The history of the U.S. Navy is replete with ships that were not built, finished, or commissioned. One only need remember that the great carriers USS Lexington (CV 2) and Saratoga (CV 3) were built on the hulls of two uncompleted battle cruisers that were outlawed as a result of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. A more modern example is that of the so-called “Sea Control Ship” (SCS) of the 1970s. Designed to provide many of the same kinds of services as the escort carriers (CVEs – “Baby Flat Tops”) of World War II, they fell victim to bureaucratic infighting and the double-digit inflation of the times. Nevertheless, the SCS story has an intriguing ending and legacy in the context of today’s navies.
The early 1970s were a time of great challenges, turbulence, and confusion for the Navy. As America began to wind down its involvement in the wars of Southeast Asia, there were also requirements to “pivot” to deal with the emergence of a growing “blue water” fleet by the Soviet Union, along with several other challenges confronting the Navy. These included the block obsolescence of a large portion of the U.S. fleet built during World War II, and especially the modified Essex-class carriers that formed the bulk of the carrier fleet.
The man chosen to lead the Navy through these transitions was the youngest Chief of Naval Operations ever picked to serve up to that point: Adm. Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt. Zumwalt was an extraordinary officer for his day, a surface warfare officer with combat experience dating back to World War II, who also possessed an intellect rarely matched in Navy history. And while many of his personnel policies grated against the “deck plate” Navy, his work toward the interests of sailors has figured immeasurably in the character and shape of the fleet today. However, it is perhaps his work and vision in the matter of shipbuilding in which his greatest influence on today’s Navy is felt.
Throughout the 1960s, Zumwalt had written about and been a supporter of what he called the “Hi-Low” mix of shipbuilding. By this he meant building the future U.S. Navy fleet with two separate streams of shipbuilding, each focusing on a different sets of Navy roles and missions. The “high-end” ships, such as the Nimitz-class (CVN 68) nuclear supercarriers, Los Angeles-class (SSN 688) nuclear attack submarines, Tarawa-class (LHA 1) amphibious assault ships, and Spruance-class (DD 963) destroyers, were designed to project power forward and engage the Soviet fleet if required. The “low-end” ships, however, proved to be a real challenge.
Designed to provide escorts for convoys during wartime, these ships would also provide “mass” to the U.S. fleet in the decades ahead. But in the early 1970s, this meant replacing several hundred warships built during World War II. These included nine carriers of the Essex-class (CV 9) modified in the years after the war to be used as antisubmarine warfare platforms (called CVSs), along with destroyers given Fleet Renovation and Modification (FRAM) upgrades. Given the double-digit inflation of that period, and the declining defense budget that followed Vietnam, clearly a one-for-one replacement program was completely impractical. What resulted from this difficult requirement were several intriguing classes of warships, along with a number of supporting aircraft and electronic systems.
The best known of these were the Oliver Hazard Perry-class (FFG 7) guided missile frigates, of which 51 were built for U.S. service, along with 20 more for assorted allied nations. Though considered lightly armed by the standards of the day, the FFG 7s were extremely effective ASW escorts thanks to their towed sonar array and an oversized hangar and flight deck able to carry a pair of the new SH-60B Seahawk helicopters. A big part of what made them such good ASW ships was the inclusion of the Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS), which took data obtained from the SH-60B’s airborne sensors and sonar buoys, transmitted back to the ship via a secure datalink for processing, to help guide the helicopters to their targets. LAMPS was eventually deployed on three other classes of U.S. warships: the Ticonderoga-class (CG 47) guided missile cruisers, the Kidd-class guided missile destroyers, and the Spruance-class ASW destroyers. Along with the 46 frigates of the Knox-class (FF-1052) – originally typed as destroyer escorts (DEs)), this gave the USN about 100 “low mix” escorts if World War III ever broke out.
Unfortunately, replacing the World War II-era CVEs and CVSs turned out to be a significantly greater problem. Initially, the Navy developed a requirement for what was called the “Sea Control Ship” (SCS), which would have two primary missions:
- Intercepting and destroying Soviet maritime patrol and targeting aircraft, like the Il-38 May and Tu-95 Bear-D.
- Prosecuting and sinking Soviet submarines, using targeting data delivered from the ocean floor SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System), along with land-based sensor systems, other warships, and allied maritime patrol aircraft.
Navy renderings of the final design for the SCS show a small aircraft carrier with a full-length, straight flight deck with two elevators, a hangar deck, and a large island structure on the starboard side. Some of the details of the production SCS (a total of 8 were planned) would have included:
Displacement: Approximately 17,000 tons
Length: Approximately 670 ft.
Propulsion: 2 GE LM2500 gas turbines
Speed: 26 knots
Range: 7,500 nautical miles at 20 knots
Crew: Approximately 80 officers and 625 enlisted
Armament: Two Mk. 15 Phalanx CIWS
The SCS complement of aircraft would have included up to 5 AV-8 Harrier-type STOVL fighter-bombers, 11 ASW helicopters, 3 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters, and probably 2 to 3 SH–2F Seasprite utility helicopters for plane guard duty. It clearly reflects the Cold War missions for which the SCS was designed, although the real-world operations by SCS-type vessels built by other nations eventually showed the value of a greater complement of STOVL aircraft with fewer helicopters.
In 1972, the helicopter assault carrier USS Guam (LPH 9) was assigned to act as a surrogate SCS for tests that ran through June 1974. A notional SCS air group was embarked, including six U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) AV-8A Harriers, along with a mix of USN helicopters, and the Guam operated in the Atlantic trying out SCS operations and tactics. These were successful enough that in 1973 the Navy issued study/design contracts to a pair of shipyards, and allocated long lead SCS funds into the Fiscal Year 1974 (FY 74) Defense Budget. Sadly however, this was as close as the Navy ever came to building SCSs for operational use.
In 1974, Zumwalt retired, and with him went the support for low-end ships like the SCS. His successor, Adm. James Holloway, was a career naval aviator who, while initially supportive of STOVL aircraft in Navy service, made killing the SCS and other low-end shipbuilding programs a priority during his tenure as CNO. In addition, the Navy’s powerful and mercurial Director of Naval Reactors, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, had long opposed the SCS due to its lack of a nuclear propulsion plant. In the end, much of the support for killing SCS probably came from an internal USN desire to protect production of the Nimitz-class super carriers, which themselves were experiencing vast cost overruns during the days of 1970s hyperinflation. Given the estimated cost growth of SCS to more than $130 million in 1973 dollars, Holloway had little trouble killing the program.
And that might have been it for the SCS concept, except that a funny thing happened on the way to the final decade of the Cold War: navies across the globe could not afford to buy or replace full-size fleet aircraft carriers and their air components. As a result, navies on a budget took another look at the SCS concept, and no less than five of them actually built ships of that type.
The first were the four 42,000-45,000-ton Soviet Project 1143/Kiev-class “aviation cruisers,” which had much in common with both the SCS and another abandoned U.S. Navy concept ship, the strike cruiser. Carrying a huge missile armament for their day, the air component for the Kievs was built around Yak-38 Forger STOVL strike fighters, along with an assortment of Ka-25 Hormone and Ka-27/29 Helix helicopter variants.
While the Soviet Union was using the Kievs is as a first step into sea-based aviation, navies in the West were looking at SCS-type vessels as a means of holding on to the ability to take high-performance aircraft to sea. The Royal Navy, unable to replace the old Ark Royal (R09), built the three 22,000-ton Invincible-class “through deck cruisers,” equipped with a new Harrier variant, the Sea Harrier FRS.1, along with Sea King HAS.2 ASW helicopters. Spain actually bought the SCS plans from the U.S., and built a near clone, the 15,900-ton Príncipe de Asturias (R11), as well as the smaller 11,500-ton HTMS Chakri Naruebet for the Thai navy, with variants of the USMC AV-8A and later second-generation AV-8B Harrier IIs providing the STOVL punch. Finally, Italy built perhaps the best armed, equipped, and capable SCS-type vessel of all, the 11,500-ton Giuseppe Garibaldi (551 – also operating AV-8B Harrier IIs). The four Western designs were greatly enhanced by a British innovation, the “ski jump,” which helped expand range and payload for STOVL aircraft.
The Marine Corps has operated Harriers from amphibious assault ships (LHAs and LHDs) for decades. A second generation of air-capable multirole ships more akin to landing ship docks followed, including Italy’s Cavour, Spain’s Juan Carlos I and two near sisters, Canberra and Adelaide, built for Australia. Both Cavour and Juan Carlos I embrace the sea control mission along with amphibious assault. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is building two America-class LHAs with well-decks deleted. Along with Japan’s two classes of helicopter destroyers and the Republic of Korea’s Dokdo, it seems the concept of a small carrier capable of operating helicopters and STOVL fighter bombers is alive and well.
This article was originally published on Mar 29, 2016