By Richard E. Caroll
The increase in the ability of the PLA or PLAN to launch their Dong Feng 21 (DF-21) carrier killer should give pause to the United States in deploying their fleet carriers into the South China Sea. The DF-21 is a medium range, solid fueled missile. It is road mobile missile which can be launched from a Transport-Erector-Launcher. This allows the missile to be mobile and can be quickly deployed in a tactical environment. With a maximum range of 2.150 kilometers (1,335 miles), and being capable of delivering a small nuclear warhead, the DF-21 is capable of destroying a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) at Mach 2 or 3. That is 2,400 to 3.600 miles per hour.
In the enclosed waters of the South China Sea, a United States CSG would be supremely vulnerable, especially if China chose to use nuclear weapons to destroy the American carrier task force. Even if conventional weapons were used, a sustained volley of the DF-21 missile would stand a good chance of hurting the CSG, and or destroying it. With a United States Navy fleet carrier costing some $13 billion, cost of a Ford class carrier, not to include the cost of its escorting vessels, an alternative needs to be found that will project United States naval power, at the same time lessening the risks associated of United States vessels operating in such an enclosed space. The development of the Lightening carrier may be the perfect answer for the United States navy.
Using the America Class Amphibious Vessel as a Lightening Carrier
The USS America, originally designed as an amphibious warship was launched in November of 2013, where she went her sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico. She was originally designed as a Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) ship with no well deck to allow troops to embark on small amphib craft for sea borne operations. The lack of a well deck on the USS America allows for more storage room for munitions, fuel, and the other items necessary for flight operations. A Lightening carrier is capable of carrying between 15 and 20 VSTOL aircraft, depending on whether the carrier would be carrying rotary wing aircraft (helicopters).
The F-35B is a VSTOL jet aircraft and is similar in design to the F-22 Raptor, the best fighter aircraft in the world. The main difference between the F-35B and the F-22 is that the F-22 is equipped with a super-cruise engine, while the F-35B does not have super-cruise.
The cost of a Lightening escort carrier is roughly $3 billion, excluding the cost of its escorting vessels. Three America class escort carriers would cost roughly $9 billion, with a punch of between 50 to 60 F-35Bs.
There is historical precedence of the United States Navy using escort carriers in battle. During World War Two the need for a smaller carrier became obvious, and FDR in 1940 contacted the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) about converting a small freighter which could be converted to a small carrier to provide escort duties to convoys crossing the Atlantic. The USS Casablanca escort carriers were originally designed to provide air support for convoys traveling from the United States during the Battle of the Atlantic that raged from 1940 to 1945. Before the deployment of the Casablanca carriers, allied convoys would be supremely vulnerable from the U-boat menace when they did not have air protection from land- based escort aircraft. The need for aircraft protection led to the development of the Casablanca escort carriers. These escort carriers were at first primarily used by the allies in the Atlantic, but the United States Navy, realizing the need for a carrier to provide close air support for its land forces, the United States Marines, before landing fields could be constructed while taking an island held by the Japanese, soon adopted the escort carrier as an integral part of its battle forces.
In the Pacific, the escort carrier force proved its mettle during the Battle of Samar, where a squadron of escort carriers, Taffy-3, fought off a Japanese task force consisting of 6 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers and numerous escort vessels. Had Taffy-3 not been present, the invasion forces off of Leyte would have been destroyed, and the Leyte Gulf landings in World War Two would have met with disaster.
Possible Deployments of the Lightening Carriers
The Lightening carriers are meant to be a supplement to the giant US Navy fleet carriers. With no need, at this time, for escort duties for military convoys, the Lightening carriers would be best suited for in close work and littoral combat. The Lightening carrier would be able to operate, and have a higher rate of survivability, in enclosed waters such as the South China Sea and in the Mediterranean. With the Lightening carriers available, the US Navy would not need to expose its fleet carriers in enclosed bodies of water. This would allow more fleet carriers to patrol the open sea lanes and strangle China economically should war break out between the United States and China.
The US Navy is developing an unmanned tanker which would be able to refuel its strike aircraft in flight called the MQ-25 Stingray. This will allow the fleet carrier to launch its aircraft from longer ranges, and still be effective. This would enable to Lightening carriers to use all of its strike aircraft in attacking Chinese targets, while the Lightening carriers are protected by aircraft from the fleet carriers.
With the Lightening carrier being able to pack a punch large enough to locate and destroy the assembled DF-21s during air combat operations, or Chinese PLAN vessels at sea without air cover, the Chinese will need to stretch their resources to defend against the Lightening carriers operating in the South China Sea as well as dealing with the longer range striking power of the US fleet carriers.
There are currently 11 America class carriers planned as well as the replacement Ford carriers. To simply delay a Ford carrier, extend the life of a Nimitz carrier for 5 to 10 years, would allow for additional America class carriers to be constructed and deployed.
Richard E. Caroll is a retired economist and soldier.