Study Proposes Light Aircraft Carriers for the Future Fleet
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
ARLINGTON, Va. — A new fleet architecture study by a Washington think tank calls for 12 large nuclear-powered carriers (CVNs) as well as 10 light carriers (CVLs) in the future fleet.
The 10 CVLs would gradually replace the large-deck amphibious assault ships (LHAs/LHDs) currently in or being built for the fleet. The CVLs are the most significant change in ship types recommended in a new report, “Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy,” authored by naval analysts for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and conducted for the Navy in response to requirements of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.
The study proposes the CVLs to be 40,000-ton to 60,000-ton conventionally powered ships with catapults and arresting gear that would be able to operate tailhook aircraft in addition to short-takeoff-and-landing F-35B strike fighters.
“CVLs would provide power projection and sea control capabilities at the scale needed for day-to-day operations and for SUW [surface warfare], strike, and CAS [close air support] as part of initial combat, freeing CVNs to focus on high-end integrated multi-carrier operations as part of the Maneuver Force or the Northern Europe Deterrence Force,” the study said.
“In the near-term, existing LHA/LHD amphibious assault ships would be employed as CVLs using a loadout of twenty to twenty-five F-35B aircraft. As they reach the end of their service life, LHA/LHD-derived CVLs would be replaced by purpose-built CVLs with a displacement similar to a Cold War-era Midway-class aircraft carrier and equipped with catapults and arresting gear. As a result, CVL air wings would be able to become slightly larger and incorporate airborne electronic attack (AEA) and airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft that are catapult-launched and require an arrested landing.”
The networking capabilities of the F-35B have inspired naval leaders to consider using LHAs/LHDs as much more capable platforms for power projection. During Operation Desert Storm, the LHA USS Nassau carried 20 AV-8B Harrier II jets — rather than the normal six — in a “Harrier Carrier” role. A deck full of F-35Bs would give the ship significant power-projection capabilities.
In the study’s recommendations, the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and other helicopters normally based on an LHA/LHD would be shifted to three small-deck amphibs in an amphibious ready group (ARG), one more ship than resident in current ARGs. The four ships in the ARG would be one CVL, one amphibious platform dock ship (LPD) and two LX(R) ships.
The study also recommends that the LPD 17s and LX(R)s “incorporate a 32-cell (approximately) VLS [vertical-launch system] magazine to carry offensive missiles” for strike and air-defense roles.
Under this concept, a CVL’s air combat element of F-35Bs would provide strike, air defense, close air support, airborne electronic attack (AEA) and surveillance missions. For airborne early warning (AEW) and control, the LHA/LHD air wings “will rely on shore-based maritime patrol aircraft and E-2Ds,” the study said.
“As the Navy builds CVLs with catapults and arresting gear, the CVL air wing will evolve to add one to two UCAVs [unmanned combat aerial vehicles], one to two utility/tanker unmanned vehicles, one to two AEW aircraft, and AEA aircraft needed for the threat environment. This evolution will require Navy-Marine Corps air wing integration, as is done today in CVN CVWs [carrier air wings].”
In a white paper released in January, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman the Senate Armed Services Committee, recommended the Navy look at building CVLs as a less-expensive alternative to nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.