Heavy Bombers vs. Carrier based Bombers

I was having a dicussion about this with a friend of mine.

We were talking about the fact American Heavy Bombers such as the B2, B1 and B-52 can launch strikes at pretty much any point on earth from the Mainland US. Obviously quite an atvantadge. Add to this the fact that they are practically untouchable by man-portable anti-aircraft systems like being used in Iraq and have the ability to fly over the battle field and deliver a quantity of guided bombs to selected targets.

In a situation like Iraq, where the enemy does does not have fighter aircraft and only has manportable anti-aircraft technology, my friend was asking me, why use carriers at all? They can get to the targets faster, sure, but their bomb loads are much smaller then the heavy bombers and they run the risk of being shot down or crashing. Flying the bombers out of theater bases can substationally reduce flying time, fuel costs and stress on the flight crews.

The only thing I could think of was operational flexibilty and perhaps it’s more economical to use a carrier task force but I imagine the operating costs for a carrier task force are pretty expensive.

Is there something I’m missing here? For a situation such as Iraq, what makes more sense from a stategic and economic point of view as far as fixed wing air support is concerned?

I work in the aerospace industry so I’m somewhat biased, but I think you’ve just about nailed it in flexibility. Your troops on the ground can’t wait for a plane to fly from the US. They often need air support “right now dammit, we’re dying down here”. Further, with today’s precision guided munitions, you often don’t need a large tonnage of ordnance (qv Fallujah today).

You also have to deal with getting the bombers there. All sorts of countries you have to ask permission to fly over. Uses up a crap load of fuel too.

But don’t you have some of the same problems with carrier aircraft?

I imagine a battle group uses a lot of fuel.

Also security is a big consideration. Any bum can drive or walk to the perimeter of a ground-based airfield, but it takes a bit more than legs or tires to approach a carrier. You can load a carrier with fuel, bombs, planes, people, food, and water in a nice friendly port at home, while you would need to deploy a MUCH larger logistical “footprint” to get a legitimate threat there. We have B-52s at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, which makes the Middle East not QUITE so long a round trip as, say, Mississippi.

Carrier-based aviation assets can make several sorties per day, while US-based planes make less than one a day.

Cost figures in more than one way. You’ll notice the B-2s, that can deliver ordnance to the Mid-East on a round trip sortie from the continental U.S., are used sparingly. At somewhere around a billion bucks a pop, you have to be careful as to what kind of threat environment you expose such an asset.

I think qts and UncleBill have captured the gist of the answer. Flexibility and security are the reason the U.S. maintains (what? 13?) multi-role aircraft carriers.

And I have the distinct impression the the Marines on the ground prefer Marine Air overhead.

That’s hardly to say that strategic bombers have no role. But where ground military operations are anticipated, close-in air support, along with local air superiority, are necessary and not available from strategic bombers alone.

Sure, but there are more benefits to having the carrier right there than doing long distance bombing.

  1. A major one is flyover permission. If a country has a coast, we don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to hit the target. Or maybe one or two if it has a narrow coast like Iraq. The fewer countries you have to fly over, the less the diplomatic headache.

  2. Time constraints. If you need air support now, you want the carriers there since it may be too far away for a land-based aircraft to reach quickly.

  3. Waste of fuel. It really is. Aircrafts use up a ton of fuel and there’s no good reason to waste it when you’ve got the capability to float in a nuclear powered carrier right off the coast. Granted, the other ships use up fuel, too, but depending on the ship it may also be nuclear powered or armed with Tomahawks, so it can help with the bombing.

A billion to fly a plane around the world and drop acouple bombs onto innocent civilians in Iraq? I cannot imagine how that could cost one billion! But again, with Bush in the White House, anythings possible.

A billion dollars a plane, not the cost of the flight.

As far as pounds of ordnance deliverable, the Air Force heavy bombers have the Navy’s carrier based planes beat hands down.

The best Navy bomber, now retired, was the A6E Intruder, capable of delivering 18,000 pounds. Now they’re limited to the F/A 18 Hornet, max payload 13,700 pounds.

The venerable B-52 carries up to 70,000 pounds of ordnance, while the B-1B outperforms that at 75,000 pounds – and is supersonic (as is the F/A 18).

However, mere pounds of ordnance is not necessarily the best measure of effectiveness. If you’re carpet-bombing, then you want a B-52. If you want take out particular targets, then the F/A 18 is a much more efficient delivery system.

We don’t have the capability to maintain bases in every corner of the world, the carrier is a way of doing that.

Of course, it would be far better to dismantle most of the military, and use those funds to improve living conditions for those who are miserable enough to hate our wealth, yet strong enough to attack us. We could easily cut our military in half. It still would be 5 or 6 times as powerful as our nearest competitor.

Minor nitpick: most of the B-52s on the US mainland live in Shreveport, Lousiana. Silly Marine. :stuck_out_tongue:

The big birds do get expensive. In Vietnam it cost a million dollars for an “Arc Light,” a strike with three B-52s from local bases. Adjust for inflation from 1971 prices, add the cost of fuel for the additional 10,000 miles…

Most jobs these days can be taken care of with the limited capacity of a couple of Hornets, though, and the targets might move too fast for the Air Force to fly over from the US. Has the Navy fully phased out the A-6 yet? That was a respectable medium bomber.

Plus there’s the problem of close air support, a job best done by big, ugly, slow planes like the A-10 (which, like the Intruder and battleships, is being dumped out of a thing it’s perfect for to make room for more shiny fast things that do the job okay). Carrier aircraft can get there quicker than heavy bombers, and have a slightly better probability of not accidentally vaporizing the good guys.
Carrier aircraft may be quicker and more precise, but a flight of BUFFs says “I love you”* in a way nothing else can (except possibly an Iowa-class battleship, but the Navy, in their quest to be all fancy-pants and slick and modern, has done away with those, much to the dismay of the Marines).

[sub]*Actual sentiment expressed by 15 tons of high explosives may vary.[/sub]


Sadly, yes. The EA6B Prowler is still around, undoubtably the best EW weapon ever. I don’t know what they’ll replace those with, but they’re getting a little long in the tooth. Living on Whidbey, I see them all the time.

IMHO, the planned, but not implemented A6-F would have ruled the attack market for several more decades. Killed by politics, unfortunately. I suspect it didn’t help that the A6’s kept shooting down the F-14’s at Fallon. The glamour of the fighter jocks (helped by ‘Top Gun’) meant more fighter Admirals, and they just plain killed the attack community.[/hijack]

I think another reason not mentioned above is that a carrier creates a presence in the region. It’s American soil that can go anywhere, and ruthless dictators might behave a bit better if a carrier is off their coast. We can also use it as a quick means of embassy/personel evacuation if things get rough anywhere.

Another Hornet variant, of course (scroll down, it’s the last paragraph before the blue “specifications” header).