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GlobalSecurity.org In the News



By David Fisher

By most measures, the USS Carl Vinson's current cruise is historic. It also bodes well for the Nimitz-class supercarrier's own future.

Defense critics have nipped at the concept of large-deck carriers over the years, including the two massive ships based in the Puget Sound area - the Bremerton-based Vinson and Everett's USS Abraham Lincoln.

The ships are too big to deploy efficiently, some say. They are too large a target for nations that might hold weapons sophisticated enough to hit one. And finally, they are too expensive, at upward of $5 billion apiece, to produce in large numbers.

On the other hand, as Navy officials are hustling to point out this week, the Vinson's central role in the rout of the Taliban is evidence that there's a significant role to play for floating airports that can deliver overwhelming air power anywhere in the world without using foreign territory.

"I don't know if you will ever silence the critics. That kind of thing goes on all the time," said Rear Adm. Thomas Zelibor, the commander of the Vinson's nine-ship battle group, Carrier Group 3. "But I think this will keep them quiet for a while."

The feeling is generally shared by defense analysts such as John Pike, head of the Alexandria, Va.-based think tank, GlobalSecurity.org. Pike said he has shifted his analysis away from a redesign of the big carriers to tweaks in the way they are deployed.

The momentum for redesign changed, he said, largely because the big ships continue to demonstrate their usefulness, particularly in areas of the world with a relative vacuum of Western military power.

The United States maintains 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, including seven of the largest Nimitz class.

Two more are under construction. Each Nimitz-class ship can carry 80 aircraft.

"It is definitely one of the reasons the United States is the sole remaining superpower," Pike said. "The U.S. and the U.S. alone has the capacity on a couple of weeks' notice to have a couple of aircraft carriers show up in your neighborhood ... and immediately have the largest and most capable air force in that part of the world, regardless of what anyone else thinks. There is no other country in the world that can do that."

Effective high technology

Large-deck carriers have changed little, physically, in the 40 years since the oldest, Kitty Hawk, was commissioned, but the technology they carry has greatly increased their effectiveness.

In World War II, statistical analysis indicated that it took about 9,000 bombs to be assured of striking a single target, noted Cmdr. Eileen Mackrell, a Carrier Group 3 intelligence officer.

Armed with extensive laser guidance, global-positioning-system guidance or video-mapping technology, each bomb generally hits its target. The result: less destruction, fewer accidental deaths and less risk to aircrews who can fly fewer air sorties.

The carriers played a central role in the war in Afghanistan, but they didn't operate alone.

Air Force tankers were required to refuel carrier-launched planes on their 800- to 900-mile flights to landlocked Afghanistan, Zelibor noted. Without that, the Vinson and its sister ships, Enterprise and Kitty Hawk, and later the USS Theodore Roosevelt, could not have sustained the intensity of their attacks.

Laser-guided bombs also need spotters with laser pointers to pick out their targets. That's why the bombing campaign gained effectiveness once Special Forces troops hit the ground and fanned out.

The big ships can't travel alone, either. The Vinson's battle group includes two cruisers and two destroyers to guard the big ship. The battle group includes the Everett-based frigate USS Ingraham, which returned to base yesterday, and two submarines.

The two cruisers, with help from E-2C surveillance planes launched from the Vinson, are capable of spotting potential threats as far as 500 miles from the ship.

The battle group's supply ship, the Bremerton-based USS Sacramento, connected the ships to land-based supply sites in Dubai, Bahrain and other friendly ports, ferrying tons of food, 19 million gallons of gas and diesel fuel, 15 million gallons of aviation fuel and more than 4,639 tons of ammunition to the fleet. The Sacramento also returned home yesterday.

Carriers do have their limits.

Afghanistan, with a small number of targets and a limited conventional war capacity, was an ideal target for carrier-based air power, Pike notes. To be assured of defeating bigger foes with more sophisticated air defenses, such as Iraq or even North Korea, without nearby land bases for Air Force refuelers and large bombers, the United States would need something like 36 carrier groups.

That's hardly a likely prospect, but it's also unlikely the U.S. military will encounter a corner of the world where air bases are completely denied, even in the relatively hostile Middle East, Pike said.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan has confirmed the effectiveness of land- and sea-based forces working in tandem. "Every one of us has unique strengths that we each bring to the fight," Zelibor said.

Copyright 2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer