Tag Archives: capital ship

Capital Uncertainty

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By J. Overton


A snowstorm hits the coastal city of a near-peer competitor. That country’s largest naval shipyard, housed in this city, communicates via its own web site and through the local commercial media that all non- essential navy personnel should stay home until further notice. It also releases notice that a ship homecoming, due to happen the next day, will be postponed until the weather improves.

That evening, fire breaks out on a dry-docked submarine in that shipyard. The minimal staff on-site fails to notice or report the fire until the next morning. By then, the submarine and dry dock have suffered massive and horrendously expensive damage.

That morning, packages and envelopes are delivered to facilities at each of the other major naval bases in the country, all containing white powder and threatening notes. Due to an abundance of caution, the buildings in which these packages were opened evacuated, locked down until a thorough test of the substances can be done. Backpacks and unattended bags found near the entrances to the bases cause further alarm, and all of the country’s naval bases are put on reduced manning until the suspicious packages are investigated. Bomb threats call in to every coastal base at noon that day and prompt further panic, and a decision is made to get all ships that can underway.

A contracted fuel tanker, pulling in to the nation’s largest fuel pier, loses steerage way and collides with the nation’s largest amphibious ship, then moored at this pier. The damage to both ships, and the fueling pier, causes few casualties, but results in an oil spill and both ships being unseaworthy. The spill shuts down the shipping channel leading into one of the largest bases and commercial ports, backing up cargo ships, and causing the navy ships attempting to get underway to do so with less than optimal fuel requirements. At another base on a different coast, a submarine joining the scramble to get to the safety of the sea reports experiencing an explosion or collision, and sends a distress signal as it begins abandon ship procedures.  

That evening, with attempts still being made to respond to the oil spill and the disabled submarine, power outages occur at the navy’s administrative offices, located in a commercial office block in an inland city. Within minutes of the complex going dark, an individual walks to the gate of the navy’s largest communications center, shoots the lone guard, and begins killing watchstanders.

By midnight of the second day, this nation’s leaders are yet are unsure if this mayhem is just a random serious of unfortunate events, or a coordinated, sponsored attack.

In the early hours of day three, a naval jet crashes just after taking off from its base, landing in a civilian community and, it seems, starting a quickly-spreading forest fire. That morning, this navy’s emergency messaging begins sending out text alerts, telling some sailors to shelter in place, and some that they’re wanted for arrest due to some criminal activity, or that a family member has died. Emails and photos of Navy leadership engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior are sent from navy addresses to news outlets around the world.

That evening, the chief of this besieged, bewildered navy is found dead in his office, apparently from self-inflicted poisoning. His national government is unsure if they are actually under attack, much less who the attacker might be, but they do know that their navy is, at least temporarily, dead in the water.

The capital ship concept may no longer be relevant. Modern navies spend the bulk of their time performing at the softer, fuzzier end of the Range of Military Operations. The seapower that best serves their respective nations may come in the form of counter-smuggling, icebreaking, humanitarian aid and disaster response missions, or in passive-aggressive sea lane interference, none of which require a modern equivalent to an Iowa-class battleship or Royal Navy Ship of the Line, circa 1781. Even the hard-power naval actions of recent decades have not involved symmetrical actors in surface-to-surface combat. Strikes from off-shore carriers on inland targets or massive and decisive attacks on hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered navies1 have been predominant in this young century.

But if the capital ship ideal is relevant today, or will again be in the future, then first some set of criteria, allowing for both traditional usage and technological advancement, must describe it. First, it would be the most powerful platform in the fleet (however one defines platform, power, or fleet). Next, it would be the most survivable platform in that Fleet, both in having the fewest critical vulnerabilities and in that if the rest of the fleet is lost, this ship could still operate. And finally, its primary objective would be the destruction or neutralization of the enemy’s Navy assets.

What is Capital?

Capital-ship type actions have occurred in the previous few decades, but not usually in a way that they would be recognized as such. Rather than envisioning what a future capital ship would look like and what technology or capabilities it would have, one instead can assess some of recent examples of when a human-directed action or natural obstacle has caused significant damage or destruction to a platform or facility of the contemporary world’s most powerful Navy.

The most egregious example of an entire first-rate navy’s first-rate ship being damaged beyond repair during this time period would be that of the fire on the submarine USS Miami. Set while the submarine was in dry dock by a shipyard laborer who apparently just wanted to go home early, it resulted in the total loss of an attack submarine.2 An extremely expensive platform, designed for stealth and survival under the harshest conditions of war and the natural environment was taken out permanently by a lone actor using the most basic technology (fire) with effectively no planning, particular expertise, or financial cost. Other losses or severe damage to U.S. ships and submarines in the last decade have come from collisions with uncharted undersea mountains, reefs, and other ships.3 Naval shore facilities in the U.S., where most of the Navy’s platforms and people spend most of their time, have been shut down for varying periods of time by bomb threats, anthrax threats, and gunmen, none of whom seem to have been carrying out the work of an organized group or nation state, nor to have been done with significant foresight or cost outlay.4

More traceable or kinetic actions have taken place against Navy assets, with near-misses by drones and jets, attacks from waterborne improvised explosives devices, and computer system hacks likely from state actors. 5 Other threats and actual criminal acts, using commercial, off-the-shelf technology, have been used to disable or interfere with the operations of extremely complex, expensive platforms, though thankfully none has yet caused catastrophic results.6

These navy-disabling actions share certain salient characteristics:

– The offenders were either lone actors, or were part of a network that was difficult to track or had a plausibly deniable connection to the offending action.

– The offender’s Center of Gravity and critical vulnerabilities were either not present at the site of action.

– The damage they caused was with commercially-available, cheap or at-hand technology, or natural-occurring obstacles, effectively exploiting the critical vulnerabilities of their target.

Amalgamating elements of the often-accidental events mentioned above into a set of characteristics and capabilities – and adding those to capital ship criteria – yields a near-formless concept that can destroy or mitigate the world’ foremost naval platforms.7

If the stealthiest and best-armed ships can frequently be tracked and detected, and as illustrated, have times of increased vulnerability during maintenance or restricted maneuvering, then the most powerful platform in the Fleet would not be a ship. It would be a small team, networked without a formalized, exploitable communications network, with their leadership, and perhaps all but one team member, safely-distant from the actual area of operations. The individuals on this team may not all know each other, and would not all know the full details of any particular operation, only a particular actions or times which triggered particular phases they would begin or execute.

Their lethality would come from attacking the critical vulnerabilities of modern fleets such as their long logistics tails and extensive, complex network of support and maintenance, be that from sabotage, hacks on navigation or fuel systems, compromising workers, or other any other method which brought about the desired end state without the undesired risks and attribution.8

An overt strike by a ship against a similar target would invite a reciprocal strike if possible, and if not, then other elements of the enemy’s national power would react. A small footprint with a connected human network would be the most survivable platform that could perform its mission. It would be able to strike before the adversary was aware that hostilities had commenced, and even then, the adversary still might be left in doubt as to whether or not a conflict had begun, or with whom it was being fought. And if it was attacked or compromised, its center of gravity would be distant and dispersed, leaving it a far more difficult “ship” to sink than the metal hulls it was after.

A few people with skills at commercial drone pilotage, subterfuge and sabotage, and cyberwarfare connections would in no way be available to carry out the range of missions in the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority or even the more-focused update of a Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power. Many of those require amphibious ships, hospital ships, and the submarines and aircraft carriers that may pass for today’s conventional version of a capital ship. But if the primary objective of a capital ship is the destruction or neutralization of the enemy’s Navy assets, those symmetrical platforms would be not be both the most effective and most survivable.9 Once they had sufficiently carried out whatever assigned mitigation or destruction was needed, this “ship” would achieve sea denial no less thoroughly than a battleship or aircraft carrier – it’s organic “firepower” would allow for follow-on sea-going platforms, now un- or minimally-contested to operate freely within a space that they could not dominate, physically or politically, alone.


The functions of a capital ship can no longer be performed by a single afloat unit, and the destruction of a near-peer competitor or symmetrical fleet becomes increasingly less tenable with more accurate satellite imagery and more transparent oceans. A future Battle of the Capes, Trafalgar, or a Midway might still be something for which to prepare, but also something which becomes, in the preparation, inconceivable: all sides would be well aware of the others movements and preparations, and likely of their positions and capabilities as well.

The essentials of the scenario at this essay’s beginning have been carried out piecemeal against first-rate navies in the last few decades, and yet have either been random acts of violence and vandalism, of incompetence and natural causes, or haven’t left enough evidence to warrant a hard-power state response. This might illicit distaste in proponents of traditional seapower platforms, so once did steam power, iron hulls, submarines, and aircraft carriers. The need, or possible existence, of the most supremely effective naval platform for its era will not be obsolete for as long as nations and peoples use the world’s finite sea lanes and marine resources. But the idea that this platform must, however, be now and for always a ship no longer holds water.

J. Overton is a civilian writer/editor for the U.S. Navy, has been an adjunct professor for the Naval War College and Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government.

1. See The Sorry State of the Ukrainian Navy—and Why It Should Matter to America http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-sorry-state-the-ukrainian-navy%E2%80%94-why-it-should-matter-21842

Georgian Navy’s Cruel Fate https://www.wired.com/2008/08/georgian-navys/ And of course, during the same time period there have been more conventional attacks on U.S. and other modern Navies…the USS Cole bombing, the probable- torpedoing of the South Korean ship Cheonan.

2.  See Torching of nuke sub costs $400 million; Navy’s budget struggles for air  http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/07/us/navy-submarine-lost/

3. See, among others, Initial investigation blames Navy for USS Fitzgerald collision http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/21/politics/fitzgerald-initial-investigation-blames-navy/

In 2005, a U.S. Navy Submarine Ran Into a Mountain http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a24158/uss-san-francisco-mountain-incident/

Navy wants answers after warship, merchant vessel collide http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/20/asia/us-navy-destroyer-collision-singapore/

4. See, among similar incidents, Gunman and 12 Victims Killed in Shooting at D.C. Navy Yard http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/us/shooting-reported-at-washington-navy-yard.html?pagewanted=all

Local bomb squads busy with suspicious package scares  http://komonews.com/news/local/local-bomb-squads-busy-with-suspicious-package-scares

2 Contractors Arrested for Bomb Hoaxes at San Diego Navy Base Plagued by Threats https://news.usni.org/2016/12/19/2-contractors-arrested-bomb-hoaxes-san-diego-navy-base-plagued-threats

5.  See China is suspected of hacking into Navy site Naval War College systems off-line following network intrusion https://fcw.com/articles/2006/12/04/china-is-suspected-of-hacking-into-navy-site.aspx

6. See Coast Guard warns of laser strikes on commercial ships in the Chesapeake Bay http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/breaking_news/ph-ac-cn-ships-lasered-0505-20170504-story.html Coast Guard targeted by laser pointer http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/coast-guard-targeted-by-laser-pointer

7. See Formless Warfare: An Innovative Concept to Gather More Information, Analyze it Faster, and Strike Harder by Michael Kim and Charles Schultzhttp://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/formless-warfare-an-innovative-concept-to-gather-more-information-analyze-it-faster-and-str

Some New, Some Old, All Necessary: The Multi-Domain Imperative https://warontherocks.com/2017/03/some-new-some-old-all-necessary-the-multi-domain-imperative/

8. Taking cues from Hassan i Sabbah (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”) and Unrestricted Warfare (“the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.”) see A New Generantion of Unrestricted Warfare https://warontherocks.com/2016/04/a-new-generation-of-unrestricted-warfare/

9.  Power as defined as adaptability to function, as described by Joseph Moretz in “The Royal Navy and the Capital Ship in the Interwar Period: An Operational Perspective,” xvi.

Featured Image: A Marine Special Operations School student maintains security during Field Training Exercise Raider Spirit, May 2, 2017, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Capital Ship 2035: The Mission Command Vessel (MCV)

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Harry Bennett

The Mission Command Vessel (MCV) capital ship of 2035 is a “key node” in the global U.S. Defense network dominating the tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) assigned to it. The vessel is usually supported by, and is at the center of, an accompanying Advanced Task Force (ATF). The MCV integrates their systems and capabilities for maximum combat power and efficiency. It is the ability within an ATF to integrate different weapons systems and different types of vessel to maximum effect that makes the MCV a “capital ship.”

The MCV is at once continuously connected to every other vessel in the ATF, and the systems and munitions which they control, as well as to a global network of sea and shore-based command units including links to Air Force and Army commands and their equivalents of the MCV key nodes. The intelligence which the ATF and the MCV gather is at once relayed to other commands, and in turn their intelligence to it. In the event of the failure or destruction of an MCV another MCV or shore-based command can take control of the units of the ATF to continue with the mission or withdraw the force.

The MCV is under human command and control while many of its networked assets are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) and Unmanned Amphibious Ground Vehicles (UAGV). These are third-generation systems requiring little human interaction and are capable of limited threat analysis and decision-making.

The design philosophy of the MCV is governed by two imperatives: the need for stealth, and the need for command and secure communication with massive bandwidth and high levels of computing power to ensure excellent data collection and distribution. The vessel is, then, capable of operating above and below the water, and is nuclear powered to ensure the provision of adequate power to its onboard systems. The secure-comms system developed out of DARPA’s Mobile Offboard Clandestine Communications (MOCCA) program ensures, along with the advanced autonomy of the UV elements of the ATF, that comms traffic does not compromise the MCV’s stealth capabilities.

By early twenty-first century standards, the crew of the MCV is comparatively small, but computing and communication systems are far greater in their power and reach. The vessel above surface deploys advanced defensive/offensive weapons systems including 200kw lasers and a missile system capable of engaging aerial threats including hypersonic missiles. Below surface threats to the vessel are countered by mini-torpedoes that can target conventional torpedoes, enemy Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV), and be directed against mines which might inhibit the navigation of the MCV.

The MCV’s own UUV craft (each about the size of a conventional torpedo) are capable of wide deployment, carry passive sonar, and can send out active sonar pings. The returns from the active pings are received and monitored on-board the MCV. The sonar on-board the MCV’s UUV extend the sensor range of the vessel, and are also equipped with systems which allow the UUV to mimic the sound profile of a range of vessels. They are thus able to be employed as lures for enemy vessels, or to present potential threats from surface vessels or submarines where none are present. The UUVs can also be tasked to gather hydrographic, meteorological, and environmental data which may assist the mission.

The UUV units play a vital role in the security of the MCV and its ATF. The subsea security of the task force is further enhanced by the presence of two conventionally crewed SSNs which carry their own UUVs with capabilities identical to those carried by the MCV. Together the MCV, SSNs and their attendant UUVs can actively and passively detect underwater threats over an area large enough to ensure the safety of the ATF.

The reach and flexibility of the MCV is further extended by onboard Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Amphibious Ground Vehicles which can be deployed for the purposes of reconnaissance on land and in the air, or for offensive/defensive purposes. The UAGVs can be used to attack specific targets on land, and the UAVs of the MCV can maintain a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the Advanced Task Force, or be used to target beach head defenses or targets further inland. Both the UAGVs and UAVs can be employed with special force units (eg. FORECON, USMC) in carrying out deep reconnaissance operations (eg. Key Hole), or be used in support of larger USMC amphibious operations launched from conventionally crewed LPDs (Landing Platform Dock) operating with the ATF.  

The true secret of the MCV’s offensive potential lies not in its own limited offensive systems but in the new generation of general purpose Autonomous Arsenal Vessels (AAV) which will accompany the highly mobile Advanced Task Force (ATF). These AAV can have payloads dedicated to particular tasks, such as beach assault/air defense/anti-submarine warfare, or contain a general mix of smart munitions (e.g. vertically launched cruise missiles/hypersonic missiles) designed to augment the offensive and defensive capabilities of the MCV. Replenishment of the AAVs, and more extended maintenance and repair issues are handled by Force Replenishment and Repair Vessels (FRRVs).

At sea specialists based on the MCV service and maintain and repair the Arsenal Ships, and the UAVs of the MCV can maintain a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the Advanced Task Force. The UAVs and UAGV can be recovered either by the MCV or by LPDs, each with its USMC complement, operating as part of the ATF.

For particular missions, the MCV can also take local control of additional assets (manned and unmanned) which can be dispatched to its TAOR, and vectored to its location before being released to MCV control. Most importantly, this includes additional air assets including fighter aircraft, next generation stealth aircraft, unmanned B-52 bombers equipped with smart weapons, and next generation ground support.

The MCV capital ship is the heart of the Advanced Task Force: capable of waging a flexible Sea, Air, Land battle from the deep oceans to the littoral zones likely to become the key centers of conflict in the mid-twenty first century. It is at the same time, a command vessel, a warship, and a key node in a global intelligence combat network allowing shore-based command a continuous flow of information, and the ability to flexibly project the power of the United States military around the globe. It is the capital ship of the mid-21st century, making the most of America’s technological lead, while providing the maximum protection for the service personnel of the United States Navy.

G.H. Bennett Ph.D. is associate professor of history at Plymouth University where he has taught since 1992. He is author of 15 books dealing with military, political, and diplomatic history. He writes for the Phoenix Think Tank and is a trustee of the Britannia Royal Naval College Museum.

Featured Image: The Soviet aircraft carrier “Novorosiisk”, steaming in the open Pacific in April 1985 (Coastcomp.com)

Return of the Sea Control Ship

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Captain Pete Pagano, USN (ret.)

Breathtakingly disruptive technologies offer unparalleled and innovative possibilities for naval operating concepts, but a large, survivable hull in the water that is able to conduct sustained combat operations will continue to define the capital ship into the 21st century. Today, a confluence of events has made revisiting the Sea Control Ship a vital task for the sea services. From commissioning new, large-deck amphibious assault ships specifically designed to maximize aircraft operations, expanding ARG-MEU mission sets via the tiltrotor MV-22 Osprey, and most significantly the imminent deployment of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), such a ship with its vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters could conduct ASW and carry out other sea control missions such as surface warfare (SUW). Additionally its air group of F-35B aircraft could conduct strike missions in lower intensity conflict situations such as the U.S. in Libya in 2011. Such a platform is the key to the future of maritime warfare not because it is a replacement for the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft carrier, but rather because it is a complement that will free up the larger and all too few fleet nuclear powered aircraft carriers to focus on the power projection mission of striking enemy targets inland during a high intensity conflict.

The Concept

Naval Doctrine Publication 1 (NDP 1) and Joint Pub 3-32 define sea control as one of the core capabilities of naval forces – necessary to the accomplishment of all other naval missions and complementary to the mission of power projection. Sea control operations include destruction of enemy naval forces, suppression of enemy sea commerce, protection of vital sea lanes, and establishment of local military superiority in areas of naval operations.1  During his tenure as Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral “Bud” Zumwalt advocated a High-Low mix of warship designs in order to affordably meet the numbers of ships required to counter the Soviet Union in any major war – specifically the building of smaller aircraft carriers to supplement the Carrier Strike Groups. In 1971, USS Guam (LPH-9) was selected as the test ship for a Sea Control Ship (SCS) concept. Testing began in 1972 and was completed in July 1974.Ultimately, the tests and concept were deemed unsuccessful and the Navy did not go forward with it. The short endurance and limited payload of the early model Harrier and the limited sensor capability of both the ship and the SH-3 Sea King ASW helicopter were the chief shortcomings of the concept.  However, today such shortfalls would be remedied by the fielding the LHD/LHA (which has a sensor and communications suite comparably to a Nimitz class aircraft carrier), F-35B JSF, the sensor-rich MH-60 multi-role helicopter, and the MV-22 Osprey with its myriad capabilities.

The Ship

Today’s Sea Control Ship could be based on the America-class already in production. At more than 44,000 and 42,000 tons of displacement respectively, the America-class amphibious ships and their LHD half-sisters of the Wasp-class are far from small. The Wasp and America-class ships are over 840 feet in overall length and both types have a 106 foot beam.3 In dimensions and displacement they are akin to, and actually exceed, the war-winning Essex-class aircraft carriers that the U.S. Navy employed to fight across the Pacific to victory in the Second World War. The Essex-class aircraft carriers were 872 feet overall with a 93 foot beam and displaced 27,100 tons in their WWII configuration.4 Coincidentally, the Wasp and America classes also bear more than a passing physical resemblance to these carriers as well. With some modifications, such as shifting the island superstructure outboard supported by a sponson, the flight deck area could be enlarged. Since a Sea Control Ship would only embark vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) and short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft, the catapults or arresting gear systems necessary for a conventional take-off and landing aircraft carrier would not be required. That saves weight, reduces costs – both construction and operating costs – and does not require as large a ship.

The chief argument often made in defense of big carriers versus small ones is that anything less than the supercarrier is not survivable – be it the Nimitz class of today, weighing in at 100,000 tons, or the earlier Kitty Hawk and Forrestal classes which ranged between 65,000 and 80,000 tons during their careers. However ,the combat record of the Essex class, which can be viewed as a surrogate for the LHA/LHD (and by extension the Sea Control Ship) in this argument, proves just the opposite. In World War II, not a single Essex class aircraft carrier was lost though several took punishing damage from aerial bombs and kamikazes. USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) was hit in quick succession by two kamikazes while covering the Okinawa landings, experiencing widespread fires and 653 casualties.5 The ship steamed back to the United States for repairs under her own power. In March of 1945, USS Franklin (CV-13) became the most heavily damaged United States aircraft carrier to survive the war after a Japanese air attack inflicted extensive damage to the flight deck, hangar deck, two decks below them, and the CIC, resulting in 724 killed and 265 wounded.6  In post-WWII service, off Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, Essex-class carrier USS Oriskany experienced extensive fire damage through five decks with 44 killed when a flare inadvertently ignited and set off a chain reaction of explosions.7 Ample evidence exists that an aircraft carrier of 40,000 tons or so can take hits and survive.

On Essex-class carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) crew stands at attention as the National Ensign is raised, during commissioning ceremonies at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, 15 April 1943. Photographed by Lieutenant Charles Kerlee, USNR. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)

Another argument used against small aircraft carriers, and the adjective small here is used relatively, is that the embarked air component would be correspondingly small as well. This is true in part, but with precision guided munitions (PGM) and the types of missions envisioned for the Sea Control Ship, an air group of 30 or so STOVL fixed wing and rotary wing/tiltrotor aircraft would be appropriate and sufficient for mission execution. Both the LHA and LHD class ships are designed to support an air component of over 30 fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Both ships are also able to accommodate more than 20 fixed wing STOVL aircraft as an alternative load out. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, USS Nassau performed in this role of “Harrier carrier” and USS Bataan (LHD-4) served in this capacity as well during the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2013.

The LHD and LHA of today are not your grandfather’s amphibs. The command, control, computer, communication, combat systems and intelligence (C5I) capabilities are extensive and second only to a Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN) in capability, to include: two- and three-dimensional air search radars, an extensive satellite communication suite, and intelligence support facilities. The sensor and communication assets built into the big deck amphibious ships provide further proof that sufficient capability can be built into a carrier of 40,000 to 45,000 tons.

The Air Group

The Sea Control Ship’s air group would be built around the F-35B STOVL Joint Strike Fighter. With its advanced capabilities in sensing, stealth and weapons delivery, this aircraft is a game changer that puts to rest the argument that STVOL aircraft are a step down in capability vis-à-vis their CTOL aircraft relatives. Tiltrotor and rotary wing aircraft such as the MH-60R Seahawks and the MV-22 Osprey would support the F-35B. A tanker mission package is already being developed and tested by the United States Marine Corps for the MV-22 Osprey to further support the F-35B . Additional support would exist in the form of a tiltrotor airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft.

USS AMERICA, At Sea – An F-35B Lightning II aircraft completes Envelope Expansion Testing during a Short Take-off Vertical Landing aboard USS America, Oct. 30, 2016. (US Marine Corps Photo)

For the sea control mission, the main battery would exist in the form of an ASW-tiltrotor aircraft equipped with surface search radar, dipping sonar, sonobuoys, magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) gear and torpedoes. This aircraft would also be capable of surface warfare (SUW) missions if equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles. The MV-22 airframe, combined with technology and systems already in existence, make these variants well within the realm of feasibility and affordability. Rounding out the air group in the mission of sea control would be detachments of “Romeo” and “Sierra” models of the ubiquitous H-60 helicopter for use in the inner zone ASW/SUW mission set.

Distributed and Agile

A key advantage of an air group comprised exclusively of STOVL and rotary wing aircraft is the tactical flexibility in basing that they permit. Not only would the air group be able to be based on smaller aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibious ships, but they can also be based in detachments across a number of even smaller ships, to include non-traditional ones such as modified container ships in a further expression of distributed lethality. Additionally, the air group could be shore-based on expeditionary air strips in austere locations. With this capability the air group could conduct shuttle missions between their sea control ship home base and these expeditionary sites. Vulnerability to this type of shuttle bombing operation was always a concern by Admiral Nimitz and his commanders when planning operations against the Imperial Japanese Navy and its network of island bases and mobile striking fleets. It is a vulnerability we can impose on a future adversary in a theater of operations where the geography features many islands.

Complement not Replacement

In a major combat/high intensity conflict, CTOL aircraft carriers like the Nimitz class will be fully engaged in strike-oriented power projection missions and seeing to their own fleet defense. However, the supporting missions of sea control will still need to be accomplished and will require a significant amount of air support. Enter the Sea Control Ship. Sanitization of chokepoints to allow the passage of shipping and the protection of convoys are two examples of missions for the SCS. Much like the Independence-class light aircraft carriers (CVL) that supplemented the Essex-class aircraft carriers in World War Two, Sea Control Ships could be employed to provide ASW, SUW, and assist in air defense of the carrier strike group, acting as a force multiplier to maximize the offensive punch of the CTOL carriers.

In lower intensity conflicts and small scale interventions, the Sea Control Ship and its air group may be a sufficient instrument of national power to accomplish the mission. Two recent examples of intervention operations bear this out: the employment of Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group (ARG)/26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in Operation ODYSSEY DAWN in 2011 and Wasp ARG/22nd MEU in Operation ODYSSEY LIGHTNING in 2016.

Opponents of the Sea Control Ship will correctly state that smaller aircraft carriers lack the sortie generation rate of the CTOL carriers and STOVL aircraft and don’t match CTOL aircraft in range, ordnance load out, and ordnance bring-back capability. However, for the missions envisioned and with employment of PGMs, the SCS and its STOVL air group do not need to exactly match the CTOL carrier and its air wing in these performance metrics. Additionally, the STOVL F-35B comes quite close to CTOL high-end tactical aircraft in performance and outclasses almost anything our potential adversaries currently field.

The Way Forward

The last decade has been described as budget-constrained and an opportunity for experimentation and innovation similar to the interwar period of the 1930s. As such, the United States Navy and Marine Corps should seize the opportunity to experiment with the Sea Control Ship concept. In this lean budget climate, it is especially appealing that nothing further need be designed or purchased to pursue this experiment. A point to consider is whether, and for how much longer, the appetite for the purchase of nuclear-powered supercarriers will exist in Washington. Developing a lower cost alternative now rather than later that can supplement the CVNs would maximize the utility of the existing carrier fleet.

The LHA-6, F-35B, MV-22 and MH-60 series are all in service. Now is the time to use these assets to develop and refine the concepts of operation and employment for a future Sea Control Ship. The Navy and Marine Corps should conduct a robust and iterative series of experiments and exercises to fully develop the concept of operations and employment and then use the results to develop a design for a purpose-built Sea Control Ship class. The America-class would be an obvious and appropriate starting point for this design. The AEW and ASW tiltrotor variants could be fielded in a fairly rapid fashion accordingly using existing off-the-shelf technology.

Much like during Admiral Zumwalt’s era, we are once again in an era of constrained budgets and rising international threats. Then, like now, innovative thinking needs to be applied to affordably generate the necessary numbers of ships and aircraft to meet the threat and accomplish the mission. The Sea Control Ship is easy to implement, as flexible as it gets, and requires very little research and development. It is the immediate solution to the Navy’s future needs.

Captain Pagano is a retired surface warfare officer who commanded the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group as Commodore of Amphibious Squadron Four. Prior to that, he was commanding officer of USS Carr (FFG-52). Currently he is employed as a senior analyst and instructor at Tactical Training Group Atlantic.


1. Joint Pub 3-32, 07 August 2013, I-3, 4

2. Norman Polmar, The Ships of the U.S. Fleet, 14th Edition, (Naval Institute Press, 1987), 193

3. Jane’s Fighting Ships online (IHS Global Ltd, 2016)

4. Paul H. Silverstone, U.S. Warships of World War 2, (Naval Institute Press, 1989), 42

5. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships online (Naval Historical Center)

6. Ibid

7. Wynn F. Foster, Fire on the Hangar Deck – The Ordeal of the Oriskany, (Naval Institute Press, 2001), 69

Featured Image: The amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) performs flight operations while underway to Rim of the Pacific 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Demetrius Kennon)

Future Capital Ship Topic Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC will be featuring articles that discuss future capital ship concepts in response to a Call for Articles from the U.S. Naval War College’s Institute for Future Warfare StudiesBelow is a list of articles featuring during the topic week that will be updated as the topic week rolls out and as prospective authors finalize additional publications.

The Network as the Capital Ship by Robert Rubel
Swarming Sea Mines: Capital Capability? by Zachary Kallenborn
Return of the Sea Control Ship by Pete Pagano
An Information Dominance Carrier for Distributed War at Sea by Dmitry Filipoff
Capital Ship 2035: The Mission Command Vessel (MCV) by Harry Bennett
Pitfalls in New Capital Ship Creation by Steve Wills
Capital Uncertainty by J. Overton

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II sails under the Forth Bridge. (Katielee Arrowsmith/SWNS.com)