

Man, you started a firestorm of controversy on my site! Great post!

Mike Burleson said...

The standard argument is "no carrier can do what US super carriers can". The question is, when will it be enough, and when is it too much.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I think the main response to the "no carrier can do what U.S. supercarriers can.", is that not all circumstances need a supercarrier, and that we shouldn't waste supercarriers to deal with less significant threats.

A mini-carrier with a small escort force (perhaps two or three frigates) might be just the ticket for supporting U.S. action in places like Liberia or Sri Lanka or Libya or Columbia or Guyana or Yemen or Haiti or some other country where air power is desired or to deal with pirates, but a robust military opposition with many quality submarines, cruise missiles, or major surface combatants is unlikely.

There are only a handful of places where supercarrier class intervention is likely to be required. The East China Sea and a potential Pakistan-India war would probably be the most likely.

The next most likely would be any country which was the subject of a full scale Iraq/Serbia class air assault (hence requiring a very vigorous pace of operations despite a lack of a strong military capability of the subject of the attack), which is something that can be timed and managed by the DOD (the administration has threatened such action in Syria and Iran, e.g., which is not to say that I support such actions),

The benefit you get from mini-carriers is that they allow you to deploy your supercarriers only where they are really needed, rather than trying to cover the entire globe.

Also, it is worth recalling that for all the opposition the brass has to mini-carriers, we basically have 12 supercarriers and 12 minicarriers right now. If supercarriers were really so gret, one could, for example, not replace the Tarawa class ships at all, and get another 1-2 supercarriers, but the Congress right now is leaning towards the status quo and replacing the Tarawa with LHA(R).

Anonymous said...

Just a quick point.

Part of the reason why the new carriers are projected to cost so much more than smaller models is because they are making large efforts towards reducing crew size. So, that introduces a wrinkle into your crew size comparisons.

Personally, I've always been somewhat fond of the modular (or "Voltron") seabase concept, where you put together as many Wasp-sized "ships" as you need to support the effort. However, that has to my understanding been cost-prohibitive to this point (I haven't seen any recent estimates).

Anonymous said...

I don't think we need to reinvent the wheel. Don't forget in your calculations that we A) are really good at building and operating the big carriers, use it or lose it, B)Follow on designs improve upon on what's known, C) commonality in ship types breeds efficiency, D)perhaps most important lately, the availability and cost of diesel fuel. Should we go to war with Iran for example, needing billions of gallons of fuel for our carriers??? (Don't forget in your calculations that for each small carrier you'd likely have to build, crew and operate one or more fleet replenishment ship to follow it around).

I do VERY strongly believe we need to operate at least one modified Wasp type ship as a mini carrier, optimised with F35's. Where? JAPAN. Last I recall, the Japanese do not allow Nuke ships to be based on their soil. I could be wrong, but I believe we retired our last conventional carrier, or soon will.(Constellation?) That I believe was the only non US homeported carrier.

Why build a single modified Wasp and base it in Japan? China/Taiwan. Consider a 40,000T carrier modified from the Wasp design optimsed for fighters as a quick reaction force. Today, if China rapidly ramped up their preparations for war, we would be in mad scramble to send carriers committed elsewhere. This is not to say one small carrier could do the job, in fact one big carrier couldn't do the job. But one big, one small, toss in another nearby unmodified Wasp loaded with extra fighters, with several more big carriers on the way and your deterrent is quite credible. Consider that at any given time, half our carriers are in port. That leaves 3-4 somewhere in the vast Pacific at any given time. One may be nearby, but the others could be thousands of miles away. A rapid reaction Vstol ship, plus a nearby supercarrier make a nice team. Remember, the catapults on Vstol carriers don't break.(since they don't have any) A Vstol carrier may possibly be able a provide more sorties per a/c per day than a conventional carrier. (Gas, load, and go)

A single modified Wasp carring 25-30 F-35's plus helos homeported just around the corner, dedicated to one unspoken task, keeps the Chinese in check and reassures nervous allies in the region that we are there to stay the course. It would serve to counterbalance a growing regional power, which someday may not resist the temptaion to flex it's muscles somewhere other than the Taiwan straights.

Anonymous said...

As a side note, assume a modified Wasp carries 30 fighter/strike a/c, and unmodified could carry 20, and a Nimitz about 60 plus support a/c.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately (and contrary to what all the cheerleaders say), the STOVL variant of the JSF F35 the Marines are buying to place on LHA's and LHD's DOES NOT have anywhere near the capabilities as the CV variant the Navy is buying for the CVNs.

The trade off for vertical landing is lack of range, payload, increased maintenance requirements, etc. Which is why the Navy didn't just get the F35B so as to have a cost savings by buying the same bird the jarheads are getting.

And these light assault carriers CANNOT operate the CV variant -- they are too short, lack arresting gear (which eats DIRECTLY into your below deck aviation spaces, dramatically reducing aircraft complement), lack catapults (ditto), and lack angled decks (the costs associated with implementing an angle deck into a Wasp LHD size hull are prohibitive. . . the LHA(R) ship design team has explored and rejected this option already.)

There are other issues related to force sustainability, due to the lack of the size of the "airfield" of the L-classes.

Bottom line, if you want to do serious force projection and DEEP interdiction missions "From The Sea", you still need full size CVs -- and if you're building them that big, you might as well build 'em as CVNs (which more than DOUBLES the amount of aviation fuel and ordnance you can carry). CVNs ccan even act as tankers to the non nuclear ships in the battlegroup (and regualrly do so), further reducing reliance on fragile tankers.

Having said that, are "escort carriers" (what we called this consept in WWII) a good idea? SURE! That's why the LHA(R) program was instituted.

Anonymous said...

folks, the thing that's making the damn carriers so expensive isn't the size. it's the nuclear propulsion. The British basically ruled out nuclear for their next carriers because it was so goddarn expensive. The French built a nuclear carrier: they won't be doing that again for the next carrier.

In today's world, nuclear-powered carriers is a gigantic cost overrun.