Tag Archives: carrier

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

sub-class;
CVN (71,72,73,74,75)
Theodore Roosevelt
sub-class;
CVN (76, 77)
Ronald Reagan
sub-class

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.

800px-US_Navy_050910-N-2383B-537_An_aerial_view_of_the_amphibious_assault_ship_USS_Iwo_Jima_(LHD_7)_docked_in_New_Orleans
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.

uss-carl-vinson-4256x2424-carrier-cvn-70-u-s-navy-nimitz-sea-maneuver-1651
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.

doyle-dday
“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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Would Britain Really be Back as a Traditional Carrier Power?

This article originally appeared on RealClearDefense. It can be read in its original form here.

By Ben Ho Wan Beng

The United Kingdom’s new national security document – the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (SDSR 2015) – was released to much fanfare. This document has been generally well received in the defense community with most analysts believing that the review’s proposed changes would profoundly boost Britain’s military capabilities in the coming years. 

Among SDSR 2015’s myriad initiatives, particularly eye-catching is the reiteration by London to have a two-carrier fleet comprising HMS Queen Elizabeth and sister ship Prince of Wales. Paralleled to this is the decision to acquire 138 F-35B Lightning II Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (VSTOL) strike fighters over the life of the aircraft program. 

Various defense commentators have lauded these measures, arguing that Britain is now on its way to becoming a traditional aircraft-carrier nation again with the F-35B operating from the Queen Elizabeths. To illustrate, Philip Radford writes at The Strategist that the Royal Navy (RN) would soon have a “viable, independent, strike-carrier capability”. Similarly, a War On The Rocks piece by Matt Schnappauf speaks of the U.K. obtaining the ability to “deliver hard power through traditional carrier strike and maneuver missions.” 

Would this really be the case? Arguably not during the first few years of the two British flat-tops’ projected 50-year service life. This is because their primary striking force – the F-35B complement – is likely to be considerably under-strength during their early years. 

The raison d’etre of the aircraft carrier is its air wing, and the latter’s size and composition dictate the kind of operations the ship can carry out. A major doctrinal role for the flat-top is to project power and being able to carry out offensive missions is therefore essential for the vessel. Being a capital platform, however, the protection of the carrier is of utmost importance to its commanders, and a good portion of the ship’s air wing will invariably be dedicated to fleet air defense. 

The onus is thus on the carrier task force leadership to maintain a judicious balance between defense and offense. Having a sizeable air wing on the carrier would certainly facilitate this endeavor, but this is not something the Queen Elizabeth-class vessels will have up till the year 2023 and maybe even beyond. 

This is because although the new British carriers can each deploy up to 36 F-35Bs as part of its Tailored Air Group, a fraction of that figure is likely to be the norm during the ships’ fledging service period as there will not be enough of the aircraft to go around initially. Indeed, while theQueen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are slated to be commissioned in 2017 and 2020 respectively, only 42 F-35Bs (24 for carrier deployment, 18 for training) will be in service by 2023 when both vessels and the F-35B are expected to reach full operational capability. 

As Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne declared a day before the release of SDSR 2015: “We are going to make sure that when these aircraft carriers are available, they are going to have planes that can fly from them in force (emphasis added)… By 2023, we will be able to have 24 of these jets (F-35Bs)… on the decks of these carriers.”

That being said, it is not entirely clear exactly how many F-35Bs each flat-top will operate. Using the figure provided by the Chancellor, 24 of the aircraft for carrier duty works out to a measly 12 per ship, prima facie. As a matter of fact, various media outlets have reported that the carrier will routinely deploy with only a dozen of the aircraft. However, one informed source states that 15-20 F-35Bs will make up one squadron, of which there will be two. Given that one carrier and its constituents will be at sea at any one time while the other in port for refitting and crew rest, this means that each flat-top is likely to deploy with only one Lightning squadron. 

A tactical combat aircraft complement of 12, or even 15-20, is rather small for traditional carrier operations, especially force-projection ones that are likely to predominate considering the SDSR’s expeditionary-warfare slant. Indeed, it is worth considering the fact that the two British small-deck carriers involved in the Falklands War carried 20-odd Harrier jump jets each, and they were about three times smaller than the Queen Elizabeth-class ships.

In fact, each new carrier might even be operating with a much fighter complement fewer than 15-20 in the years leading up to 2023, giving lie to the phrase “in force” used by George Osborne when he spoke of equipping the carriers with significant airpower. 

In any case, the small fighter constituent means that if the Queen Elizabeth carrier were to get involved in a conflict with an adversary with credible anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, the vessel would be hard-pressed to protect itself, let alone project power. With a displacement of over 70,000 tons and costing over three billion pounds each, the new British carriers will be the crown jewels of the Royal Navy; indeed, HMS Queen Elizabeth is slated to be the RN’s flagship when she comes into service. The protection of the ship would hence be of paramount importance in an era that has witnessed the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities even to developing nations. Hence for a Queen Elizabeth carrying 20 or less Lightnings in such circumstances, it remains to be seen just how many of the aircraft will be earmarked for different duties. 

Should a F-35B air group of that size put to sea, at least half of them will be assigned to the Combat Air Patrol (CAP), leaving barely 10 for offensive duties. It is worth noting that of the 42 Harrier VSTOL jets deployed on HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible during the Falklands War, 28 of them – a substantial two-thirds – had CAP as their primary duty. It is also telling that of the 1,300-odd sorties flown in all by the Harriers, about 83 per cent of them were for CAP. 

Faced with modern A2/AD systems such as stand-off anti-ship missiles, how likely then would the carrier task force commander devote more resources to offense and risk having a vessel named after British royalty attacked and hit? Having said that, having too many planes for defense strengthens the argument made by various carrier critics that the ship is a “self-licking ice cream cone,” in other words, an entity that exists solely to sustain itself. 

The task force commander would thus be caught between a rock and a hard place. Allocate more F-35Bs to strike missions and the susceptibility of the task force to aerial threats increase. Conversely, set aside more aircraft for the CAP and its mother ship’s ability to project power decreases. All in all, with a significantly understrength F-35B air wing, the Queen Elizabethflat-top would be operating under severe constraints, making it incapable of the traditional carrier operations it could have carried out with a larger tactical aircraft complement. Indeed, one naval commentator is right on the mark when he argues that two squadrons with a total of 24 aircraft should be a “sensible minimum standard” for each carrier. 

A counter-argument can be posited that the F-35Bs of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) could deploy off the Queen Elizabeth carriers, and this will surely augment their air groups. Indeed, USNI News reported last September that such an arrangement is in the works. A similar counter-argument can also be made that the British carriers will invariably be operating in the company of the U.S. Navy and its supercarriers, rendering the need for a full-size air group not as pressing. While valid, these two contentions ignore the fact that American assets would only operate together with the Queen Elizabeth carriers during joint operations agreed to by both London and Washington. 

Another counter-argument can be made that the two British flat-tops can operate together once Prince of Wales is commissioned, thus doubling the combat airpower of the carrier task force. This argument is flawed as it does not consider the fact that aircraft carriers are highly complex systems that need regular and lengthy refits. As such, when both Queen Elizabeths are in service, one is likely to be at sea while the other is in port undergoing maintenance, as mentioned earlier. Even if both ships happen to be sea-worthy at the same time, operating the two together, however, means that Britain would not be able to maintain the continuous at-sea carrier presence crucial to protecting its far-flung global interests. 

A different counter-argument can be put forth that aircraft and crew from the 18 training F-35Bs, or even the other carrier, could be “surged” in extremis to the active-duty carrier. This assertion is seemingly more watertight, but it is not certain exactly how many of the aircraft and the requisite personnel to operate and maintain them would be available for redeployment to the flat-top at sea. As an article on the Navy Matters blog argues cogently along these lines: 

“Those who might suggest that the a dozen aircraft are just fine for routine operations and that the rest of the aircraft can be instantly surged are just not seeing reality. The F-35 is not a WWI powered kite that can be piloted by someone with a few hours training and maintained by any mechanic with a pipe wrench. Surging F-35s may take weeks or months and a carrier caught in a moment’s notice conflict will be severely limited in its capabilities.” 

Even if a considerable number of Lightnings and their requisite crew could be surged to the active-duty carrier on relatively short notice, it remains to be seen how effectively the augmented air wing could be utilized. As the aforementioned Navy Matters piece maintains perceptively, the transition from operating a dozen or so aircraft to 30-40 of them is unlikely to be seamless for the carrier; in addition, “(l)earning on the fly on a carrier is a recipe for disaster.” 

Rounding up, the Strategic Defense and Security Review 2015 promises much for Britain in terms of aircraft carrier capability. While the document seeks to re-instate the U.K. as a traditional carrier power, it is still early days to proclaim that this will be a reality like what some have maintained. This is especially so considering the fact that the Queen Elizabeth flat-tops will be operating with a significantly reduced tactical aircraft complement till at least 2023. Of course, if the size of the British carrier’s F-35B complement could be increased, ideally closer to its full strength of 36, more possibilities will definitely open up for the Royal Navy with regard to its carrier capabilities. 

Then again, this is contingent on the availability of financial resources in the years to come. This is especially crucial in view of the fact that various British naval programmers have been truncated or even completely shelved due to austerity. Think the Type 45 destroyer and the Cooperative Engagement Capability initiatives. In fact, HMS Prince of Wales was conceived at one stage to handle more capable catapult-launched aircraft, but prohibitive costs put paid to this idea. 

That being said, if there is one thing that could ameliorate any fiscal problems that may arise in the future, it would be political will. Would Whitehall muster the political will needed to see the F-35B project through to its entirety? This is an issue that the defense community will certainly keep tabs on in the years to come.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and he received his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. Ben’s main research interest is in naval affairs, and his works in this area have been published inBreaking Defense, The Diplomat, War Is Boring, as well as the Center for International Maritime Security’sNextWar blog. He can be reached at iswbho@ntu.edu.sg.