Return of the Jeep Carrier

18 June 2007

As forecast by The Nav Log, the US has started building a new class of small aircraft carrier, the LHA. The LHA-6 class is a variant of the Makin Island class, which, in turn, was developed from the Wasp class amphibious assault ship. These new “Jeep” carriers are to focus upon combating the littoral and asymmetric warfare that is clearly the naval challenge of the new century. The LHA-6 class is to support the air group attached to the Marine Expeditionary Unit. The MEU, in turn, needs a ship to support its helicopters and the V-22 aircraft, VTOL airplane hybrids that do not require the big deck of a Nimitz-class carrier or its planned successor, CVN-21. (In fact, the future of the next generation big deck carrier looks increasingly in doubt as the needs of warfare and pinch of ever tighter budgets threaten it from both sides).

Back in July, 2006, several members of Congress announced that they were interested in building aircraft carriers about half the size of the Navy’s current Nimitz-class CVs, which weigh-in at over 90,000 tons and exceed 1,000 feet in length. This came as the Navy continued to work on CVN-21, the follow-on to the Nimitzes that is to field revolutionary technological changes such as electro-magnetic aircraft launchers, turbo-electric main propulsion assisted by vectored-thrust water jets, modular missions systems, highly-automated control systems, and a crew one-half the size of the 5,500 or so people who now crew a $5 billion Nimitz and its carrier air group. CVN-21 is forecast to cost an amazing $14 billion in 2006 dollars, including amortized development costs.

The need to deliver and fight aircraft quickly during World War II produced the "jeep carriers" -- "baby flat tops -- because there were not enough full-size CVs. The “Jeeps” did routine patrol, delivered aircraft all over the world, and provided vital air support for convoy duty when German submarines were slaughtering Allied shipping in the early part of the war because there were not enough long-range patrol bombers to cover the convoys from land. As the name implies, they were small, thinly armored, poorly armed, and very difficult from which to launch and recover airplane. Nonetheless, they did vital work. The first were simply converted from available merchant hulls (USS Long Island – CVE-1 – was the first). Later CVEs were built as such from the keel up. Seventy-eight jeeps were built during the war and just three accounted for 16 U-Boats sunk. After WW II, with the launching of the Forrestal-class carriers to launch jet aircraft carrying nuclear weapons, jeep carriers quickly faded away.

Aside from the issue of providing for expeditionary force air wing support, another issue in recreating the Jeep carrier stems from the fast pace of Navy UAV development. When and if CVN-21 gets its feet wet as much as half of its air wing will be of unmanned combat air vehicles versus today’s 98% manned aircraft air wing. The combination of ever more capable unmanned vehicles that do not need a long flight deck, the tantalizing promise of substantial savings from abandoning manned aircraft, and a public so ignorant as to be unwilling to accept any deaths in war is leading to a virtual end to manned VF/VA-type tactical aviation in the foreseeable future. If the Marine Corps’ VTOL variant F-35 is delivered (now in doubt because of cost and development issues), it may also find a home on the LHA-6 class. the Navy is hard at work developing and testing from its ships unmanned aerial vehicles. How well the F/A-35 and UCAVs will be able to replace the F/A-18 is so far just conjecture. The S-3B is being retired in the next few years and the only other fixed-wing airplane aboard, the E-2C, may be replaced by several UAV variants. The land-based P-3C is to be replaced by 108 P-8A, although this, too, remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, CVN-21, if built, isn’t expected to launch until 2014.

LHA-6 Concept Drawing