Tag Archives: Naval Aviation

Assessing the Usefulness of the American Large-Deck Carrier

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

By Ben Ho Wan Beng

Introduction

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

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

Territorial independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobility

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

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

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

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

800px-Aircraft_carrier_at_underway_replenishment
USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN 69) with Carrier Air Wing SEVEN embarked (right) conduct an underway replenishment with USNS ARCTIC (T-AOE 8) (left). Image credit: MC2 Miguel Contreras, USN.

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

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

Flexibility

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

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

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

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

Conclusion  

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

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

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

Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Ibid.

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

[18] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elephant in the Room: E-2D and Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Christopher Moran and LT Ryan Heilmann

Admirals Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta introduced the concept of distributed lethality over a year ago as a “means  to increase the offensive might of the surface force and employ ships in dispersed formations known as ‘hunter killer surface action groups.’”[i] The basic concept as outlined in the original article and further discussion has evolved into “the condition gained by increasing the offensive power and defensive hardening of individual warships and then employing them not only in traditional roles but also in different ways than have been the practice in the past few decades” according to Ryan Kelly.[ii] Discussion and interest grew around the country over the past year and with the formation of the Distributed Lethality Task Force. Many great minds have come together, primarily from the surface navy, to offer ideas and solutions. Furthermore, three key initiatives describe what needs to be harnessed within Distributed Lethality: To Deceive, Target, and Destroy.

Donate to CIMSEC!

One area of involvement that has been partially neglected in the distributed lethality discussion is aviation.  In an update to distributed lethality, Admiral Rowden states:

Nothing we do in Distributed Lethality should be seen as taking away from our historic and necessary role in enabling naval power projection and helping protect CVN’s and ARG’s. We start from the proposition that HVU operations and defense is our main mission, and then work to create operational problems with more lethal and distributed surface forces from there. Our proposition is that the Surface Force can do more, and we are going to take the necessary time to study and analyze that proposition in order to get it right.[iii]

The perceived assumption is that the surface navy is either supporting power projection by providing “HVU operations and defense” or operating independently from the air wing with more “lethal and distributed surface forces.” 

Dmitry Filipoff proposes a third option of a dispersed surface force that is supported by air wing assets:

While distributed lethality deemphasizes carrier strike missions, the air wing will be a critical enabler for the distributed force. A distributed air wing can provide rapid response anti-submarine warfare capability and function as communications relays for maintaining a responsive decision cycle while the dispersed force operates under EMCON. The air wing’s screening and early warning functions will be indispensable for enabling commanders on the scene to exercise initiative and engage on their own terms.[iv]

In this article we build upon the ideas of Mr. Filipoff, specifically focusing on the unique capabilities of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. Before proceeding further it might be helpful to offer some background information on the Hawkeye Community and its relevant areas of warfighting focus. 

The Hawkeye was developed primarily as a blue water airborne early warning platform capable of long range detection of both aircraft and ships. While detection is the primary organic capability, Hawkeye aircrew are well versed executing real time command and control over a wide range of mission sets, including anti-surface warfare (ASuW). Through application of the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) concept, new air intercept controllers and mission commanders learn the basics of conducting  ASuW during the earliest stages of their training, which is then built upon throughout the work up cycle. At the same time, as an airborne C2 asset the Hawkeye is more than capable of bridging the gap (both literally through network relay and bridging, and figuratively through the ability to have one coordination entity) between warfare commanders.

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye flown by Test and Evaluation Squadron TWENTY demonstrating proof of concept of in flight refueling. Photo taken by Kelly Schindler (US Navy).
E-2D Advanced Hawkeye flown by Test and Evaluation Squadron TWO ZERO demonstrating proof of concept of in flight refueling. Photo taken by Kelly Schindler (US Navy).

That being said, no amount of training or warfighting culture is going to matter if processes are not in place to make use of that corporate knowledge. Enter the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye with the APY-9 radar and associated sensors and communications equipment. While specific ranges of the radar are classified, suffice to say that the APY-9 greatly increases the ability of a strike group (or individual cruiser or destroyer) to detect and classify contacts at range. Furthermore, the data link and communication suite enables the Hawkeye to connect widely dispersed forces through multiple networks and means of voice communication. The continuing development of integrated fires offers unique employment options.

Taking into account the systems as well as the aircrew operating the platform, the organic and currently fielded capabilities of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye serving as the centralizing  C2 node, bring the persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), Command and Control, and strike group defense capabilities otherwise unavailable to the distributed fleet. 

The overall theme of this article seeks to speak to several of the “key issues” brought up in Mr. Kelly’s call for articles, but particularly:

How should the upcoming Adaptive Force Package be employed: including Tactical Situation (TACSIT) execution, organic and inorganic targeting, fielding of modified weapons, and improved integration with Amphibious Forces and Expeditionary Marine Corps units in support of sea control operations?

Command and Control

First and foremost, the E-2 Hawkeye is an airborne command and control platform, capable of providing both C2 technology as well as “man-in-the-loop” decision making, necessary for effective control of a dispersed and dynamic battlespace. The E-2 is equipped with various data link capabilities which allow for the sharing of not only track data but also raw sensor information.  Additionally, the communication suite in a Hawkeye includes V/UHF, HF, and SATCOM communications with various options for secure and anti-jam capabilities. The typical stationing altitude of a Hawkeye and the power output of the communication and data link equipment allows for a large range of operation ensuring a widely dispersed fleet can stay connected without the requirement for individual ships to maintain line of sight with each other. 

Furthermore, the highly trained crew of the Hawkeye is capable of assessing the situation and making decisions for various commanders – carrying out their intent across various warfighting domains. This allows for the efficient choice of targeting solutions for offensive and defensive scenarios across the battlespace. 

And finally, the warfighting experience of the crew allows for tailoring of information for specific recipients, ultimately cutting down the volume of information sent.  For example, what the air defense commander needs to know is not necessarily what the surface warfare commander needs to know, or what the OTC or JFMCC need to know. The Hawkeye crew has the experience to tailor the information specifically desired by various levels of the chain of command, thereby limiting the total amount of information being transmitted.  In an environment where uncontested usage of the electromagnetic spectrum is not guaranteed, knowing exactly what information to send and only sending that information becomes paramount in reducing our own electromagnetic footprint.

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconaissance

One of the biggest challenges facing friendly forces in an “over-the-horizon” war is positive identification of a contact at range. With inherent line of sight limitations there is currently very little organic capability in a Carrier Strike Group to determine what exactly a particular OTH contact is. In an area of high surface and/or air traffic, the ability to identify a contact becomes a great concern for self-defense, especially in a distributed fleet. Ultimately what is needed, and can be provided by the Hawkeye, is an ability to maintain a single persistent track with consolidated ISR from multiple assets.

The airborne E-2 detects and localizes a contact, and begins to evaluate the contact using available onboard sensors. Simultaneously, the Hawkeye crew begins to work with any and all available ISR assets (EP-3, EA-18G, FA-18, UAV, surface ships) to determine any additional information to help with identification. A track with consolidated ISR information is then “pushed” to the fleet via available data links and/or voice communication as required. When the on station E-2 is forced to leave station due to the end of mission time, the relieving E-2 conducts a positive turnover of all tracks of interest ensuring no change in reported data.  (Currently, station time is limited by fuel capacity, however in-flight refueling capability is currently in development for the E-2D which will significantly increase on station time). The result is a persistent, constantly communicated, consolidated “picture” of the area of interest. This picture is capable of being received by interested parties with very little, if any, electromagnetic emission.

Strike Group Defense

A dispersed and more offensive fleet creates some advantages for carrier strike group defense. For the threat, the left side of the kill chain becomes lengthened as it will be harder to find and track their intended targets. On the other hand if the threat is able to identify the high value unit they could face less resistance as the friendly layered air and missile defense will be reduced in strength. A reduced number of assets concentrated around the high value unit will inherently result in less overall defensive missiles, however technological advances and weapon system upgrades that have already reached initial operational capability, such as the SM-6 and E-2D, can reestablish a layered defense and reduce the number of assets required to defend the carrier strike group. Furthermore, these capabilities increase the defensive effectiveness of individual units spread throughout a distributed force. NIFC-CA is a tool that can be utilized for CSG defense and potentially establish a non-permissive environment for threat aircraft, but it is not the end-all solution. Cross community tactics must be developed to optimize weapons target pairing. Training and work-up cycles need to be significantly more integrated to exercise and reinforce new air and missile defense processes. The capabilities are in place (or will be soon) to defend a high value unit in a dispersed fleet; CVW aircrew and Surface Warfare Officers must remain flexible and innovative to most effectively employ the new capabilities available to them.

IMG_1747
An E-2d from VAW-125 launches off of the aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Photo taken Ben Hayashi (US Navy).

Conclusion

The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is uniquely equipped and positioned to facilitate the deception of dispersed forces, the targeting of the adversary and ultimately, the destruction of designated targets. This assistance and support can enable the surface force to indeed perform better with a more lethal positioning of forces distributed across the battlespace. The development of distributed lethality will include identifying current gaps in training and capability that can make our force more lethal. As we as a Naval force continue to develop innovative ways to counter adversaries, we would be wise to develop cross-domain warfighting tactics and increase the interoperability of our forces.   

LCDR Christopher Moran and LT Ryan Heilmann were both assigned to VAW-125, the first operational E-2D Advanced Hawkeye squadron. Their views do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency. 

Donate to CIMSEC!

[i] Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, ‘Distributed Lethality’, Proceedings Magazine – January 2015, vol. 141/1/1.343.

[ii] Kelly, Ryan. Distributed Lethality Task Force Launches CIMSEC Topic Week, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) website, 1 February 2016.  http://cimsec.org/21579-2/21579

[iii] Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, ‘Distributed Lethality: An Update’, CIMSEC website, 12 March 2015, http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-an-update/15484

[iv] Filipoff, Dmitry, ‘Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War’, CIMSEC website, 4 January, 2016, http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831

Four Carrier Crises, but yet No Funeral for the Large Flattop

By Steven Wills

The arguments deployed in the latest debate over the aircraft carrier’s place in the U.S. Navy’s force structure have a familiar ring. That is perhaps because they have been very similar criticisms in every carrier debate going back to the 1920’s. While every weapon system undergoes re-evaluation and criticism over its service life, the large aircraft carrier has been the subject of four significant debates in the 20th and 21st century. Each has involved questions of the large carrier’s cost relative to the capability it delivers; the range of the carrier’s embarked air wing; and the vulnerability of the carrier itself to threats. In each case, the carrier and its embarked air wing have proved reliable, cost effective ordnance delivery systems in comparison with other naval weapon systems. The carrier’s air wing has at times been deficient in range and/or combat capability, but has upgraded to meet threats. The carrier has always been a very vulnerable type of warship due to the nature of its mission. Decision-makers have repeatedly accepted this vulnerability as an acceptable price for the capabilities the large deck flattop delivers. The present carrier debate has all of these same components, and while not all solutions to the present round of carrier criticisms are not in place, they are in sight and can be achieved. The aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the principal capital ship of the world’s navies because, “It was far more capable than the battleship of inflicting damage on the enemy.”[1] Some other naval weapon system will eventually replace the aircraft carrier, but that platform and payload combination has yet to manifest its presence on, above or beneath the world’s oceans.

Donate to CIMSEC!

The first U.S. carrier controversy dates to the decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s when the carrier first entered the world’s navies in its present recognizable form and in numbers beyond mere experiment. The main concern was that the carrier’s air wing was too weak and short-ranged to prevent an attack by a powerful surface force. A force of battleships and cruisers might travel a distance longer than the range of the carrier’s aircraft under the cover of darkness when carrier aircraft could not then operate.

There were also concerns that the first two significant carriers, USS Lexington (CV 2), and USS Saratoga (CV 3), were too large, too expensive (at $45 million dollars a unit without aircraft), and placed too much of the fleet’s air strength in too few platforms. The concept of a hybrid “flying deck cruiser” with cruiser size guns and an airwing optimized for scouting was proposed as an augment to the carrier fleet to counter these concerns.[2]

CV-2 Lexington and CV-3 Saratoga.
CV-2 Lexington and CV-3 Saratoga.

These concerns, however, evaporated with technological advances. The range of carrier aircraft increased over the 1930’s and that change eliminated the threat from surface forces approaching in hours of darkness. New U.S. carriers of the Yorktown class were much less expensive at $19 million a copy, but still supported air wings in size and capability approaching the larger, previous Lexington class. House Naval Affairs Committee Chairman Carl Vinson confirmed the carrier as the fleet’s new capital ship even before Pearl Harbor in the signing statement of the $8.5 billion dollar Two Ocean Navy Act of July 1940. He stated, “The modern development of aircraft has demonstrated conclusively that the backbone of the Navy today is the aircraft carrier. The carrier, with destroyers, cruisers and submarines grouped around it is the spearhead of all modern naval task forces.”[3]

The second carrier controversy began in the immediate aftermath of the carrier’s greatest triumph. The end of the Second World War and with it the navies of the fascist powers caused many to question the need for carrier aviation in what appeared to be a new age of predominately atomic warfare. Notable Army Air Corps (now Air Force) and Army officers dismissed the aircraft carrier as unnecessary in an age of intercontinental aircraft like the B-36 bomber. Army Chief of Staff General Omar Bradley dismissed the “super” (large) carrier as the Navy’s tool to employ long-range bombers, a role already covered by the Air Force.[4] Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg said the carrier was of “low military value” and that “land based air power was of far greater military usefulness.”[5] Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, with the strong support of President Harry Truman, cancelled the first postwar “supercarrier” in May 1949 based largely on these Army and Air Force opinions. Attempts by Navy Department civilians to discredit the B-36 before Congressional hearings further damaged the Navy’s case for the aircraft carrier in the emerging Cold War.

The carrier survived its second controversy thanks to the Korean War.  The conflict on the Korean peninsula demanded close air support for ground troops desperately in need of firepower to drive back larger North Korean formations. This was a mission that the Air Force had generally ignored and allowed to degrade in the aftermath of World War 2. The Navy was used to providing air support to Marine units from aircraft carriers and quickly demonstrated its ability to step up for post-World War 2 “small wars.” Naval strikes from carriers were crucial in repelling the initial North Korean attack and carrier-based Navy and Marine Corps aviators eventually flew 41% of all air combat missions in the Korean War.[6] The carrier would go on to similar strike missions in the Vietnam War and in other U.S. power projection efforts. Even President Truman came around to the carrier’s combat potential and endorsed the Forrestal class super carriers with the first commissioning in 1954.[7]

A drawing of CVA 58 the proposed USS United States which was later cancelled.
A depiction of the proposed CVA 58, USS United States, which was later cancelled.

The most recent carrier controversy had its roots in post-Vietnam war budget cuts and a misunderstanding of the operational design for the emerging Soviet Navy of the early 1970’s. The projected $2 billion dollar price tag of the fifth nuclear-powered carrier (the eventual USS Theodore Roosevelt) made the Carter administration reluctant to authorize such an expensive vessel.[8] The Congressional Budget Office produced documents suggesting that the carrier was not “survivable” in a modern battle, which further suggested that a $2 billion dollar price tag for a failed weapon system was the wrong choice.[9] Finally, NATO advocates in the Carter administration such as Robert Komer wanted the U.S. for focus the bulk of its defense expenditures on the defense of the Fulda gap against the possibility of Soviet invasion. The Navy’s chief task in this mission was sea control and protection of the vital supply lines between North America and Europe. Komer believed large carrier battle groups were unneeded for this mission and the large outlays required for their construction were better spent on land warfare equipment.[10] Some former officers including former USS Nimitz commander Admiral Eugene Carroll, and CIA director and naval strategist Admiral Stansfield Turner joined the chorus of carrier doubters. Politicians such as Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who in his book America Can Win and in other writings proclaimed, “like the battleship the carrier replaced, its magnificence cannot nullify basic changes in the nature of war at sea.”

Ironically, this carrier controversy disappeared more rapidly than the previous two. Significant analysis from disparate sources appeared in defense of the large flattop and its capabilities. Future Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Carlisle Trost in conjunction with the CNA Corporation produced the 1978 Sea Based Air Platform Study at the behest of Congressional Committees, “at loggerheads over whether the next carrier would have a nuclear or conventional power plant.”[11] Large nuclear and  smaller conventional carriers designed to operate vertical take off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft were studied. While all three types of carrier had positive attributes identified by the study, the 30 year life cycle cost of the nuclear carrier was only slightly more than that of its conventional equal. Both carried significantly more aircraft than the smaller VSTOL ship. Based on this, according to naval tactics expert (then executive assistant to Under Secretary of the Navy James Woolsey), Captain Wayne Hughes, “With total ownership costs so close, it was reasonable to let the Navy’s preference be decisive. The next year Congress authorized a CVN!”[12]

sea control ship
The proposed Sea Control Ship (SCS) which was later cancelled.

John Lehman’s 1978 Aircraft Carriers, The Real Choices came to similar conclusions. Lehman examined seven basic points concerning sea-based aviation including: (1) what should sea-based aviation do?; (2) what can land-based air do better?; (3) how vulnerable are carriers?; (4) how many carriers are needed and what do they cost?; (5) how essential is nuclear propulsion for carriers?; (6) what are the practical options for size of future carriers?; and (7) how will VSTOL technologies affect future air power at sea? [13] Lehman found that sea-based aviation was a useful companion to its land based equivalent in that carrier aviation allowed the US greater geographic freedom to strike targets out of range of land-based air. Larger carriers were less vulnerable (historically) than their smaller cousins. The examples of large carriers surviving significant accidents (USS Forrestal and USS Enterprise) was important to this determination. Enterprise survived the equivalent of six Soviet SSN-3 cruise missile hits but resumed flight operations several hours later.[14]

Lehman was also an analyst who contributed to the Sea Plan 2000 analysis that first recommended 15 aircraft carriers as the minimum number needed by the US for both peacetime presence and minimal wartime operations against the Soviet Union. His suggestion for carrier strength of 13-17 carriers as the right number was in keeping with the general Navy assumptions of the time. Lehman, like the analysts who completed the Sea-Based Air Platform study found that nuclear carrier costs over the lifespan of the ship were within 2.5% to 3% those of a large conventional carrier and worth the Navy’s investment.[15] Lehman’s analysis determined a number of significant problems associated with small carriers. Accident rates were significant in smaller ships. Over a 10 year period the smaller Midway class carrier suffered 10% greater flight deck accidents than did the larger flattops.[16] Larger carriers with 4 catapults could also put more aircraft in the air at a faster rate; a capability crucial to defense of the flattop against surprise air attack. Lehman also suggested that VSTOL aircraft held little promise of further advance and while many could be carried on a smaller aircraft carrier, their utility in high end warfare was limited.

Finally, naval intelligence efforts in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s determined that the Soviet Navy likely had no plans to significantly interdict NATO convoys to Europe in the event of a major war. U.S. taps on Soviet naval communications pods revealed that the Soviets most important fleet mission was defense of their ballistic missile submarines based in “bastions” within the Barents Sea. This intelligence confirmed what analysts like Robert Herrick and CNA’s James McConnell had said throughout the 1970’s; that the Soviet’s had a generally defensive naval strategy.[17] This revelation gave further support to the idea that an offensive naval strategy was the best choice for naval conflict with the USSR. An offensive war concept was better suited to large carrier operations than the small flattops conceived to fight antisubmarine and anti-surface battles in defense of NATO resupply convoys. Together the analysis and intelligence work of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s effectively ended the third carrier crisis of the 20th century.

USS Harry Truman.
USS Harry Truman.

The present carrier “crisis” contains many elements of these past examples. As in the 1920’s, the current carrier air wing is too small and lacks the range necessary to effectively strike opponents without facing a significant response. Many assumptions in the wake of the First Gulf War of 1991 suggested that future conflicts would be joint and combined air/ground task force operations against rouge states and non-state actors around the Eurasian littoral. Land-based air support would always be nearby and plentiful. These assumptions, however, should be discarded in a new age where peer competitors and non-state actors exist side by side and carrier-based aviation may be the only component in the air component commander’s arsenal.

The budget is again tight as it was after the Second World War and in the late 1970’s. The nation cannot sustain another military buildup funded on debt and no miracle growth in the economy appears certain on the horizon. The other services will fight with equal vigor to keep their own assets and popular social spending programs are hard to curtail, let alone eliminate. The Navy will need creative ways to get more out of the carriers it has. The carrier force must be re-balanced with some regions getting more than others dependent on the availability of land-based aviation. Some carriers could be placed in reserve status in order to ensure that those that remain are fully capable of high-end warfare against peer competitors.

The range and strike capability of current carrier-based aircraft is substantially diminished in comparison with its late Cold War incarnation. Today’s carrier air wing boasts 62 aircraft as compared with the 80-90 aircraft wing of the Cold War.[18] The carrier air wing will need to be increased with longer range, manned or unmanned aircraft to return it to the capability of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s.

Despite these problems, no one weapon system appears poised to relieve the carrier as the primary U.S. naval offensive component. A mass of missile-shooting ships and submarines is required to achieve the same level of consistent ordnance delivery provided by a large carrier. Surface ship missile shooters may be affected by adverse weather conditions. An increase in the percentage of U.S. strike capability concentrated in submarines could result in equally rapid opponent advances in antisubmarine warfare. It is very difficult to retain technological advantages given the global diffusion of knowledge enabled by the information age. Future naval victories are more likely to depend on superior operational and tactical employment of existing platforms and payloads rather than technological superiority.

The carrier remains a flexible, re-configurable platform with significant potential going into the 21st century. The U.S. may have to reduce the overall number of large carriers it actively employs and tailor that presence to specific geographic areas where carrier-based airpower is an advantage. There has not yet been an active demonstration of a superior strike platform/system as there was in the war games of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The large U.S. aircraft carrier will likely survive this fourth challenge to its place atop the naval hierarchy, but it must increase the range and capability of its attendant air wing to achieve this goal.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

Donate to CIMSEC!

[1] David K. Brown, Nelson to Vanguard, Warship Design and Development, 1923-1945, Annapolis, Md, Naval Institute Press, 2000, p. 39.

[2] John Kuehn, Agents of Innovation, The General Board and the Design of the Fleet that Defeated the Japanese Navy, Annapolis, Md, The Naval Institute Press, 2008, pp. 102, 103.

[3] 8 1/2 BILLION IS VOTED FOR 1,500 WARSHIPS; House Passes Bill for Great Carrier Force and Escorts, With Battleships Left Out, New York Times, June 18, 1942. 

[4] Jeffrey Barlow, From Hot War to Cold, The U.S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945-1954, Standford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2009, p. 212.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Seapower, Stanford, CA, Stanford University press, 1994, p. 328.

[7] Paul B. Ryan, First Line of Defense, The U.S. Navy Since 1945, Stanford, CA, The Hoover Institute Press, 1981, p. 14.

[8] Ryan, p. 104.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, The U.S. Sea Control Mission: Forces, Capabilities, and Requirements, June 1977. 

[10] Frank Leith Jones, Blowtorch, Robert Komer, Vietnam and American Cold War Strategy, Annapolis, Md, Naval Institute Press, 2013, pp. 251, 252.

[11] Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., (2002) Navy Operations Research. Operations Research. p. 7.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John F. Lehman, Aircraft Carriers, The Real Choices, Washington D.C., Center for International and Strategic Studies, Georgetown University, 1978, p. 11.

[14] Ibid, p. 41.

[15] Ibid, p. 52.

[16] Ibid, p. 57.

[17] Christopher Ford and David Rosenberg, The Admiral’s Advantage, U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War 2 and the Cold War, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 2005, p. 79.

[18] Jerry Hendrix. “The Future of the Aircraft Carrier looks Dim,” War on the Rocks, October 21, 2015. 

Naval Aviation Week: The Conclusion

By Wick Hobson

As a man who as spent entirely too much time flying in the immediate vicinity of the colloquial Death Star (and by that, I mean the aircraft carrier) over the last year, I know firsthand how forgone a conclusion naval aviation can seem. Naval aviation, as the world knows it, is a multibillion dollar power projection leviathan that literally catapults fire control solutions from mobile sovereign territory to the bad guys du jour, right? Kick the tires, light the fires, open and shut case… Or is it? From future capabilities to current funding limitations, reality is inescapably more complex.

While GCC allies transition toward hegemonic peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and posture their forces for a long term dichotomy with Iran, you can almost feel the deck of American air power at sea roll beneath your feet in new directions. Every day, the emphasis shifts incrementally away from permissive, asymmetric conflict in the Arabian Gulf and toward modern, access-denied conflict with technologically contemporary rivals. Although Operation Inherent Resolve may retain focus on surgical strikes flown overhead, our authors looked ahead to the next generation of challenges awaiting the proverbial fleet.

Speaking of ISR, how did an article summarizing the future of naval aviation go four full paragraphs without mentioning drones? Ben Ho Wan Beng arrived in time to keep my bitterness against unmanned aviation in check with a fantastic look at the rise of UAS proliferation among littoral states seeking bang for their maritime buck in his piece, “What’s the Buzz: Ship-Based Unmanned Aviation & Its Influence on Littoral Navies.”

Jon Paris gave us a taste of the war none of us want to fight in his article, “Parallax and Bullseye Buoys.” An edge-of-your-seat thriller, Jon straps you into the cockpit for an IMC, EMCON recovery onboard a lights-out carrier in hostile skies. I don’t want to live in that world, and fortunately we aren’t in that kind of extremis yet, but Jon prepares the reader. He articulated the complexities of navigating in GPS-denied airspace and the necessity of electromagnetic spectrum fluency for the modern A2/AD environment, an issue recently addressed by CAPT Mark Glover at C4ISR.

Meanwhile, what good is a debate on the direction of military planning without a healthy dose of fiscal reality? Bridging the well funded past to the unaffordable future, Timothy Walton gave us a sneak peek from next month’s report due from The Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. He reviewed the shrinking scale of the carrier air wing by the numbers and illustrated unmistakable mission gaps created along the way. From the salad days of the Tomcats to the uncertain future of the Joint Strike Fighter, Mr. Walton illuminated the reduced footprint of the current air wing and possible ramifications facing the CSG of the future in “The Evolution of the Modern Carrier Air Wing.”

CDR Gregory Smith broadened the topic of integrated manned and unmanned operations with his article, “Trusting Autonomous Systems: It’s More Than Technology.” Beyond the short-term friction of terrified Djiboutian air traffic controllers, CDR Smith illustrated the essential progress required to instill the confidence required for fully integrated manned and unmanned combat operations. From C2 structures in flight to command structures in the Pentagon, the ground truth on drone warfare at sea has yet to reach IOC by any definition. CDR Smith’s article provided clear context for the way ahead.

Michael Glynn delivered the cold, hard truth on data collection efforts in Naval Aviation: if a P-8A Poseidon collects 900GB of data on a sortie with no client for the information, does it validate its R&D costs? His article, “Information Management and the Future of Naval Aviation,” provided a resounding YES while detailing the challenges facing efficient data extraction from maritime ISR operations.

Peter Marino adds international affairs into the mix by assessing the scope and implications of American technology transfer to India for the development of a powerful new carrier. Through a video review of “Making Waves: Aiding India’s Next Generation Aircraft Carrier,” he explores the unique value of naval aviation in foreign policy. 

Our selections here delve into the challenges that lay ahead. I find the common thread unifying all of our authors to be the pursuit of value to the proverbial customer in an environment defined by change. What is it, exactly, that we are creating with all of this jet fuel?

The delivery of value to the stakeholder is incumbent on any military initiative from weapons safe to weapons free. On the one hand, that means providing maritime security and intelligence collection in the absence of conflict. Our authors speak from ground truth experience on the importance of developing and maintaining a cogent strategy for the proliferation of ISR and the subsequent decoding of the data collected.

On the other hand, delivering to the stakeholder requires a conscientious investment in fire control solutions against technologically advanced adversaries in denied airspace. There is no future without U-CLASS and there is no future without the JSF. These have to be integrated into the future of naval combat at least in the intermediate term. But what good is a fire control solution without C2 assurance? Are we ready for a GPS-denied environment? What will it take for tomorrow’s navy to compete in the conflicts of the future?

Ultimately, the sting of sequestration and the pain of acquisitions make the road ahead formidable. The hardest question to answer may be the most simple. What ends are we attempting to achieve by the means of naval aviation? Once our days of busting bunkers in the Middle East with precision guided munitions no longer carry the bulk of our workload, how do we leverage the unique capabilities of naval aviation across the entire spectrum of the rules of engagement to provide value to the theater commander?

It’s an exciting time to be a part of naval aviation. With such seismic shifts in sensor capabilities, adversary technological acumen, and A2/AD threat proliferation cast against cutthroat funding and acquisitions, this is not a sport for the faint of heart. Vision, flexibility, and creativity will define the success or failure of our transition to the next war we fight. Please join me in congratulating our authors on a job well done for their contribution to the next step, and feel free to join the discussion with your own feedback at nextwar@cimsec.org!

LT W. W. Hobson is an MH-60R pilot. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and are not endorsed by the US Navy.