Tag Archives: anti-access/area denial

Anything dealing with A2/AD

Assessing the Usefulness of the American Large-Deck Carrier

The following article is adapted from a recent Journal of Military and Strategic Studies publication entitled The combat utility of the U.S. fleet aircraft carrier in the post-war period

By Ben Ho Wan Beng


Former U.S. president William Clinton once said that whenever a crisis breaks out, the first question that comes to everyone’s mind would be “Where is the nearest carrier?” In the half century after World War Two, Washington employed force in response to some 200 crises, and carriers were involved in two-thirds of them.[1] On the other hand, the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force (USAF) were involved in 38 and 53 of these incidents respectively.[2]

This contrast came about because the large-deck carrier of the United States Navy (USN) offered a number of unique advantages over other combat platforms. Esteemed naval analyst Norman Polmar said: “(The) survival of the aircraft carrier… can be attributed to… territorial independence, flexibility of striking power, (and) mobility.”[3] These three attributes will be explored in this article.

Territorial independence

During times when defense spending is tight and when different branches of the American military vie for the budgetary pie, the aircraft carrier would often be subjected to criticism by other services, especially the Air Force. This is because the vessel is deemed to be a major competitor for scarce resources, owing to its high price tag and a perception that it is taking over some USAF roles. Nevertheless, even some of the harshest critics of the USN have begrudgingly alluded to some advantages unique to the carrier, the most important of which is arguably the territorial independence that allows it to conduct operations unconstrained by political limitations.

For instance, General Ronald Fogelman, the USAF Chief of Staff from 1994 to 1997 and who was known to be a fierce critic of USN expenditure, was cognisant of this attribute when he said: “Aircraft carriers give you the ability to sail into a littoral region and not have to worry about diplomatic clearance… The… crisis during Taiwan’s elections… was an ideal use of… carriers.”[4]

A U.S. carrier strike group, with its own logistical infrastructure and force-projection capabilities, makes an ideal tool for intervention. This is especially so in cases where American interests are not aligned with those of allies, and this could result in Washington not having access to air bases.[5] The carrier’s territorial independence would thus come in handy if local issues were to make it difficult for land-based airpower to be deployed.

Illustrative range and persistence for a notional unmanned aircraft with 1500NM range, and last refueled approximately 250 nm from coastline. Image credit: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, September 2010

A related issue is that of friendly air bases being attacked. According to a RAND report, the U.S. has 28 major air bases on the geostrategically and economically critical Eurasian landmass.[6] Although land bases are closer to potential hotspots, they are also closer to likely adversaries and could be targeted more easily during a conflict, making them more vulnerable than carriers. As a USN officer maintained: “I can’t tell you where… our carriers are… but given a few moments of research at Base Ops, I can give you the coordinates of every Air Force runway… and hangar worldwide.”[7] The proliferation of missiles and their enabling systems such as satellites in the post-Cold War period has led to several nations gaining the capability to target U.S. bases.

Indeed, this threat has become more serious with the advent of more advanced weapon technologies in recent years. This is arguably why Washington is realigning forces from Okinawa to Guam and setting up a new Marine contingent in Australia – to hedge against American forces in north-east Asia being targeted by China’s A2/AD systems during a conflict.[8] There have been no studies that do not acknowledge the vulnerabilities of land bases to anti-access threats; furthermore, even the most optimistic of such reports.[9]

Equally troublesome for America in times of crisis is the refusal of nations to grant over-flight [10] and aircraft deployment rights – an issue which the carrier does not face. The denial of over-flight rights to land-based aircraft could complicate Washington’s strategy. During Operation El Dorado Canyon, France, Spain, and Portugal denied over-flight rights to U.S. aircraft; consequently, the USAF F-111 Aardvarks involved had to be refueled in mid-air several times, a problem not faced by the carriers involved in the same operation as the ships were situated contiguously in the battlespace.[11]

As for the constraint of needing political clearance before U.S. aircraft can operate from foreign bases, a 2013 study contended that: “The attitude of host countries… is difficult to predict, raising… uncertainties regarding the basing of aircraft. The United States can bring enormous pressure to bear on a host country to accept U.S. forces, but success… cannot be guaranteed.”[12]

Examples abound of allies being hesitant or unwilling to allow U.S. aircraft to operate from their territory. Even when Iraq was poised to invade Saudi Arabia after taking over Kuwait in August 1990, the House of Saud hesitated before it permitted coalition forces to be deployed on its soil.[13] Similarly, the USAF could not operate out of Saudi Arabia and Turkey for Operation Desert Strike[14], leading a USN official to comment that the air force had been “castrated.”[15] He then extolled the territorial independence of the carrier in this instance: “With an aircraft carrier, you get 4.5 acres of Americana with no diplomatic restrictions.”[16]

The phallic reference may sound exaggerated, but it was a fact that American land-based airpower was effectively emasculated when it could not operate out of its Middle Eastern bases for Desert Strike. All in all, American carriers have proved to be useful for their territorial independence. This characteristic – combined with their mobility – essentially allows them to act as “first responders” to any situation.


Our ability to deliver… firepower and generate… high aircraft sortie rates can… impact on… a conflict… during the critical early period of a joint campaign, when… U.S.-based forces are just starting to arrive in theater. – Admiral Jay Johnson, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations from 1996 to 2000.[17]

Owing to their mobility, U.S. carriers are usually the first assets to be deployed to a hotspot. This attribute has made one analyst describe the USN, and for that matter its carriers, as “the… little Dutch boy… (who) can hold a finger in the dike until reinforcements – the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, and allied forces – are in place.”[18]

When the deployment order comes, a carrier group moving at even a moderate speed of 25 knots can cover a significant 600 nautical miles in 24 hours of continuous steaming. To illustrate, a U.S. carrier group near Guam moving at that speed would take just over two days to reach the vicinity of Taiwan in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis.[19] Suffice it to say that it would reach there even sooner at a higher speed.

The mobility that enables a carrier to act as a first responder was manifested as early as the Korean War. From the invasion of South Korea by the North in June 1950 until the Inchon landings in September, American and British carriers provided the sole tactical aviation assets as the number of South Korean-based aircraft was small and the USAF platforms in Japan were too short-ranged to have significant loiter time over targets.

USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN 69) with Carrier Air Wing SEVEN embarked (right) conduct an underway replenishment with USNS ARCTIC (T-AOE 8) (left). Image credit: MC2 Miguel Contreras, USN.

In a more recent conflict, during the 1990 Gulf crisis, Army General Norman Schwarzkopf said the Eisenhower and Independence battle groups were in range of Iraqi targets within 48 hours of the deployment order being given, adding that: “The Navy was the first military force to respond… and… was also the first airpower on the scene. Both of these deterred, indeed, I believe, stopped Iraq from marching into Saudi Arabia.”[20]

To get such a glowing assessment from a top officer in a rival service undoubtedly attests to the carrier’s unequalled utility in responding first to a crisis. In addition, the aforementioned carriers provided air cover for the deployment of equipment to Saudi Arabia since viable shore-based offensive airpower was available only three weeks after the crisis broke out.[21] Had Iraq invaded Saudi Arabia within this period, the two U.S. carriers on station would have been even more crucial as they were the only assets in theater that could take the fight to the enemy. 


Another inherent advantage offered by the carrier to U.S. theater commanders is that it can conduct a wide variety of operations because of the different types of aircraft embarked on it. To be sure, land bases can accommodate a wide range of aircraft as well, but they simply lack the unique attributes of territorial independence and mobility offered by the large-deck carrier as discussed earlier. The typical carrier air wing (CVW) today consists of 44 F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet fighters, five EA-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft, four Hawkeye airborne early-warning platforms, and 19 MH-60 Seahawk helicopters.[22] Indeed, during its 50-year service from 1962 to 2012, USS Enterprise operated 43 types of aircraft.[23]

This ability to accommodate diverse aircraft enables the carrier to carry out a wide range of missions. This was evidenced during Operation Deliberate Force when carrier planes participated in the whole gamut of operations: close air support, search-and-rescue, and enforcement of the no-fly zone. Because the carrier is such a large platform, it can integrate assets from other services, even other nations, into its operations.

This is crucial with today’s emphasis on jointness between the American armed services, and interoperability between Washington and her allies. In the current combat environment characterized by fluidity, the capabilities needed in one region or situation may not be the same as another, and thus why the ease of modifying the CVW is useful. [24] To illustrate, during Operation Uphold Democracy[25], USS America and USS Eisenhower carried elements of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the aviation component of the 10th Mountain Division, the ship’s organic air wings having being temporarily removed. 

Two F-35s on the deck of the USS Nimitz during the first carrier trials for the aircraft in November 2014. US Navy photo.
Two F-35s on the deck of the USS Nimitz during the first carrier trials for the aircraft in November 2014. US Navy photo.


The carrier has proved to be an extremely useful platform for the U.S. National Command Authorities, but it must be noted that the deployments delineated above occurred where anti-access threats were at best marginal. In an anti-access/area-denial environment, would the carrier be given carte blanche to project its airpower? Would its survivability be seriously questioned by the submarine and other anti-ship systems? These are but some of the key questions shaping the debate over the utility of the aircraft carrier, and my full article addresses some of them.

Read the full publication here: The combat utility of the U.S. fleet aircraft carrier in the post-war period.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and he received his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. Ben is a CIMSEC member and has published with the likes of The Diplomat, The National Interest, and Real Clear Defense.


[1] Jeffrey G. Barlow, “Answering the Call: Carriers in Crisis Response Since World War II,” Naval Aviation News, January-February 1997, fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/docs/970100-jb.htm.

[2] Reuven Leopold, Sea-Based Aviation and the Next U.S. Aircraft Carrier Design: The CVX (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Center for International Studies, 1998), p. 4.

[3] Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers: A Graphic History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. vii.

[4] Quoted in Leopold, Sea-Based Aviation, p. 5.

[5] Jacquelyn K. Davis, Aircraft Carriers and the Role of Naval Power in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis, 1993), p. 34.

[6] Michael J. Lostumbo, et al., Overseas Basing of U.S. Military Forces: An Assessment of Relative Costs and Strategic Benefits (Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, 2013), p. 20-30.

[7] Quoted in James Paulsen, “Is the Days of the Aircraft Carrier Over?” (Air Command and Staff College Research Report, 1998), p. 20.

[8] Cheryl Pellerin, “Work: Guam is “Strategic Hub to Asia-Pacific Rebalance,” DoD News, August 19, 2014, defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=122961.

[9] Sam J. Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013), p. 68.

[10] It must be noted that this point applies only to states contiguous to the sea where the carrier is deployed; overflight rights are still needed for aircraft seeking to reach countries situated landward of a coastal state.

[11] Leopold, Sea-Based Aviation, p. 4.

[12] Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare, p. 49.

[13] Davis, Aircraft Carriers, p. 34.

[14] Operation Desert Strike was initiated by the United States in September 1996 in response to the Iraqi military offensive against the city of Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

[15] Quoted in Bowie, The Anti-Access Threat, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Angelyn Jewell, Carrier Firepower – Realising the Potential (Alexandra, Virginia: Center for Naval Analyses, 1999), p. 5.

[18] Ibid.

[19] According to the author’s calculation, at 25 knots, it would take some 52 hours to cover the     distance of about 1,300nm between Guam and the waters off eastern Taiwan, which is derived from Google Maps.

[20] Davis, Aircraft Carriers, p. 22.

[21] John Pay, “Full Circle: The U.S. Navy and its Carriers: 1974-1993,” in Seapower: Theory and     Practice, ed. Geoffrey Till (Portland: Frank Cass, 1994), p. 136.

[22] David Barno, Nora Bensahel and M. Thomas Davis, The Carrier Air Wing of the Future   (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Century), p. 8.

[23] Rebecca Maksel, “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” Air & Space, January 15, 2015, airspacemag.com/daily-planet/future-aircraft-carriers-180953905.

[24] Lambeth, American Carrier Air Power, p.37.

[25] This was the 1994 intervention in Haiti to remove the military regime installed by the 1991 coup overthrew the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Swarms at Sea and Out-swarming the Swarms?

The Swarming Synchronized Speedboats of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy Revue

This week Foreign Policy posted a new article by Navy Postgraduate School professor John Arquilla, in which he discusses the how “swarm” tactics employed by the Russians caused the failure of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion.

Arquilla is a prolific author who regularly writes about swarms and “net-centric” operations.  In the above piece he cites successful maritime employment of swarm tactics such as German submarine “wolf-packs” in the Second World War and the Sri Lankan Navy’s fight against maritime elements of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or “Tamil Tigers”) earlier this decade.

It is unclear how Arquilla’s example of the Russian defeat of Napoleon is applicable to a broad range of operations at sea, however.  When swarms are discussed in terms of maritime operations, it is generally in the context of an asymmetric fight within a constrained body of water, such as Iranian plans to use swarms of small boats or the Chinese Type 22 Houbei fast attack craft.  Napoleon’s Grand Armee was vulnerable to Russian swarm attacks on the march back from Moscow because of its extended supply lines.  In contrast, one of the primary advantages of sea power is that it provides the space for strategic maneuver and the ability to avoid such exposure to swarms.  Swarms and Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) weapons and tactics could still threaten naval forces within specific areas in which the ability to maneuver is restricted, or are within the range of weapons on land, but they do not take away one of the main advantages of sea power, the ability for a state to choose where to best deploy its forces.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

From Jules Verne to Sir Julian Corbett

When a city can cut ties, there may be danger on the seas if it does – no matter how nice the upholstery.

The concept of Sea-based Nations, which won a recent CIMSEC poll directing our coverage for this week, is an idea with a significant potential to impact human societies. The extent of the changes depends on how far into the utopian imagination this idea is realized. In its simplest form, Sea-based nations could describe the venture of existing states into the open oceans. If so, tensions could rise significantly as the scramble for maritime territory takes on new dimensions, but there would be little new in terms of basic rules of naval strategy. Alternately, there could be a revival of ancient Greece-like city-states, as the name “Sea-based Nations” suggests. In this case the changes to the world and its citizens would be substantial, but even here we would still operating with known concepts. The most dramatic impacts would arise from the realization of the idea of Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In his 19th-century story, Captain Nemo and his crew of the Nautilus wanted to isolate themselves from the existing world. They cut all links and created a self-sufficient small community.

The latter two propositions could not be achieved without influencing existing maritime, and more narrowly, naval matters. The constabulary, diplomatic, and military functions of the world’s navies will be affected. And, in the most radical version – the Captain Nemo scenario – Sea-based Nations could undermine world order not by hostile actions or intentions, but simply by their existence. The bitterness in the words of Captain Nemo towards a frigate sailor in the U.S. Navy (who thought he’d been chasing a sea monster) reveal the challenges of renegade, roving, and unlocated Sea-bases facing humanity:

“M. Aronnax,” he replied, “dare you affirm that your frigate would not as soon pursued and cannonaded a submarine boat as a monster?”

From a professional standpoint, looking at the pictures of huge semi-floating structures, it is easy to imagine that military tactics will be affected as well. Let us think for a while about naval assault on such structure. Here naval warfare meets urban warfare. This raises questions not only about technology, but also about naval theory and its divergence or convergence with land warfare. Sir Julian Corbett believed that there are three principles of land warfare and that naval warfare significantly differs from them. The first principle is concentration of force and overthrowing the enemy, which is exemplified in maxim “The primary object of our battle-fleet is to seek out and destroy that of the enemy.” Here, naval warfare diverges with its concept of “fleet-in-being”:

In naval warfare we have a far-reaching fact which is entirely unknown on land. It is simply this–that it is possible for your enemy to remove his fleet from the board altogether.

The second principle is the definite lines of operation and of communications often determined by road and obstacles:

But afloat neither roads nor obstacles exist. There is nothing of the kind on the face of the sea to assist us in locating him and determining his movements.

The last principle is the concentration of efforts, which means a focus on an enemy’s force “without regard to ulterior objects.” In the case of naval warfare there is an ever-present question of lines of communication, independent from the focus on enemy forces, formulated in a simple and elegant way by Sir Julian:

Now, if we exclude fishery rights, which are irrelevant to the present matter, the only right we or our enemy can have on the sea is the right of passage;


Depending on whether the Sea-based Nation is more like Sparta than Athens, the above differences might be modified, if not eliminated. The “Fleet-in-being” strategy works only because the fleet removed from the board represents a reserve potential of action. The way of dealing with it is blockade. But what happens if a blockade is perfect?


Fighting for control of a Sea-based Nation could blend maritime and urban warfare.

On the other hand, as anti-access (A2) technologies matured throughout history, the close blockade became more and more costly. It was also exhausting and turned into the distant blockade. If a Sea-based Nation is a Sparta, self-sufficient in the long-term and powerful enough to push out its blockade through A2 technology, then a “fleet-in-being” would lose its importance and the difference between naval and land warfare starts to pale. Similarly, even tens or more floating Spartas will not change the sheer size of the ocean, but if located in one specific region, then they could act to increase or decrease the probable usage of particular sea routes.

The last difference would be least affected. However, some convergence comes from developments in land warfare as well. Looking at Afghanistan war, I suppose that Army generals would support Sir Julian Corbett’s focus on keeping safe lines of communications, regardless of the goal of overthrowing enemy forces.

In the end, what is the difference between armed floating cities and warships that justifies the digressions from known theories? Sustainment and self-sufficiency. If technology allows these structures enough of the two, we could face a hybrid of warships crossed with the type of well-defended islands seen in the Pacific campaign during WWII. The convergence between naval and land warfare would then accelerate.


Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country

Distant Corner Lab

The Latvian-built Skrunda

Crossing the Baltic Sea recently from Gdynia to Karlskrona, both major naval bases, I had the opportunity to observe ships of both the Polish and Swedish navies. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Tom Kristiansen and Rolf Hobson book Navies in Northern Waters. I began to wonder how a big navy could benefit by observing these small fleets. Smaller navies commonly  look at their big partners in efforts to predict future trends and developments.

Small navies should be aware that they operate on the edges of major naval war theories like those developed by Mahan or Corbett. Such theories were based on the historical experience of leading navies at their times. Although it is possible to imagine a “decisive battle” between offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) or fast-attack craft (FACs) (see Israeli-Arab wars), most probably small powers and their navies will balance between global or regional powers, allied with one of them against another or left alone against superior power. From a cooperative naval power point of view they could nicely fulfil diplomatic or constabulary roles. But there are also other areas worth mentioning, where small navies’ views, development, and operational experience could be of interest to leading navies. Studying small navies provides:

  • The potential to turn knowledge of small navies into a theoretical framework would enhance our understanding of special cases in major naval theories:  This could be of some interest in narrow seas and littoral areas, for example. In this year’s BaltOps exercises, the U.S. Navy was represented by an Aegis cruiser USS Normandy, but in coming years a more frequent participant will probably be an LCS. Participation in such exercises would offer the opportunity to observe how LCS works together with mine hunters, FACs and corvettes from regional, coastal fleets in scenarios similar to Northern Coast, perhaps somewhere in Finnish archipelagos. Such scenarios much more closely resembles Capt. Wayne Hughes’ works and would offer expertise applicable elsewhere.


  • Insight into the political decisions related to small navies’ development, roles, and applications:  Not a direct benefit for the U.S. Navy, but helpful in arranging and maintaining networks of alliances, if and when needed. In literature the PLAN navy is often described as proficient in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Is this a view smaller navies in the South China Sea region share? Even regional powers like India or Japan could hardly fear the PLAN’s current A2/AD capabilities. Unhindered access of the U.S. Navy to some specific waters doesn’t translate directly to feelings of strengthened security among smaller allies. The relation is more complex and understanding their, sometimes hidden motives, should give better results.


  • The opportunity to foster innovation: Small navies act under pressure of constraints not unknown to big navies, but the constraints can be even greater. In a small navy, a proposal to build a well-armed corvette can trigger hot discussions not only about the budget but even also about national policy. Everything is condensed. Links between strategy, tactics, budgeting, and force structure are more visible. Maybe this is the reason why small navies have to be both pragmatic and innovative at the same time. A good example of the pragmatic approach I found in Navies in Northern Waters is the fact that in the 18th-century both Swedish and Russian navies still used oared galleys. Examples of innovation are not limited to modularity or ships like Visby. Take a look at the Latvian navy, non-existant some 20 years ago. It acquired used ships from different navies and created the core of mine warfare and patrol capabilities. This was very pragmatic, and the first new construction, the economic SWATH designSkrunda, shows great attention to versatility.


  • Educational value: Let’s use an example. Say the task is to propose a force structure for a navy that’s been neglected in recent years. Historically, the military conflicts in this country have been decided on land. The adjacent narrow sea has an average depth of around 170 feet. The navy has no independent budget, but is instead centralized in the DoD’s. The yearly shipbuilding budget is forecasted at $200 million and the navy is given the time span 20 years to build the fleet. Although there is a shipbuilding industry, it has never built sophisticated warships. Anyone attempting to solve this kind of problem gains a much greater understanding of decisions faced by and made by senior staffs in the real world. 

Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country