This Week at War: Shipping Out

In my Foreign Policy column, I explain why missiles, technology, and budget problems are now conspiring against aircraft carriers.

 

For decades, aircraft carriers have been the tool-of-choice for crisis response. Policymakers in Washington and four-star commanders in the field invariably have turned to carriers when they needed to signal U.S. intentions, quickly reinforce military power, or provide decision-makers with options during a predicament. The Navy has responded to the enduring demands of these customers by making the aircraft carrier strike group the prime organizing feature of the Navy's surface and aviation forces, thereby drawing the biggest share of the service's manpower, budget, support, and training resources. And until recently, the Air Force seemed happy to cede this crisis-response role, because then it could focus on its own priorities.

However, new and disruptive weapons and technologies will soon upset long-standing assumptions and cozy inter-service arrangements. In particular, the spread of long-range anti-ship missiles threatens the ability of aircraft carriers to perform their traditional missions. What's more, these disruptions are occurring at the moment when U.S. policymakers are under pressure to find cheaper ways of performing essential military missions. And the Air Force could develop the technology and the long-range platforms to carry out many of the carrier's missions at less cost. All these factors could force planners to rethink air power from first principles, leading to stormy times for aircraft carriers and inter-service harmony.

The aircraft carrier's combat debut in the Pacific theater in 1941 instantly made the battleship obsolete. Aircraft carriers delivered more firepower, over longer ranges, with more speed and flexibility, over a wider variety of targets at sea and ashore. After World War II, the power of U.S. aircraft carriers forced adversaries to focus their naval spending on submarines rather than major surface ships, a trend still visible today. Without enemy surface ships to sink, the Navy's carrier pilots focused on projecting air power ashore, which they did against North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.

Over the past half-century, the Navy's carriers also became well-suited to crisis response. Carrier strike groups could typically arrive at trouble spots within days and without the need for tedious negotiations with host countries over permissions and basing rights. The Air Force was fine with this arrangement because, although its tactical fighter wings could theoretically perform a similar role, the service's doctrine called for large, well-established, and well-supplied bases from which it could reliably generate a high sortie rate. Such ponderous guidance could not deal well with fleeting contingencies, many of which occurred in austere locations.

But the proliferation of cheap but deadly long-range anti-ship missiles promises to upset these assumptions and arrangements. For example, China is putting anti-ship missiles on submarines, patrol boats, surface ships, aircraft, and trucks, giving it the ability to dominate its nearby seas. For the price of a single major warship, China can buy hundreds or even thousands of anti-ship missiles. And as it perfects its own reconnaissance drones, China will be able to thoroughly patrol neighborhood waters, identifying targets for these missiles.

The Navy's aircraft carriers will come under pressure to retreat from this missile zone. However, there is a limit to how far they can retreat while still remaining in the game. As large as U.S. aircraft carriers are, they can only launch relatively small short-range fighter-bomber aircraft. For example, the F-35C, the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, has a combat radius of just 615 miles. Mid-air refueling can extend this range. But refueling is not possible in hostile air space, and even with it, small fighters are constrained by the physiological limits of their single pilot.

The Air Force's long-range bombers, by contrast, with two pilots and room inside to stretch, have routinely flown intercontinental missions lasting over 30 hours. Recently, an Air Force B-1 bomber wing continuously maintained at least one of its big bombers over Afghanistan during a six-month deployment to a base in southwest Asia. While on station over Afghanistan, the B-1s responded to over 500 requests for close air support from troops in fire fights.

Ironically, just as the value and utility of its long-range bomber forces was increasing, the Air Force has spent the past decade focused on its F-22 and F-35 fighters, which, like the Navy's carrier aircraft, have to operate from vulnerable close-in bases and whose combat ranges are too short for the Asia-Pacific theater's vast expanses. But, after much bureaucratic resistance and delay, the Air Force is finally moving ahead with a new stealthy long-range bomber to supplement and eventually replace the legacy fleet that has withered over the past decade.

The arrival of the new bomber, when combined with the anti-ship missile threat and budget austerity, could force Pentagon planners to reassess the nature of air support, especially during crisis response in missile-contested war zones. That would be unhappy news to Navy and Air Force officials who have become comfortable with long-existing arrangements. If the missile threat in the western Pacific or the around the Persian Gulf becomes too great, policymakers and planners may conclude that too much prestige may be at risk with the deployment of a carrier strike group in response to a crisis. Diplomatic or tactical objections may similarly rule out an Air Force fighter deployment. That would leave long-range bombers as the only usable crisis-response tool and raise questions about the investments in more aircraft carriers and short-range fighters.

But beyond crisis response, Air Force bombers could redefine close air support as well. Until recently, supporting infantrymen in battle was assumed to be the job of small fighters. With precision-guided bombs, that is no longer true -- during their deployment in southwest Asia, the B-1s dropped bombs just 300 meters from friendly forces. By providing a continuous presence, troops on patrol always had air power overhead -- and very likely at a cheaper price than the cost of building, stocking, operating, and protecting air bases for fighters inside the combat zone.

There is another alternative. In a recent article in Proceedings, defense analyst Daniel Goure articulated a vision of aircraft carriers equipped with unmanned reconnaissance-strike drones, which, with mid-air refueling, could fly far longer and farther than jets with a human crew. Assuming the Navy could work out the considerable threats to their communications links (a problem the Air Force must also solve), drones could keep aircraft carriers in the fight even if they had been pushed back by anti-ship missiles. The Navy's carrier drone program is very active and well ahead of the Air Force's new bomber program. But even that success could backfire for carriers. If the Navy can perfect long-range drone missions, why not intercontinental drone missions? And if that's the case, a land base would work just fine. All of which could set up a new round of inter-service brawling inside the Pentagon.

 

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Comments

Mr. Haddick continues almost ad nauseum to beat his drum against the Aircraft Carrier, describing their end of value in scenarios that bear no resemblance to the realities of naval warfare -- something not taught at the USMC Officers Basic School or practiced by Marines.

In a prior article he created a scenario where in his described future conflict Chinese shore batteries using anti-ship missiles would decimate and defeat U. S. Navy warships conducting a headlong frontal charge against the coast of China. Of course, anyone understanding naval warfare could point out that in an (unimaginable) war with China the mission of the U. S. Navy would be to stop shipboard materials from entering into or leaving China, thereby crippling their industry by depriving them of needed oil resources -- not conducting a Marine Corps style frontal charge against the coast of China.

Mr. Haddick, once again proposes (obviously for scenario purposes) another future conflict with China where "their anti-ship missiles on submarines, patrol boats, surface ships, aircraft, and [you have to love the absurdity of it] trucks, will giv[e] it the ability to dominate its nearby seas. For the price of a single major warship, China can buy hundreds or even thousands of anti-ship missiles. And as it perfects its own reconnaissance drones, China will be able to thoroughly patrol neighborhood waters, identifying targets for these missiles."

Another [unimaginable] scenario centered around a conflict with China -- which is going to commit economic suicide by going to war with the US.

Okay Marine, for scenario purposes, once again the Navy would not conduct this conflict in the way you imagine.

First, Chinese port facilities will be destroyed by long range strikes probably using cruise style missile attacks. Ships can't operate long without a port to return to. When those ships are in port they will be detected by satellite reconnaissance and destroyed by missiles. And, we have the technology to know when and what ships or subs are leaving ports. Second the channels into / out of those ports will be heavily mined. Third, U.S. submarines will send to the bottom any vessels (or sea going trucks) lucky enough to leave their ports and venture onto the high seas. Fourth, and once again, Chinese industry cannot produce at any decent level absent the oil delivered to its country via ships and will lack the cash needed to sustain its economy (or war time production) if it can't deliver its products to its customers on other continents via ships. Presuming they will have ports to go in and out of, those ships will never make it past our subs.

Simply put, in your proposed conventional conflict the U. S. would not move to conquer China as that would be impossible for us to achieve. If we wanted to damage some part of their infrastructure we would not send manned aircraft into that environment, that is what cruise and other types of conventional warhead carrying missiles are designed to achieve.

But, MORE IMPORTANTLY, China would have no reason to enter into a conflict with its neighboring countries and Western nations absent an attempt to extend its influence outward via military force. Their military will have to leave their country and conduct operations outside their homeland to achieve that result. They absolutely lack the logistical capability to conduct or sustain operations any distance from their shores.

To exert that proposed influence Chinese forces will have to venture onto the seas (for as long as their fuel holds out) and in that environment their patrol boats and surface ships will be sunk -- presuming they make it out of port. Their aircraft won't last long as they are to easy to detect and their communications with their "trucks" will be intercepted and either broken or have their missiles redirected or receive return fire.

In brief, neither the U. S. Navy nor the USAF will dumb down their response and fight this proposed military conflict on an enemy's terms -- as this country's ground forces have done by giving up their weapons, technological and material advantages and (democratically) reducing themselves to rifle to rifle equality with their insurgent opponents Patraeus style.

Aircraft Carriers provide this nation the ability to exert its military power ashore, WHEN NECESSARY, in areas of the world where we lack a ground presence and before sufficient size air bases can be built and the necessary support facilities provided -- not to conduct military operations in the environment you describe. Even in WWII the Navy did not send its aircraft carrier task forces into Japanese home waters until we controlled the air and remember that Japanese use of thousands of kamikazes were not able to drive the Carriers away under that type of attack.

Perhaps your time would be better spent describing an alternative to this country continuing to maintain two branches of the military apparently with the same mission -- that of conducting ground warfare. Since WWII the Marine Corps has done nothing more than provide its divisions to the army helping it conduct the wars to which they (the army) have been committed by our civilian government. Clearly the army is under strength if it needs to borrow divisions from the USMC and just as clearly the Marine Corps is over strength if that has become its primary mission -- as in Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps needs to removed from its position as an equal branch of the military; to be substantially down sized with at least 120,000 of its men, budget and materials transferred to the army; and returned to its pre-WWII mission of providing a small number of battalions the Navy can use to very temporarily extend sea power ashore short distances from the ocean or a sea when the political powers in Washington D.C. determine a need to rapidly intervene in a distant environment not requiring large scale army sized forces. Of course, Marines can continue guarding Navy Bases, to provide shipboard detachments on "Aircraft Carriers" and other large combatants, staffing Brigs, providing guards for Embassies, and in other ceremonial positions. Unlike attempting to end the use of aircraft carriers, this change in the structure of the U. S. military is long overdue.

Why limit our use of recce-strike UAVs flying and recovered from aircraft carriers, when we could just as easily cut the number of carriers by a couple, and use the money to lay keels for more numbers of an even more nimble and utilitarian ship that could also do that . . . the LHA?

Further, since my former gun club, the Corps insists upon having the F-35B aircraft to operate off the LHA, they could augment any Navy requirements as necessary with manned aircraft.