Rebuttal to McGrath/ID about carrier cost efficiency

I'm no particular friend of carrier aviation because it looks more like an offensive tool than as necessary for national or collective defence.

Bryan McGrath posted a rebuttal to some article "At What Cost a Carrier" at Information Dissemination, and I'd like to offer my quick rebuttal to this rebuttal:

I pick four points to focus on:

Moving on, Hendrix writes “No one can doubt the diplomatic power of carriers, for presidents, it seems, are always asking where they are.  Allied nations and the U.S. combatant commanders persistently request additional naval presence to shore up their interests….and no platform is requested more than the carrier.”  Assuming that both American presidents and the leaders of other nations are rational actors then, it seems that there might be something “special” about the presence of an aircraft carrier, something that even the agglomerated presence benefit of more numerous DDG’s or LCS’s simply doesn’t provide.
I disagree with both on this. It's a classic case of U.S.Navy (carrier gang in particular) giving itself a pat on the back. I doubt U.S. presidents ask about the whereabouts of carriers very often.
I doubt it because there's the semi-funny concurrence of the Marines claiming that in times of crisis the president asks first about where are the MEUs (their expeditionary units). This whole thing about 'president asks first about (...)' seems bogus to me. It's almost impossibly to verify or disprove, so I consider it a fairy tale.

Moreover, there's little reason to make the conclusion McGrath did:
Even IF the president and the regional commanders (CENTCOM etc) ask a lot about the carriers and even if they were rational actors, this doesn't mean much about the value of carriers.
About the president; it's not a safe bet to assume they can really appraise the utility of a modern carrier battle group. This is largely guesswork, after all.
About the regional commanders; it's standard bureaucratic behaviour to maximise the assets under a bureaucrat's control. Of course they want more and more and more - this kind of behaviour is displayed by almost all military commanders in documented history. Military commanders never seem to be truly satisfied with their assets (unless their resupply is insufficient, then they first ask for more supplies and then for more forces). Them asking for more doesn't mean anything. You got to look at the situation directly to learn about their real needs.

A reinforced CVBG
Let’s start with GDP; if one assumes a $15.1 trillion GDP, we can then calculate a “daily GDP” of $41.4 billion.  What then, is the percentage of national treasure spent each day to operate three carrier battle groups?  My (admittedly spotty) math reveals that the $19.5M a day breaks down to about four one-hundredths of a percent of our daily GDP.
More of the same follows. This kind of reasoning is useless in my opinion - as useless and dumb as the discussion of military spending in % GDP in general.

Let's say Uruguay wants to decide on having those three carrier battle groups or not. Suddenly, the calculation would yield a much higher GDP and McGrath would likely conclude it's too expensive for Uruguay.
What he doesn't provide is a reasoning how the link to GDP matters at all. Why would the U.S. have more benefits from having three CVBGs than Uruguay? In order to answer this and to close the glaring gap in his point, he would need to look at the utility of carriers and express it monetarily (which he doesn't). Now if did he looked at their utility, why not compare it directly to the expenses? Why the detour over the GDP share?
Logic-wise, that detour makes as much sense in a discussion of whether carriers are worth their expenses or not as would a discussion of the colour of apples.

His later line "Yes, $13.5 billion is a lot of money to construct a CVN—but over the course of its 50 year lifespan, that initial cost comes down to $740,000 a day—a bargain for what it brings us." is unlikely to get the approval of millions of Americans to whom USD 740,000 now would be more than their a lifetime income. Besides; it would be interesting to see how McGrath would explain what value exactly have three CVNs of his choice produced yesterday.
Breaking the grand total figures down to a singly day makes the sum smaller, but it appears to make the utility even less visible. I suppose he attempted a simple rhetorical trick here; he uses a smaller figure in an attempt to lead the reader's mind away from the impressive cost figures. There's no substance behind it, but it almost surely works on those who already agree with him anyway.*
Next, Hendrix makes a significant error—by stating that “U.S. defenses would have to destroy every missile fired, a tough problem given the magazines of U.S. cruisers and destroyers, while China would need only one of its weapons to survive to effect a mission kill.”  This just isn’t so.  U.S. forces do not have to destroy incoming DF-21’s; they simply have to not be hit by them.  Some incoming missiles will have to be intercepted, but unlike land targets, near misses at sea are as good as an intercept, and these near-misses could be hastened by any number of advanced electronic and cyber techniques.
This is a tricky and very, very technical issue. Hendrix may be correct on this, for it's likely unreliable if not impossible to predict in time which incoming missile would not hit. These missiles move extremely fast, and the decision to intercept likely has to be done when they are probably still hundreds of miles away.
I suppose only missiles fired at a very wrong location (due to error or deception) could be ignored (assuming the decoy ship is really expendable). Those are manoeuvring missiles, after all.

So in the end the CVBG would likely need to fire two interceptor missiles at every DF-21D that's headed at approx. the location of the carrier or of its most important escorts. Some DF-21D may be missed and may proceed to miss themselves due to "advanced electronic and cyber techniques", but that's not predictable when they're still a hundred nm away.

The past: A-7 Corsair II ugly, long-range heavylifter**

Captain Hendrix provides a simple graphic to reinforce the range issue, estimating the range of the DF-21D at 1087 miles while the unrefueled range of the F-35 maxes out at 690 miles.  This is, generally speaking, the relationship upon which most carrier critics seize most often, surmising that we would not risk our multi-billion dollar carriers in order to get close enough to launch meaningful strikes.  This raises the problem I brought up first with Hendrix’s argument, and that is, his beef should really be with the air wing, and not with the aircraft carrier.  Over the past few decades, naval aviation came to value sortie generation over range, as our ability to operate as close to shore as we generally wanted was barely challenged.
He goes on hoping unmanned carrier aviation will increase the range (and ignores that actually some guided munitions can add their glide or flight range to the mission radius).
The problem with this is of course geography. You may seek the answer to the DF-21D issue by adding to your stand-off range, but geography tells us that if you really intend to fight from far away, you can simply use unsinkable aircraft carriers; air bases on land***. This 'more range is possible' argument hardly comes to the rescue of carrier aviation in such a discussion.


*: It's my observation that rhetoric in the U.S. is more often about firing up partisans (followers) rather than about trying to convince undecided minds. I'm not sure if this is different than rhetoric in Europe or Germany in particular. The weighting appears to be more in favour of firing up followers, though.

**: Globalsecurity.org on the A-7: "A total of 6,560 pounds can be carried on a typical mission with a radius of 556 miles." Its engine's power was only about a third of the F-35's!

***: I'm generally sceptical about carrier aviation and heavy bombers because something is fishy if you "defend" far away from friendly ground. The one exception is of course the defence of maritime trade.


  1. Ha! Yes, I can just see Bush watching CNN showing Somali pirates on a USA tanker, and screaming questions about where his carrier groups are... good movie :)

    More seriously, I am always saddened when people that considers themselves as responsible adults and insightful thinkers tries the "lets divide by a large number" trick.

    The simple fact is that, if your argument for cost efficiency entirely consists of you comparing the total cost to fractions of that same cost, you are an idiot. You cannot argue for efficiency without providing any reference at all! (McGrath only provides one indirectly, by estimating that the three carrier groups comprise 1.5 % of the yearly budget*. Meaning he compares the utility of the three groups with the total utility of every other military asset in the USA Defense budget!)

    And this even ignores the issue here where that the cost is so great that even dividing by the lifetime of the carrier expressed in days does not produce a small number, so the stupid trick fails!

    *He talks about daily costs, but they are just yearly costs divided by number of days (probably not even the proper number of days too).

  2. Carrier air has one valuable function, which is to assist in the striking of / defence of surface combatant groups operating in "strategic depth" by protecting vital trade routes. In major war experience, the addition of escort carriers to convoy escort and hunter-killer duties dramatically reduced U-bootwaffe capability from late 1942 onwards, directly influencing the decisive operations of the war by dictating what the flow of supplies would be.

    That is not how the US uses its carriers. In addition, what metric would you give for determining efficacy at that task?

    In North America this is pretty standard defence fare, irrational rhetoric-heavy argument in support of a poorly thought out position. This happens across the board in all areas, and is the reason western civilization is on the decline.

  3. @NW

    IMHO the anti-sub function of escort carriers in 1943-45 only worked because the German subs were modified WWI models, the Elektroboote did not enter service in meaningful numbers.

    Modern non nuclear subs make (escort) carriers a very expensive weapon, i.e. the carrier's planes/helos are less efficient than their WWII conterparts in 1943-45 and nice targets at the same time.

    I still have to see a scenario where US carriers provide today a DEFENSIVE component that could not be provided by other means for much less money.


    1. The Type XXI and XXIII addressed the ASDIC threat, not the air threat. The latter was addressed by snorkels, radar absorbing mats around the snorkels and the belated finally reliable wideband radar warning receiver (FuMB 26).

      Today's aerial threat to subs is very different from the WW2 air threat to subs.

  4. I am too lazy to check the numbers for May 1043 and later: who killed more German subs, the escorts or the planes?

    Schnorchel were also possible with the old subs, but did not prevent detection by asdic and being hunted down due to too small batteries.

    "Today's aerial threat to subs is very different from the WW2 air threat to subs."

    Do you believe that aircraft from carriers can protect successfully a carrier group against modern silent subs?


  5. Supposedly carrier air sank more.
    (I think the table at the link describes not sinkings by carriers or their air wings, but sinkings outside of harbours by aircraft in general).
    Bagnasco's old WW2 subs book has similarly-looking info on the causes of losses.

    I really, really dislike getting very much into the details of sonar or radar tech. It's too tricky tech.
    It is notable that much emphasis seems to be on the active low frequency towed sonars in modern Western ASW and that helicopters are essential as a means of delivering the ammunition to the subs (except in sub vs. sub encounters).

    I'm not sure how well helicopters with sonobuoys or dipping sonars can actually detect subs on their own. It's probably the needle/haystack thing with a weak magnet.

    A screen of boats with active low frequency sonar emitters and some escort ships with low frequency sonar in passive mode including the required processing and decision-making capacity is probably today's ASW screen of choice for early-enough detection of subs.
    Helicopters could then be sent to confirm suspected contacts and engage confirmed contacts (the latter would also be possible with expensive ammo such as the 91RE2 Klub-N).

    I actually wrote three blog posts covering these topics, feel free to check out the "Navy" label on the left.