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Is There a Ski-Jump in the U.S. Navy’s Future?

July 5, 2009 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Will a successful development of the F-35B short take-off and landing (STOVL) Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) variant force small aircraft carriers on the U.S. Navy? This is a fair question with a debtor U.S. federal budget in turmoil from the global economic meltdown.


The question of small carriers for the U.S. Navy has come up before. Given the current situation it should be looked at again - not as a replacement for big carriers but as a supplement. For a capability that provides low cost of operation and global presence, there should be an opening for a dedicated and small F-35B aircraft carrier.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense Mr. Gates has been suggesting transformation of military forces since he came on board. The worsening state of the U.S. economy may force drastic measures by the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). While many worry about the 2010 fiscal year defense budget, the budgets for FY2011 and FY2012 offer nothing but uncertainty and pain. There will be even more hard choices about existing big-dollar weapons projects.

Don’t we already have small carriers in the form of the United States Marine Corps amphibious support ships ? Yes and no. “Yes” in that they look sort of like aircraft carriers and can perform some fighter aircraft-like missions and “no” in that their naval aviation ability is hobbled. For example, none of the USMC flat deck ships - current or on the drawing board - have a ski-jump for launching STOVL aircraft like the Royal Navy. The ski-jump is important because a STOVL aircraft launched with this method uses less fuel - which means more range and on-station time for the jet.

Second, USMC flat tops have to support all kinds of gator navy operations and not just flight-ops. A ski-jump configured small aircraft carrier in U.S. Navy service with a squadron of F-35Bs can provide so much more flight-op capability than a gator-navy flat-top because it is completely dedicated to flight operations. This means it will have the ability to carry more aviation fuel, munitions and other flight-op specific consumables. Substituting gator-navy flat-top designs for carrier-only naval aviation operations offers serious limitations.

Todays carrier aircraft can hit more targets per flight-ops period in more kinds of weather than they could 20 years ago due to the advent of GPS assisted/kitted munitions (and now affordable multi-mode guidance kits for bombs). Today, a flight of four aircraft can hit more targets in one mission in near any weather, than a whole squadron of aircraft could in the era when dumb munitions were dominant. If 4 F-35 aircraft go out on a strike in the low observable mode where all munitions are carried internally, anywhere from 8 to 32 ground targets can be hit.

What about air-borne early warning support for the small ski-jump carrier? There are studies to give the V-22 Osprey this ability. The Royal Navy has used a helicopter solution for years. This would be a must-have capability for the ski-jump carrier.

What should power the small carrier - nuclear or fossil fuels? This needs serious consideration given potential crisis over the price and availability of fossil fuels. During the last spike in fuel prices last year, world navies were forced to cancel deployments and even put ships dead in the water for part of the day while on cruise to save fuel.

The concept of a small F-35B ski-jump carrier isn’t something that has to be rushed into today. After all, the F-35B has to prove it can fulfill its STOVL design requirements. Once that is been shown in a reliable manner, the U.S. Navy may be facing a solution not of its choosing. It will be hard for some to say “no” to this concept when the service has been putting unrealistic and gold-plated solutions forward in the form of a corvette with a destroyer price tag known as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and the Zumwalt class DDX which will has all the makings of a battleship. Something that was gotten rid of when air power became the dominant striking method for the U.S. Navy.

Spending on the U.S. Defense budget is going to get worse before it gets better. Will the U.S. Navy be able to turn itself around and start buying sensible and affordable ships? Is a small ski-jump aircraft carrier with a squadron of F-35B’s part of that solution?