By Ryan A. Pearce
February 28th, 2011
Rewritten February 22nd, 2011

Having demonstrated substantial abilities to project power in the post World War years, many believe the modern Aircraft Carrier to be a worthy successor to the Battleships of yesteryear. Ever prevalent, Aircraft Carriers can be seen steaming off the coasts of the world’s hot spots in an awesome display of force intended to intimidate hostile parties in to backing down. Now, with the Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln patrolling the Persian Gulf with their electronics eyes on Iran, it is readily apparent this practice will not fall out of favor any time soon.

So when the question of whether or not these massive floating bases are the best solution for maritime power projection has come up in the past, the answer has always been a resounding “Yes”. While this is not something that anyone would argue, this shows that there is an embedded rock in the sole of modern military ideology that proudly declares fighters and bombers to be the only real deterrent—short of nuclear weapons—capable of projecting power from the sea. This is not without merit, as naval airpower is undeniably the best way to provide beyond-the-beach reach for the world’s navies.

Yet, the construction cost of the George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) peaked at 6.2 Billion USD, and the budget for the Ford-Class having risen to more than 13.5 Billion without the further costs of filling her deck and hangar with the Fighters, Helicopters, and other aircraft that will make up her air wing. It becomes plainly obvious that the expenditures that come with building a modern super carrier makes it difficult to justify maintaining a fleet of these ship—and this is even before we add in the operating costs needed to keep her it stocked with everything from Jet Fuel and Missiles for her aircraft to Toilet Paper and Soap for her sailors and the maintenance required to keep her afloat.

This leads us to two follow on questions: Can conventional surface combatants perform the same mission? And if so, can they do it a lower cost?

These are the questions posed to the commanders of Navies around the world who do not operate Aircraft Carriers. Alas, they do not come with an easy answer. Currently, the United States Navy’s fleet of Arleigh Burke-Class Destroyers, Ticonderoga-Class Cruisers—and in the near future, the Zummwalt-Class Destroyer—can only provide a limited reaction in the majority of future conflicts. Footage of Ticonderoga’s ripple firing the ubiquitous BGM-109 Tomahawk is always a favorite among media outlets—and while impressive, the stark reality shows that the bark is much worse than the bite.

These are sea control vessels, and their primary mission is to protect the Aircraft Carrier. And while as part of a Surface Action Group, or other detachment they can perform other duties, they simply cannot not adequately be able to project power beyond that of a mere stabilizing force. A Ticonderoga’s 122 VLS Cells carry on average 56 Tomahawks with the rest being occupied by Sea Sparrow, Standard, and Harpoon missiles to enable them to engage a multitude of threats.

In truth, what is needed is something beyond a vessel designed for sea control, and while few would argue that the sun has indeed set on the idea of a big-gunned warship steaming at the center of the modern battle group—there are some radically minded individuals who believe that there is indeed a case for a highly capable, power-projecting warship in the 21st century.

A number of concepts have come close—Light Aircraft Carriers with half the tonnage of American Super Carriers and embarking half as many aircraft, a greater reliance on Amphibious Assault Ships embarking the AV-8B Harrier (or F-35B Lightning II in the near future), and long range strikes via Air Force Bombers sortieing from bases in the States or Diego Garcia. By far, the most interesting was that of the Arsenal Ship, which called for hundreds of Mk.41 VLS Cells, and be armed almost exclusively with the BGM-109 Tomahawk Cruise Missile. The now defunct concept—with its mission having been rolled into the new Ohio-Class SSGN—would have come close to approximating the lethality of a modern aircraft carrier. Still, the concept focused more on Long-Range Strike than power projection, as it would have lacked the multi-role capability of current Aircraft Carriers, Cruisers, and Destroyers.

In truth, the United States should explore a more capable model—in effect, a warship hybridizing the capabilities of an Aegis Cruiser and the former Arsenal Ship concept displacing somewhere in the 25-30 thousand ton range. It must embrace the idea of becoming a true supplement to modern aircraft carriers. Such a vessel must provide for a credible anti-surface warfare mission, conduct maritime intercept and patrol, provide gunfire and missile support for US forces crossing the beach, and the ability to support Special Forces operations as a mother ship (Much like the USS Ponce). It should be an asset to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, and sustained Operations Other Than War.

It would need to be fast enough to reach theatres of operations quickly, and then independently conduct operations for extended periods without replenishment. It should be fully capable of operating the next generation of VTUAVs such as the MQ-7B Fire Scout, as well as provide adequate hangar space for the SH-60R Seahawk for ASW and Mine Hunting operations. Lastly, and most importantly, it must be fully capable of highly prejudicial strikes against land targets well beyond the beach using hundreds of cruise missiles targeted in real time. While this hybrid seems like another push for the SC-21 or CG-X concept, the level of firepower she would bring to bear would make her in essence, a Modern Battleship.

While our “Battleship” would rely on data links from her escorts’ sensors, she should be with her own organic sensor suite to allow her to effectively engage hostile surface combatants, engage air threats, or act in the BMD role. While such a vessel would not necessarily need to offer as much capability in these aspects as the Zummwalt-Class Destroyer because of the differing missions, providing a similar capability would be more than sufficient.

Aside from a hull large enough to fit the requisite number of weapon systems and powerplant it would likewise not be necessary to incorporate a bleeding edge suite of next generation computer systems as every facet of the ship can quite literally be Off-The-Shelf. There should be no reason to develop new and proprietary (read: cost intensive) systems, when mature (or maturing) technologies developed for the Freedom and Independence Class LCS, Zummwalt-Class Destroyer, Ford-Class Aircraft Carrier, and even the HSV-2 Swift and Fast Street Fighter concepts are available.

While the ship should factor in some range of low observability features as a countermeasure to anti-ship weapons, in an effort to keep costs low there is little need to provide for a stealthy hull, as it is to be expected that a ship of this type would remain on station, and be highly visible for extended periods of time. In the name of national security, it should be nuclear powered, perhaps using a derivative of the Bechtel A1B reactor (which will enter service powering the Ford). While the upfront cost of a nuclear powered warship is higher than that of a conventional vessel, the lifetime operating costs are magnitudes lower—an important consideration as we enter a new era of economic responsibility.

While the temptation for a vessel able to be reconfigured for different roles by using flexible mission modules such as those originally designed for the LCS to further increase its capabilities does exist, we must remind ourselves that we are looking primarily to threaten future adversaries psychologically more so than militarily. Available in almost immediate form—and at a fraction of the cost of a Ford­Class Aircraft Carrier, our next generation warship’s primary mission would be to deploy to a trouble spot quickly, and then remain on station conducting sustained operations against hostile nations. Its presence alone should constitute such a major show of force any hostile parties seeing her steaming of their coast should be immediately dissuaded from any further aggressive acts. If an escalation of force proves necessary, as a first day of the war weapons platform, she could rain down upwards of 500 TLAMs on targets at twice the range of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet—approximating the combined effects of five Nimitz or Ford class aircraft carriers.

And unlike the Arsenal Ship, she can then move off of the coast where she can be used as a floating base for special forces missions, and use her sensors to patrol for hostile surface and air threats, and the launch of ballistic missiles to further neuter any hostile nation’s ability to mount an effective follow on attack. Such a vessel would lend well to providing an unmatched expeditionary response throughout the future battlespace in both the littoral and blue water environment. It is with this image in mind, we ask the reader to ask him or herself.

Is there a case for a modern Battleship?


As the Managing Director of Beowulf Defense and Security, Ryan Pearce serves as the principal representative of the firm's ideologies and mission statement and through a creative vision and strategy and, will regulate, modify, and implement changes that are aimed to innovate newer and ever more unique services to the clients. Ryan has been called upon to provide expert opinions on a number of issues, specifically involving sea power, power projection, operations other-than-war, defense and civil aerospace, and the operations of Private Military Companies.

3/2/2013 08:49:34 pm

One thing that people often do not take into consideration with this argument is that in modern combat missiles and aircraft are themselves vulnerable to interception and destruction. If one assumes to similar fleets of current ships then you have to presume that aircraft will not be able to freely operate within the air defense envelope of the enemy fleet/country. I haven't heard of any technology that can intercept a 16" shell from a battleship cannon.


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