Naval Air: Britain and France Build Robocarrier

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March 9, 2006: Britain and France finally signed the deal to build three new aircraft carriers. This followed several years of negotiations. What's surprising about all this is not the large size of the carriers (about 58,000 tons, the largest ships ever for both navies), or the unique cooperation (two of the carriers are British, one is French, and both nations will cooperate on design and construction, with the Brits taking the lead.) No, what is amazing about all this is the aggressive plans for automation. These "Queen Elizabeth" class carriers are planning on having a ships crew of 800 (or less) and an air wing complement of 600 personnel. Currently, you need a ship crew of about 2,000 for a carrier that size. The reduction in size of the air wing personnel is even more aggressive.

These carriers are going to cost about $4 billion each, and are to be in use for half a century (including several refits and refurbs). But the biggest cost will be personnel. Currently, it costs the U.S. Navy a bit over $100,000 per sailor per year. Do the math ($7 billion in crew costs over the life of each carrier.) So the smaller the crew, the greater the savings, and the more you can spend on upgrading the ship, buying new aircraft and the like.

The carriers will haul 34-45 aircraft and helicopters and be able to handle about 110 flight operations every 24 hours. That's with current aircraft. The F-35B will be the primary warplane on the British carriers. But it's also likely that many, or all, of the next generation of aircraft on these ships will be robotic. But first, the ship has to be equipped with an unprecedented degree of automation. While 250,000 ton oil tankers can operate with a crew of under 40, all those large vessels do is move their cargo from place to place. An aircraft carrier must fight, and find the enemy, and do a lot of other stuff. The new class of 100,000 ton American CVN-21 carriers are trying to get their ship crew down from 4,000 to 2,500.

Warships have a lot of unique functions, like damage control, and manning many systems for high alert, and combat, situations. Some crew reduction ideas are pretty obvious, like installing conveyers to help move supplies when ships are replenished at sea, or even when in port. Many maintenance tasks can be eliminated by using materials that require less effort to keep clean, and are just as safe as those used in the past. It's also been noted that many maintenance tasks can be left for civilians to do when the ship is in port. Most navies has also not kept up on automation. There is still a tendency to have sailors "standing watch" to oversee equipment that, with the addition of some sensors, can be monitored from a central location. If there is a problem, a repair team can be sent. But in the meantime, thousands of man hours a week are saved, and another few dozen sailors are not needed. Another angle is removing a lot of administrative jobs from the ship altogether. All warships are connected, via satellite, to military networks. So many sailors can stay ashore, and do their work without ever going near the ship. Some sailors have long noted that their administrative jobs aboard a carrier rarely brought them in touch with the people they were serving. Carriers have phones and email. Why use it aboard ship when you can use it from some (much cheaper) shore location? Moreover, many of these admin jobs can be done, more cheaply, by civilians.

But the new British/French carriers aim to take warship automation into uncharted territory. This should be interesting, and it is certainly bold and daring. All three carriers are expected to be in service by the middle of the next decade. Just in time for the centennial of the First World War. Hmmm, that's ominous.

 


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