Aircraft Carriers and What Comes Next

December 10, 2013

Shortly after Mother Nature once again reminded us that “man plans…fate laughs” with her awesome display of power and fury in Super Typhoon Haiyan, the predictable buzz started in the media.  Observers explained how the U.S. response to the disaster in the Philippines showed opportunities and vulnerabilities both within the U.S. repertoire, as well as that of neighbors in the region.  Sydney Freedberg and Dan Lamothe  both had nice pieces discussing the issues of response time, surging assets, and forward basing.  Though perhaps not their primary intent, both articles reminded me that arguably the four most strategic uses of naval power in recent times have all been deployments of an aircraft carrier in support of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations in Indonesia, Pakistan, Haiti, and Japan.  And contrary to the typical image associated with carrier deployments—that of hard military power projection—not a single armed fixed-wing sortie was launched in any of those operations.  Using the HA/DR mission as one lens, this shows what the aircraft carrier can do in ‘soft power projection’ mode.  Taking all of these factors into account, we witness the unparalleled utility of the aircraft carrier: the ability to combine soft power and hard power in one entity, producing smart power projection on a scale unmatched by any other platform in existence today, either in the U.S. inventory or in those of our friends, allies, or competitors.

Before I get too far underway, let me make clear up front: I do not intend to argue for 15, 13, 11, 8, or even any future aircraft carriers in 2050 and beyond.  Carriers will not be around forever, so we need to start thinking and investing now to ensure all the capabilities it brings to the table are maintained and enhanced in the most cost-effective manner possible.  Instead of starting with an answer (number, platform, mission, etc) and working backwards to justify it regardless of the situation, I believe it a better use of time to show that we possess—and should utilize to their fullest extent—certain discrete capabilities that are unmatched anywhere else in the world.  We also need to be cognizant of the messaging, the key part in our national narrative, that the employment of these capabilities plays.

The myriad tasks that comprise the mission set within HA/DR include, but are not limited to, providing persistent presence, power projection, and command and control; serving as a lily pad, hospital ship, and potable water generator; and quite simply, conveying unparalleled strategic communication.  No other platform can perform these tasks on a size, scale, and sustainability level as the aircraft carrier. To be sure, the hospital ships USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy can perform some of these tasks, but as we are seeing once again in the Philippines, there is a large lag time between activation of the ship and its arrival on station (Mercy received orders to activate on 13 November, which meant a best case arrival of early December).  Another option is the future potential of retro-fitted super tankers; smaller surface combatants can check other blocks; future forward-deployed sea-basing elements will be able to fulfill others; and certainly strategic airlift and other private sector assets can do still others, although as reported on 12 November, Global Aviation Holdings, the largest provider of private airlift services to the military, has filed for bankruptcy protection in Delaware, citing the cancellation of missions by Air Mobility Command.

Granted, HA/DR is not a “one size fits all” mission, and each instance can be unique.  Thus I do not mean to convey that I think the aircraft carrier is the only or even the best platform to perform such missions in every circumstance.  Indeed, as people far wiser than me have pointed out, for a fraction of the investment of an aircraft carrier (and in most missions, its associated strike group), one can have a large deck amphibious assault ship (and in most missions, its associated strike group), which is uniquely designed to project people ashore, not just firepower.  In addition, the “big deck amphib” (ships in the LHA and LHD classes, primarily) brings more helicopters than a standard carrier load, has greater medical capability, and can transport and store large stocks of food and water.  In addition, most of the large amphibs have well decks, which allow the movement of connectors with engineering equipment, generators, large vehicles as well as heavy cargo rapidly across beaches or into ports.  Sometimes, however, the damaged infrastructure of the disaster zone will not allow such transport, as was seen in Haiti after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck in January 2010.  The main seaport was unusable for almost three months and only one of the natural beaches was even passable for several weeks. As a result, in the crucial first 3-4 weeks after the disaster, the vast preponderance of relief flowed in via airlift and the airport.

Without a doubt, the ability of another large deck ship, especially if it comes equipped as an Amphibious Readiness Group Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU), is tough to match.  In pure ‘hard power’ mode, as we saw during NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya, the forces carrying out the UN Security Council Resolution mandate to “protect the Libyan populace” benefitted greatly from the presence of an amphib with AV-8B Harriers and helicopters.  This was seen as a huge force multiplier and in many respects was the first such ‘significant combat operation’ in which the U.S. participated but did not deploy an aircraft carrier.

But perhaps this goes to underscore my main thrust even more—we need to be smart about how and when we employ the different soft and hard power tools within our smart power toolkit, as well as ensuring the next generation of platforms can perform these missions as well as, if not hopefully better than, today’s platforms.  I’m not talking about trying to find the single best/distinct platform for a single/precise mission set, in this case humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Nor am I necessarily advocating for buying anything.  Instead, I’m advocating using, leveraging, and maximizing the return on investment (ROI) in the existing ships while we still have them and being innovative and adaptive in their employment.  In particular, we should be analyzing the same ROI from a non-parochial perspective that looks across the range of military operations (ROMO).  It may even be the time to insert some new military operations and remove some outdated ones, and then seek to find platforms that do just what the current lean financial times require: find the best coverage (highest percentage) of mission for lowest expenditure, and then make the informed decision to accept risk where acceptable for the low-priority/low-consequence missions.  The caveat is that this presupposes that the ‘informed decision’ has been based on rigorous assessment of impact to vital national interests, adherence to international laws, and national policies (in that order).

The ‘rub’ comes in when having to look at how best to cover the ‘low-probability/HIGH-consequence’ missions—Neptune himself rises up and closes down sea lanes, etc.

There is one last ‘task’ or ‘military operation’ that is performed by the aircraft carrier and serves to underscore its uniqueness in HA/DR missions, and by extension any such ‘presence’ mission: the strategic communication that the appearance of 90,000 tons of American steel sitting in one’s harbor transmits. It can convey, in the eloquent words of retired Marine Corps General James Mattis who was channeling his inner Lucius Sulla, that we are “no better friend, no worse enemy”. We have spent the better part of 70 years crafting, honing, and broadcasting this message, and for better or worse, the aircraft carrier is seen as the most iconic sign of American ‘diplomacy’—perhaps the contemporary version of the Great White Fleet.  Further channeling Teddy Roosevelt, we have been able to check the block with the unparalleled ‘big stick’- but it would seem that the Navy is also getting better at the ‘speak softly’ part.

In the ‘unintended consequences’ category, we can see how penetrating this message was when we responded with a carrier –the USS Carl Vinson—as part of Operation Unified Response in Haiti.  A Haitian orphan, whose hospital bed happened to look out upon the Port-au-Prince harbor, drew two pictures. The first one showed the aircraft carrier visible next to the hospital ship USNS Comfort.  Every face he drew included smiles, even those of the patients lying in their beds, sick and wounded.  The second picture, drawn several days later, still showed the Comfort – but the carrier had departed the previous day (unfortunately to much negative press, despite—or because of—leaving under the cover of darkness).  None of the faces in this picture bore smiles. When asked about the difference, the child said that once “the Marines” left it would not be long before “the gangs and bad men” started taking over again. (Note: Haiti had, and continues to have, a very vivid and positive memory from several years earlier of the U.S. Marines as the sole providers of personal safety and security). As a point of fact, no Marines departed when the Vinson left—she ‘merely’ withdrew her immense hospital capability, people and supply transportation ability, vital communications relay, and unmatched potable and hot water and electricity generation.  But to the little boy lying in the hospital bed, all these other capabilities paled in comparison to the more visceral needs of personal safety and security, and the perceived ability of the aircraft carrier to provide this, despite the presence of an ARG/MEU team also visible off the coast.

Although reality did not match the perception and imagery in this and many other cases, perception eventually becomes reality over time if not corrected.  Thus, while we do the risk/ROI/ROMO calculations mentioned previously, we also need to start restructuring our messaging and marketing. For example, we need to broadcast the incredible contribution of big deck amphibs in Libya, Haiti, Indonesia, and even those serving as part of what former SOUTHCOM Commander and Supreme Allied Commander ADM Jim Stavridis liked to call the “HSG” — humanitarian service group.  This concept bore out in Operation Continuing Promise, with the use of amphibs and the Comfort in combination with (medical and dental readiness training exercises) throughout Latin American and the Caribbean, prompting no less likely an advocate than Daniel Ortega to remark that these are “ships of war…with a plan for peace.”

Lamothe has aptly observed that “everyone hates U.S. bases…until disaster strikes”, and this emphasizes the point that you cannot surge relationships, and you cannot surge trust.  So short of forward basing and the footprints which might be left in less-than-friendly soil, we need to continue resourcing the next best thing—forward maritime presence, a persistent presence with a purpose, namely: developing and strengthening relationships, continuing the strategic narrative, conducting training and exercises, and building partnerships and their capacity.  This will pay huge dividends and ROI when we no longer have to be the ones patrolling every strait, performing every air policing mission, ensuring freedom of navigation, and protecting access to the commons and their resources.

In lean times, efficiency and effectiveness are key, so we should be looking across the entirety of the ROMO, not starting with a specific platform and seeing what we can find to justify it.  But when you want to ‘get there firstest with the mostest’, and deliver quite the message to the right audiences, there is currently no other platform in existence—nor arguably anywhere in the design dream sheets of Ingalls, Bath Iron Works, or NAVSEA (maybe on the desks at DARPA)—that can do all of these on the size, scale, and sustainability as the aircraft carrier.  However, the carrier is not immortal, so we need to  remain dedicated to designing and developing the ‘next big thing’ that covers not only the physical missions, but delivers the right narrative to the right doorsteps, and does so with an increased focus on conservation of finite/decreasing financial resources.  We just should not have to sit and wait on Mother Nature for another ‘strategic opportunity’.


CDR Elton C. Parker III is currently serving as the Special Assistant to the President and Military Assistant to the Provost of National Defense University.  A career naval aviator, his most recent tour was as Speechwriter and Special Assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views, opinions, or positions of the National Defense University, The U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery