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Jack Kelly: Flat tops flat-lining

The era of the aircraft carrier may be ending

Sunday, June 03, 2001

There are two ways to look at an aircraft carrier. On the one hand, it's the finest warship ever built, crewed by sailors and aviators of incredible skill and courage. On the other, it's a small, very expensive, very, very vulnerable portable airfield.

Portable airfields have their uses. You can take them to where the crisis is, and get them the hell out of Dodge if things get too hairy. There are no politically ticklish negotiations about basing rights, and it's harder for terrorists to get at an aircraft carrier at sea than it is, say, to drive a truck bomb onto an airbase in Saudi Arabia.

 
  Jack Kelly is national affairs writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com). 
 

But air-to-air refueling -- which means that warplanes can stay in the air essentially as long as pilots can stay awake -- and the increasing effectiveness of standoff weapons have diminished the value of the Navy's portable airfields. There are few offensive missions a carrier air group performs that could not be done by land-based bombers, usually at lower cost and with less risk.

Meanwhile, the cost of these portable airfields keeps climbing. The most recently commissioned aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Harry Truman, cost approximately $5 billion. Typically, there are 10 ships in a carrier battle group. Roughly 75 percent of the firepower on those ships is devoted to protecting the carrier.

This ratio is likely soon to get worse. The great threat to an aircraft carrier is the sea-skimming cruise missile. The fairly primitive ones thought to be in Iraqi and Iranian hands were sufficient to cause us to keep our carriers out of the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm a decade ago. Sea-skimmers have improved a great deal in speed, range and payload since then. The best currently available is the Russian Moskit (mosquito). The Moskit has the same range as our Harpoon (about 85 miles), but twice the warhead size, and -- at Mach 2.5 -- more than twice the speed.

The last defense our carriers have against cruise missiles is the Phalanx Close In Weapons System (CIWS), a computerized 20 mm gatling gun. At the Moskit's speed, the CIWS would have just 2.5 seconds from the time its radar detects it to find a firing solution. That's not enough time.

The Russians -- who will sell anything to anybody who has the hard cash to pay for it -- recently sold 100 Moskits to the Chinese. The North Koreans, the Iranians and the Iraqis are reported to be prospective customers. Only the United States can afford to build, and has the skill to operate, a supercarrier. But most of our potential adversaries can afford to purchase what it takes to sink one.

Navy wings of gold represent the pinnacle of noncombat military achievement. The people who wear them have nerve and reflexes few of us can imagine, much less possess. Naval aviators are shot off carrier decks, and in effect crash-land each time they return, often in the dark, to a tiny airfield pitching in the sea. One is statistically more likely to die flying off a carrier in peacetime than fliers on a combat patrol in World War II.

When I see the proud men who've earned the wings of gold, I can't help but think of medieval knights. For centuries, they were at the apex of the military profession. Being a knight was not for the faint-hearted, the weak or the clumsy. It cost a lot to outfit a knight with horse, armor and weapons, and it took years of arduous practice to become competent in their use. For good reason, knights were considered noble. But then someone invented the musket, and a peasant with a few hours of training could kill them. It didn't seem fair.

Naval aviation came into its own at Pearl Harbor, where carrier-based Japanese planes sank most of the battleships in the U.S. Pacific fleet. Pearl Harbor was supposed to have put an end to the age of the battleship, but in one of those curious twists of fate history sometimes provides, it could be that the most effective warships we can put to sea today are the four Iowa-class battleships, all decommissioned, but capable of being returned to service.

The 16-inch guns on the Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin can shoot a projectile the size of a Volkswagen 23 miles, with considerable accuracy. With rocket-assisted projectiles, shells of the size fired by the Army's largest howitzer can be shot through those 16-inch tubes for more than a hundred miles, with pinpoint accuracy. And there is plenty of room on those big decks for cruise missiles.

But the best argument for bringing back the battleships is that they were built to take the kind of punishment they can dish out. The armor on the gun turrets is a foot and a half of steel of such a high quality we can no longer manufacture it. Cruise missiles that could wreak havoc with every other warship in the fleet would just chip the paint of the Iowa-class battleships, and annoy the crew.

Jack Kelly is national affairs writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com).



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