Whither Carrier On Board Delivery?

  • photo courtesy of wikimedia http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_030123-N-7265L-001_An_Aircraft_Director_motions_to_the_pilot_of_a_C-2A_Carrier_On-board_Delivery_%28COD%29_aircraft_to_pull_forward_into_position_for_launch.jpg
    May 21, 2014

    As budget turmoil continues, all of the military services continue to face uncertainty. In some cases, delays of tough choices may represent the best option to preserve future decision space until things become more clear. One such instance may be manifest in the reported determination by the Navy to delay determining the way ahead on its Carrier On Board Delivery (COD) replacement program.

    Like many platforms, the current C-2A Greyhound aircraft is reaching the end of its service life, prompting the Navy to identify a replacement. There are two main alternatives: one that would upgrade the existing platform, and one that would use an alternative platform (the V-22 tiltrotor) to fundamentally change how the COD mission is conducted. There are arguments to be made both ways. Proponents of the C-2 Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) option argue that this is the most cost effective approach, and that it involves the least risk. The C-2 has a proven track record, and the remanufacture of old aircraft would be less expensive than the most costly V-22. (Though some believe that the estimated costs of a C-2 SLEP are overly optimistic given the scope of work.)

    As important as the fiscal considerations, the C-2 is already part and parcel of the Navy’s existing logistics concept for at sea supply, which is based on a hub and spoke system. The C-2 flies cargo to the carrier (the hub), subsets of which are distributed to the other ships in the battle group (the spokes) via helicopter. Proponents of the C-2 program maintain that the C-2 has a proven ability to integrate into the deck cycle of launch and recovery operations that dictate carrier operations. 

    Proponents of the V-22 concede that on a pure platform basis, a C-2 SLEP would likely be less expensive. However, they counter, the more applicable cost comparison is one that captures the full cost of cargo delivery to the entire carrier battle, which (unlike the C-2) the V-22 could do. A mission-based construct would therefore include the costs not only of the C-2 but of the procurement and operating costs of the helicopters that conduct the “spoke” delivery as well.  From a mission perspective, proponents argue, a V-22 COD fleet would enable direct, distributed logistics operations, allowing the Navy to gain significant cost and operational efficiencies. As one example, such a system would permit the replenishment of munitions to a destroyer squadron directly from a remote ammunition ship. When coupled with the V-22’s advantages in speed and range, proponents argue that direct, rapid delivery of necessary supplies (spare parts, munitions, etc.) could result in substantial operational benefits.

    Direct delivery may also result in additional cost reductions and operational efficiency relative to today’s approach, as it would obviate the need for commanders to move vessels closer to the carrier to accommodate the shorter ranges of helicopters performing the “spoke” legs of the mission.  The direct, distributed approach would enable greater throughput of the system because payloads could be palletized, an option currently precluded by the need to package loads such that they can withstand both a catapult launch and an arrested carrier landing. A V-22 could also carry a greater array of payloads, both externally and internally; with recent modifications, this now includes F-35 replacement engines, something not possible with arrested landings. This flexibility extends beyond logistics operations as the Navy could use the V-22 for other missions, further increasing the capability of the carrier air wing. Those in favor of the V-22 option argue that this transformational approach and greater range of capabilities more than offsets the higher per aircraft cost.

    The Navy has taken some steps to gather its own data to better inform its choice. It is clear, however, that whatever such data indicate, Navy culture will remain a highly relevant factor. Concerns over how a V-22 would fit into a carrier’s launch and recovery cycle have led to one operational assessment specifically aimed at identifying risks to carrier operations, the results of which are not yet public. No matter what they reveal, the risks associated with any change to the careful choreography atop the carrier deserve serious consideration. Should modifications appear warranted, overcoming the likely discomfort associated with change will require stringent testing and socialization in order to validate proposed concepts. This would be a key step, as the carrier flight community’s operating doctrine has been continuously refined over the past half century. Any changes would require significant bureaucratic and confidence building efforts. 

    The groundwork for this decision has already been laid by an analysis of alternatives (AoA) in 2012 and work continues with a military use assessment (MUA) this summer. It is clear that this will be a difficult, and likely emotional, decision for the Navy. Risks and rewards can be argued for both options. No matter how it eventually unfolds, when it comes the COD decision will clearly have implications for the future of carrier operations and fleet logistics for many decades to come.

    Maren Leed is senior adviser with the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Andrew Metrick is program coordinator and research assistant with the Harold Brown Chair at CSIS.


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