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McCain’s Excellent White Paper: Smaller Carriers, High-Low Weapons Mix, Frigates, Cheap Fighters

Posted by Jerry Hendrix on


Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jack Reed SASC hearing

Sen. John McCain issued a provocative and comprehensive alternative budget for the Pentagon on Monday, Restoring American Power: Recommendations for the FY 2018-FY 2022 Defense Budget. Jerry Hendrix, a strategy and naval expert at the Center for New American Security, crunched the numbers from McCain’s White Paper and authored this analysis for our readers. Read on. The Editor.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s new White Paper positions the committee as a leader in the Pentagon’s effort to rebuild and reform. The SASC offers a road map with key decision destinations for the new Trump Administration to follow as it pursues its goal of strengthening the nation’s military. The document is both broad and deep in its treatment of defense issues, ranging from the need for a new national grand defense strategy to recommendations on needed investments in cyber security.

Of particular interest and importance is the SASC’s advocacy for the U.S. to buy a high-low mix of weapons systems, a concept that I have advocated for years, as a means of advancing the force technologically for the high-end fight, while also buying cheaper systems in bulk to keep the force size up while addressing day-to-day threats.

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USS America

In a dramatic move, McCain’s committee recommends increasing the Navy fleet by an additional 18 ships over the 41 planned in the next five years. It would add additional submarines, destroyers, a new small surface combatant and a new, smaller, conventionally fueled aircraft carrier to the buy list. The initial plus ups are achieved by swiftly expanding production on already “warm” production lines such as the Virginia-class fast attack submarines (going from two to four per year, for instance) and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, made by two shipbuilding companies in two yards in Maine and Mississippi.

The SASC’s openness to a new class of aircraft carrier is exciting. While remaining committed to building the larger supercarriers to deter and defeat near-peer competitor nations in high-end combat, the SASC recommends that the Navy begin construction of a smaller carrier to more efficiently address daily power sea control, close air support and counterterrorism missions.

The White Paper recommends modifying the design of existing large-deck amphibious assault ships such as the America class, presumably adding catapult and arresting gear capabilities, in order to produce this new class of ship. The America, which weighs in at 44,000 tons presently, is very comparable in size to the USS Midway, which along with its sister ships the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Coral Sea, served as frontline carriers deploying with modern jet aircraft up to the mid-1990s. This avenue, which does not interrupt the construction of larger supercarriers, takes advantage of new industrial capacity under development within the United States to build warships in the 40,000-70,000 ton range and represents a swift and efficient path to get the nation’s carrier fleet back up to the 16 needed to meet all the stated carrier presence requirements of the regional combatant commanders around the world.

Navy photo

LCS-2 followed by LCS-1, showing the two different designs.

“Restoring American Power” also recommends stopping construction of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) after the 28th ship and shifting immediately to the construction of a new Small Surface Combatant, which for all practical purposes means a multi-mission frigate. The LCS has come under justified heavy criticism for its many material and design faults, but with the fleet falling to 274 ships, it has been difficult to forego the “bird in the hand” with a ship under production in favor of the “two in the bush” promise of a frigate to come.

The SASC report adequately splits the difference by sequencing the truncation of the LCS in step with the start of a new production line for the new frigate design. The Navy should heed this recommendation and should give due consideration of readily available designs, an idea that has been advanced previously, such as the National Security Cutter already in production or even the several robust foreign frigate designs that could be easily licensed for production in U.S. shipyards. The United States seems more than eager to sell our products, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, to our allies, but often seems all too hesitant to reciprocate when opportunities present themselves.

Sen. McCain’s White Paper does its due diligence with regard to the growing shortfall in the nation’s aviation fleet, as well as addressing the critical capabilities within that fleet with regard to both the number of aircraft available and the range at which they can operate.

Bell Textron Scorpion

Bell Textron Scorpion

While advocating continued procurement of the F-35, the SASC also recommends purchasing 300 low-cost light-attack fighters to make up critical shortfalls that affect the military service’s ability to meet low-end requirements. The White Paper also recommends that the Navy accelerate the development and IOC of the MQ-25 carrier-based unmanned tanker to extend the tactical range of the current carrier airwing. On top of that, the SASC recommends that the Navy rapidly develop a carrier-based unmanned aircraft to perform penetrating strike missions well outside the range and endurance of manned aircraft. It would be natural and wise, in my opinion, if the MQ-25 tanker now under development could be designed to allow for natural evolution into a strike role.

“Restoring American Power” goes on to make specific recommendations regarding the Army and Marine Corps (grow them prudently) as well as the strategic nuclear deterrent force (modernizing all three legs). It tackles the thorny and complex issues of missile defense and the growing competition in space. It also takes head-on the disastrous impacts of the Budget Control Act on the nation’s defense and strongly advocates the repeal of this damaging law.

Lastly, it proposes additional research and development of new technologies that could rapidly aid the nation’s warfighters. In short, the paper will have influence because of it its specificity and should be in the immediate reading list of every analyst and policymaker who cares about our nation’s defense. It is clear that for those seeking to either reform or rebuild the Defense Department; they will find a ready partner in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

What do you think?