A variety of factors, including the long range capabilities of modern artillery, the evolution of drones and missiles, together with the need for stand-off and distributed lethality, have combined to make space in the world’s navies for a great comeback of helicopter cruisers.
Cold War Cruiser Redux
In the mid-part of the Cold War, helicopter cruisers became a quite popular ship design. This trend was less noticeable in the US Navy, which concentrated on full-size carriers during that period, but a few other navies decided to operate such naval vessels. In the 1960’s, the French Navy commissioned the Jeanne d’Arc, the Italian Navy – Andrea Doria, Caio Duilio and Vittorio Veneto, and the Soviet Navy – Moskva and Leningrad. All of these ships were either heavily armed or could easily increase their armament, while also providing relatively large flight decks and hangars. The helicopter cruisers responded to the increasing threat and role of submarines in naval warfare. The air wings on each ship class consisted of four or more ASW helicopters.
The most representative among these designs is the Moskva class helicopter cruiser. Although 12 hulls were originally planned, only two vessels were built. The Moskva class had a length of 189 meters (620 feet) and 19,200 tons full displacement – a bit smaller than a San Antonio-class amphibious warfare ship. The aft hangar and flight deck of the ASW cruiser was designed to carry 18 medium helicopters, such as the Kamov Ka 25 Hormone; its bow and midship section included 2 medium caliber (57mm) guns and 3 missiles launchers for 48 anti-aircraft and 24 anti-submarine missiles.
The helicopter cruisers quickly assumed roles beyond ASW, even as improvements in ship-mounted sonar and the need to operate fixed-wing aircraft curtailed further development of ASW cruisers. Successors of the ships mentioned above were mostly full-length flight deck vessels.
Today, as full-size aircraft carriers are increasingly vulnerable due to long-range and land based anti-ship missiles, the Moskva class design could emerge from the shadow of history. A ship design inspired by this cruiser would have both enough space for stand-off weapons and for an air wing composed of vertical lift drones and helicopters. The promise of greater range artillery, such as high velocity projectile (HVP) ammunition for existing 5” naval guns, could redefine the role of artillery in war at sea. These developments would allow a couple of 5” Mk45 guns to replace standard range anti-ship missiles (like Harpoon or NSM) and to complement anti-aircraft missiles in local defense. In the near future, long range anti-ship missiles will assume the strike and attack roles long held by fixed-wing manned naval aircraft. A design inspired by the Moskva-class could be equipped with 96 VLS cells – or more – that would allow for carrying a mix of at least 32 long range anti-ship missiles and various air defense missiles.
Naturally, the key point of choosing a helicopter carrier is to use helicopters. This proposed solution concentrates on replacing the platform’s original ASW helicopters with a mix of manned airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) heavy helicopters and vertical lift reconnaissance UAVs.
The hangar space would probably need to be divided between a flight deck level hangar for the larger, heavier helicopters and a lower hangar for smaller drones. This arrangement might limit the AEW&C helicopters to only four, but this would nevertheless equal the number of E2D Hawkeyes frequently embarked on a full-size aircraft carrier. Moreover, one should not forget the potential for tiltrotor manned aircraft for AEW&C missions, which would effect better range and operational time than helicopters. Projects like DARPA’s Tern promise compact reconnaissance UAVs that have the range of a fixed-wing UAV but can still take off and land like a helicopter.
The vessel’s strong armament and the vertical lift air wing would make it a self-dependent unit, harkening back to the reconnaissance-strike roots of early carrier-based aircraft. In this context, a vessel inspired by the Moskva-class helicopter carrier and upgraded with stealth lines seems to be a ready solution for distributed lethality and stand-off tactics.
A wartime task group would include two of the proposed helicopter carriers and at least 3 ASW frigates, which also could provide additional long range anti-ship missiles, extra naval guns, and organic ASW helicopters.
The areas where such task groups would be the most effective include waters of the South-West Pacific Ocean and the triangle of the Norwegian Sea, the Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea. These waters are key zones for global business and security during peacetime while also being characterized by great air- and land-based missile threat during conflict. A potential enemy has high anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities in these areas, which makes traditional air-sea battle tactics too risky. The proposed helicopter cruiser task groups could execute distributed lethality tactics, as they would be less expensive and more numerous than the carrier task groups.
The main aim of the proposed task groups is to create their own sea denial capabilities, in other words, to prevent enemies’ activity in the circle of about 200 nautical mile (Nm) against the air targets and about 500 Nm against the surface targets from the task group. The air wing of the new Moskva-class should be able to provide long-range, over-the-horizon reconnaissance and closer early warning of both surface and air threats.
The AEW&C helicopters carried by the proposed task groups would allow the ships in the task group to turn off their ships’ radars and minimize their electro-magnetic signature. Because of their self-dependence, these ships could easily employ lone wolf tactics, for example sortieing out against enemy task groups. They could also be used for taking control of choke points, or they could prevent enemy forces from landing on allied islands – especially with submarine support.
Many assert that submarines are the right tool to operate near the enemy coast during hostilities – for example, within the first island chain. The problem, however, is that submarines remain vulnerable to enemy ASW forces. Deploying the proposed task group behind own submarines, in a supporting role, would allow the destruction of enemy ASW surface vessels before they could fulfill their mission. Naturally, in more favorable and less threatening circumstances the proposed helicopter cruisers could join a carrier strike group or support forward-deployed Marine Corps operations. Conversely, if full-size carriers are in high demand within a given theater, these vessels could perform presence operations elsewhere.
The new Moskva-class design provokes reflection about the Zumwalt-class destroyer. If we make the Zumwalt-class a bit bigger and a bit less high tech, we will get a vessel that would be very similar to the proposed helicopter carrier but probably much more cost effective and flexible. In the Cold War there was a plan to create a helicopter destroyer (DDH) as a modified Spruance-class destroyer. The DDH was believed not to cost much more to build than a standard Spruance-class destroyer in the condition of series production – as they say, “steel is cheap and air is free.” It is fair to assume that the cost of the helicopter cruiser in relation to a cruiser (or a big destroyer – the difference between these two types is diminishing) could be attractive today as well.
There is also another naval design close to the helicopter cruiser – a landing platform dock (LPD). Most LPDs have enough space and adequate designs for being equipped in AESA radars, missiles, MCGs, helicopters and UAVs. Naturally, a LPD design would need to be adapted for both speed and hull survivability of DDGs. However, it would be very important to remember that the proposed helicopter cruiser is not an arsenal ship. There must exist a balanced quantity of missiles per warship, adequate to the distributed lethality concept. If naval combat requires more missiles, navies should rather look for new concepts of external floating storage rather than concentrating great amounts of scarce and expensive weapons in a single hull – a valuable sitting duck.
After WWII there were very few naval battles and very many non-war naval operations which favored vessels with maximal aircraft capability and a lot of cargo-like space. A helicopter cruiser would have these qualities in far greater measure than typical cruisers and destroyers. The key advantage of the proposed helicopter cruiser is the flight deck, which enables at least two helicopters to take off or land at the same time. It would be easy to replace the AEW&C helicopters with other platforms and cargo, supporting special forces, humanitarian assistance, mine countermeasures, ASW, and many other missions. The history of the Jeanne d’Arc helicopter cruiser proves this flexibility well.
A design evolved from the Moskva-class could provide high AAW and ASuW self-sufficiency as well as it could be a very flexible platform for many additional tasks. The key assumption of this concept is to consider the proposed vessel as an expendable destroyer/cruiser rather than a distributed carrier. This is why the term “sea control ship” has not been mentioned above – it is a sea denial ship. In the face of the great missile threat and unmanned revolution the air sea battle concept needs to evolve and incorporate new solutions. In spite of strong criticism, full size carriers still provide capabilities and inherent flexibility that other warships cannot match. By adding the proposed air wing to a DDG or CG, the US Navy might get an additional class of capital ships that could act in parallel to CVNs – making the whole fleet architecture both less vulnerable and more diversified.
Przemysław Ziemacki is a freelancer journalist and photographer from Poland. He currently writes for Polityka, one of the largest Polish weeklies. He previously worked for the local press and has also published in National Geographic Poland. He has a long-standing avocational interest in naval matters; this article is his first foreign publication on the subject.
Feature photo: A port beam view of the Soviet Moskva-class helicopter cruiser Leningrad underway. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.
USS Houston (CL 81), in a hard turn with her underside exposed, felt the torpedo explosion across the ship. Commander William Behrens recalled “that all propulsive power and steering control was immediately lost. The ship took a list to starboard of 16 degrees. All main electrical power was immediately lost.” The tactical situation was still perilous, and with Houston “rolling sluggishly in the trough of the sea… her main deck [dipping] under at frequent intervals,” Behrens ordered Houstonabandoned, save key personnel and damage control parties. USS Boston (CA 69) took Houston under tow for the next 43 hours, until another Japanese torpedo hit Houston again on the starboard side. Most of the preceding shoring and dewatering efforts were undone and Houston risked foundering again. Over the next two weeks, the crew, assisted by the fleet tugs USS Pawnee (ATF 74), USS Zuni (ATF 95), and other ships managed to limp more than 1200 miles to Ulithi.
That Houston, and many other ships during World War II, survived such attacks and returned home was due in part to the heroics of the crew, but equally to the unsung heroes of Service Squadron Ten, who allowed the Navy to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations continuously for almost two years without returning to port. Service Squadron Ten kept the fleet supplied, fed, fueled, repaired, and happy during that time. The ability to generate combat power so continuously for half the war was a decisive advantage for the United States in the Pacific.
The Service Squadrons played a pivotal role in sustaining the Fleet as it fought across the Central Pacific. It is a largely unknown history, but one worth relearning with the reemerging possibility of war between major powers. That experience highlights the need to make forward deployed logistics and repair capabilities both robust and mobile to better support the Fleet. Battle fatigued sailors and battle damaged ships simply cannot afford the five thousand mile journey from the South China Sea to Pearl Harbor. Nor can they count on facilities in East Asia for support, just as their predecessors realized during the interwar period when developing War Plan Orange on the game floors of the Naval War College in the development of War Plan Orange.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday mandatedin FRAGO [fragmentary order] 01/2019 that the Navy and Marine Corps must make naval logistics more agile and resilient to support distributed maritime operations, generate greater readiness, and support the increasing numbers of unmanned systems that will enter the Fleet in this decade. The Navy should take a page from Admiral Nimitz’s playbook and re-establish the Service Squadrons with aircraft carriers as their core. Combined with the other assets, modern Service Squadrons would enable distributed maritime operations, expeditionary advanced base operations for the Marine Corps, and accelerate the deployment of unmanned systems. The history of Service Squadron Ten affords the opportunity to replicate the magic of the Central Pacific campaign in the modern era.
The Great Western Base
Strategic thought at the turn of the 20th century required the Navy to accomplish one of two objectives: to gain, in peacetime, a strongly fortified base in the Western Pacific or to rapidly establish a major alternative land base in the Western Pacific early in the war. Most timetables required seizure of islands within months after the outbreak of hostilities.
By the early 1920s, war games and diplomatic failures to secure the “Great Western Base” in the Philippines had forced even the most conservative admirals to reconsider these core tenets of naval doctrine and start innovating around them. The Navy began developing larger colliers, auxiliaries to service ships at sea, fleet oilers, floating drydocks, and more. By 1923, the need for mobile basing had become sufficiently accepted that it became an appendix in War Plan Orange. These advances paved the way for the Navy to unhesitatingly reject Great Britain’s request in 1941 that the U.S. take over one of the finest bases in the Western Pacific: Singapore.1 The doctrine of fixed bases had completely given way to strategic mobility.
During the interwar period, admirals and planners shifted to a mobile strategy when the basing problems in the War Plan Orange games proved so intractable and unsatisfying to the objectives for the drive across the Central Pacific. These revelations must have been unnerving, “yet they were steps along the path to a formula for victory because planners learned from their frustration to distinguish viable programs from evanescent dreams.”2 A career of preparation, for all the officers involved, allowed them to rapidly adapt to the conditions on the ground and effectively establish the concept of operations for Service Squadron Ten.
American bases in the Western Pacific today—Japan, Guam, Okinawa, Korea, and Singapore—provide vital operational command, logistics, and repair services for U.S. and allied navies, but will be untenable in wartime based on the reach of Chinese weapons. The U.S. military must prepare to fight the war from a sustained position at sea. Hawaii is too far removed from the theater to effectively exercise command and control (C2) in the digital age, with contested electromagnetic, cyber, and information domains, or efficiently sustain forward-deployed combat operations. It is fitting that during World War II, most fleet commanders exercised their authority primarily from the repair ships—USS Argonne (AS 10) being a favorite.
Current U.S. naval doctrine holds fast to carrier warfare, the supremacy of US technology, and the rapid victories that naturally follow. Assurances that American strike groups could operate with impunity in the South China Sea must be rebuked, and the Fleet, from its commanders down to the deckplates, must be re-trained to fight truly from the sea. The Navy must seek to permanently shift operational C2 arrangements down to aircraft carriers or Zumwalt-class destroyers. Aircraft carriers already provide many of the C2 spaces that a fleet commander would need to prosecute the war and offensive capabilities to protect the mobile service squadron.
If We’ve Got it, You Can Have it
In September 1943, Admiral Nimitz ordered two service squadrons established to provide for fleet logistics and repair in preparation for the drive across the Central Pacific. After a bloody battle on Tarawa in November 1943, Service Squadron Ten moved forward to Funafuti to establish a fleet anchorage there. Several hundred miles closer than the United States’ western most base at the time, Espirtu Santo in Vanuatu, Funafuti provided a closer location to attend to the fleet and provide for repairs should the Japanese Navy decide to offer battle near the Gilbert Island chain.
Admiral Nimitz gave Service Squadron Ten the responsibility to “furnish logistic support, including general stores, provisions, fuel, ammunition, maintenance, repair, salvage, and such other services as necessity may dictate in the support of an advanced major fleet anchorage in the Central Pacific Area.”3 The squadron would fall under operational control of Admiral Spruance, now in overall command of naval forces driving across the Central Pacific, and service anything that floated, along with Marine Corps and Army units to the maximum extent possible, in keeping with their motto: “If we’ve got it, you can have it.”4
Admiral Spruance began his bombardment of Kwajalien and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands, operating from the anchorage provided by Service Squadron Ten at Funafuti. The aerial bombardment lasted two months, and Service Squadron Ten’s reputation built by the day. The sailors of Service Squadron Ten often worked around the clock, despite being undermanned, to get the Fleet back to sea. A listing of various messages to the squadron shows the daily breadth of work that they did:
REQUEST BOILER REPAIRS X
WHERE CAN WE OBTAIN FIVE HUNDRED POUNDS GROUND COFFEE X
REQUEST CRANE BARGE REMOVE BULWARKS X
EMERGENCY TRANSFER OF FROZEN MEAT WHICH WILL SPOIL IF NOT MOVED X
WE NEED PROVISIONS X WATER X FUEL X REPAIRS X5
There were certainly shortages of food, fresh water, ammunition, supplies, and even fuel at times, but the squadron distributed what they had equitably to all the units.
By January 1944, Admiral Spruance realized the value that Service Squadron Ten provided, and insisted on a major change to the upcoming Operation Flintlock to take the Marshall Islands: the Marine Corps needed to first seize Majuro, the easternmost island in the Marshalls, to establish a forward fleet anchorage before executing the landings at Kwajalein and Eniwetok.6 Doing so would allow the Squadron to service the carriers so that they would not have to withdraw out of range to replenish, thereby leaving the Marines to face the Japanese airfields on the other islands alone.7 Admiral Nimitz and the Chiefs of Staff in Washington immediately approved the plan, and the result was significantly higher combat readiness and operational tempo for the Fleet.
After Flintlock, the Fleet remained at sea for the duration of the war, with Service Squadron Ten supporting it. At the Squadron’s commissioning on 15 January 1944, the squadron consisted of thirteen ships, from an original request of 100, consisting of tenders, tugs, repair ships, survey vessels, and barges. By the end of the war, Service Squadron Ten had grown to more than 600 ships, and the entire Service Force consisted of 2,930 ships and more than 500,000 sailors and officers—a third more than the entire active duty navy today.8
Repairing the Fleet
It took years during the interwar period for the various Navy Bureaus and shipyards to believe that a repair ship or tender could provide any service of consequence beyond minor repairs.9 Actual combat and sailor ingenuity proved otherwise. In December, 1942, the predecessor to Service Squadron Ten fitted USS New Orleans (CA 32) with a temporary bow made of coconut logs after her bow was blown off at the Battle of Tassafaronga, enabling her to make the transit, stern first, to Sydney, Australia for further repairs.
Naval battles mean hurt ships and sailors. “Ships had their bows blown off, their sterns blasted away, huge holes torn in their hulls by torpedoes whose explosions created a chaos that had to be seen at the time to be fully realized.”10The closer the help, the better off the ship and crew were—the Houston never would have made it to Pearl Harbor, nor would hundreds of other ships and their crews no matter how heroic their efforts. Service Squadron Ten enabled the Fleet to keep the Japanese from realizing operational gains from damaging U.S. ships.
For Service Squadron Ten, floating drydocks, repair ships, tenders, crane barges, and a myriad of other assets allowed them to make major repairs to battle damaged ships. Service Squadron Ten made similar repairs throughout the war, and floating drydocks were critical in restoring ships to seaworthy and operative conditions. Their drydocks could easily dock an aircraft carrier or battleship. In February 1945, for example, the repair work of the squadron “varied from such big jobs as rebuilding 60 feet of flight deck on the carrier Randolph in 18 days and new bows on blasted ships, to replacing guns and electrical equipment. In that month 52 vessels were repaired in floating drydocks.”11 The pace of repair operations even began to cause problems back home: “The amount of repairs and the hours worked would have caused peacetime navy yards to throw up their hands in despair. As a matter of fact it was reported that one wartime yard complained that Service Squadron Ten was taking away its work.”12
Becoming Truly Expeditionary
From late 1943 on, the Fleet remained at sea conducting prompt and sustained combat operations. The planning for the campaign required the Navy to consider more than just keeping the Fleet supplied with food, fuel, and ammunition. Ships needed deep maintenance that could not be deferred, Marine companies needed replacements, carriers needed replacement planes and pilots, and sailors needed to rotate back to the States—all without the Fleet returning to Pearl Harbor. How did they do it?
Service Squadron Ten had carried the theme of mobile basing beyond its original conclusions: the Squadron was the Great Western Base. The myriad of repair ships, tenders, oilers, concrete barges, tugs, and other small boats rendered extensive land bases unnecessary. The Squadron simply moved with the Fleet, recalling the remnants of its rearmost bases forward. Escort carriers, usually remembered today for their heroic stand off Samar Island in October 1944 or hunting U-boats in the Atlantic, provided many of the third-order services that the Fleet needed to maintain sustained operations. A few weeks in the life of USS Copahee (CVE 12), is representative:
“On 17 April, 2 months before D-day for the Marianas, the Copaheeleft Pearl with 86 aircraft, 390 passengers, and 196 cases of equipment. On the 23d she unloaded her planes at the Majuro air station for further transfer to the fleet, or for use as combat air patrols. Reloading, she took aboard 23 damaged planes, 2 aircraft engines, and 312 passengers, leaving on the 26th for Pearl. Back at Majuro again 12 May, she unloaded 58 planes, 20 of which she catapulted, and 7 cases of airplane parts. The next day she was underway once more for Pearl…”13
The escort carriers played a vital role in keeping the Fleet supplied with ready combat power. While the Fleet had been refueling at sea for some time now, replenishment by aircraft carrier was entirely new, and perfected by Service Squadron Ten and the Service Force later in the war.
21st Century Service Squadrons
Today’s fleet train will be woefully inadequate in wartime. Two aging submarine tenders, both at risk in Guam, a few floating drydocks, two hospital ships, and the small combat logistics force are all that is available to service a battle force of nearly 300 ships. With most maintenance done ashore in contractor facilities, sailors have lost the ability to conduct the deep maintenance and repair that their predecessors did as a matter of course.
The Navy has started to procure new auxiliaries, but the penchant for making a ship a jack-of-all-trades has driven the Common Hull Auxiliary Multimission Platform to a price tag of more than $1.3 billion per ship. The Office of Management and Budget sent the Navy back to the drawing board. Ships take a long time to procure. The Navy would do well to buy more floating drydocks and a flight of the new National Security Multimission Vessels, a training platform for merchant marine academies, and integrate them into fleet logistics and repair operations now. With space for a thousand personnel, a helicopter pad, roll on/off capabilities, and container storage, they are flexible platforms that could provide a myriad of services.
The aircraft carrier should form the core of a modern Service Squadron Ten to meet the CNO’s call in FRAGO 01/2019 for more agile and resilient naval logistics. Combat Logistics Forces require significant protection and must remain mobile to allow Navy and Marine Corps forces to conduct expeditionary operations in the Western Pacific. Sustaining distributed, far forward operations requires the Navy and Marine Corps to rethink how they supply , maintain , and repair forces in a true threat environment. Like the escort carriers that enabled logistics in World War II, the aircraft carrier must shift its role from generating strike aircraft to becoming the sustainment and C2 hub needed to run the war. With it, the air wing must change from primarily strike aircraft to mostly CV-22s. This would provide the requisite lift capabilities needed to support distributed operations while allowing for combat aircraft to deploy forward on expeditionary bases ashore or amphibious ships.
The rest of the service squadron forms around the modern misfits: expeditionary staging bases (T-ESBs), staging docks (T-ESDs), expeditionary fast transports (T-EPFs), assorted supply ships, hospital ships, floating drydocks, tenders, and a host of combatants, ranging from littoral combat ships to amphibious ships to cruisers. This arrangement keeps the historical responsibilities of Service Squadron Ten alive by generating greater operational availability for combat forces and giving damaged ships an improved chance at survival. The mix of ships in the service squadron would allow for detachments to:
Establish large scale additive manufacturing capabilities to supply Joint demands for a wide range of requirements
The combinations are limited only by the number of ships on hand. Establishing a rotation of combat forces from combat duty to lighter duty assigned to the service squadron would give crews a much needed respite from arduous combat patrols and to conduct deeper maintenance without having to return to Hawaii or the East Coast.
Change the Operational Narrative
The best innovations in warfare do not result simply from deploying new technology, but from using technology differently than the adversaries expect . The linking of technology with doctrine enables revolutionary advances in how the Navy fights. Given that China has spent two decades optimizing its national forces to counter American carrier strike groups, the U.S. Navy has the opportunity to change the character of that fight in a single stroke by leveraging its history. Service Squadron Ten provided Admiral Nimitz and his commanders with the necessary facilities, capabilities, and logistics, to keep the press on the Japanese through sustained combat operations at sea. As Admiral Carter noted in Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil,
“Daring initiative has been a characteristic of American operations in both strategy and tactics. Our enemies have known the book doctrines as well as we, but they could not throw the book overboard and try something new as freely as we. Thus at times we have had the advantage of projecting moves that they did not anticipate.”14
The Chief of Naval Operations should throw the book overboard today.
Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington D.C. He has served onboard USS Maine (SSBN 741), as Chief Engineer of USS Springfield (SSN 761), and ashore at the CNO Strategic Studies Group XXXIII and OPNAV N97. He holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.
 Edward Miller. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991, pp. 75-76.
 Ibid, p. 62.
 Carter, p. 95.
 Ibid, p. 122.
 Ibid, pp. 221-222.
 Ibid, p. 91.
 E.B. Potter. Nimitz. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976, p. 265-266.
While the United States is not at war with Russia or China, the U.S. is in a persistent “shadow war” below armed conflict across the globe with these strategic adversaries.
Russia and China made the strategic choice to use information as an effective instrument in their effort to create strategic imbalance within great information power competition. Exponential growth in the information environment (IE) – and a convergence of technologies that rapidly distribute information at high-speeds across the planet – leveled the international playing field due to the low opportunity cost of competing in the marketplace of information versus spending on traditional military hardware. Russia and China leverage low barriers to entry of the IE to achieve their objectives by employing tactics that have the potential to influence citizens of all nations, expand societal cracks, and enable achievement of their objectives, if not necessarily the adoption their ideology or values.
“The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness,” said General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces.
Similarly, state-owned, and controlled media in China quells dissident voices through an Orwellian digital dictatorship that includes facial recognition and artificial intelligence while persistently delivering narratives supportive of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“China maneuvers in the information space in a way that undermines everything we do, factually, informationally, everywhere…Throughout the region there is a China daily insert, which is Chinese propaganda appearing in newspapers, over more than half the population of the globe. It’s quite pernicious,” said the Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Philip S. Davidson.
History as a Guidepost
Navy leaders at all levels today intuitively understand they are not operating in the same information environment they served in when they joined.
“The character of modern warfare is changing to a multi-domain battlespace with significant emphasis on space, electronic, information and cyber domains. Consequently, the need to conduct increased and different missions in these domains drives a requirement to increase our associated skills,” said Adm. Michael M. Gilday in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee before his confirmation hearing to become the 32nd Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).
Outside of a command social media page or Type Commander-hosted website, however, most commands employ systems and tactics that fall short of public affairs practices that evolved during IE expansion that combined digitized imagery, video, and graphics with high-speed connectivity. Rather, they compete using turn of the century public affairs (PA) / visual information (VI) manning levels, training, and equipment without codified doctrine and tactics to fight in all phases of war. Recent Navy-wide guidance titled “OPTASK VI,”updated and standardized reporting requirements, but generating 21st century, Information Age, PA requires a more deliberate approach.1
To seize the strategic information initiative, the Navy must invest in PA to compete effectively in an increasingly fast and complex battlefield of information. The time to include PA considerations holistically in the fleet readiness development cycle is now – and the Navy’s expansion of the Vietnam-era TOPGUN model to Warfighting Development Centers (WDC) is the way to do it.
What we now know as Navy PA traces its lineage to two previously separate career fields – PA and VI.2
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox established the Navy’s Office of Public Relations in 1941. The office changed names to the Office of Public Information in 1945, and again to its current name, the Office of Information, in 1950. Rear Adm. William Thompson became the first public affairs specialist to lead the office as the Chief of Information (CHINFO) in 1971.
The birth of the Navy’s VI community resulted from developments in naval aviation and in recognition of a need for photographic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The father of Navy photography is Lt. Walter L. Richardson – a prior-enlisted cook and hobby photographer aboard USS Mississippi (BB 23). Richardson’s imagery caught the eye of Capt. Henry C. Mustin in 1914. Mustin later placed Richardson in a full-time role as the Navy’s first photo officer in recognition of the value of the medium to communicate effectively.
As technology advanced, the Navy increased its VI capacity and capability to address tactical and strategic challenges. In the 1930s, the officer in charge of Battle Force Camera Party –then-Lt. Arleigh Burke– leveraged motion picture technology to record and analyze shipboard weapons systems. During World War II, the Navy Combat Camera program began with the Combat Photography Section of the Office of Public Relations and the establishment of Combat Photographic Units #1 through #13.
Similarly, Academy Award-winning director and future Rear Adm. John Ford’s leadership and filmmaking expertise at Midway and D-Day had lasting domestic and international impact, directly supporting Allied victory through VI delivered from the front lines. In 1951, then-CNO Forrest P. Sherman established Combat Camera Group Pacific to “obtain still and motion picture photography in the Pacific Fleet, for public information, historical record, and intelligence purposes, and specific motion picture training film and stock footage requirements.”3
The PA and VI communities merged in the mid-2000s when the Defense Department required a flag officer from each service to provide oversight to VI. In 2005, CHINFO assumed that responsibility – a logical choice given CHINFO’s role as the Navy’s chief communication officer and the reliance of the PA community on VI products.
One significant impact of the merger was the disestablishment of the photo limited duty officer (LDO) program. The 2009 disestablishment message said that future PAOs would have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to fill the “critical public affairs core capability [VI]” – a tall order for new fleet accessions without years of experience synchronizing VI from surface and air platforms to support communication capability.
Most photo LDOs were career photographer’s mates who earned commissions after spending a career honing the skills to capture, edit, and transmit VI products. They were also experts at creating requirements to maintain and improve the technical communication systems in conjunction with professionals at systems commands.
At approximately the same time as the community merger, the world’s information and data markets exploded. Recognizing the approaching tsunami of information and shifts in the IE, future CHINFO, then-Lt. Cmdr. John Kirby wrote, “Though it will always retain its traditional supporting roles – such as media escorting and internal information – public affairs today boasts new operational relevance as its impact on the conduct of military operations intensifies.” He was not wrong.
From 2000 to 2016, the number of worldwide internet users increased from 413 million to 3.4 billion.According to Pew Research,from 2005 to 2019 the percentage of Americans who use at least one social media site exploded from 5% to 72%. Further, the average American adult user’s use of digital media increased from 2.7 hours per day in 2008 to 6.3 hours per day in 2018. PAOs raced to keep pace with the expanding IE. Even so, the Navy PA community’s overall manning to support institutional engagement in the information environment (active duty enlisted, officer, and civilian) remained steady at around 3,000 from FY02 to date, though end strength dipped to just over 2,000 in FY15.
67 years after the establishment of the Combat Photography Section and Pacific Fleet Combat Camera Group – and one year after the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs codified informationas the seventh Joint Function on par with command-and-control, intelligence, fires, movement-and-maneuver, protection, and sustainment – Fleet Combat Camera units shuttered their doors as a “budget- saving initiative to eliminate billets that do not directly contribute to improving warfighting capability.”
PA ‘Tactical Excellence by Design’
CHINFO is the leader of the Navy’s PA community, which includes the Navy’s VI Program. Like developing Mine Warfare capability across aviation, surface, subsurface, expeditionary, and special warfare communities, a maze of C2, alignment, authorities, and budget submitting offices make proponing Fleet-wide PA force generation difficult. Therefore, to support CHINFO, Fleet Commander, and TYCOM efforts to develop Fleet-wide PA/VI warfighting capability, PAOs and mass communication specialists should serve at each of the Navy’s five WDCs to develop PA warfighting capability and align tactics across the readiness generation cycle with the Afloat Training Groups in the basic phase of training, and Carrier Strike Groups 4 and 15 in the integrated phase.
In 2014, almost fifty-years after then-CNO Adm. Thomas H. Moorer ordered the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review and its resulting Ault Report led to the establishment of TOPGUN, the Navy expanded the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) model, where TOPGUN now resides, across all major warfighting communities. WDCs in aviation, surface, undersea, information, and expeditionary warfare directly support Type Commander (TYCOM) readiness generation – the Fleet leads for man, train, and equip functions – by sharpening the Navy’s warfighting edge. The WDCs also maintain the Navy’s doctrine and tactics library through Navy Warfighting Development Command (NWDC).
WDC alignment and synchronization of PA tied to the fleet’s readiness generation cycle stands in stark contrast to current models primarily focused on pre-deployment, integrated phase certification exercises. This updated method also moves communication to the center of organizational behavior, leadership decision making, training, and planning – a recognized hallmark of excellent, high-performing organizations.
Most importantly, this construct operationalizes PA so that the seed-corn of the Navy’s most senior leader ranks – O-5 commanding officers – gain relevant support and experience with PA/VI and deploy with greater levels of competence and confidence, long before future assignment as flag officers.
Developing Maritime Strategic Communication Superiority
Operationalization of PA already started at one of the WDCs – Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). While the command focuses on developing surface warfighting competency along four lines of effort, as the only one of the five WDCs with a full-time PAO supporting their commander in a traditional PA role, their PAO also supports development of PA readiness.
They accomplish this along three of the command’s four lines of effort – (1) advanced tactical training, (2) doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP), and (3) capability assessments, experimentation, and future requirements development. This relatively new concept is yielding results and is exemplary of how limited investment in PA/VI alongside inside of fleet operations positively impacts fleet warfighting and messaging capability.
Advanced Tactical Training
The fleet has long clamored for standardized equipment lists for PA. However, technology and gear alone will not resolve the challenge of delivering results, unless personnel can capture the action, edit the imagery, and transmit it such a way that it is quality, timely, and relevant. A material only solution also leaves commanding officers who often have limited tactical PA experience to either find independent or non-standard ways to execute the mission set in phase 0 and phase 1 operations – not a great position for any commander in the South China Sea or the Mediterranean when OSD wants imagery of the PLAN destroyer who just crossed your bow or the jet that just buzzed your ship’s mast.4 An AEL is a needed start, as was OPTASK VI, but neither independently nor together holistically support longterm development of these critical warfighting skills without the rigor that a WDC can deliver.
Fleet leaders have surmised that that rapid proliferation of VI in technology (every Sailor’s smartphone is also a camera, for example) assuages the need for rigor in fleet PA training. However, smartphone technology has not transformed every individual with an iPhone into a studio quality photographer or videographer capable of capturing high-quality products in a high-intensity, strategically relevant tactical engagement. Further, the trusting relationships between PAOs with reporters and outlets will continue to be important to deliver VI and provide clarity and context as needed. Increased focus on training can and will improve PA professional skill levels in support of commanders who need them to lead and fight effectively.
Operational PA development through the WDCs will serve as an aligning function across the readiness generation cycle beginning with unit training and culminating in integrated phase training exercises. In practice, this also means that commanding officers, warfare commanders, and strike group commanders all receive consistent PA training and manpower throughout the training cycle instead of just during Composite Unit Training exercises. This ensures that ships and squadrons can match PA doctrine and policy to harness the imagery from electro-optical and weapons systems required to communicate with myriad audiences faster than our strategic competitors.
Doctrine and TTP Development
Continuous training aligned to the readiness generation cycle would also provide opportunities for PA instructors at the WDCs to develop and implement joint and fleet policy and guidance in the training cycle. Important considerations remain to implement principles from the recent Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment. Similarly, Fleet Forces Command published the VI Concept of Operations in 2014 includes items ripe for implementation still today – something WDCs can support.5
Advanced training at the WDCs would also provide opportunities to develop, test, break, or validate doctrine and TTPs for PA/VI, helping align Fleet standards of excellence. At SMWDC, for example, this means that ships across the fleet have standardized and constantly re-evaluated standards for warfighting areas such as anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. Rapid investments in capabilities and emerging technology will accomplish the same for PA across all domains.
PA doctrine development will also codify relationships between PA, VI, military information support operations, and other information related capabilities within the service – all in the constellation of Information Operations within Joint Doctrine. This area of concern is a familiar bogeyman and subject of discussion for anyone with relevant fleet experience. Codifying relationships will serve both commanders and tacticians well, removing unneeded ambiguity during real-world operations.
Capability assessments, experimentation, and future requirements
The sunsetting of Navy’s most robust PA operational capability development cadre – the photo LDO community – took place at the same time as rapid advancements in digital imagery and technology. Although the Navy’s PA community harnessed advances in technology, particularly in web-based apps and platforms, it is nearly impossible to keep pace. This is exacerbated by shipboard communication systems that are not always compatible or conducive to 21st century media engagement. To turn the tide, PA instructors at WDCs tied to the Fleet and working closely with systems commands, operational analysts, and the technical community will provide CHINFO and the Navy with tactically astute experts who can inform annual OPNAV budget submissions.
Close alignment without deliberate and clear relationships between PA and information warfare communities is a relevant concern for traditional public affairs officers and senior military leaders who must diligently protect and maintain the trust they have with those they serve.
The most prevalent concern often cited is a PAO’s professional, ethical obligation to maintain trust with media outlets and by extension the American people. This results in a strong aversion to proximity to psychological operations, military deception, or similar capabilities. Blurring lines between public affairs – which maintains a professional commitment to providing accurate, timely, relevant, and truthful information – and those capabilities can lead to damaging misperceptions and erode trust with reporters and the American people if a PAO is or is perceived as fulfilling multiple roles simultaneously. Quite simply, they cannot afford to risk the hard-earned trust they strive to maintain. History is rife with examples of the consequences of the breaking of trust between the military and the people they serve, and the Navy’s public affairs community is wise to draw clear boundaries to prevent similar missteps in the future.
CHINFO maintaining position in the approval chain for Fleet PA doctrine and TTPs prior to incorporation into the Navy’s warfighting library will mitigate these concerns. Additionally, instructors at WDCs will be intimately familiar with the relevant Defense Department PA governing documents, which lay out clear guidelines to ensure important legal lines such as the Hatch Act or ethical lines such as violations of the Navy’s Canon of Ethics for Public Affairs and VI practitioners are not crossed. While doctrine and TTPs to codify relationships will not prevent mistakes from happening in the future, not codifying them deliberately also increases risk for commanders and the institution.
Some may also take the recommendation to operationalize PA holistically as an invitation or recommendation for PA to fully merge with the information warfare community. That would be an overreach, and likely lead to the blurred lines and misperceptions noted above.
While operationalization of PA is critical when competing against informationally savvy state actors as part of Great Information Power Competition, it is equally as important that the Navy not lose traditional PA expertise in the process of increasing operational relevance. Developing a cadre of professional communicators who are widely respected and trusted by civilian and uniformed leaders within the government – as well as with the press – took time and treasure that is not easily replaced. The Navy is a recognized PA leader within the DoD in more traditional public affairs practices that continue to serve the Navy well. To eschew core competencies of strategic advisement, media operations, social media, and community outreach would be an oversimplification. This proposal is a both/and, not an either/or; further investment is needed to increase information power.
Aligning much needed investment in PA through the WDCs is a historically sound method that will deliver high return on investment at low opportunity cost. Similarly, contemporary books such as Singer’s LikeWar and literature on the development and growth of AI paint a picture of the opportunities available to nations who actively engage – and the challenges on the horizon for those that do not. Victory in the shadow wars will be won through aligned and synchronized use of information supplemented by technology and maneuver.
In today’s information environment, PA/VI practitioners must simultaneously be information warfighters, readiness generators, special advisers to commanders, and staff officers. Modest investments in PA/VI through an existing WDC construct will deliver peak value for commanders and the nation.
America’s competitors have taken a proactive posture on the battlefield of information, and commanders are right to invest in the Navy’s ability to deliver PA/VI capability and products at sea today. The information environment is a critical domain in all phases of warfare, and maritime PA capabilities can lead to non-kinetic victories. There is a path to achieve maritime information superiority – all that is left to do is to take it.
Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Stroup, APR+M is a prior-enlisted Naval officer with more than 14 years in service. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
1. Message, 271025Z MAR 12, COMUSFLTFORCOM NORFOLK VA. subject: NAVY WIDE OPTASK VISUAL INFORMATION.
2. Since the Navy’s PA and Visual Information (VI) communities merged under PA in 2005, the use of the term PA community in this article includes both PA and VI.
3. Sherman, Forrest P. (1951). Pacific Fleet Combat Camera Group; establishment of (Op- 553C/aa, Serial: 298P553) [Memorandum].
5. U.S. Department the of Navy, COMUSFLTFORCOM Concept of Operations, “Fleet Visual Information” (2015 July 2).
Featured image: BALTIC SEA – A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by the USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) April 12, 2016. Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward deployed to Rota, Spain is conducting a routine patrol in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
There is a long-running debate in the United States Navy over building smaller aircraft carriers. These arguments generally focus on cost and hull count. Rather than dive into these arguments and attempt to argue for what should be done, we will instead explore how we use these arguments to rethink requirements and produce a more robust concept.
A new thought process illustrated here in the context of a small aircraft carrier is applicable to many other complex problems. As such, while a hypothetical design for a small carrier to supplement the current supercarrier fleet will be presented, part of its purpose is to illustrate how this thought process can proceed to unconventional conclusions. The question remains as to whether the merits of this design justify its substantial cost, and follow-on studies and wargaming may be required to explore this concept further.
How Can We Make a Smaller Carrier?
In order to determine the requirements for a small carrier, we must begin with the requirements for a modern supercarrier. Fortunately, the one-sentence mission statement for the Ford-class carriers defined this clearly:
“The critical capability of the aircraft carrier is that the aircraft carrier’s air wing must simultaneously perform surveillance, battlespace dominance, and strike and sustain combat operations forward.”
Form must follow function, and studies repeatedly show ‘bigger is better’ according to this mission statement. If we want to make a smaller carrier viable we must find a way to alter that mission statement without rendering the resulting carrier irrelevant.
This discussion focuses on omitting ‘strike’ from the mission statement. This does not mean the carrier will be completely incapable of performing strike missions, but it does mean any strike capability will be largely incidental and context-dependent. While omitting the strike mission may be jarring to the modern Navy, it has a strong historical precedent in the escort carriers of the Second World War, and was revisited in the Sea Control Ship concept of the 1970s. Like these historical examples, this ship would primarily be an escort with a focus on protecting convoys, and feature extensive anti-submarine capabilities. However, it could also perform other missions like forward surveillance, chokepoint defense, and troop support.
Most critically, the removal of the ‘strike’ objective from its mission statement means that the carrier is no longer expected to divide its limited air wing capacity. This bypasses the otherwise crippling weakness commonly referred to as ‘the small carrier problem,’ where having a small air wing forces a hard choice between offense and defense. By changing goals and expectations in this manner, we can tailor the ship and its air wing for defensive operations and leave major strike operations to the supercarrier fleet. It should also be remembered that this omission does not preclude offensive operations because the ship could be sent forward in certain contexts.
One issue that limited the utility of the Sea Control Ship was the aircraft of the day, especially the Harrier. Unlike the modern F-35B, the Harrier had serious deficiencies in air combat capability, range, and payload. These deficiencies resulted in a relatively inflexible air wing. A modern small carrier would be much more capable thanks to the improvements the F-35 brings to the table. It is fully capable of defending the carrier from air attack, has the range to intercept targets, and the payload to strike targets if the opportunity arises. The F-35’s sensors and networking also let it perform many tasks which previously required a dedicated early warning aircraft, allowing it to replace the helicopters envisioned for this mission on the Sea Control Ship. It may not provide the same degree of situational awareness as a dedicated platform like the E-2D, but it is far more survivable and does not give the enemy a large, easily detected radar signature to point them toward the ship.
The Escort Problem
The other major factor in any discussion of carriers is the cost of escorts. Even if serious savings were reaped in fielding the carrier itself, immense costs are incurred by fielding a major combatant that necessitates additional escorting platforms.
An undesirable solution to this problem is to reduce the number of supercarriers in the fleet to free up escorts for the new ships. This might come from the concentration of even more aircraft into a substantially larger class of future CVNs, generating savings by exploiting the efficiency of very large carriers. However, this option is inherently limited since it would allow the addition of only a handful of smaller carriers. This approach will not be discussed further here, but future fleet composition studies should closely examine the possibility of even larger supercarriers, since that has been largely omitted in recent studies.
Another less conventional solution is to take a page out of the Soviet playbook by adding a heavy weapons and sensor suite to allow the ship to potentially defend itself without escorts. Modern weapon and sensor systems have substantially reduced the design conflicts associated with this concept. This helps address the historical Sea Control Ship’s inability to defend itself against anti-ship missiles, and substantially improves the flexibility of the resulting ship.
A Hypothetical Design
Now that we have established the mission and design goals, we will move into the hypothetical design process starting with the hull.
Since convoy escort is the primary mission, and there is no need to keep up with the supercarriers, a top speed in the 20-to-25 knot range should meet mission requirements. The ship will be some combination of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and the historical Sea Control Ship plans, so adding these two vessels’ displacement together for 20,000 to 30,000 tons is a reasonable estimate for this modern escort carrier. The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock fits into this range, so its base hull and propulsion plant form the basis of this concept, and the superstructure will be completely replaced. This selection would allow a single test ship to be inserted into the existing production line without too much trouble and avoid many of the problems normally associated with unique ships. This enables the construction of an initial prototype to identify and correct any shortcomings prior to serial production.
For weapons and sensors, the Flight III Burke can serve as a template. As the most capable Aegis platform in the fleet, it provides an excellent, full-spectrum capability set. This makes a separate escort more redundant than necessary, and also provides vertically-launched land-attack and anti-ship missiles to provide a degree of strike capability. Naturally, it also offers the same type of logistical and industrial advantages provided by the use of the San Antonio hull.
With these design decisions, the author built a 3D model of the concept ship to improve granularity and assess the layout. Most notably, it is possible to wrap the superstructure around the vertical launch system (VLS) to shield the flight deck from exhaust, or more importantly, foreign object debris, avoiding serious conflict between missile launch and flight operations. This model also demonstrates that it is possible to fit enough hangar capacity for an air wing of 12 F-35Bs, 12 MH-60Rs, 2 MQ-8Cs, and 1 MV-22 to provide persistent air cover, plus a few extra utility aircraft. Furthermore, while the vast majority of the San Antonio’s amphibious capabilities would obviously be eliminated, the model shows that it is possible to leave a reduced-height well deck to support UUV, USV, and small boat operations if desired. These sea launch capabilities are a particularly notable example of the need for prototyping, because testing may show the need to remove the well deck or replace it with another type of launch facility or critical spaces.
The notional armament is 96 Mark 41 vertical launch cells, a Rolling Airframe Missile launcher, two Mark 32 triple torpedo tubes, a laser, a railgun or 5-inch gun, and five Javelin/Browning pintle mounts. Anti-ship missiles are launched from the VLS or embarked aircraft instead of top-side mounted launchers to improve upgradeability. The bridge is also clearly visible on top of the forward end of the superstructure, as is Primary Flight Control at the aft end, which protrudes over the sloping superstructure to provide excellent visibility of the flight deck without interfering with flight operations. Finally, it is possible to retain a small portion of the San Antonio’s infantry capacity for EABO and special operations support.
The larger America-class amphibious assault ships, the commonly discussed example in light carrier concept discussions, are not well-suited to serve as a basis for this concept. Most notably, while they carry more aircraft, the incremental improvement is not enough to provide a major step-change. An America-class hull configured in this manner would likely provide an additional six MH-60Rs and four F-35Bs. The extra anti-submarine helicopters would allow three of these aircraft to be airborne at all times, but this does not provide a dramatic performance improvement because the Sea Control Ship demonstrated that two are adequate to maintain sonobuoy barriers on both sides of a convoy for early warning of submarines. The additional F-35Bs are not enough to increase the standing combat air patrol from two to four, so the additional aircraft would functionally provide a reserve force that could either be held to respond to threats or sent on small strikes without compromising top cover. While that is certainly useful, as are the larger magazines and fuel storage allowed by a larger hull, the America costs an additional $1.5 billion and hundreds of crew, a one third-to-one half increase in cost to $4.5-5.5 billion for limited gains. One final point that applies broadly against a larger hull is that in any environment dangerous enough to require a doubled air wing, carrying it in two smaller hulls with full defensive suites provides a major survivability advantage.
With all that said, it is still worth examining the cost to rebuild the USS Bonhomme Richards (LHD-6) as a prototype carrier of this type. Since the ship would require a new, much larger superstructure to house the weapons and sensors, the old superstructure and underlying structure would have to be completely replaced regardless, making the extensive damage there irrelevant. That could make the rebuild more affordable since it would be competing with a new-build prototype, and it would allow the Navy to act more quickly on the stated goal of acquiring small carriers without the risks associated with developing a new class of ship.
Costs and Benefits
The next step is to examine this design’s impact on the Navy. The San Antonio and Arleigh Burke each cost around two billion dollars, so it is reasonable to assume that the overall cost of this hypothetical ship will be in the $3-4 billion range after accounting for the savings from eliminating duplication and the extra cost of the aviation equipment. The San Antonio and Burke have about 300-350 crew each, so this ship will probably need about half-again (500 personnel). With the addition of air wing personnel, the crew complement increases to a total of roughly 800. Crew count could likely be reduced from this number with modern automation technology, as was done on the Zumwalt-class destroyer. However, it is difficult to automate aircraft maintenance, so a crew of less than 500 seems unlikely. Finally, it should be noted that this cost represents a complete task force since no separate escort is required. That said, it does omit the optional ground combat element in the crew count and makes no attempt to address logistics requirements due to the complex interactions with the rest of the fleet.
While that cost is substantial, this hypothetical ship does offer plenty of capability which might justify the investment. As an escort, the aerial targeting information from its F-35Bs will make it much more capable than traditional surface combatants against most surface and air threats, while its large helicopter complement offers similar advantages for anti-submarine warfare. Defensive employment would be similarly effective for closing chokepoints to enemy movement, and would be particularly effective against submarines since it could maintain an extensive drone and sonobuoy field. They could also be used to support distributed operations in a variety of ways, such as forming a distant screen to expand overall situational awareness or supporting expeditionary operations with forward air cover and light sealift.
Alternatively, they could conduct a variety of special operations from a single hull by backing up ground elements with organic airlift, air support, and missile strikes. Finally, the use of common systems means they could easily be incorporated into any conventional task force to provide additional mass, although they are not particularly efficient in this role. In peacetime, these ships would offer flexibility to the fleet because they could fill in for essentially any kind of ship needed, provide a distributed rapid reaction capability, carry the diplomatic prestige of being an aircraft carrier, and free supercarriers from low-end operations. When everything is said and done these benefits may not outweigh the costs, but it should illustrate how rethinking a small carrier’s mission set can lead to interesting alternative solutions.
This concept may also benefit international navies. Since these ships would cost substantially less than a fully escorted carrier, they may appeal to smaller navies that may be unable to afford super carriers and may be willing to sacrifice some capability to reduce cost. For example, Norway might choose to replace the Helge Ingstad with a ship of this type since they already operate the F-35. This would more than fully replace its defensive capabilities while adding unprecedented power projection, giving them much greater capability. Politically, acquiring an aircraft carrier would be a dramatic signal of intent and commitment to defense out of proportion to its cost, and would go a long way toward addressing longstanding tensions with the U.S. over NATO spending.
Finally, it is important to reiterate that this is only one possible outcome. The Sea Control Ship concept would also be a valid application of this reduction in mission scope, and there are plenty of other alterations to explore. Similarly, the concepts presented using a small aircraft carrier are just as applicable in other contexts. The output may be unexpected and may need to be integrated with other platforms or concepts to be truly viable, but it can open up alternative solutions to bypass seemingly impossible problems.
Ben DiDonato is a volunteer member of the NRP-funded LMACC team lead by Dr. Shelley Gallup. He originally created what would become the armament for LMACC’s baseline Shrike variant in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in a prior role as a contract engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. He has provided systems and mechanical engineering support to organizations across the defense industry from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to Spirit Aerosystems, working on projects for all branches of the armed forces.
Featured Image: The amphibious transport dock ship USS San Antonio (LPD 17) steams through the Red Sea June 16, 2013. The San Antonio was part of the Kearsarge Amphibious Readiness Group and was underway in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons, by GySgt Michael Kropiewnicki)