Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman, Hunters and Killers: Volume 1 and Volume 2.Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2015/2016, $44.95.
By Joe Petrucelli
In their two-volume work, Norman Polmar and Edward Whitman have written the first comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. As the authors note in their preface, there are histories of ASW campaigns as well as both adversary and U.S. submarine operations, but no one has examined the discipline of ASW from its humble beginnings. Polmar and Whitman do just that in these two volumes, starting with the rudimentary ASW operations of the American revolution through the massive campaigns of the First and Second World War and finishing with the nuclear revolution and post-Cold War implications. Through their analysis, one can discern four factors that make ASW campaigns effective throughout history: numbers, technology, intelligence coordination, and organizational integration and concepts.
The most important conclusion that can be drawn from Polmar and Whitman’s analysis is that in ASW, numbers matter. While acknowledged as important, most navies do not appear to consider ASW as one of their most important capabilities and invest in it accordingly. Thus, during the interwar period, Polar and Whitman observe that the U.S. and Royal Navies drastically cut their ASW platforms both in absolute and relative terms, preferring to expend limited resources on larger, more prominent line combatants. Unfortunately, all the successful ASW campaigns they examined required presence over a large open-ocean area and a small number of highly capable combatants were not necessarily helpful, leaving the Allies to suffer severe losses until embarking on emergency building programs. To emphasize this point, in 1940 none other than Winston Churchill observed that large surface combatants (even if equipped with ASW weapons and sensors) were not effective escorts because they were valuable enough to become targets themselves. The most effective force structure during the ASW campaigns they examined consisted of long-range patrol aircraft and a large number of small, relatively expendable escorts.
The history of ASW is one of technological innovation by both submarines themselves and ASW forces. Polmar and Whitman do an excellent job explaining these complex technical developments in ASW (i.e. sound wave attenuation, convergence zones, etc) and translating them into layman-ese. However, it is important to note that they do not present technology as the solution for ASW dominance, but rather as a never-ending balance between offensive and defensive technologies. As ASW forces developed new technical capabilities such as depth charges, radar, and sonar, submarines countered with technologies such as snorkels, longer-range torpedoes and air-independent and nuclear propulsion. In the end, technology provided necessary tactical capabilities for an effective ASW campaign, but by itself was not sufficient to practice effective ASW.
Additionally, the authors explores the role of intelligence and cryptology in ASW, a vital factor in historical ASW campaigns. Allied cryptology efforts, known as ULTRA during WWII, were vital to cueing ASW forces and helping convoys avoid known U-boat patrol areas, while HF/DF capabilities deployed on escort ships gave ASW forces more tactical-level cueing. Polmar and Whitman describe a similar cueing role for U.S. undersea surveillance assets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it was not just intelligence and cryptology capabilities by themselves that gave ASW forces an advantage, but the fusion of intelligence capabilities into operational forces. By devising employment schemes to utilize intelligence and cryptology windfalls in the short time window that they were relevant, the Allies gained critical advantages in the ASW fight.
Underlying all of these factors and capabilities is the awareness that ASW is a team sport. Integrating ASW platforms from multiple services, intelligence/cryptology sources, and new technical capabilities into an effective campaign required new organizations and employment concepts. The most well known ASW concept, one that was initially resisted during both World Wars, was the convoy system. While convoys probably had the biggest impact in reducing the effectiveness of enemy submarines, German submarines were able to at least partially adapt to it with their own “wolfpack” concept. Other operational concepts that proved crucial to effective ASW included the development of hunter-killer groups (including escort carriers) to reinforce the convoys and the creation of dedicated ASW organizations (such as the WWII U.S. Tenth Fleet).
Although these volumes are a history of ASW and do not explicitly present policy recommendations, there are some lessons from Polmar and Whitman’s work that seem increasingly relevant today. First, reliance on a breakthrough technology to turn the oceans “transparent” is a risky proposition, as the Royal Navy discovered during World War II when their planned reliance on ASDIC (or active SONAR) for ASW proved not nearly as effective as hoped. Additionally, numbers matter, and effective ASW requires a force structure we lack today – namely small surface combatants and escorts (admittedly the LCS is small, but in this reviewer’s opinion it lacks range, combat capability, and is not designed as an escort). Lastly, ASW requires organizational integration in a way that has not been stressed in recent years. While the U.S. Navy (and close allies) have maintained ASW organizations and periodically exercised those capabilities since the end of the Cold War, convoys were last utilized during Operation EARNEST WILL in the Persian Gulf while the last ASW convoys appear to have been during World War II. It is not clear if we have truly exercised convoy tactics (much less having the merchant shipping in the current era to string together a convoy system) or have war-gamed a theater level war against dozens of commerce raiding submarines.
Overall, Polmar and Whitman’s two volumes are an amazingly comprehensive history of Anti-Submarine Warfare. This reviewer’s only complaint is that the analysis largely ends with the end of the Cold War. While the intensity of ASW operations declined at this time and more recent issues are admittedly difficult to research due to classification issues, there are a number of public ASW incidents that would have been worthy of including, from the 2007 incident where a Chinese submarine surfaced inside a U.S. carrier battle group to the 2009 deployment of a Russian Akula SSN in the Western Atlantic. These recent incidents, as well as changes in technology and command structures, would better complete their description of ASW. Despite that one critique, this is a very readable and informative set of books and one that should be required reading for every naval officer serving with surface combatants, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and undersea surveillance organizations.
Joe Petrucelli is a former submarine officer and current Naval Reserve officer. He is a PhD student at George Mason University and a Student Fellow at the school’s Center for Security Policy Studies. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense or his employer.
Featured Image: An allied ship is seen sinking through the periscope of a German U-Boat in WWII.
In an era where the Navy is facing contested seas from challenges posed by China and Russia, history can unlock potential advantages with which to meet current and future threats. Gathering and preserving its operational records, in essence data, is critical. Unfortunately, in terms of such historical records, the Navy is in the Digital Dark Age. It retains only limited data and is losing access to its recent history – knowledge purchased at considerable cost. The Department of Defense and the Navy must consider a cultural and institutional revival to collect and leverage their data for potential catalytic effects on innovation, strategic planning, and warfighting advantages. This cultural transformation of collecting and preserving historical data within the Navy will be a long process, but leveraging its history to meet current and future problems will aid in maintaining global maritime superiority.
On 25 May 2006, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) formally established Riverine Group 1 and Riverine Squadron 1 to safeguard the inland waterways of Iraq. These lethal, agile forces executed over 2,000 missions and trained their Iraqi River Police successors to carry on after the withdrawal of major American forces. The experiences of the Navy’s Coastal Surveillance Group (TF-115), River Patrol Force (TF-116), and Mobile Riverine Force (TF-116) which operated in the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s, facilitated the establishment of these forces. The records collected, organized, and preserved by Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) and command-published histories of the brown- and green-water force enabled NECC to expedite the efficient launch of a riverine force for the 21st-century Navy.1
History is one of the fundamental sinews of the American military establishment. Training is informed by “lessons learned” from prior experiences—historical data by another name—and every organization has senior members who contribute decades of institutional memory to solve contemporary problems. Synthesized into history monographs, these publications equip warfighters with insight and perspective to better guide their actions and decisions. Avid history reader and retired Marine General James Mattis acknowledges, “I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before.”2History’s importance to the present Navy is also reflected in Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John M. Richardson’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, which states “we must first understand our history – how we got to where we are.”3 The CNO’s recently released professional reading program buttresses his statement with a rich and varied roadmap of texts which have influenced his leadership development.4
Today, the Navy finds itself returning to an era of contested seas with contemporary challenges posed by China and Russia. Throughout the Cold War, the Navy possessed a large body of veteran Sailors holding vast reserves of institutional memory, often stretching back to World War II, in all aspects of naval operations. Deployments from Korea to Vietnam and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean honed the Navy’s capabilities. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union provided the Navy with a period of uncontested naval supremacy, but also led to force reductions and a gradual loss of institutional experience with missions like hunter-killer groups, offensive mining, and large surface action groups. A dwindling number of active duty Sailors have operational Cold War experience, and they mostly occupy senior leadership positions.
The records needed to fill that gap must be preserved. Through the Vietnam War, the Navy’s historical data principally took the form of written correspondence in varied formats. The advent of digital computing has vastly transformed record generation and retention, both of which pose notable challenges to records management.5In a period of important fiscal and strategic decisions, the Department of Defense and the Navy must consider a cultural and institutional revival to collect and leverage data for potential catalytic effects on innovation, strategic planning, and warfighting advantages.
Gathering the Data
Several efforts currently exist to capture the Navy’s data. The lifecycle of records is governed by the Department of the Navy Records Management Program, which establishes all policies and procedures for records management. Under the Director of Navy Staff is NHHC, whose mission is to “collect, preserve, protect, present, and make relevant the artifacts, art, and documents that best capture the Navy’s history and heritage.”6 Naval Reserve Combat Documentation Detachment (NR NCDD) 206, established following Operation Desert Storm, assists NHHC personnel by providing uniformed teams for deployment to fleet units and other Navy commands to document and preserve the history of current naval operations during crisis response, wartime, and declared national emergencies. They are actively engaged in supporting NHHC’s mission objectives.7 Lastly, an essential tool for collecting the Navy’s historical data is Office of Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) Instruction 5750.12K governing the production of the annual Command Operations Report (COR).
First published on 8 November 1966, OPNAVINST 5750.12 governs creation of the COR, intended to ensure historical records are available for future analysis.8 As stated in the current version, the COR “is the only overall record of a command’s operations and achievements that is permanently retained” and provides “the raw material upon which future analysis of naval operations or individual unit operations will be based.”9The document primarily consists of a chronology, narrative, and supporting documentation. As OPNAVINST 5750.12 evolved, emphasis shifted from gathering information on specific subjects relevant to warfighters and combat operations to becoming a tool to gather specific types of documents.10
Unfortunately, compliance is erratic and the instruction’s importance was ignored (or unknown) by commands. From 1966 to the present, the submission rate of CORs for units and commands has never reached 100 percent; for CY15 the submission rate stood at 63.5 percent. Submitted CORs are often unevenly written and composed. The causes for these shortfalls vary and are undefined. The culprits are likely operational tempo, personnel shortfalls, and/or concerns about information security. Perhaps commanders opted to err on the side of caution and avoid objectively documenting an unsuccessful operation, intra-service conflict, or inadequate leadership. Without foreseeing the potential impact and importance a COR may have on tomorrow’s Navy, responsibility for the report is often assigned as an additional duty for a junior officer juggling a myriad of responsibilities.
These data gaps have an adverse impact on present and future actions at both the individual and institutional level. For veterans, a gap in COR submissions may result in the denial of a benefits claim with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, or in regard to awards or decorations with the Board for Correction of Naval Records.11For OPNAV, Fleet Forces Command, Pacific Fleet, or numbered fleets, lost CORs diminish the raw data needed for quality analysis, leaving analysts to generate products which may fail to accurately account for critical variables. What is lost is critical contextual information, retention of which is invaluable. “Solid historical record-keeping and analysis would help enlarge decision makers’ perspectives on current issues,” writes historian and retired Navy Captain David Rosenberg.12 Without rigorous records, historians such as Rosenberg cannot write books and articles to help leaders like Secretary Mattis and warfighters sufficiently learn about previous military endeavors. Consequently, past mistakes will inevitably be repeated with potentially adverse outcomes.
Current COR generation is arguably more difficult than ever. The information revolution has led to the proliferation of raw data without the benefit of summation or prior analysis. PowerPoint slide decks, rather than correspondence or memoranda, are all that an author or veteran might possess on a given topic. Rather than gathering critical teletypewriter message traffic from an operation, the author of a COR might need to collect email correspondence from multiple personnel throughout a unit bearing an array of security classifications. Gathering information from digital discussion boards, section newsletters, and untold quantities of data could be a full-time job.
Furthermore, the follow-on process of creating a coherent narrative from the raw data is a laborious process for a professional historian, much less for a Sailor fulfilling an additional duty and unfamiliar with the task. During World War II, the usual authors of aviation command histories were squadron intelligence officers. They understood how the information collected could be used for everything from operations to force development to technical improvements. Coupled with a familiarity of preparing narrative analyses and summary papers, the resulting command histories proved cogent and comprehensive. By comparing old and contemporary CORs, it is obvious that commanders must assign the COR responsibility to qualified individuals with the appropriate education, experience, and skills.
Increasing the operational tempo of naval forces naturally increases the generation of data. However, with limited time and personnel to gather and generate the data, it must come as no surprise that records about the Navy’s involvement in Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF) have been irretrievably lost, to incalculable impact. Valuable Navy operational records from OEF and OIF do exist, but the data belongs to the respective combatant commands and is currently inaccessible to Navy analysts and research specialists.
The Past is Prologue
No individual or organization is infallible—errors can be extremely costly, and for military organizations they lead to the loss of blood and treasure. The operational records generated in peace and wartime provide raw materials for historical analysis, which distill lessons learned and generate studies to educate uniformed personnel. Mistakes always happen, but historical analysis can prevent the repetition of old errors. Incomplete data yielding subpar analysis will affect the resultant knowledge products and undermine history’s influence on future decisions. For example, in 1906, Lieutenant Commander William S. Sims incorporated battle observations and gunnery data to challenge the conclusions of Captain Alfred T. Mahan regarding gunnery at the Battle of Tsushima and advocated convincingly for a future fleet design dominated by all-big-gun battleships, thereby ushering the Navy into the “Dreadnought era.”13If the operational records of current efforts are being lost, are we not again jeopardizing future fleet designs?
Analysis of combat operations has proven instrumental in improving the warfighting abilities of the respective services. Combat provides the only hard evidence on the effectiveness of military doctrine and the integration of platforms and weapons. For example, the Battle of Tarawa (20-23 November 1943) tested the doctrine of amphibious assault against a fortified position. As historian Joseph Alexander details in his book Utmost Savagery, success in the amphibious invasion remained an “issue in doubt” for the Marines for the first thirty hours. The documentation and analysis of the battle prompted the Navy and Marine Corps to increase the amount of pre-invasion bombardment and to refine key aspects of their amphibious doctrine, among other changes. With evidence-turned-knowledge gleaned from Tarawa, the Navy and Marine Corps continued unabated in rolling back the Imperial Japanese Empire, assault by bloody assault.14
Similarly, the Vietnam War demonstrated how technology does not always triumph in an asymmetric clash of arms. In the skies over North Vietnam, American aircraft armed with sophisticated air-to-air missiles met cannon-firing MiG fighters. Neither the Air Force nor Navy enjoyed a high kill ratio, which at best favored them two-to-one until the cessation of Operation Rolling Thunder in November 1968. Disturbed by the combat results, CNO Admiral Tom Moorer tasked Captain Frank Ault to examine the Navy’s entire acquisition and employment process for air-to-air missile systems. After examining reams of available historical data, Ault’s May 1968 report recommended establishing a school to teach pilots the advanced fighter tactics of a seemingly bygone age of machine gun dogfights. This recommendation gave birth to the Navy Postgraduate Course in Fighter Weapons Tactics and Doctrine better known as TOPGUN. Using a curriculum developed by studying operational records, TOPGUN’s first graduates entered air combat over North Vietnam after the resumption of bombing in April 1972. When American air operations ceased in January 1973, the Navy enjoyed a kill ratio of six to one, due in large part to TOPGUN training in dogfighting and fighter tactics.15
Carrier aviation’s successes in OEF and OIF came in part due to the lessons gleaned from Operation Desert Storm (ODS). With carrier doctrine designed for blue water sea control against the Soviet Navy, the force was not tailored for sustained combat projection onto land. In the waters of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea in 1990-1991, however, six carrier battle groups found themselves operating in a coalition environment. Despite the lofty hopes envisioned with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, naval aviation found itself unprepared for joint and coalition interoperability. From the lessons of ODS, the Navy modified its F-14s to carry the Air Force’s LANTIRN targeting system, began purchasing precision-guided munitions, and modified the carrier air wing composition to better support operations on land per joint recommendations. From Operation Allied Force in 1999 to the launch of OEF and OIF in 2001 and 2003, respectively, naval aviation flew substantial numbers of deep-strike missions, fully integrated into joint and combined air operations.16
The History You Save Will Be Your Own
In terms of historical records, today’s Navy is in the Digital Dark Age, a situation drastically accelerated within the past twenty years by the immense generation of digital-only records. It retains only limited data and the service is actively losing access to its recent history, knowledge purchased at considerable cost. Valuable Navy operational records from OEF and OIF do exist, but the data is unobtainable from the combatant commands. Although COR submissions in the first year of each conflict were higher than in peacetime, they thereafter fell below a fifty percent submission rate. In some cases, there are no records of warships assigned to carrier strike groups for multiple years. While some data was captured, such as electromagnetic spectrum or targeting track information, the records involving “who, what, where, when, why, and how” are lacking. NR NCDD 206, together with NHHC staff, conducts oral histories with Sailors to collect data that researchers can use to capture information not included with CORs. Oral histories, however, supplement but do not completely substitute for textual records.
What exactly is being lost? Why does this matter if weapon- and platform-related data is available? The intangibles of decision-making and the organizational culture are captured in data generated through emails, memoranda, and operational reports. For example, as the Navy evolves its doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to maximize the potential of the distributed lethality concept, issues of decentralized command and control must be addressed.17 The ability to draw upon historical data to inform TTPs, training systems, and cycles is paramount to prepare commanding officers and crews for potential challenges over the horizon and to close learning gaps. As retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman notes, the World War II submarine community drew extensively upon the after-action and lessons learned reports to improve TTPs and promulgate best practices to educate the entire force.18
Navy culture successfully adapted to close learning gaps in World War II, and it can adapt to escape the Digital Dark Age. In the 1920s and 1930s, budgetary and treaty restrictions limited fleet design but the Navy experimented, evaluated, and used its data to improve its platforms and TTPs. One notable example was the evolution of how ships processed information at sea, culminating in 1944 with the Combat Information Center, an integrated human-machine system which Captain Timothy Wolters documents in his book, Information at Sea, as an innovative example of decades of research and development informed by history.19
Preserving critical historical data is the collective and legal responsibility of every Sailor and Department of Navy employee. Digitization poses challenges that cannot be met by only a small group of historians and archivists, a form of “distributed history.” If distributed lethality enables every ship to be a lion, digitization and computer-based tools enable every Sailor to take ownership of their unit’s accomplishments and play an active role in the generation of the COR. Command leadership must advocate for the COR rather than considering creation as merely an exercise in annual compliance. Responsibility and management of the annual COR must be a team effort. Include chief petty officers and junior enlisted and empower them to take an active role in collecting data and drafting the chronology and narrative. Not only must the COR be an objective, factual account but an inclusive report with contributions by officer and enlisted communities to ensure preservation of a thorough record of all actions, accomplishments, and key decisions.
Furthermore, data is generated continuously. A quality COR is rarely written following a frantic flurry of electronic messages requesting people forward files to the designated COR author. Assembling a dedicated COR team of officers and enlisted personnel to gather and organize records throughout the year will prove more beneficial. This team in turn can provide a valuable resource for an entire crew and commander, either to provide information for public relations, morale purposes, award nomination packets, or operational analysis.
Classified material poses an immediate concern when proposing this distributed history approach for COR generation. Such digital records, located on a variety of computer networks, rightfully pose challenges regarding operational security, either via aggregation or unauthorized access. Such concerns should not, however, jeopardize the overall effort. Generating classified CORs is encouraged and detailed in OPNAVINST 5750.12K; as thorough a narrative as possible is essential. Archivists at NHHC, trained to process and appropriately file classified material, can provide guidance to ensure the security and integrity of the data. When concerns over security result in a banal, unclassified COR, data about that unit’s activities is forever unavailable to the Navy for use in addressing future innovations, conflicts, or organizational changes, and the report’s utility to OPNAV, researchers, and veterans becomes essentially nil. With budgetary difficulties affecting the Navy, data—classified or not—serve as an intellectual, institutional investment for the future. In explaining to the Congress and the American people how and why the Navy is responsibly executing its budget for the national interest, availability and utilization of the data is paramount for the task.20
Transforming the Navy’s culture of collecting and preserving its historical data will be a long process. Digitization and the increasing volume of records will continue to pose challenges. These challenges, however, cannot be ignored any longer and require a unified front to ensure records are preserved and available for use. The Navy is not alone; its sister services experience similar problems in collecting data and using it to benefit current operations.21 In an era where reaction and decision times are rapidly diminished through advances in machine-to-machine and human-machine interactions, today’s data may help equip the warfighter with future kinetic or non-kinetic effects. As fleet design and tactics evolve to face new threats, the Navy can ill afford to ignore its past investments of blood and tax dollars. It must leverage its historical data to find solutions to current and future problems to ensure continued maritime superiority.
Dr. Frank A. Blazich, Jr. is a curator of modern military history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. After receiving his doctorate in modern American history from The Ohio State University, he worked as a historian for Naval History and Heritage Command. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, he served as historian for Task Force Netted Navy.
1.Robert Benbow, Fred Ensminger, Peter Swartz, Scott Savitz, and Dan Stimpson, Renewal of Navy’s Riverine Capability: A Preliminary Examination of Past, Current and Future Capabilities (Alexandria, VA: CNA, March 2006), 104-21; Dave Nagle, “Riverine Force Marks One-Year Anniversary,” Navy Expeditionary Combat Command Public Affairs, 7 June 2007, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=29926; Matthew M. Burke, “Riverine Success in Iraq Shows Need for Naval Quick-Reaction Force,” Stars and Stripes, 29 October 2012, http://www.stripes.com/news/riverine-success-in-iraq-shows-need-for-naval-quick-reaction-force-1.195109.
6. “Who We Are,” Naval History and Heritage Command, https://www.history.navy.mil/about-us/organization/who-we-are.html.
7. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 1001.26C, “Management of Navy Reserve Component Support to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations,” 7 February 2011, https://doni.daps.dla.mil/Directives/01000%20Military%20Personnel%20Support/01-01%20General%20Military%20Personnel%20Records/1001.26C.pdf.
8. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 5750.12, “Command Histories,” 8 November 1966, Post-1946 Command File, Operational Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC.
9. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 5750.12K, “Annual Command Operations Report,” 21 May 2012, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/about-us/instructions-and-forms/command-operation-report/pdf/OPNAVINST%205750.12K%20-%20Signed%2021%20May%202012.pdf.
10. Based on a review of OPNAVINST 5750.12 through OPNAVINST 5750.12K, in the holdings of Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC.
11. Eric Lockwood, “Make History: Submit your Command Operations Report,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 10 February 2016, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=93031.
12.David Alan Rosenberg, “Process: The Realities of Formulating Modern Naval Strategy,” in Mahan is Not Enough: The Proceedings of a Conference on the Works of Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, eds. James Goldrick and John B. Hattendorf (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1993), 174.
13.William Sims, “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One-Caliber Battleships of High Speed, Large Displacement, and Gun-Power” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 32, no. 4 (December 1906): 1337-66.
14.Joseph H. Alexander, Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), xvi-xvii, 232-37.
15. Marshall L. Michell III, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 185-88, 277-78; John Darrell Sherwood, Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 219-21, 248.
16. Benjamin S. Lambeth, American Carrier Air Power at the Dawn of a New Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005), 1-8, 100-01; Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller, Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1998), 369-75, 384-85.
17. Kit de Angelis and Jason Garfield, “Give Commanders the Authority,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 10 (October 2016): 18-21.
18. Frank G. Hoffman, “How We Bridge a Wartime ‘Learning Gap,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 5 (May 2016): 22-29.
19.Timothy S. Wolters, Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013), 4-5, 204-21.
20. Prior to World War I, the Navy recognized the need to secure public support for its expansion plans. See George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 35-48, 54-63.
21.Francis J. H. Park, “A Time for Digital Trumpets: Emerging Changes in Military Historical Tradecraft,” Army History 20-16-2, no. 99 (Spring 2016): 29-36.
Featured Image: Sunrise aboard Battleship Missouri Memorial at Ford Island onboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Katarzyna Kobiljak)
The Leader’s Bookshelf by Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell. U.S. Naval Institute Press. 288pp. $29.95.
“Reading has the power not only to demolish time and span the ages, but also the capacity to make one feel more human — human meaning at one with humanity — and possibly less savage.”
– JAMES SALTER
“After owning books, almost the next best thing is talking about them.”
– CHARLES NODIER
Some years ago I met Admiral Jim Stavridis. The conversation, while short, turned to books. If I recall, it was in Stuttgart, Germany, sometime around 2010 or 2011. Because he was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the U.S. European Commander (EUCOM), he had to divide his time between two locations: his NATO headquarters located near Mons, Belgium and his EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. At the time, I worked in the intelligence directorate at EUCOM when we heard he was coming by to meet the staff.
It was a gray, overcast afternoon when he arrived. He promptly made his way down a long line of officers and enlisted, each of them posed to shake his hand and say a few words. I had only a few seconds to make a connection—to say something interesting or ask him a question. But this I knew: I loved books; he loved books; and while standing there, I thought of something he wrote that might prove that I, like him, believed that books are essential to our profession, if not our lives.
Months prior, he had written one of his regular blog posts. In it, he said that his wife noticed that his love of books and his growing library had evolved into a “gentle madness.” That phrase—a “gentle madness”—refers to a wonderful book by author Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes’ book—A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books— is a long, discursive work: one part discussion of historic book culture in America and Britain, the other full of profiles of quirky and dedicated book lovers and collectors.
When the admiral finally reached me, I mentioned the blog post and the book. His eyes lit up and he said something about few people knowing the reference. He then told me he owned 4,000 books. Surprised, I said something about wanting a library that large. He then simply said, “You’ll get there.” The conviction in his voice floored me. I believed him. And he was right. I’m getting there (the featured image of this post is a picture of my library; today I have around 2,000 titles, give or take).
Fast forward a few years and, no surprise, the admiral’s library has grown. Stavridis, in the introduction to the entertaining The Leader’s Bookshelf, says that he has in his “house today… more than four thousand books.” His wife, Laura, “has spent far too much of her life packing and unpacking them in postings all around the world.”
Stavridis and his co-author, R. Manning Ancell, have written a book that is somewhat similar to Richard Puryear’s fine book—now unfortunately out of print—American Admiralship: The Moral Imperatives of Command. Puryear interviewed 150 four star admirals on a variety of topics. One of those topics was the importance of reading. And like Puryear, Stavridis and Ancell take a similar path. In The Leader’s Bookshelf, they interviewed 200 four-star generals and flag officers, and from those discussions, they determined the 50 books that “stood out most…with top military readers.”
Using no particular scientific method, they rank ordered the books in descending order by the number of mentions. Thus, the first book on the list, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), was mentioned most often. While the last on the list, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everythingby Dov Seidman, was mentioned least frequently.
For each title, there is a short essay by a senior officer as to why they choose the book, followed by a quote from the book, a biography of the author, then a summary of the book by either Stavridis or Ancell, concluding with a few sentences about why the book is important for leaders today.
For folks that regularly follow the reading lists that are published by the Chief of Naval Operations or the other services, there are, unfortunately, few surprises. The regularly cited titles appear: Anton Myer’s Once an Eagle, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Clausewitz’s On War, John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, E.B. Potter’s Nimitz, and the always popular Steven Pressfield with his Gates of Fire. They all made the cut.
While there is nothing wrong with the oldies but goodies, it was refreshing to see some unusual—or rather, some outliers—find a place in the top 50. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’sCourt makes a showing as does Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It. In fact, General Stan McChrystal is the senior officer that recommended Twain’s satirical novel about a man from the 19th century, Hank Morgan, traveling back in time to King Arthur’s court.
The Leader’s Bookshelf, I confess, would be ho-hum if not for the additional essays that Stavridis and Ancell add to the book. It is these essays on publishing, reading lists, and building a personal library, that raise this book from mediocrity to must have. And here, Robert Ancell pulls his weight, adding a nice cherry on top with an interview with General Mattis.
Mattis beats Stavridis in the book department. With some 7,000 titles on his shelves, he probably is the best read military leader—retired or active—out there. In the interview, Mattis mentions books that apply to each level of war. Of note, he recommends Lucas Phillips’ book The Greatest Raid of All. A book about a British raid that shattered the Nazi’s dry docks at Saint-Nazaire, France during World War II, preventing the Germans from using the docks for large battleships for the duration of the war. The raid resulted in no less than five Victoria Crosses. I had never heard of the book nor the raid. It is these little-known reading recommendations that make books like this exciting. You simply do not know what you might find.
Ironically, the only criticism—or rather, observation—I have about the book is that senior officers still do not carve out enough time to read. And this in a book in which one of the early essays is about “Making Time for Reading.”
In one essay, a senior officer admits that while working in the Joint Staff that he only read one book in a year. One book! While another, in her recommendation, wrote only two sentences to praise the work—and even then those two sentences were footnoted. Sigh.
Nonetheless, The Leader’s Bookshelf will appeal to all types: The newbie looking for a good book to read and the bibliomaniac who may have read all 49 on the list and owns each first edition, but unaware, or didn’t realize there was just one more interesting title out there.
But alas, there always is.
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The views here are his own.
Featured Image: A picture of the author’s personal library. Courtesy of Christopher Nelson.
The age of the strike carrier is over. As the United States enters an era where the potential for modern great-power war is increasing dramatically in Eurasia, a return to the traditional roles of the aircraft carrier is required to maintain maritime access. Carrier-borne over-land strike warfare has not proved decisive in previous conflicts in heavily contested air defense environments, and will not prove so in the future. In the potential high-end conflicts of the twenty-first century, the likely utility of carrier-based land strike is largely non-existent. Thankfully, the traditional carrier aviation roles of maritime interdiction and fleet air defense remain highly valuable in wars against modern navies, but are precisely the roles, missions, and tactics sacrificed for sea based over-land strikes over the past sixty years. Regaining this capability will require a modest investment in existing and developing systems and capabilities and should be the force’s, the service’s and the nation’s highest objective in the coming years.
Aircraft Carriers in Over-Land Strike
American carrier airpower received its combat indoctrination in the Pacific War. However, pollution of the history of that campaign by naval aviation and airpower enthusiasts caused the lessons of that war to ossify over time. During Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s campaign aircraft carriers and their air wings almost exclusively provided maritime interdiction and fleet air defense. There are three major exceptions to this rule; Doolittle’s raid, the offloading of the Enterprise air group to Henderson Field during the Solomon Islands operation, and the strikes against the Japanese redoubts and the home islands late in the war. Additionally, carrier air forces provided strikes to Marine landings and naval aviation supported the Army landings of MacArthur’s campaign, most famously at Leyte. Admiral Kinkaid’s light carriers supported much of this effort, as well as Vice Admiral William F. Halsey’s and Raymond Spruance’s fast carrier task forces of Third and Fifth Fleets.
Doolittle’s raid, a strategic success due to its propaganda value, did not obtain any operational or theater-strategic gain, provided no notable hindrance to the Japanese war effort, and was conducted with US Army Air Corps (USAAC) B-25 Mitchell aircraft. Only the USAAC aircraft possessed the combination of ordnance load, endurance, and thrust to make the adventure over the Japanese home islands possible, even as a publicity stunt.
When the Enterprise disembarked her air group to Henderson Field, her aircraft provided valued support to the Marines fighting their way across Guadalcanal and to American naval forces fighting for sea control in Iron Bottom Sound. During the campaign, the major value of those aircraft remained air defense and anti-surface warfare. The Enterprise air group made combat air patrols, searched Iron Bottom Sound during daylight, and engaged any Japanese ships unfortunate enough to find themselves in range in daylight. The Enterprise air group’s combat air patrols made daylight resupply of Japanese Army units impossible, a sea control, anti-surface warfare capability. While the air group could not provide enough firepower accurately enough to dig the Japanese out of the jungle by themselves, it successfully isolated the battlespace to allow the Marines to do their work as it controlled the approaches to Iron Bottom Sound.
After Midway and the Solomon Islands campaigns, American carrier air power did begin to conduct some overland strike, mostly in the form of raids on enemy bases, but the fast carrier task forces remained focused on fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare. This alludes to the fact that, despite its ailing naval forces, Japan’s air and surface units still represented a potential threat to the American war after 1942. This was true as long as they possessed the capability to conduct a highly destructive strike against American fleets.
Leyte Gulf totally destroyed this capability and thereafter American carriers began wholehearted support of major fleet landings. However, in these endeavors they posted a mixed record, being unable to provide enough ordnance precisely enough to make the Marines’ tasks much easier as they tried to advance over hard volcanic rock on Iwo Jima and the difficult terrain and defense in depth on Okinawa. Indeed, in these campaigns, American carrier air power’s signature achievement proved the destruction of the Japanese super-battleship, not any air-to-ground ordnance delivery.
The history of the Second World War has been polluted by naval aviation, claiming the conflict as the age of the aircraft carrier. This stands almost no historical scrutiny. The campaign hung in the balance in the Solomons as much as Midway or Coral Sea, with no U.S. carriers available. Moreover, battleships proved highly useful throughout the war with their extensive anti-air armament and state-of-the-art radars providing close-in air defense for task forces. The Pacific War’s history is much more nuanced than naval aviation enthusiasts give credit for, and at its conclusion, not the carrier but the aircraft carrier task force proved to be the central weapon of war, with naval aviation posting meager results in ground support or strategic land strike.
What commonly became known as the “strike” aircraft carrier (CVA) was, in fact, the atomic carrier. In a memorandum as assistant Chief of Naval Operations for guided missiles, Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery opined that the U.S. Navy could strike more flexibly, as effectively, and at less cost than land-based, atomic-armed bombers requiring local bases to launch their fighter escorts. Gallery’s motivation was at least partially parochial. The newly-formed U.S. Air Force was, at the time, attempting to cultivate a monopoly on nuclear strike planning. In the era as the only nuclear superpower, it seemed nuclear delivery would prove the best option for continued longevity of the U.S. Navy’s fleet. In this effort, the Navy reconfigured attack carrier air wings to deliver Navy special weapons. This reconfiguration was the first time a carrier air wing was doctrinally tooled for ground attack and strategic strike, vice the sea control disciplines of fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare. Over time, this strike carrier became the norm. Rather than provide value to the fleet, misperceptions of the efficacy of land attack caused the platform’s gradual devolution from a system that provided capability to the task force to a platform that sucked capability from it. With its air wing largely servicing land targets, the strike carrier now required the very anti-surface, anti-submarine, and anti-air capabilities it used to augment, to allow more substantial (although increasingly less effective) overland raids.
This strike configuration premiered during the Korean War. The Peninsula lacked a sophisticated air defense or early-warning system and communist forces only contested air superiority in MiG Alley on the western Sino-Korean border. Therefore, naval and Marine aircraft operating off of carriers did produce notable results in ground support. However, given the limited nature of the conflict, the austere environment of the peninsula, and the technical lack of sophistication of Chinese and Korean forces, it is hard to determine the overall effect of carrier air power. At any rate, whatever the tactical, operational, or strategic limitations imposed, the conflict ended inconclusively, whatever naval aviation’s record.
Aircraft launch off USS Valley Forge during the Korean War (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Likewise, the utility of the attack aircraft carrier proved mixed over Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the communist North enjoyed competing Chinese and Russian military (as well as diplomatic and political) support. The Soviets provided a totally linked and integrated air defense network around vital areas including Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor, the two most strategic areas. This air defense system proved too dense and advanced for American carrier-launched aircraft to reliably penetrate and deliver ordnance. Indeed, during Operation LINEBACKER II, only B-52Ds with their improved Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) packages, proved able to operate in the zones. This represented a failure of American carrier air power. If the multiple aircraft carriers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin could not reliably penetrate North Vietnamese air defenses, what chance did they have off the Kola Peninsula or the Baltic?
Despite an air defense network similar to that installed over Hanoi, U.S. Naval Aviation contributed, but did not prove decisive in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. While fixed-wing, fast moving aviation assets provided impressive combat support, it took US Air Force F-117 Nighthawks, cruise missiles, and Air Force delivered precision munitions to penetrate the Iraqi air defense screen. Naval air forces proved totally unprepared for the precision munitions revolution, lacking laser target designators on the A-6s and A-7s that still formed the mainstays of the fleet. Instead, most naval aviation delivered Mk 80 series unguided weapons instead of the Paveway series carried by a small but growing section of Air Force platforms, including the Nighthawk. This made them incapable of delivering ordnance to targets with high risk of collateral damage and precluded many targets in Iraqi population areas, limiting the force’s contributions to the campaign to tactical and some operational strikes.
In the Balkan wars and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, American naval aviation never again faced an integrated air defense system. High hard decks precluded the efficacy of man portable surface-to-air rounds and obsolete mobile systems made air defense suppression a forgone conclusion rather than an aspirational goal in the early 2000s. Naval aircraft, belatedly modernized to take full advantage of the precision munitions revolution, delivered substantial amounts of ordnance in these conflicts, complementing American land-based air power. However, the aircraft lacked on station time and payload, showcasing a service preference for multi-role fighter-bombers with limited range vice the ultra-long range fighter and attack aircraft required for intercept and long-range anti-surface warfare. However, confronted with a total lack of modern air defense systems, they, like the Air Force, reigned supreme.
Never in its history has American naval aviation confronted a state-of-the-art, integrated air defense system and provided effective, strategic ordnance. Hypothetically, at times during the Cold War, American strike-configured carriers might have done so, but an era of fiber-optically interlinked, multi-frequency, phased array air defense systems totally precludes such operations. Moreover, naval aviation assets lacked the range to strike strategic targets deep in mainland China and central Russia, limited to around 1,000nm inland.
Modern Aircraft Carrier Utilization in Great Power War
The utility of the STRIKE carrier in great power conflict is over. More accurately, as the previous section highlighted, it never really existed. American strike carriers throughout their history proved incapable of gaining and maintaining access to heavily defended areas and this trend will only grow more severe. China’s Great Wall of air defense on the northern Taiwan Strait will again preclude American carriers from gaining access to strategic areas in mainland China. Russia’s high-value areas are already well defended. China’s continued investment in air defense systems will cause this problem to continue to distribute throughout Asia. Further, a series of anti-access systems fielded by China, but also increasingly by Russia, are pushing U.S. carrier task forces out of range of present naval aircraft.
American planners are hoping, almost as a matter of faith, that an increase in the range of carrier-based aircraft would provide for continued access. This approach is wrong-headed. First, what land targets would such aircraft service? Perhaps Hainan Dao, or some rocks in the South or East China Sea, hardly a war-winning strategic strike. Second, how will these aircraft gain access in order to deliver the strike? American naval aircraft are too obsolete to deal with any but the most lightly defended of modern targets, and the F-35 will not markedly change this equation.
So let’s give up? Call it a day? Beef up Air Force appropriations? Not even close. American naval air power is the critical capability in the U.S. arsenal in the Western Pacific and the North Atlantic. Instead, force planners should recall why the U.S. built aircraft carriers in the first place, and where they last played a critical strategic role: in anti-surface warfare and fleet air defense. American carrier air power in the Pacific War hinged not on great strikes against the home islands, but rather on massing striking power against Japanese naval surface forces, Japanese air forces, and by protecting the fleet during operations and major landings. This is where naval aviation must again put its efforts.
Air wings at present are much better configured for low-risk ground attack than for operations against other navies. Air operations in the Pacific War required mass, exercising Halsey’s axiom that carrier air power increased at the exponent of the number of carriers engaged. Those operations encompassed large sorties, with hundreds of aircraft in major fleet actions. Over the past twenty-five years these skills have been lost. American carrier forces now exercise in single or dual carrier configurations. In Halsey and Spruance’s era, their fleets swelled into double digit large flattops, with myriad small deck escort carriers providing combat air patrols, anti-submarine forces, and landing support. Additionally, that war featured raids of hundreds of naval aircraft against enemy surface formations. Critics will claim that such mass is no longer required in the precision munitions era but such claims ignore that defense systems have also improved dramatically, making saturation the only sure way to put sophisticated, modern air defense ships out of action. To be clear, this author is not advocating a wholesale return to Nimitz’s fast carrier task force. However, the tactics, techniques, procedures, and training of American carrier air forces are out of touch with a modern, sea-control war, and a single U.S. CVN must be able to generate the mass and firepower necessary to fight in a modern, contested sea environment.
American naval aviation forces have not experienced platforms with the anti-air capabilities of ships as capable as the current generation of Chinese Navy Luyang hulls. U.S. tactics presently involving two or four aircraft sorties are totally inadequate for destroying an AEGIS-equivalent ship. To overwhelm a Chinese, or even an aging Russian surface formation, will likely require dozens of anti-ship cruise missiles. A single carrier must contain the capability to put such a ship (ideally many such ships) out of action, quickly. However, at present such a task requires the bulk of a modern air wing to generate the volume of fire required. This would likely also require a total re-arming of carrier magazines with a focus on sea control weapons and systems lest a CVN run itself out of anti-ship missiles in a few early engagements.
Moreover, distributed lethality requires a distribution of air power. Without fast-moving defensive counter-air formations operating with small surface action groups, American light forces will find themselves extremely vulnerable to attack. Modern surface combatant anti-air weapons range remains about 100nm. Modern air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles regularly feature twice that range and increasingly much greater. Without defensive counter-air formations attached to light surface forces, enemy aircraft will use the haven of range to mass firepower, overwhelming a formation’s air defenses while maintaining relative safety over the horizon. Allowing distributed light forces some measure of defensive counter-air capability will allow those formations to break up air attacks, ideally precluding saturation of U.S. platforms, offset electronic emissions away from the formation to make enemy targeting of the group more difficult, and therefore dramatically increase survivability.
The United States certainly has the capability to maintain the primacy of its carriers, especially in the maritime-dominated Western Pacific. The U.S. must use its large-decks to maximum potential. This includes American large-deck amphibious shipping, in the form of LHDs and LHAs. Such ships’ amphibious capability will likely not add much to the initial phases of great power war when sea control and air superiority are contested. Importantly, small carriers proved highly useful in both Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the Second World War, providing long-range air defenses for convoys and robust anti-submarine capability outside of the range of land-based air power. In the 1960s, the U.S. began using Essex-class carries in an anti-submarine configuration (CVS vice the strike carrier CVA). In fact, USS Intrepid, a CVS-configured carrier, conducted strikes into northern Vietnam off Yankee Station, when it became apparent that PRC submarines did not pose a serious threat to the American Carrier Operating Areas (CVOAs). Likewise, the British prioritized antisubmarine work and limited air defense capability in their Invincible-class light carriers which featured heavily in the Falkland Islands War. American Wasp– and America-class ships, loaded with F-35s, SH-60s, and MV-22s, can provide the same – an air defense, anti-surface, and anti-submarine screen. Operating in the vicinity of a Surface Action Group Operating Area (SAGOA), the large-decks could provide on-station defensive counter-air, visually identify unknown contacts, and augment the ASW aircraft from a SAG to increase the group’s submarine localization and anti-surface strike capacity.
American naval forces are only a fraction of the way to recognizing the capabilities the MV-22 provides. At present, the U.S. Navy has only tested MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft in a Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) capacity, the CMV-22. However, the aircraft retains substantial potential in anti-submarine warfare and airborne early warning, among other uses. U.S. Navy carrier task forces until the early 2000s incorporated the S-3 Viking aircraft, a high-subsonic anti-submarine jet. These aircraft retired in the early 2000s due to lack of fleet interest in anti-submarine warfare. In the heavily contested North Atlantic or Western Pacific, against foes with modern undersea forces, such a capability once again is required. The MV-22 would expand this capability. While slower, it provides potential marked improvements in range, low-altitude handling, on station time, and sensor payload. Such aircraft would provide a step-increase in surface-force ASW capability, potentially loaded with dipping sonars, sonobouys, and a large number of Mk 54 torpedoes. Further, mounting a high-performance radar on such an aircraft would allow some measure of airborne early warning to small surface units. Combined with point-to-point data links, these aircraft could provide over-the-horizon situational awareness while limiting surface force’s radar transmissions. This would complete the capability of the light-carrier air group described above and substantially increase the lethality of the small satellite surface groups orbiting the aviation ship. Additionally, due to their vertical takeoff and landing capability, the MV-22 could potentially lily pad off smaller ships, particularly the huge flight decks of Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) increasing their time aloft forward. While heat management proved frustrating early in the aircraft’s tenure, this issue has been fixed with temporary heat shields which could be staged onboard. The MV-22 provides a cheap method to reconstitute integrated ASW capability and provide survivable, high-speed warning and reconnaissance.
U.S. Naval Aviation must train for saturation raids, publicly. Saturation attacks are a lost art, and likely aviation forces have much to learn. Such attacks will require heavy coordination between aircraft and squadrons, flexing intellectual muscles left dormant since at least the end of the Cold War. Is a saturation attack down one bearing better, with inbound missiles exceeding the target’s sensor capacity in a single direction, or better from multiple vectors or compass points, overloading close-in defenses? Such questions require at-sea testing. Additionally, such training is an important signal to U.S. maritime adversaries. The fact that U.S. naval aircraft are prepared to destroy high-end platforms, and have the capabilities to do so, emphasizes U.S. resolve in an era and in areas where such capability is in question.
Ultimately, the F-35 has a huge role to play in a reconfigured carrier air wing. Without it, the U.S. Navy will have no answer to the range of proliferating fifth generation fighters it would face in the Barents, Baltic, or China Seas. Joint Strike Fighter’s use is not bombing the Senkakus or trying to break into mainland China’s air defense network. Instead, only the F-35, to include or perhaps even feature the F-35B flown off LHDs and LHAs, can provide the protection of U.S. light forces and the carrier itself with an aircraft capable enough to survive in a modern air war. Forward distribution of the F-35 in support of U.S. light forces will provide a critical capability to those ships operating at the far reaches of U.S. sea control when they confront the J-20 and Su-35, armed with large numbers of long-range anti-ship missiles.
Finally, naval air must expand the capabilities of the legacy and Super Hornet variants of the FA-18 with software upgrades and improved radars and sensors, to help electronics warfare and battlespace awareness functions on the aging airframes to keep pace with F-35. The F-35’s stealth will not be decisive in future conflicts. The frequency agility of modern air defense sensors is just too good. Only the survivability and lethality of the weapons it carries will keep these airframes lethal into the future. Hornets must maintain their capability in the areas of fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare by a refresh of the aircraft’s sensors and systems. This is not to preclude F-35. Without the Joint Strike Fighter, the only fifth generation fighter available, American carrier air forces will be obsolescent by the end of the decade. However, the Hornets will also have to operate in the same environments, and need to be configured to do so.
American naval forces are not a tool for strategic strikes. Instead, they should be used operationally, to provide strategic affects. A great power war will require progressive sea control, as attrition dominates seagoing forces on both sides. At some point, one side or the other will alone maintain the capability to operate in the contested theater. Naval aviation should use its striking capability to advance this attrition-based operational concept as quickly as possible by massing its striking power quickly against targets. Only by eliminating enemy platforms and blinding adversary ISR assets will U.S. forces survive.
In order to do this effectively, U.S. naval air forces must support distributed forces. The can do so by coordinating with large-deck amphibious shipping to distribute their own lethality, providing defensive counter-air coverage and situational awareness to surface action groups operating on the front line of American naval power. This will free U.S. carrier aviation for anti-surface warfare and local air superiority.
The MV-22 is the great unrecognized platform with almost limitless potential for operational flexibility. With increased sensor loads and weapons, the tiltrotor can deliver long-endurance, low-altitude ASW and high-altitude situational awareness if properly configured. Such sea control capabilities would pay huge dividends in future naval combat.
At its base, this work is about naval aviation in an era of contested sea control. This era will require airborne forces to re-examine the assumptions of the past six decades of naval aviation, retooling the air wing for maritime strike. This will require radically different magazine selections on the carrier, likely some new weapons, including higher-capability anti-ship weapons, and a total retooling of air wing certification and training regimens. Aircraft carriers have a huge role in future wars, but the retooling of their aircraft and their operational concepts must begin now.
LT X is an officer in the United States Navy. Feedback should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
Featured Image: An aerial view of various aircraft lining the flight decks of the aircraft carrier USS INDEPENDENCE (CV-62), right, and USS MIDWAY (CV-41) moored beside each other in the background at Naval Station Pearl Harbor (Wikimedia Commons)