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Regaining the High Ground at Sea: Transforming the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Air Wing

By Bryan Clark

Regaining the Maritime “High Ground”

Aircraft carriers have been the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy since they came to prominence during the Second World War. Their mobility and firepower were essential to winning the Pacific Campaign during that conflict, and carriers’ adaptability enabled them to remain the fleet’s primary means of power projection through the Cold War and in multiple smaller conflicts thereafter. Unless the Navy dramatically transforms its carrier air wings (CVW), however, the carrier’s preeminence will soon come to an end.

America’s carriers, often the target of adversaries, are once again under threat. China and Russia are investing in networks of sensors and weapons designed to deter U.S. and allied forces from intervening in their regions. As part of their efforts, these great power competitors, in addition to regional powers like Iran and North Korea, are fielding anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, warships, and submarines to threaten U.S. carriers.

The Navy is developing ways to counter enemy kill chains from initial detection through engagement. Carrier strike groups (CSG) will need to maneuver, minimize their radiofrequency emissions, and limit flight operations to reduce the vulnerability of carriers to detection and targeting and maximize the capacity of their air defenses. But employing these capabilities and tactics could significantly constrain carriers’ sortie generation capacity.

To retain their ability to defeat aggression, CSGs will need to conduct wartime operations from areas where they can generate high-volume sorties and fires and their defenses can realistically defeat enemy attacks. This will likely place them about 1000 miles from concentrations of Russian or Chinese forces, or up to 500 miles from the missile batteries of regional powers. At these ranges, the Navy’ current and planned air defense capabilities will be sufficient for CSGs to protect themselves without having to rely extensively on countering enemy sensors.

Unfortunately, the Navy’s current and planned carrier air wings (CVW) lack the reach, survivability, and specialized capabilities to effectively protect U.S. forces at sea and ashore or attack the enemy from 1000 miles away. Carriers are an important, and in some scenarios essential, element of the National Defense Strategy’s “contact” and “blunt” forces that will counter enemy aggression because they are more heavily defended and less vulnerable than forward land bases. If CSGs cannot substantially contribute to degrading, delaying, or defeating aggression, the Navy should reconsider continuing its investment in carriers and their aircraft and shift those resources toward more effective approaches.

As arguably the ultimate modular military platform, carriers can address emerging threats and opportunities by changing the size and mix of aircraft they carry. Without the ability to evolve and support new missions, carriers and their CVWs would likely have gone the way of the battleship and left the fleet decades ago. Our new Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study describes how the Navy could transform its CVWs during the next 20 years to address the challenges posed by great power militaries.

Changing Carrier Strategy and Tactics

Some analysts recommend that rather than invest in new aircraft and improved carrier defenses, the Navy should use missiles from surface combatants and submarines to defend naval forces and attack enemy targets. This approach, however, would be unsustainable and may not deter a committed aggressor.

Long-range surface-launched missiles are more expensive and less numerous than the glide, gravity, and powered weapons carried by aircraft. Moreover, once a ship or submarine expends its missiles, it will need to withdraw from the fight to safely reload, even if that reloading could be done at sea. Using large numbers of missile-carrying merchant vessels to sustain fires would not solve these problems, because large numbers of expensive standoff weapons would still be needed, as well as defenses for the vessels carrying them.

Instead of replacing carriers with missiles, the Navy should use them as complementary capabilities. Missile-centric platforms such as submarines and surface combatants are well-suited for the NDS’ contact forces, which will be the first to engage the enemy and need to generate large volumes of offensive and defensive fires on short notice. Carriers should be used mostly in the NDS’ blunt force, which will reinforce and support the contact force. Carriers take time to generate sorties, but can sustain fires as long as the carrier is resupplied, allowing contact force ships and submarines to withdraw and reload. Without the threat of sustained resistance from the blunt force, an aggressor like China could choose to fight through ship-launched missiles until ships and submarines need to reload.

Under this construct, CSGs will be employed in four main categories of operations, which are similar to how carriers were used in previous great power competitions and conflicts:

  • Day-to-day training, port calls, and exercises inside contested regions during peacetime to build alliances and demonstrate U.S resolve not to cede waters to adversary intimidation or coercion.
  • Smaller-scale operations at long range against highly defended targets of great power adversaries, such as strike and surface warfare (SUW) attacks of 200 weapons or less, electromagnetic warfare (EMW) or escort missions, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW);
  • Sustained operations at the periphery of great power confrontations, such as in the Philippine or South China Seas against China or in the Norwegian Sea against Russia; and
  • The full range of operations against regional powers such as Iran or North Korea that lack integrated, long-range surveillance, anti-air, and anti-ship capabilities.

Within these broad categories, CVWs will need perform the same missions they do today, but using new operational concepts that address ongoing and future enhancements to adversary threats and the geographic advantages enjoyed by great power and some regional adversaries.

The predominant challenge facing U.S. forces against China and Russia is the threat of long-range precision weapons, making air and missile defense an important enabling concept for CVWs. To survive against Chinese or Russian surface-, air-, and submarine-launched missiles, U.S. forces will need to complement air defenses on ships and air bases with actions to thin out missile salvos in flight and attack enemy missile-launching “archers” before they can launch their “arrows.”

This updated version of the Navy’s “Outer Air Battle” doctrine would place defensive counterair (DCA) combat air patrols (CAP) along the most likely threat axes at the ranges of future anti-ship and land-attack missiles, or about 800 to 1,000 miles. Outside the most likely threat sectors, distributed fires from surface combatants, ground-based air defenses, and DCA aircraft would engage enemy aircraft using targeting from intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISR&T) CAPs. Shorter-range CAPs operating 100-200 miles from carriers and other defended targets would thin out cruise missile salvos, effectively adding capacity to ship and shore-based air defenses.

21st Century Outer Air Battle (CSBA graphic)

Because of their operating areas and the challenge of air- and sea-launched missiles, future CVW strike and SUW operations will need to occur 500–1,000 miles away from the CSG, depending on the adversary. Using standoff weapons such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) could allow carrier aircraft to launch strike and SUW attacks from closer to the carrier, but these weapons are expensive and in short supply. Instead, strike and SUW operations will need to occur from shorter standoff ranges, employing a combination of survivable aircraft, and offensive counterair (OCA) and EMW operations.

With the growing number and sophistication of Russian and Chinese submarines, the Navy has reinvigorated its efforts at anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Today’s ASW platforms such as the P-8A Poseidon are potentially too vulnerable to conduct ASW operations near a great power adversary’s territory. Others, like the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter, lack the range or endurance to conduct ASW operations beyond the 1,000-mile reach of enemy submarine-launched cruise missiles. To conduct ASW in contested areas, U.S. naval forces will need to rely increasingly on unmanned sensors to find and target submarines. CVW aircraft operating in ASW CAPs would then promptly engage possible submarines at ranges of up to 1,000 miles from the carrier or defended areas ashore.

U.S. adversaries are likely to protect valuable ports, airfields, and sensor and C2 facilities with their own DCA CAPs and air defense systems. To enable CVW or land-based attack aircraft to closely approach targets and use smaller short-range weapons, carrier-based escort aircraft could attack air defenses, help protect strike aircraft from CAPs, and launch expendable jammers and decoys to confuse aircraft and air defense radars and weapons.

Escort missions will require a combination of long-range fighters able to engage enemy DCA CAPs and attack aircraft with the payload capacity to carry missile- or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-borne jammers, sensors, or decoys. An attack aircraft could also carry high-power standoff jammers such as the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) that will be carried by the E/A-18G Growler until it retires in the 2030s.

A Needed Transformation

The operational concepts needed to implement current and likely future defense strategies will require new aircraft and a different CVW configuration than in today’s fleet. CSBA’s proposed CVW would include:

Long-range Multi-mission Survivable Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV)

Air and missile defense, ISR&T, strike, SUW, ASW, and EMW missions are all evolving in a way that makes them best conducted by aircraft with longer range or endurance, higher survivability, and a payload on par with today’s Navy strike-fighters. An attack aircraft such as an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) could achieve an unrefueled range of up to 3,000 miles through a fuel-efficient airframe optimized for subsonic speeds. A UCAV could also achieve high levels of survivability by combining a radar-scattering shape with electronic warfare systems and self-defense weapons. And although being unmanned would not necessarily increase its range, a UCAV would be capable of longer endurance than manned strike-fighters provided aerial refueling is available.

UCAV-based Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) Aircraft

The Navy plans to continue using the E/A-18G as its AEA platform into the 2030s and beyond, but its reliance on standoff effects from outside the range of enemy air defenses is likely unsustainable in the face of improving passive sensors and the increasing range of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and AAMs. A low-observable platform such as the proposed UCAV could be made into an stand-in AEA platform by incorporating subsystems of the E/A-18G into its mission bay and installing multiple active electronically scanned arrays (AESA) along its wings and fuselage. A UCAV-based AEA aircraft could also carry and deploy expendable EMW UAVs and missiles that would conduct ISR&T, jamming, decoy, and deception operations over target areas.

Unmanned Aerial Refueling Aircraft (MQ-25)

A dedicated carrier-based aerial refueling tanker could enable CVW aircraft to reach CAP stations 1,000 miles from the carrier and conduct long-range attacks against enemy ships and shore targets. The U.S. Navy is already pursuing the MQ-25 carrier-based tanker UAV for this reason and recently awarded design and construction contracts for the first MQ-25 demonstrators.

To fully exploit the potential of the MQ-25, the Navy should re-designate it as a multi-mission UAV. The initial version of the MQ-25 would remain focused on the aerial refueling mission to avoid delays in program development. The Navy could then develop modifications that would enable it also to conduct ISR, attack, and EMW missions in appropriate operational environments. Alternatively, the Navy could explore ways for the UCAV to also conduct the refueling mission once it is fielded.

Long-range Fighter (FA-XX)

Escort and OCA operations will require a long-range fighter to counter enemy DCA CAPs and enable land-based or CVW strike aircraft to closely approach targets and use smaller, short-range strike weapons. The range, sensor capability, and weapons capacity needed in a future long-range fighter could be provided with a modified version of an existing fighter or strike-fighter by shifting weapons payload to fuel capacity and incorporating additional fuel efficiency measures.

Planned Aircraft Retained in Proposed 2040 CVW

Between FY 2019 and FY 2023, the Navy plans to complete the procurement of MH-60R ASW and MH-60S logistics helicopters, E-2D AEW&C aircraft, and E/A-18G EW strike-fighters. The proposed 2040 CVW includes MH-60s and E-2Ds, which may require some life extension; both aircraft will, however, have reduced roles in 2040 compared to today due to their constrained range and survivability.

The proposed 2040 CVW would buy the first half of the F-35C program to supply one squadron per CVW, but the second squadron would be replaced with the FA-XX. Although not formally part of the CVW, the proposed 2040 CVW assumes the Navy’s ongoing plan to replace the C-2A logistics aircraft with the CMV-22 Osprey. The 2040 CVW also includes in its helicopter squadrons a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) Vertical Take-Off and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (VTUAV) based on ongoing development efforts in the Navy and Marine Corps for an unmanned multi-mission aircraft, known as the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Expeditionary (or MUX).

Future CVW Composition

CSBA’s proposed 2040 CVW, shown below, includes the new and existing aircraft described above in a mix that improves the Navy’s CVW range, endurance, survivability, and payload capacity. Whereas the Navy’s planned CVW would center around 20 F-35C and 24 F-18 E/F or FA-XX strike-fighters, the proposed CVW is built around 18 UCAVs, ten FA-XX fighters, ten F-35C strike-fighters, and six UCAV-based AEA aircraft. Although the aggregate payload capacity of the proposed CVW is about the same as the Navy’s plan, the 2040 CVW could deliver its payload twice as far or remain on station much longer.

The proposed CVW also incorporates more specialized aircraft to address the growing capability of great power competitors. The long-range FA-XX fighter will be better able to counter enemy DCA aircraft, and the UCAV will be a more effective platform to support long-endurance CAP missions for air defense, ASW, SUW, and ISR&T than the Navy’s planned CVW of short-range strike-fighters. The CVW also includes more MQ-25 tankers to maximize the CVW’s reach and endurance.

CSBA’s Proposed 2040 CVW (CSBA Graphic)

Making the New CVW a Reality

There are several different combinations of programmatic changes that could be used to reach the proposed CVW by 2040. CSBA recommends the following actions, starting with the President’s Budget for FY 2020. Notably, the new procurement proposed by this study would not begin until after the FY 2020–2024 Future Year’s Defense Plan (FYDP), although some research and development funding would be repurposed within the FYDP.

  • Sustain procurement of F/A-18 E/Fs as planned through 2023. Although the future CVW requires half the strike-fighters of the Navy’s planned CVW, these aircraft will fill near- to mid-term capacity gaps. F/A-18 E/Fs still in service by 2040 can be used in place of UCAVs or F-35Cs if those aircraft are not yet fully fielded.
  • Sustain F-35C procurement as planned through the first half of production, ending in 2024, to support the proposed 2040 CVW’s squadron of ten F-35Cs.
  • Develop the FA-XX fighter during the 2020–2024 timeframe as a derivative of an existing aircraft, with production starting in 2025. Block III F/A-18 E/Fs and F-35Cs will be in production during the FY 2020–2024 FYDP, and either they or another in-production fighter or strike-fighter could be modified into an FA-XX. Although this approach will require some additional funding for non-recurring engineering between about 2020 and 2024, it will save billions of dollars compared to the Navy’s plan to develop a new fighter aircraft from scratch.
  • Develop a low-observable UCAV attack aircraft during the 2020–2024 timeframe, with production starting in 2025. Although the UCAV could be based on an existing design such as the X-47B, 1–2 years of development may be needed to create a missionized version.
  • Continue development of the MQ-25, transitioning the program to the UCAV-based refueling aircraft when sufficient attack UCAVs are fielded. Increase the overall procurement of MQ-25 and UCAV-based refueling aircraft to support twelve per CVW.
  • Retire E/A-18Gs as they reach the end of their service lives starting in the late 2020s, replacing their capability with NGJ-equipped UCAVs and UAV- and missile-expendable EMW payloads.
  • In concert with the U.S. Marine Corps, field a MALE rotary-wing UAV such as the Tactically Exploitable Reconnaissance Node (TERN), which can augment CVW helicopter squadrons and could take over some of their ASW operations by the mid-2030s.

The fixed-wing carrier aircraft inventory associated with these recommendations is shown below. Under this plan, research and development of the planned MQ-25, modified FA-XX, and new UCAV would occur during the 2020–2024 timeframe, with production of new aircraft starting in 2025. Today’s F/A-18 E/Fs and E/A-18Gs would begin retiring in the late 2020s, to be replaced by UCAVs. The overall inventory of CVW aircraft will decrease as unmanned aircraft replace manned platforms, because operators and maintainers of unmanned aircraft can practice using simulators that will be as realistic as actual UAVs, eliminating the need for unmanned aircraft in training squadrons or in fleet squadrons that are not deployed or preparing to deploy. The smaller number of aircraft and squadrons results in a cost savings for unmanned aircraft compared to manned aircraft.

Fixed-Wing CVW Aircraft Inventory to Build Proposed 2040 CVW. (CSBA graphic)

The approximate cost of the proposed 2040 CVW is shown below. Except for developmental spending associated with the proposed UCAV, proposed new development, procurement, and operations spending does not begin until FY 2024. The cost associated with the proposed 2040 CVW is less than the Navy would likely incur with its planned strike-fighter focused CVW. The continued reliance on manned strike-fighters results in a larger overall number of aircraft being required compared to the proposed CVW, primarily to train pilots and maintain their proficiency when not deployed. The higher aircraft inventory increases operations and maintenance (O&M) costs during the first decade of the period shown and raises procurement costs during the 2030s when today’s F/A-18 E/Fs are replaced with a new manned strike-fighter.

Total Cost of Proposed and strike-fighter Focused CVWs (CSBA Graphic)

A Clear Choice

The proposed 2040 CVW will be more expensive in the near-term than the Navy’s planned CVW, but the Navy will need to incur these additional costs if it is to prevent carrier aviation from becoming irrelevant to the most pressing defense challenges of the near future. The threats posed by great power competitors, and increasingly by regional powers such as Iran and North Korea, preclude relying on legacy capabilities to protect American allies and interests overseas.

Naval forces will be instrumental in deterring and defeating aggression by these adversaries, as described in the NDS. Carrier air wings provide the ability to sustain naval combat operations beyond the first few days, when ship and submarine missile inventories are depleted. Without a clear plan to improve the Navy’s CVWs, the United States may not be able to implement its defense strategy, and DoD leaders would need to reconsider if they want to continue the Navy’s investment in carrier aviation or shift resources to other, more effective, capabilities.

Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He was a career enlisted and officer submariner and held several positions in the Chief of Naval Operations staff, including Director of the CNO’s Commander’s Action Group.

Featured Image: South China Sea (Feb. 10, 2018) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) transits the South China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Jasen Morenogarcia/Released)

The Quest for India’s Supercarrier

This article originally featured on CSIS cogitAsia and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Tuneer Mukherjee

The recent decommissioning of the aircraft carrier INS Viraat leaves an enormous gap in the Indian Navy’s power projection capabilities. India’s sole remaining aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya will now serve at the vanguard, as evidenced this year by the ongoing Exercise Malabar and the earlier held TROPEX (Theater Readiness Operational Exercise). TROPEX reflected a shift in the mindset of Indian strategists from focusing exclusively on maneuvers for protection of the immediate littoral to combat concepts fixated around a larger maritime theater. It was a departure from considering Pakistan its main adversary and suggested an increasingly significant emphasis on China as the primary strategic threat. The Indian Navy’s plans to establish two carrier task forces affords it a limited window to finalize the design for its second indigenous aircraft carrier given the protracted schedule required to construct and operationalize a carrier battle group.

In the past decade, there has been a general change in strategic thinking in both Beijing and New Delhi. Policymakers have realized the importance of having dynamic maritime capabilities. This reflects a major doctrinal shift in the grand strategy of the two nations, which have usually revolved around developing traditional continental forces aimed at countering threats along their land borders.

In this regard, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) has increased investment in naval forces and has established dominance over its regional waters. The PLA-N is asserting its naval power in the South China Sea and is simultaneously holding live-fire exercises in the open seas from the southeast Indian Ocean to the eastern Pacific. These actions threaten the overarching security situation in the wider maritime theater, and countries in the region are growing progressively uncertain about China’s intentions. The capabilities of most navies in the wider maritime theater are paltry in comparison to the PLA-N — and China plans to continue its naval build up. Given this escalating security dilemma, the Indian Navy is the only resident power in South Asia that has the resources and capabilities to counter the emerging strategic imbalance in the maritime theater. The Indian Navy had previously taken a defensive approach and concentrated resources on developing credible anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, as the immediate concern for the strategists in New Delhi was Chinese submarines roaming in their backyard.

Despite a change in thinking, the commitment of the Indian Navy to see its new maritime doctrine through from defense white papers to the open waters hangs in doubt, given the history of bureaucratic delays, inefficient procurement, and ineffectual financing. The delay in its indigenous aircraft carrier program is a prime example. China is clearly moving ahead of India, with plans to induct its second indigenously produced aircraft-carrier into service before 2020. Meanwhile, India has struggled to meet deadlines for the INS Vikrant, its first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1).

In this race of aircraft carriers, India’s only saving grace could be the follow-on project, INS Vishal (IAC-2). This single supercarrier may push India to a dominant position in the long-term fight for naval superiority with China over the maritime commons of the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Vishal could possibly be the first nuclear powered supercarrier built in Asia. The discussion around the Indian Navy’s maritime strategy is centered around the IAC-2 to such an extent that it has decided to shelve plans to develop an indigenously produced aircraft in favor of procuring a better multi-role fighter aircraft that would suit the capabilities of the Vishal. The Vishal’s main selling point is its proposed nuclear propulsion engine. Russia, India’s long-trusted defense and arms supplier, jumped on board to deliver the aircraft carrier, and the Indian establishment has also sent letters of request to multiple European nations. There is also the possibility that India may shun foreign reactors altogether and built its own indigenous reactor for marine propulsion.

The United States, however, is poised to be the preferred partner in this initiative as it holds the most advanced technology for nuclear propulsion in aircraft carriers, and India has progressively increased its defense cooperation with the United States. Toward this end, India and the United States signed an agreement to share research and technology for an aircraft carrier that fits these requirements. The other area of cooperation in this partnership would be fitting the Vishal with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (assuming nuclear propulsion), which would allow it to launch heavier aircraft like larger fighters, airborne early-warning aircraft, and refueling tankers.

Ultimately, in the long-term, the future of the Indian Navy will be built around the INS Vishal, and it is imperative that the strategists of New Delhi realize that this single venture will decide the fate of the navy’s ambitious modernization plans. The planning and design for Vishal is still in its initial stages, and this has led to delays in procurement of support vessels that will make up the carrier strike group. The success of this program depends on the Indian establishment shedding its previous inhibitions and adopting a more steadfast attitude to the rise of Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean. It requires the government of the day to engage the United States in transferring technology never made available before, even to close allies.

Most importantly, if India is to deploy carrier strike groups to both of its maritime frontiers — the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal — it must develop better manufacturing facilities and realize the costs underlying its most ambitious project yet. The cost of building and maintaining a nuclear carrier strike group will run into the billions and would require a significantly larger allocation of the defense budget to the navy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has given priority to India’s maritime interests in the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific, and the comments of an Indian minister supporting freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed waters of the South China Sea supplement this view. India Naval Chief Sunil Lanba has touted India as a “net security provider in the Indian Ocean.” A 65,000-ton supercarrier would give India the ability to achieve it all but, for this to become a reality, New Delhi must shed its traditional lethargy and shake things up.

Aircraft Carrier Capabilities (Present & Planned) – India, China & United States

Name Class Type Displacement(tonnage) Status^ Operator
Vikramaditya Kiev Conventional 45,000 Operational India*
Vikrant (IAC-1) Vikrant Conventional 40,000 Est. 2023 India
Vishal (IAC-2) Vikrant TBD 65,000 Est. 2030 India
Liaoning Kuzentsov Conventional 60,000 Operational China*
Shandong Kuzentsov Conventional 70,000 Est. 2020 China
Type 002 Type 002 Conventional 85,000 Est. 2023 China
CVN (68,69,70)Nimitz

CVN (71,72,73,74,75)
Theodore Roosevelt
CVN (76, 77)
Ronald Reagan

Nimitz Nuclear Average- 100,000 Operational United States
CVN 78 Gerald R. Ford Nuclear 100,000 Operational United States
CVN 79 Gerald R. Ford Nuclear 100,000 Est. 2020 United States
CVN 80 Gerald R. Ford Nuclear 100,000 Est. 2025 United States
 *The Russian Federation/USSR was the original manufacturer/operator of the carriers.
^The estimated times are for the year when the carrier is scheduled to be commissioned.

Mr. Tuneer Mukherjee is a former intern at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS and holds a master’s from the American University School of International Service. Follow him on twitter @MTuneer

Featured Image: Indian Navy carrier INS Vikramaditya (Indian Navy photo)

Flattops Of Mercy

Naval HA/DR Topic Week

By LCDR Josh Heivly

Although fundamentally a secondary mission for the Department of Defense, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) missions are a recurring feature of modern naval operations and must be considered in the design of the future fleet. Recent arguments made for and against the aircraft carrier have referenced this capability, but have confused the issue. Aircraft carriers are optimized for aviation and strike operations, with little inherent HA/DR capability. The Navy’s amphibious ships offer the most capability and responsiveness for HA/DR missions, equipped as they are with landing craft, helicopters, and Marines, all specifically trained to conduct this type of mission, among many others.  HA/DR operations are an ad hoc affair for CVNs – they offer some utility as a second-echelon responder, once appropriately loaded out.  This does not diminish their value, as their ability to channel US political will is unmatched – they are an iconic symbol of US resolve and commitment, and as such are extremely useful in a political context. 

For the Navy, reactive HA/DR has been a recurring mission for the past 100 years or longer, as it leverages the Navy’s strong suits:  “…mobility, adaptability, , scalability, and interoperability – while bringing into play our naval core functions of sea control, power projection and maritime security.”[1] There are numerous examples throughout the 20th century in which naval forces engaged in HA/DR activities at home and abroad.  Recent high visibility operations include deployments in response to:

  • Hurricane Katrina in 2004;
  • The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami;[2]
  • The Haitian earthquake in 2010;[3]
  • The multifaceted 2011 disaster in Japan; [4]
  • Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.[5]

In each case, the Navy dispatched ships, aircraft, and personnel to render immediate assistance and deliver aid. It should be noted that Humanitarian Assistance, as it is focused on rendering assistance to populations external to the United States, is primarily a Department of State (DoS) function via USAID[6], while Disaster Response is the purview of various Federal and State agencies charged with executing this function within our borders.  As such, HA/DR is not a primary mission for the Department of Defense (DoD), despite the frequency with which our military engages in these activities. This should be kept in mind in regards to future HA/DR missions – the Navy can only offer support to the cognizant agencies as directed and within the scope of their operations.  In spite of this, the Navy’s mobility and forward deployed global presence virtually guarantees it a role in the initial response when disasters occur.[7]

070928-N-5928K-011 PERSIAN GULF (Sept. 28, 2007) - Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) and USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) transit alongside each other in the Persian Gulf. Enterprise and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 1 are underway on a scheduled deployment. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class N.C. Kaylor (RELEASED)
PERSIAN GULF (Sept. 28, 2007) – Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) and USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) transit alongside each other in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class N.C. Kaylor 

In terms of force management and the planning of the future Fleet, HA/DR has crept into the most recent exchanges of the ongoing “Carrier Debate.” Because of the regularity of US involvement in peacetime mission like HA/DR and Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO), prominent naval analyst and writer Norman Polmar has proposed that the Navy would be better served by building big deck amphibious ships like LHDs, which can be acquired in larger numbers due to their lower price tag:  $3 billion each, as opposed to the projected $12 billion outlay for the first installment of the Ford-class CVN.[8] One response to this proposal acknowledges the value of big deck amphibs but argues that aircraft carriers are still valuable for Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) due to their ability to embark SEALs and USMC Fleet Anti-terrorist Security Teams (FASTs), as well as the capabilities integral to its air wing, to include airborne early warning (AEW), electronic warfare (EW), and the robust MH-60S helo squadron.[9]

Neither of these arguments are compelling. LHDs are simply not able to support high intensity, high optempo aviation operations,[10] and putting four of them together in the hopes of generating the same amount of combat power ignores the organic strength of the Carrier Air Wing (CVW) and the inherent advantages of a Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) flight deck system. On the other side of the equation, aircraft carriers are not really intended to project ground combat power ashore, and although they have in the past embarked formations of Marines or SOF in order to act as a “lily pad”, this is hardly within the normal scope of their employment and is not part of their regular mission set. The CVN-CVW team may improvise its way through HA/DR or NEO events, but it isn’t designed, equipped, or trained to handle them.

New Orleans (Sept. 10, 2005) – An aerial view of the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) docked in New Orleans and assisting in Joint Task Force Katrina hurricane relief efforts. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Johnny Bivera.

These platforms bring different capabilities to meet the HA/DR challenge, and should not be misunderstood to be in competition within the same mission “space.”  Aircraft carriers are optimized solely for aviation operations, to include air superiority, strike, AEW, EW, command and control, and all of the related sub-functions necessary to support around-the-clock sortie generation for weeks at a time. In this function they excel. But we should not exaggerate the CVN’s ability to directly provide relief in the aftermath of a disaster.  Despite the 2012 infographic put out by Huntington-Ingalls to highlight the CVN’s HA/DR capabilities,[11] the aircraft carrier’s medical, dental, utility, supply, and service capabilities are all designed to provide support capacity for the ship and the embarked air wing, and are largely expended to that end. An aircraft carrier arriving on station has a very limited excess capacity to apply to the care and sustainment of large numbers of disaster victims. There are no stores carried for possible HA/DR missions, and the carrier-air wing team does not train for this eventuality as part of its workup cycle.

Big deck amphibs, on the other hand, are equipped and trained for these types of missions.  While embarking roughly the same number of helicopters as a CVN, an LHD operates landing craft from its well deck (which are critically useful for HA/DR)[12], runs a large and highly capable medical complex, and embarks almost 1700 Marines.[13] It carries supplies tailored to support NEO events (which are easily used for HA/DR as well) and trains for this mission as part of its workup cycle.   LHDs have a shallower draft than CVNs, allowing them to move closer inshore; this demonstrated its value when USS IWO JIMA drove up the river and moored pierside in New Orleans to assist with relief efforts there after Hurricane Katrina.[14] However, the big deck amphibs are not set up to conduct sustained aviation operations; they are also slower than carriers, limiting their ability to quickly arrive on-station and provide support.

Amphib 6
GULF OF MEXICO (Feb. 4, 2009) The amphibious assault ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Makin Island (LHD 8) conducts builder’s trials in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photos courtesy of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, Gulf Coast/Released).

CVNs and LHDs fulfill very different mission requirements. Both ship types are designed first and foremost to project power, the former through its embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) and the latter through its embarked Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF).  Neither can perform the other’s primary function very well. The aircraft carrier is “…not well-suited to act as a base of operations for nontraditional capabilities for extended periods of time,”[15] having no ability to project troops ashore unless specially configured and loaded out for this purpose, while equating an LHD to a “fraction” of an aircraft carrier is an extremely inefficient proposal, as large parts of the big deck amphib are devoted to the Ground Combat Element of the MAGTF. Arguing for additional or fewer platforms of either type on the basis of their ability to perform each other’s missions is in actuality a false choice that would liken dollar values or numbers of embarked aircraft to equivalent capabilities. This just isn’t the case, and measuring these platforms against the design of the other is not a useful exercise for force planning purposes.

In actuality, operations like HA/DR lie squarely in the realm of the amphibious force, not because aircraft carriers have nothing to add, but because their capability set has less to offer in this environment. Deployed carriers offer limited utility for the HA/DR mission due to the large numbers of fixed-wing aircraft onboard;[16] helicopters are the aviation workhorse of OOTW missions, flying around the clock, but comprise only a fraction of the current wing configuration. A post-deployment, “surge-ready” aircraft carrier offers the best opportunity for this class of ship to contribute to HA/DR contingencies. If pier-side at homeport at the outset of a crisis, it can quickly load up with humanitarian supplies, embark specialists, take on squadrons of helicopters, and then make a high speed run to the operating area. Once on-station the carrier can deliver its cargo and provide useful aviation capabilities to augment and expand a response package initially filled out by an ARG.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (July 11, 2009) The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) performs high-speed turns during the rudder check phase and sea trials certification. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Justin Stumberg/Released).

Practicalities aside, the CVN’s ability to deliver a strong political statement is unmatched. Beyond launching and recovering combat aircraft, they are a distinct symbol of American military capability, national will, and resolve – and it is in this role that they may offer the most to the HA/DR mission.  The flat-top is an iconic image, recognized world-wide as an expression of American military might, delivering an unmistakable message in the form of 100,000 tons of American steel.[17] Aircraft carriers stand on their own merits doing exactly what they are designed to do – project power. In the case of HA/DR, the aircraft carrier is a vehicle for soft power, supporting the mission while highlighting U.S. leadership in the delivery of relief to those most in need, wherever and whenever disaster strikes.

LCDR Josh Heivly is an active duty Navy Supply Corps Officer. The views voiced here are his alone and in no way represent the views of the US Navy or the Department of Defense.

[1] Smith, RADM Michael.  “Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Response Missions Strengthen Navy”.  12 Jun 2013.  Accessed 27 Mar 2015:  http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2013/06/12/humanitarian-assistance-disaster-response-missions-strengthen-navy/

[2] Webster, Graham.  “The Military Foundations of U.S. Disaster Assistance in Japan”.  7 Apr 2011.  Accessed 26 Mar 2016 at:  http://www.nbr.org/research/activity.aspx?id=127

[3] Lubold, Gordon.  “US send aircraft carrier to help with Haiti earthquake damage”.  13 Jan 2010.  Accessed 11 Mar 2016:  http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2010/0113/Us-sends-aircraft-carrier-to-help-with-Haiti-earthquake-damage

[4] Smith.

[5] Macfie, Nick.  “Dramatic U.S. humanitarian effort in Philippines aids Asia’pivot’”.  18 Nov 2013.  Accessed 11 Mar 2016 at:  http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-typhoon-pivot-idUSBRE9AH12L20131118

[6] Cecchine, Gary, et al.  The U.S. Military Response to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake:  Considerations for Army Leaders.  Santa Monica:  Rand.  2013.  10-11.

[7] “Humanitarian Work and Disaster Relief.”  Accessed 12 Mar 2016 at:  http://www.navy.com/about/mission/humanitarian.html#who

[8] Freedberg, Sydney.  “Polmar’s Navy:  Trade LCS & Carriers for Frigates and Amphibs”.  18 Dec 2015.  Accessed 14 Mar 2016 at:  http://breakingdefense.com/2015/12/polmars-navy-trade-lcs-carriers-for-frigates-amphibs/

[9] Beng, Ben Ho Wan.  “The Case for Carriers:  Rebutting Norman Polmar”.  28 Dec 2015.  Accessed at:  http://breakingdefense.com/2015/12/the-case-for-carriers-rebutting-norman-polmar/

[10] Gordon, John, et al.  Leveraging America’s Aircraft Carrier Capabilities:  Exploring New Combat and Noncombat Roles and Missions for the US Carrier Fleet.  Santa Monica:  Rand.  2006.  19.

[11] Hickey, Walter.  “INFOGRAPHIC:  Aircraft Carriers Do A Whole Lot More Than you Ever Thought.”  15 Jun 2012.  Accessed 11 Mar 2016 at:  http://www.businessinsider.com/infographic-air-craft-carriers-do-a-whole-lot-more-than-shoot-2012-6

[12] Apte, Aruna.  “An Analysis of United States Navy Disaster Relief Operations.”  Apr 2012.  10.  Accessed 27 Mar 2016 at:  https://www.pomsmeetings.org/confProceedings/025/FullPapers/FullPaper.htm

[13] Parker, Elton C.  “Aircraft Carriers and What Comes Next.”  10 Dec 2013.  Accessed 10 Mar 2016 at:  http://warontherocks.com/2013/12/aircraft-carriers-90000-tons-of-soft-and-hard-power-projection-but-what-comes-next/

[14] Jean, Grace V.  “Naval Forces See Greater Demand for Large Amphibious Ships.”  Oct 2008.  Accessed 13 Mar 2016 at:  http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2008/October/Pages/Naval%20Forces%20See%20Greater%20Demand%20for%20Large%20Amphibious%20Ships.aspx

[15] Gordon.  xix.

[16] Apte.  23.

[17] Parker.

Featured Image: The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) are underway in close formation during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2012 exercise.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Raul Moreno Jr./Released)

Distributed Lethality: Old Opportunities for New Operations

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Matthew Hipple

The BISMARCK, a single ship capable of striking fear into the heart of an entire nation.
The BISMARCK, a single ship whose threat was sufficient to muster an entire fleet for the hunt.

The essence of naval warfare has always been opportunism – from the vague area of gravity generated by an in-port “fleet in being,” to the fleet-rallying threat generated by even a BISMARK or RANGER alone. The opportunity is generated by forces more mobile and self-contained than any army, more persistent than an air force, and empowered to act with no connection to higher authority in a domain that leaves no trace.  It is that ability for a small number of independent ships, or even a single vessel, to provide opportunity and create, “battlespace complexity,” that is distributed lethality’s core. Distributed lethality is not naval warfighting by new principles; it is a return to principles.

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The best defense is not an overwhelming obsession with defense.
The best defense is not an overwhelming obsession with defense.

Unfortunately, the virtuous autonomy of the past was, in part, only protected by the limited technology of the day. As technology allowed, decentralized execution was replaced by the luxury and false confidence of constant connection to higher authority through an electronic umbilical. It is the kind of devolution that turned into Secretary Gates’ nightmare, “I was touring a [Joint Special Operations Command] in Kabul and discovered a direct line to somebody on the NSC, and I had them tear it out while I was standing there.” In parallel, America began the ahistorical project of investing all offensive opportunity not even in a single class of ship, but a single ship surrounded by a fleet obsessed with its defense.  As early as 1993, President Clinton stated that when a crisis broke out, his first question would be, “where is the nearest carrier.” Sorry, other ships! For the Navy to sensibly rebalance, distributed lethality must succeed. For distributed lethality to succeed, we must decentralize and de-tether mission command, weapons release authority, and weapons support systems.

Decentralized and disconnected methods of command must be embraced, as centralization is only an imagined luxury. Modern centralization is based on the assumption we will have the connectivity appropriate for it. This is no longer tenable in a world of increasingly advanced peers and hyundaized lesser adversaries. Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2/AD) depends on opponents making themselves visible, of which electronic emission is critical. A2/AD will also inevitably seek to disrupt our C2 connections.

“Permission? We don’t need no stinkin’ permissions.” “The Battle for Fox Green Beach,” watercolor by Dwight Shepler, showing the Gleaves class destroyer USS Emmons(DD 457) foreground and her sister-ship, the USS Doyle, to the right, within a few hundred yards of the landing beach, mixing it up with German shore batteries on D-Day.

The current major-node CWC concept will need to be broken down to a more compact, internal model designed around the Hunter Killer Surface Action Group. Rules of Engagement must be flexible to the point that American commanders need not look over their shoulders to a higher OPCON. Consider, the destroyer CO’s at Normandy didn’t consider waiting for direction or requesting approval before shifting from small boat screening to shore bombardment from the shoals. They recognized the opportunity – the necessity – and executed of their own will.

In contrast, today it might be a regular occurrence to double-and-triple check our actions with American OPCON while operating with NATO in TACON off Somalia. American CO’s could use the freedom to make pragmatic, on-the-spot decisions not only for immediate concerns of mission effectiveness, but as representatives of their higher military command and, potentially, the state. Coalition commanders would have greater trust in the spot decisions of their American counterparts, rather than worry they sit precariously atop a changing several-step staffing process.

Though encouraging equivalent RoE flexibility for coalition partners may be challenging, our autonomy may encourage our partners to interpret their home nation guidance in a flexibility equivalent to their trust in the US commander they fight beside. That lack of hesitancy will be critical during a conflict, and in that sudden moment in the South China Sea or Mediterranean when a small SAG of coalition partners find themselves in the midst of a conflict that has just begun. Imposing the peacetime discipline necessary to trust the CO’s we have trained, prepared, and empowered to do their jobs is the only thing that will jump-start a shift in a mind-set now dominated by subordination. 

In the execution of more flexible orders, ships must be re-invested with control of their own weapon systems. CO’s oversee non-nuclear weapon systems that they do not control – that are solely the purview of off-ship authorities. In particular, as weapon systems like Tomahawk become deployable for ASuW, off-ship authority’s iron grip on their control must break.  This decentralization also matters outside the stand-up fight at sea. The organic ability to program and deploy Tomahawk missiles for land strike allows surface ships to execute attacks of opportunity on land infrastructure, or execute and support opportunistic maritime raids as groups of marines harass adversaries, or turn isolated islands into temporary logistics or aviation operations bases. For winning the sudden-and-deadly fight in the littoral environment but integrating with opportunistic amphibious operations, the surface fleet could find some inspiration from the USS BARB, the only submarine in WWII to “sink” a train with its crew-come-amateur-commandos. From Somalia to the South China Sea, naval commanders should be told what to do, not how – and be allowed to do it. The less reliant the force is on these ephemeral links and the less these links are unnecessarily exercised in peacetime, the greater a force’s instinct to operate independently and with confidence in an imposed or needed silence. 

CAPT Ramius, relieved to discover he is not dealing with "some buckaroo."
CAPT Ramius, relieved to discover he is not dealing with “some buckaroo.”

There may be a level of discomfort with decentralization and disconnection. If leaders fear the impact of a “strategic corporal,” surely a “buckaroo,” as  CAPT Ramius would call him, that would be truly horrifying. That fear would be a reflection of a failure of the system to produce leaders, not the importance and operational effectiveness of independence. There is a reason the US once considered the Department of the Navy to be separate and peer to the Department of War – noting the institution and its individual commanders as unique peace and wartime tools for strategic security and diplomacy. Compare today’s autonomy and trust with that invested in Commodore Perry during his mission to Japan or Commodore Preble’s mission to seek partnership with Naples during the First Barbary Pirates War. Reliance on call-backs and outside authority will gut a naval force’s ability to operate in a distributed manner when those connections disappear. Encouraging it by default will ensure the muscle memory is there when needed.

Finally, Distributed Lethality requires the hardware to allow surface combatants to operate as effective offensive surface units in small groups. The kinetic end of the spectrum, upgraded legacy weapons and an introduction of new weapon systems has been extensively discussed since the 2015 Surface Navy Association National Symposium when VADM Rowden and RADM Fanta rolled out Distributed Lethality in force. However, weapon systems are only as good as the available detection systems. Current naval operations rely heavily on shore-based assets, assets from the carrier, and joint assets for reconnaissance. In the previous Distributed Lethality topic week, LT Glynn argued for a suite of surveillance assets, some organic to individual ships, but most deploying from the shore or from carriers.  Presuming a denied environment, and commanders empowered to seek and exploit opportunities within their space, the best argument would be for greater emphasis on ship-organic assets. They may not provide the best capabilities, but capabilities are worthless if assets cannot find, reach, or communicate with a Hunter-Killer SAG operating in silence imposed by self or the enemy. They also prevent an HKSAG from being completely at the mercy or limitations of a Navy or joint asset coordinator – while simultaneously relieving those theater assets for higher-level operations and opportunity exploitation.

Ultimately – distributed lethality is the historical default mode of independent naval operations given a new name due to the strength of the current carrier-based operational construct. Admiral Halsey ordered CAPT Arleigh Burke to intercept a Japanese convoy at Bougainville, “GET ATHWART THE BUKA-RABAUL EVACUATION LINE ABOUT 35 MILES WEST OF… IF ENEMY CONTACTED YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.” The surface fleet must embrace a culture assuming our commanders “KNOW WHAT TO DO.” We must build an operational construct in which acting on that instinct is practiced and exercised in peacetime, for wartime. The operational and diplomatic autonomy, as well as the OLD IRONSIDES style firepower of single surface combatants, is necessary to rebalance a force gutted of its many natural operational advantages. Distributed lethality must return the surface force to its cultural and operational roots of distributed autonomy, returning to the ideas that will maximize opportunity to threaten, undermine, engage with, and destroy the adversary.

Matthew Hipple is the President of CIMSEC and an active duty surface warfare officer. He also leads our Sea Control and Real Time Strategy podcasts, available on iTunes.

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