In the world of big business, and big military, money is power. The
more money one controls, the more powerful one is. And, in the U.S.
military, the bigger the program and sexier the hardware/technology,
the more prestige you’ve got, especially if that hardware can rain a
lot of destruction down on the enemy. Perhaps those are just a few of
a multitude of reasons the U.S. Navy wants to spend an estimated
$13.7 billion per unit for a future Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft
carrier a.k.a. "super carrier" called the CVN 21 (formerly CVNX).
Basically, the stated mission of the Northrop Grumman CVN 21 Program is to
"conceptualize, design, build, test and deliver a state-of-the-art
aircraft carrier that meets operational requirements of the United
States Navy and results in specified reductions in acquisition costs,
manning and weight while enhancing operational capabilities." How, a
13.7 billion super aircraft carrier is going to lead to reductions in
acquisition costs is anyone’s guess, but it sounds good. And, good PR
is everything these days when it comes to huge-budget military
However, there are a couple of little "flies in the ointment" in the
form of…the latest ship-killing unmanned weapon systems like
supercavitating torpedoes and supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles
being produced and/or developed by other countries that can probably
sink the CVN-21, even if it is protected by its own highly-advanced,
highly-lethal systems like fighter aircraft (primarily F/A-18s), ASW
(Anti-Submarine Warfare i.e. "sub-hunting") aircraft, the Raytheon
Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS), Aegis-radar-equipped and highly-weaponized cruisers and destroyers,
submarines, etc. That’s not to mention unmanned aircraft systems
(UAS) a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being produced and
developed by other countries that can also potentially wreak a lot of
havoc and destruction on surface ships. And, at the end of the day,
that’s what the CVN-21 will be, a large, hulking, incredibly expensive
(albeit very sexy) surface ship.
The thing about surface ships is, they’re vulnerable to anti-ship
missiles, torpedoes, AND UAS/UAVs, the whole trifecta, and these
unmanned yet highly lethal weapons are increasing in sophistication
all the time.
Take the BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile (air-breathing), for instance. An
Indian-Russian joint venture, the BrahMos can be launched from
aircraft, ships, and subs, and flies at approx. three (3) times the
speed ("high supersonic velocity") of standard subsonic cruise
missiles like the Raytheon BGM-109 Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile (TLAM)
(submarine or ship-launched) and Boeing AGM-84
Harpoon/SLAM (Stand-off Land Attack Missile) anti-ship cruise
missile. It’s fire-and-forget, has a low radar signature, and can be
programmed for a variety of attack trajectories. The Brahmos Aerospace website has an "operational scenario" illustration that shows the BrahMos
Universal Supersonic Cruise Missile’s versatility with regard to
And, then there’s the Russian-made 3M-54E / SSN-27 Sizzler supersonic cruise missile being employed/deployed by China and (reportedly) Iran’s Kilo subs (unconfirmed/unverified), which is currently giving our Naval commanders a real headache in trying to figure out a way to defend our carriers against it. Major problem.
Basically, the BrahMos and Sizzler supersonic cruise missiles look
like an excellent complements/companions to the Russian SS-N-22 Sunburn
(a.k.a. 3M-82 Moskit a.k.a. P270 Moskit) ramjet-powered anti-ship
missile, SS-NX-26 Yakhonts missile (follow-on to the Sunburn missile,
also ramjet powered) and VA-111 Shkval Supercavitating Rocket Torpedo
(which, by the way, is capable of speeds exceeding 200 knots under
water) and whatever other more-advanced supercavitating torpedoes the Russians might have in their arsenal.A quick note on the Shkval: The VA-111 Shkval’s high speed is achieved
via supercavitation, where a vacuum bubble forms in front of and
around the body of the torpedo, greatly reducing water resistance
(i.e. friction). Pretty cool, except for the fact that the Russian
military has it, and ours (U.S.) doesn’t. The good news is, word on
the street is that the Shkval is "dumb", meaning it’s not a guided
fire-and-forget torpedo. At least that’s what the public’s being
told. The bad news? The bad news is, that even if this is true, the
Russians aren’t stupid, militarily complacent, or devoid of ideas and
plans, and their military technology is constantly marching forward
for the motherland just like ours is–sometimes even faster. So, it’s
just a matter of time (probably not much, at that) before a successor to the Shkval
series of supercavitating torpedoes is developed that’s a
"smart" guided fire-and-forget weapon that will home in on our very
expensive ships and subs with the single-minded precision and
obsession of a lion pack on a wounded water buffalo.
By the way, what if the Russians already have a "smart" precision-guided supercavitating torpedo? Chances are, the Shkval isn’t the most advanced supercavitating torpedo they’ve got. Remember, they don’t have as open a press or society there as we do (especially under Putin), so theoretically it should be easier for them to keep the latest advanced military weapons a secret. Same goes for China. While we’re on the subject, what if the Russians and/or Chinese have a more advanced supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (one with countermeasures and multi-mode guidance/targeting) than the Brahmos, Sizzler, Sunburn, Yakhonts, or any other missile that’s been reported on so far in the press? It’s not exactly unlikely, since the Russians and Chinese have their own classified systems just like we have ours. Using that same argument, let’s hope we (the U.S.) have some classified ship-defense systems (particularly for our carriers) of which DefenseReview is unaware to counter anything (anti-ship weapons) the Russians, Chinese, et al could possibly have at their disposal.
It’s ironic that in the post-cold-war world, some might say, well, "if
somebody’s got to have weapons like that, at least it’s just Russia"
(oh, and India), right? Not really. On January 18, 2006, Jane’s
Defence Weekly published an article on the development of a D-21
medium-range ballistic missile-based anti-ship missile being develped by the Chinese
People’s Liberation Army (PLA). And that’s not all the Chinese
have. Apparently, the Chinese now reportedly have Russian
Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with the afformentioned Russian
3-M-82 Moskit/SS-N-22 Sunburn and (probably) SS-N-27 Sizzler anti-ship cruise missiles. Thank God the
Chinese are our "friends", too, just like the Russians, huh? I mean,
both of those "friendly" countries need us as a trading partner into
the forseeable future, so they wouldn’t launch those big, mean
anti-ship missiles and torpedoes against our big expensive (approx. $5
billion–without the planes on it) Nimitz-class aircraft carriers or
CVN-21 future aircraft carrier, would they? Of course not. For now.
That’s the thing about this crazy world. Things have a funny
way of changing. Sometimes they change gradually, and sometimes they
change very quickly. The world turns, paradigms shift, and the next
thing ya’ know the Russians or the Chinese are launching a battery
(let’s say 20-100) of Sizzler (or other) supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and supercavitating torpedoes at one time
against a single U.S. aircraft carrier, and yesterday’s friend is
suddenly today’s enemy sinking your very expensive battleship. But, again, why would the Chinese want to
sink one or several of our aircraft carriers? After all, they don’t
still want Taiwan back. And, it’s not like we’ve ever threatened to
send in our aircraft carriers and other surface ships to protect
Taiwan. Hell, they’ve probably forgotten all about that
technologically and monetarily-rich little island sitting right off
their coast. They’re probably past it. On to the next thing. After
all, the Chinese are known for their forgetful nature and
O.k., so, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Indians can all sink our
aircraft carriers faster than a pitbull can down a steak. At least
the Iranians don’t have anything like that. Ya’ know, ’cause that
would be alarming. What? The Iranian’s do have something like that?
Oh, God, that’s right, remember what I wrote about the world changing?
It seems that the Iranians are developing their own supercavitating
torpedo called the "Hoot" (or "Whale") "sonar-evading underwater
missile" a.k.a. supercavitating torpedo, most likely based on the
Russian Shkval tech, since the Russians were helping them develop it,
at least in the late 1990’s. The Iranians claim that "no submarine or
warship can escape." And, according to this DEBKAfile article, Iranian Kilo subs can already launch the Sizzler missile. So, there’s Russian technology and technical
expertise behind the Iranian navy, now. Perfect (Sarcasm). That’s just wonderful (sarcasm, again).Now, what if Russian president Vladimir Putin or his successor decides
to sell the Sunburn or Yakhonts missile to the Iranians, just like the
U.S. once did with the Stinger shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile
to the Afgani Mujahedeen in the 1980’s. Just like the Stinger turned
that war around for the Afghani’s, so would the Sunburn or Yakhonts
change the game for the Iranian’s versus the U.S. Navy. If that were
to happen, payback would truly be a bitch, for us.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking "So what?" Even if the
Iranians get one of those super-duper missiles, the U.S. Navy’s got SeaRAM,
which can defeat those nasty Mach 2.5 (approx.) anti-ship missiles.
The SeaRAM Anti-Ship Missile Defense System can defeat it. It’s our
salvation. Well, not so fast. Ya’ see, that little theory depends on
two things: 1) that the enemy missile threat will be detected in time
and SeaRAM will have a 100% kill rate, and 2) the 11-missile RAM
launcher won’t run out of missiles before the enemy does.
Boy, that’s a lot to depend on. In the tactical shooting a.k.a.
defensive shooting world, there’s an old saying: "Action beats
reaction." In other words, the actor always has the time advantage over
the reactor. Time is the reactor’s enemy, which means it will be our
ships’ enemy, if any of the now multiple countries who have supersonic
anti-ship missiles and high-speed supercavitating torpedoes decide to
launch them on us. Make no mistake, the first ships they’ll launch
against will be our aircraft carriers, and they’ll probably launch a
large number of these missiles at one time.
Let’s give the U.S. Navy the benefit of the doubt, and say that it can
stop 90% of the enemy missiles and/or torpedos streaking towards the
carrier(s). The result’s going to be the same. Understand that if
just one of these missiles or torpedos hits the carrier, it’s probably
done. Even if it doesn’t sink, it will most likely be taken out of
operation. So, in effect, no more carrier. Let’s say it takes two
hits to destroy the carrier. All the enemy will have to do is fire at
least 20 missiles at once, get its two hits on the carrier, and no
more carrier. What if the enemy launches 20 missiles and 20 torpedos
at the carrier at the same time? Get the picture? 20 anti-ship
missiles and 20 torpedos might read like a big investment, but it’s
nowhere near the investement of a $5-$13.7 billion aircraft
carrier. Not even close.And, then there’s the threat of bomb-laiden enemy unmanned aircraft systems/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAS/UAVs). Back in June 2006, an Iranian UAV/UAS flew and loitered over the USS Ronald Reagan supercarrier undetected and unmolested for 25 minutes before flying back safely to its base. That’s a problem. One of the factors contributing to this blind spot/vulnerability for U.S. warships may be the lack of slow-speed/long-loiter time fixed-wing observation/reconnaissance/detection aircraft that can be launched from and fly continuously over U.S. aircraft carriers and the rest of the ships in the battle group, leaving them without the requisite air cover to defend against enemy UAV/UAS threats. As Defense Review outlined in a previous article, U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups are no longer launching S-3B Viking ASW/ASuW (Anti-Submarine Warfare/Anti-Surface Warfare) aircraft off the deck. Obviously, this leaves all the ships in a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group vulnerable to submarine attack (missile and torpedo), but the S-3B Viking, if it were still operational, could probably also assist in protecting against enemy UAV/UAS attacks.
Perhaps the best low-speed/long-loiter aircraft for this role would be an two-seat, navalized version of the Northrop Grumman A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog" ground attack aircraft, or "Sea Hog", if you will. Having a man in the second seat (rear seat) would be an important element in the Seahog’s ability to protect the battlegroup. A second man would provide a second pair of eyes (a valuable addition in itself), and he could concentrate on the observation, reconnaissance and detection roles, freeing up the pilot to concentrate/focus on flying the aircraft (and not crashing). Basically, the second man would be an AFAC, or "Airborne Forward Air Controller".
By the way, while we’re at it, we might want to consider bringing tactical seaplanes back. In case you’re woried about speed, jet-powered seaplanes like the Convair F2Y Sea Dart proved a long time ago that seaplane fighter aircraft can fly just as fast as land-based fighter aircraft, not that they necessarily need to fly that fast (per the previous two paragraphs). Seaplanes would obviate the need for a catapult launch and recovery system, and give the battle group enhanced air defense and attack capability.
Bottom line, if we get into any kind of serious beef with ANY country
that has a decent arsenal of these weapons, our aircraft carriers will
most likely be destroyed and sunk within minutes. They’re just too
big, too slow, and too visible to survive, even with all their onboard
and offboard networked defenses. The fact is that high-speed,
sophisticated precision anti-ship weapons technology is cheaper and
can therefore outpace our ability to protect our big, slow carriers.
In the end, war is a financial transaction. Russian helicopters cost
a lot more to produce, field and replace than Stinger missiles, and
U.S. Aircraft carriers cost A LOT more to produce, field and replace
than even the most sophisticated anti-ship weapons.
But, here’s the kicker: The enemy might not even have to rely on the
above-discussed weapons to sink our carriers. Back in 2002, the U.S.
Navy conducted a training exercise called "Millenium Challenge 02", which was designed to
showcase high-tech joint-force doctrine. Instead, it ended up
showcasing the ability of the Opposing Force (OPFOR) Commander, Gen.
Paul Van Riper, to sink two-thirds of the U.S. fleet with "nothing more
than a few small boats (fishing boats, patrol boats, etc.) and
aircraft." Here’s how Gary Brecher a.k.a. "War Nerd" described Gen.
Van Riper’s naval combat tactics, and the ramifications (i.e.
big-picture significance) of the resulting carnage to our warships:
"He kept them circling around the edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly,
driving the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them. When the Admirals
finally lost patience and ordered all planes and ships to leave, van
Ripen had them all attack at once. And they sank two-thirds of the US
That should scare the hell out of everybody who cares about how well
the US is prepared to fight its next war. It means that a bunch of
Cessnas, fishing boats and assorted private craft, crewed by good
soldiers and armed with anti-ship missiles, can destroy a US aircraft
carrier. That means that the hundreds of trillions (yeah, trillions)
of dollars we’ve invested in shipbuilding is wasted, worthless."
And, that’s about right. Pretty accurate assessment. DefenseReview
recommends that you read the article.
Now, in case you’re thinking that Millenium Challenge 02 was just an
anomoly, Bill Sweetman recently reported for Ares defense technology blog on submarine HMCS Corner
Brook successfully targeting British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious
a.k.a. "Lusty. To prove that this actually happened, the Canadian
Navy released a photograph of the Illustrious that was
taken through the Corner Brook’s periscope. "The picture represents
hard evidence that the submarine was well within attack parameters and
would have been successful in an attack," said Commander Luc Cassivi
of Submarine Division, Halifax.
If the Corner Brook had been a hostile sub, good ol’ Lusty would have
been seconds away from being sunk by a Mk 48 heavyweight torpedo–and
that’s not even a high-speed supercavitating torpedo. Truth is, the
torpedo doesn’t have to be that fast, because action beats reaction,
and the threat you don’t see is probably the threat that will kill
you–and Illustrious couldn’t see Corner Brook.
So, what’s the solution? There are a few, actually. The most
intelligent solution is probably to go to an all-submarine combat
fleet, with quiet-running (or, even better, silent-running) submarine
aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. This
should be within the United States’ technological capability.
However, even if we can’t make our warships true submarine warships
(capable of going very deep), we should at least be able to make them
submersible to an adequate depth where they can’t be effectively
targeted by anti-ship missiles. The submarine ships of all types
should be outfitted with advanced anti-ship missiles and torpedos, and
equally-advanced anti-aircraft missiles.
The second solution is to go with a partial submarine, partial surface
fleet. Ideally, the surface ships (cruisers, destroyers, etc.) should
sit low in the water and incorporate design and weaponization aspects
similar to the developmental NGSS (Northrop Grumman Ship
Systems)/General Dynamics DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class Destroyer a.k.a. (formerly DD 21 Destroyer) and CG(X)
Cruiser. One of these design aspects is a low-profile
"tumblehome" hull form for stealth, reducing the radar cross section
(RCS) significantly. Another is the proposed Peripheral Vertical Launch System (PVLS), to reduce
the ship’s vulnerability to a single hit. All ships (surface and
submarine) should be as small and fast as possible, and be capable of
carrying, launching, and recovering 2-12 F-35B (STOVL) or F-35C Lightning II JSF (Joint Strike
A larger number of smaller, faster, stealthier ships, all networked
and each capable of launching their own F-35 fighter aircraft, would
yield a big combat advantage over a smaller number of much larger
ships that are much easier to target, track and hit. In the age of
high-tech, high-speed fire-and-forget missiles and torpedoes, a
smaller, faster, more dispersed and less-visible fleet is most likely
the smarter way to go. Each ship will be organically less vulnerable
to anti-ship missile and torpedo attack, cost less and take less time
to build (and thus replace if destroyed), and carry less men on it (so
less men will be injured and/or killed if it’s sunk). Each ship will
also be individually less important/crucial to the overall fight than
a single, huge, uber-expensive super carrier like a Nimitz class or
CVN 21 supercarrier. Why put all our eggs (or most of them) in one
basket, when we can disperse the force and the risk?
The third solution is to at least make our aircraft carriers submarine
(or at least submersible). You’d probably be limited to approx. 12
aircraft per boat, but so what? Just build more boats.
Yes, a big, shiny CVN-21 supercarrier surface ship will look really
impressive initially when it shows up off someone’s coast. But, how
impressive will it look when it’s sinking to the bottom after getting
pulverized with anti-ship missiles and torpedos? If the U.S. Navy
keeps building gigantic surface aircraft carriers and daring people to
sink them, odds are, eventually, someone will take us up on it and do
just that. My personal prediction is that this will happen within the
next 10-20 years. Within 10-20 years, one of our aircraft carriers
will get sent to the bottom by enemy missiles or torpedos (or
both)–or possibly even UAVs/UAS. This scenario could even happen
within the next five years. I hope I’m wrong about this. I really
do. It would be a terrible loss of life. But, by building these
humugous surface ships, we’re asking for it, and it’s probably going
to take a tragedy like this to wake up the top brass in Navy and
DoD–if they get the right message at all. It’s possible that they’ll
learn the wrong lesson and just build a bigger aircraft carrier with
more armor, weapons and aircraft on it. Let’s hope that doesn’t
A very wise U.S. submarine commander once said "There are two kinds of
ships in the US Navy: subs and targets."
How right he was.