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Sea Control Ship

The question of how to meet military obligations at home and abroad is necessarily answered from many viewpoints: tactical, technical, and financial. As the Navy faced serious cutbacks in its budget, the financial aspect increased in importance disaproportionately over the other factors. Nevertheless, in an attempt to maximize the dollar without sacrificing efficiency, a review of alternative systems was now needed. The sea-control ship was a low-end, low-technology, small aircraft carrier.

After World War II, the Soviet's increased submarine technology led to the formation of special anti-submarine warfare (ASW) carrier groups. The threat of high-speed submarine attacks also prompted the Navy to seek faster surface ASW forces, including new fast escort carriers. The existing World War II era escort carriers [CVEs] were too slow to operate against the new threat. They were also too small to operate the newest ASW aircraft. Three alternatives were considered: construct new CVEs, rebuild existing CVEs, or convert surplus large-deck Essex-class carriers -- the solution actually adopted. The Essexes were relegated to the "low-end" mission of antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and were redesignated CVS. During the 1950's, there had never been enough CVSs for sea lane protection, and by the early 1973's there were no "low-end" carriers at all.

The sea control ship was a new concept in Naval Aviation, to provide sea-going airpower for limited combat situations. Ships of this type came into existence at the beginning of the 20th century. During the World War II era they were used effectively to replace more costly ships. It was anticipated that the sea control shio would operate with a mixture of rotary wing-and V/STOL type aircraft. Modern technological developments, notably the VSTOL Harrier, increased its potential, as part of a mixed force with the high-end, high-technology, large- deck carriers.

In 1969, the Navy's long range planners proposed small helicopter carriers as an answer. The proposal was to modify some retired escort carriers while building some new ones. Planners envisaged a total of twenty-nine in all. The plan called for the new heliccpter carriers to replace the last of the CVSs.

In the early 1970's, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, proposed a design and procurement concept called "High-Low." He recommended that the Navy build new ships that would be moderately capable, less costly, and built in greater numbers than the existing highly capable but costly vessels. The new low-technology ships would complement, not replace, the existing high-technology ships. They would operate in lower threat areas, freeing high-technology ships to concentrate in the higher threat areas.

The Navy always had to tailor forces to meet the anticipated level of threat. As the Navy testified before Congress, the SCS would make that possible. The SCS would protect Underway Replenishment Groups (URGs), Amphibious Groups, merchant convoys, and Task Groups that are without carrier suppport, in areas with a low threat. The "Low-end" aircraft carrier, called the Sea Control Ship (SCS), was a small, austere carrier designed to protect our sea lanes or sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

One type of ship ADM Zumwalt proposed was the Sea Control Ship (SCS), a small, austere aircraft carrier. Congress did not approve construction, believing that this small carrier could not perform its designed mission. ADM Elmo Zumwalt became the Chief of Naval Operations on 01 July 1970, believing that the United States was experiencing a time of great military crisis. The US was spending most of its defense budget on the Vietnam conflict, and the President and Congress refused to increase appropriations to match continuous Soviet military expansion. A large number of ships were reaching block obsolescence (where a large number of similiar ships -- a block -- become obsolescent within a few years), requiring either replacement or costly, short term repairs. Simultaneously, the Soviets were greatly increasing the size and sophistication of their fleet.

ADM Zumwalt later wrote in 1976: "Her price was to be 100 million 1973 dollars, about one-eighth the cost of a nuclear carrier. Her principal peacetime purpose was to show the flag in dangerous waters, especially the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific ... so that the big carriers ... could withdraw ... and deploy out of reach of an enemy first strike, thus putting themselves in a favorable position to respond to such a strike--and therefore to deter it. ... In a wartime situation the positions ... would be reversed: the big, powerful ones would fight their way into the most dangerous waters, destroying opposition beyond cruise missile range with their planes, and the sea control ships would serve in mid-ocean."

The large carriers have "far too much offensive capability to waste on convoy duty." However, in any actual conflict, ADM Zumwalt. continued: "... there might be at sea as many as 20 convoys of merchantmen, troop transports, and naval auxiliaries in need of air protection from the time they left the reach of land-based air until they entered areas where the deployed carriers were operating .... Eight vessels capable of that mid-ocean job could be built for the price of one full-fledged carrier, which in any case, if it was assigned to convoy duty, could protect only one convoy instead of eight. Moreover the SCS would be fast and easy to build.... Clearly SCS was a good investment..."

VADM Frank H. Price, director of Navy ship acquisition and improvements, contended that "We consider that the concept is fully validated and that the design features will give us an effective, less expensive, but fully capable sea-based air support platform.... The SCS is the most cost effective means of replacing dwindling sea-based air support assets, those that are required in defense of our sea lines. ... we have formulated a ship which can provide effective air support when the presence of a carrier is neither practical nor possible. Like the World War II escort carrier, or CVE, the SCS can be produced in sufficient numbers to provide the requisite protection in the many low threat open ocean areas."

The first request for funds for the SCS, for $29.4 million, was in the FY74 budget. The plan was to request one in FY75, three in FY76, and Lhen two per year for next two FYs, for a total of eight SCSs. Ralph Preston, the chief counsel for the House Appropriations Committee, was against the SCS and swayed Rep. Mahon, the Chairman, against it -- the House approved no money. Several senators of the Senate Appropriations Committee, including Senators McClellan and Young, strongly favored the SCS and the entire High-Low Concept--the Senate approved the $29.4 million. In conference, Congress agreed to retain, but freeze the money, pending a report by the General Accounting Office. The report, submitted after ADM Zumwalt retired, was negative [this according to ADM Zumwalt's memoirs, though there is no evidence of such a report]. Congress refused to fund SCS due to limited size, capability and speed.

The Sea Control Ship was quite controversial. The idea of an austere warship deeply troubled some, like ADM Rickover and the nuclear power community, who feared it was an alternative to nuclear powered large aircraft carriers. Others, like the naval aviation community, believed this ship might replace the large-deck carrier regardless of propulsion plant. Still others, like civilian naval analysts Norman Friedman and Norman Polmar, questioned the ship's mission. Norman Polmar, a noted naval analyst and participant in some of the planning, in 1977 wrote: "The logic of this approach is valid. In fact, there does not appear to be any better alternative. The concept has been reaffirmed by Admiral Holloway and Secretaries of Defense Schlesinger and Rumsfeld .... There can be useful questioning of specific types with the high-low mix. For example, I questioned -- before congressional committees and in print -- the validity of the sea control ship. However, an additional, dedicated aviation ship of less capability (and cost) than the CVN was, and still is, required."

In 1977 the Carter Administration proposed constructing a large conventionally-powered carrier, but Congressional critics, such as Senator Robert Taft, Jr. of Ohio, favored construction of several smaller and cheaper "sea control ships" in its place. Robert Alphonso Taft, a Senator from Ohio, was the son of President William H. Taft, and father of Senator Robert Taft, Jr. A leader of the Old Right isolationist wing of the Republican Party, Robert A. Taft served in the Senate from 03 January 1939, until his death on 31 July 1953. As a staunch isolationist, he fought against the increased military appropriations and international agreements that threatened to draw the US into World War II. Taft lived up to his nickname, "Mr. Republican," and unified his party against the Truman administration. Robert A. Taft's enduring fundamentals were the over-riding importance of the national interest: a "prejudice for peace" and a detestation of empire. Kingsley Arter Taft [not a close relative], a Senator from Ohio, served in the Senate from 05 November 1946, until 03 January 1947. Robert Taft, Jr., the son of Robert Alphonso Taft, grandson of President William Howard Taft, and grandnephew of Charles Phelps Taft, was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate in 1970, and served from 03 January 1971, until his resignation 28 December 1976. William Sturgiss Lind worked as a legislative aide for armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., from 1973 through 1976, and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 through 1986.

Interim Sea Control Ship (ISCS)

Because of LPH-9 GUAM's similarity to a conceptual Sea Control Ship, she was selected during the summer of 1971 for the Navy's Interim Sea Control Ship (ISCS) project. After entering an extensive re-fit in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on 28 October 1971, GUAM began tests and evaluation in conjunction with the ISCS Project on 18 January 1972. As the ISCS, GUAM provided inputs to preliminary design by developing tactical concepts and measuring system performance. Aircraft operated by GUAM in support of this conceptual project included SH-3H "Sea King" helicopters and the Marine Corps' AV-8A "Harrier" Vertical Short Take-Off and Landing (VSTOL) jet. In 1974 the Sea Control Force (TG 27.2) USS GUAM, in company with USS MCDONNELL (DE-1043) and USS MCCANDLESS (FFG-1084), deployed in the Western Atlantic Operating Area. This task group was created to evaluate the Interim Sea Control Ship concept using the SH-3H helicopters and AV-8A Harrier jet aircraft embarked on GUAM. GUAM completed the ISCS evaluation and reassumed her role as an Amphibious Assault Ship on July 1, 1974.

Shipboard testing of the AV-8A Harrier was conducted from 1972 through 1974 in an effort to expand and redefine the operational envelope to increase the utility of V/STOL type aircraft in the carrier environment. Additionally, the test program involved tests to optimize the V/STOL characteristics required for use on an interim sea control ship. The USS GUAM served as the ship test bed. GUAM is an LPH-2 class vessel, designed and built as a helicopter carrier, and used as an operational test bed to evaluate the sea control ship concept. Typical AV-8A operations aboard GUAM involved a short take-off (STO) utilizing approximately 500 ft of flight deck and a vertical landing (VL) usually on the flight deck centerline abeam landing spot number five. The STO mode was used for launch since the increased wing lift generated by the take-off roll greatly increased the payload capability.

The Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force, tested the concept on the Interim SCS (or ISCS), and concluded that the ISCS had -- for an intensity far greater than that expected in wartime -- demonstrated the capability: "...to continuously and simultaneously maintain two flank ASW sonobouy barriers and airborne surface surveillance, while concurrently prosecuting contacts as they occur.... The ISCS is fully able to support 14 SH-3H ASW helicopters (plus 3 AV-8A [Harrier] and 4 LAMPS)." Although the SCS concept called for a limited general purpose ship, the testing concentrated on only one mission, ASW. Not addressed was: "... the deterrent effect of these multiple capabilities on the SSN's decision to press home an attack. Studies of wartime submarine actions suggest that the deterrent effect oi the SCS systems may be equal to or greater than its killing effect."

Sea Control Ship Aftermath

The SCS was not built by the US Navy and no dedicated, fixed-wing-aircraft-capable ship exists to fill the mission of open-ocean ASW and convoy escort. The design of the SCS was sold to Spain in 1977, where, with some modifications, it was used to build the Principe de Asturias. The layout of the Principe de Asturias, an aircraft carrier that has been in service with the Spanish Navy since 1988, was partly derived from the design of the US Navy Sea Control Ship. The hull was laid down in 1979 and the ship was launched in 1982.

In 1981 the LHA-4 Nassau undertook a proof of concept demonstration of the Sea Control mission, operating 19 [or 20, depending on the source] Harriers. Nassau again embarked 20 Harriers in 1990 for operations in Iraq. And during Opeation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, both LHD-5 Bataan and LHD-6 Bon Homme Richard each operated 24 Harriers.



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