The U.S. Navy’s Self-Imposed Blockade

October 19, 2015

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The U.S. Navy is confined to a narrow intellectual roadstead, effectively corralled in its thinking and investment decisions by the three horsemen of budget constraints, bureaucratic sclerosis, and constricting congressional mandates. The current received wisdom of the institution judges that inadequate resources for shipbuilding, coupled with a ponderous acquisition process and regulatory constraints, such as the requirement to maintain 11 aircraft carriers, means it is not possible to build a new ship or redesign our fleet architecture — or even think about doing so. The “smart” thinking is that the only way forward is to simply repeat improved versions of existing platforms — destroyers, littoral combat ships, aircraft carriers — and perhaps even rename and re-categorize a few. Regrettably, our adversaries are not similarly encumbered in their thinking, and this simple systemic asymmetry between our calcified bureaucracy and their capacity for innovation means we are effectively ceding the field, or ocean, to future adversaries. It is “baked in” that we will lose the next big naval contest if we maintain our current heading.

Given the seriousness of the circumstances, we should be working overtime to change this disastrous course and start thinking again about fleet and ship design, even if today’s resources don’t allow full implementation of the new fleet architecture and the ships we may envision. There is a benefit to having a plan, even if current circumstances militate against its full implementation.

The rules of the game are changing, and we ignore this paradigm shift at our peril. In the next naval engagement, we don’t want a future carrier strike group commander exclaiming, a la Beatty, “…there seems to be something wrong with our bloody carriers today.” Arguably, our current approach to fleet architecture is as blinkered as that of the Edwardian Royal Navy as it coped with the transition from sail to steam and from a period of extended peace to protracted war. Certainly, the emergence of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems is every bit as revolutionary as the introduction of steam propulsion, and we should expect unmanned systems to change the influence of geography and the geometry of tactical engagements as fundamentally as during the transition from sail to steam. We are re-entering an age of persistent presence — enabled by unmanned systems — like we have not experienced since the days of sail when ships could keep station to the extent food and water supplies permitted.

Persistence will shrink distances, expand time horizons, change logistical support requirements, and reshape tactical engagements. The impact on ship design will be significant. If shore-based systems can easily extend to the deep ocean, if intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems become ubiquitous, if unmanned aircraft can self-deploy great distances and remain on station for extended periods in large numbers due to decreasing unit costs, if wave gliders are always on and under the sea, what type of ships should we be building? Is it possible that ships designed for an era when these capabilities did not exist, through some serendipity, could still be the most appropriate?

The British naval historian N.A.M. Rodger wrote, “If there is a single lesson which can be drawn from the study of warships and their weapons, it is that the only useful measure of quality is fitness for purpose.” So, taking the aircraft carrier as an example, what is its purpose?   Primarily and obviously, its purpose is to carry aircraft, and since this is the most fundamental function, the nature of the aircraft it carries is the principal driver of this platform’s design. Few would argue that the new Ford-class carrier is not an engineering marvel, unrivaled in its ability to launch and recover manned tactical aircraft, but how useful will this be if such aircraft are no longer the measure of naval power?

The authors of a recent Hudson Institute report, Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict, answered this question quite definitively, if perhaps unintentionally. In the report, Seth Cropsey, Bryan McGrath, and Tim Walton argue that if we replace the current carrier air wing with a new one, the Ford will perform admirably in future high-end conflicts. This is a bit like arguing the bus carrying a high school football team will be instrumental in winning the Super Bowl if we simply replace the high school players with the New England Patriots.

To make the carrier relevant to the high-end fight, the authors recommend an array of new aircraft, the expense of which would make the cost of the $15-billion carrier pale in comparison. The authors explain that the addition of a new carrier air wing, improved electronic signature control capabilities, additional combat logistics force ships, and a more resilient shipbuilding infrastructure would render the new Ford carrier highly effective in a conflict with China. Perhaps we should have understood this better before funding the Nimitz replacement. We would have seen that the cost of the carrier and a fundamentally new carrier air wing was not fiscally achievable. If we were thinking more clearly about future threats and how we need to evolve the fleet, we could have seen this coming. Muddling through will no longer do — technological and geopolitical change are simply too great to merely embellish existing ships with new payloads.

Payloads drive ship design. Dreadnoughts and later battleships increased in size and protective armament to carry ever-larger guns and survive their impact. The aircraft carrier has become progressively bigger to accommodate larger, more capable manned aircraft. When the utility of battleships was being challenged by aircraft carriers in the 30’s and then by missile ships in the 80’s, there were vocal constituencies arguing for their retention. They had a strong argument, laying out the storied history of the big ship, pointing out the accuracy and power of the guns, and explaining that we simply needed to continue improving large guns. Lost to these advocates was the relative advantage offered by aircraft and then guided missiles. It was not that the battleship had become a less impressive ship in real terms, it was that it had simply declined relative to the capabilities offered by ever-improving aircraft and missiles.

The manned carrier air wing is obviously the payload around which every aspect of the Ford was designed, and it should also be obvious it is the equivalent of the battleship’s 16-inch guns. In real terms, the carrier air wing is as impressive as ever, but in relative terms, compared to a fleet ISR and striking architecture of unmanned systems, it is becoming as antiquated as the big gun.

Not only can we not afford all the improvements identified by the Hudson report, we shouldn’t be calling for them when we can shift our emphasis to more capable and more affordable unmanned options. The new generation of Predators can self-deploy for 2,000 miles to a dirt strip and be refueled and rearmed by a half dozen personnel. Certainly we could develop small, minimally-manned ships designed to receive and launch similar unmanned aircraft at sea.

A fleet design untethered from the constraints of maintaining and operating large numbers of manned aircraft would allow for a cheaper and more distributed fleet with far greater redundancy and better signature control. We would no longer require 5,000 souls on one platform and could depopulate much of the tactical edge of surface warfare elements until anti-access and area denial threats are attacked and reduced.

Unmanned systems will be like oxygen or your American Express card in future battles: We won’t leave home without them. The Navy must recognize the impact of these new payloads and modify the platforms that carry them and the composition of the fleet that comprises the larger system of capabilities.

The Navy must consider the implications of a rapidly changing threat environment. The increasing ranges of A2/AD systems mean threats normally associated with the littoral now apply to the deep blue. Ships fighting forts has never been a good idea, but this new dynamic eliminates the option of avoiding such a contest. The growing persistence of unmanned ISR systems in all domains means we must assume we are always under surveillance and therefore must always endeavor to minimize the visual and electromagnetic cues that allow us to be detected (signature control) while seeking to detect and exploit the adversary’s. Only by managing signatures across all spectrums and thereby enhancing survivability can naval forces contend with the unlimited magazine capacities of shore-based sea and air attack systems. Combining precision lethality with unmanned persistence will change engagement geometry in ways currently unexplored. The combination of ubiquitous ISR and small platforms capable of effectively engaging large platforms will shift the calculus for platform size and numbers within the overall fleet design.

Given this revolution in threat capabilities, the Navy must first and foremost start believing that change is possible. Re-designating and re-naming existing ships is not progress. The Navy must increase experimentation with unmanned surface, subsurface, and air systems and explore a fleet architecture comprised of small, medium, and large carriers to transport them. Without substantial increases in funding, the Ford class carrier is not affordable. We should stop building CVNs after CVN 79, USS Kennedy, which is currently under construction. Procuring just the platforms is already crushing the ship account, and the necessary new payloads to make carriers viable in high-end conflict are cost prohibitive. It will be important for Navy leadership to pay more attention to voices like Wayne Hughes and Jeff Kline at the Naval Postgraduate School, Commander Phil Pournelle in OSD Net Assessment, and Jerry Hendrix of Center for New American Security on the challenges of missile-era defense and the need for more smaller platforms — while not overdoing the flotilla (many small ships) component. A new Center for New American Security (CNAS) study, Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation, offers solid recommendations for improving the utility of existing carriers by adjusting the mix of the carrier air wing. Such considerations are fine as an interim solution, but a more thorough transformation is essential. Modest adjustments to the air wing are like adding missiles to the Wisconsin and Iowa battleships. This upgrade gave the battleships more utility, but it still could not prevent them from being a hugely costly and inefficient way to deliver firepower. As loitering munitions look more like unmanned aerial systems, a new carrier payload could be procured for substantially cheaper than the unmanned options posited in the CNAS report.

A symmetric, head-to-head, precision-guided munitions duel will not effectively deter potential adversaries like China that have rapidly evolving A2/AD capabilities with vastly greater capacities than any fleet could achieve. We must have layered capabilities from the littoral to the deep ocean, to include submarines (manned/unmanned), arsenal ships, and at sea forward arming and refueling platforms, all working as elements of a naval system where platforms in all domains work in a much more integrated fashion than is done today. Expeditionary land bases, small temporarily established facilities on islands and atolls, will provide additional intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, command and control, fires, and logistics capabilities to the fleet. Small, expeditionary bases can provide substantial benefits to an unmanned systems-based fleet. To complement this naval system, all surface combatants will require robust interfaces to the air, surface, and subsurface, characteristics provided by today’s amphibious ships, whose flight decks can accommodate unmanned air vehicles and whose well-decks can provide access for surface and subsurface unmanned systems.

The U.S. Navy is still, by far, the best navy in the world, but the long-term trends are less promising. The Gordian knot of systemic burdens holding back innovation must be cut if the Navy is to maintain its ascendency. The world is changing, and the Navy must cast off its intellectual anchors, lift its self-imposed blockade, and steam to new intellectual and conceptual horizons and a new fleet design.


Noel Williams is a maritime strategy and policy consultant in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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20 thoughts on “The U.S. Navy’s Self-Imposed Blockade

  1. A clearheaded and concise analysis — thanks.

    I’m wondering if you’re familiar with DARPA’s Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node program, which, despite the poor choice for its title, would seem to be dealing with exactly the problem you’re discussing here.

  2. To suggest there is one naval strategy is a grave mistake that the current Navy leadership makes, and this author does not clearly avoid. There is the Pacific Ocean, with vast expanses without friendly land bases; the Atlantic Ocean, where land bases are plentiful; the Mediterranean, which isn’t that big by modern jet’s standards; the Persian Gulf, which is tiny and congested, etc, etc.

    To me, it sounds like the US Navy needs a half-dozen strategies at minimum. Some will require carriers, others much less, but we need to build ships for the battles they will fight, not hope to choose battles based on the ships we want to build.

  3. While I concur that a future based on Yet Another Aircraft Carrier is not a viable approach to building our future fleet, I think the same statement would apply to a complete conversion to any platform or technology.

    I endorse the author’s argument about a layered approach allowing not only a challenge to A2/AD, but a fleet easily reconfigured into capable task groups to allow measured response to limited purposes.

    But while I agree unmanned in it’s many forms will be a substantial multiplier to our future fleet, it is early days to talk about handing substantial portions of fleet responsibility to a technology I see more as additive than replacement, and with substantial growth still needed in, let’s call it robustness.

  4. I also agree with the author’s point – especially from the financial trade-offs that these technological marvels cause us to incur.

    But then his solution’s punch is found in network-vulnerable Arsenal Ships – that old chestnut that won’t die.

    How are a small number of network-vulnerable ships, firing single-use, multi-million dollar munitions, better than what we have now?

  5. Great article, strong arguments, except on at least one point: we don’t have “ubiquitous ISR”. In fact, our ISR capabilities compared to the demand are woefully inadequate. Which doesn’t justify continuing with a dated maritime strategy and force structure, but it does mean that there are probably many more hurdles to overcome than just a calcified bureaucracy.

  6. 1) Name a single credible adversary who is not basing their blue water sea control mission on aircraft carriers. Current Russian plans have them building 4x 100kt supercarreirs to 2050. AFAIK Chinese and Indian plans are for precisely the same thing. This adversary that will magically appear in, to use your metaphor, 1920 with an entire force structure built around fleet carriers, fast escorts, dedicated AAA cruisers and over ocean fleet sustainment trains, just doesn’t exist as we type. So the alarmist tone really isn’t warranted.

    2) Prudent naval procurement is about hedging, because the future is uncertain. This is a fact that I don’t think you’ve really engaged with above. The reality is we simply do not know what naval combat will look like in 2050. Maybe this vision of distributed sensors and persistent unmanned vehicles operating in vast networks will work as advertised, and in such a scenario perhaps the CVN will look out-dated. But how do we know how well those networks will work in a battlespace where a peer adversary has offensive EW and Cyber capabilities from 2050, and where comsat networks are no-where near as robust as they are today, fatally compromising the operational concept you are describing? In such a future perhaps what will be most operationally reliable will be unmanned systems that consolidate high end sensors and weapons in high performance airframes, and have enough electrical power and C4ISR to act independently, or at the very least act as nodes in local LOS networks which are far more robust? Those platforms will look awfully like an F-35, and the Ford will be able to operate many more of them than pocket carriers. That’s the thing, we just don’t know do we? And when facing a future which is uncertain, the idea that the USN should abandon the single platform which has been foundational to its naval dominance for the last 75 years, and by anyone’s estimation will remain dominant for at least the next 30 – the CV – is the height of recklessness.

    3) Even if we can by reasonably sure this is the future for which we are headed, the notion that we should abandon the dominant platforms of 2015, before we even know what this technology will look like and when it will reach full maturity, is again reckless. Let’s use the tired old BB vs CV cliché, which everyone who writes on this subject seems to trot out. After everyone had realised battleships were going to be displaced by carrier aviation, there was still a transitional period where a mixed force was necessary. Even as late as 1944/45 – when carrier aviation was quite a mature technology – the Essex class still needed big guns to defend her because she was unable to strike effectively at night. But we aren’t in 1945, metaphorically speaking, we’re in 1910/1915, and you are advocating that, in 1915, the Unites States Navy stop investing in big gunned surface combatants, because air power will displace them. How would that have gone in 1927? Relying on bi-planes with tiny payloads to defend your fleet from the Queen Elizabeth or Nelson class, for example? Not well, I would posit. Indeed, what would it have meant for the naval battles of Guadalcanal? Again, defeat is the probable answer. Prudence demands continual investment in sea based tactical air power, at the very least until we KNOW that its utility is limited.

    1. The authors article responds to the question
      Are big carrier strike groups the future of naval warfare? Or the past.
      Blizzard your argument is “since other nations are discussing and actively building,
      carriers, the answer is they are going to be an important component of naval warfare going forward.”
      Not so fast. How does “potting” 80 naval aircraft on a hugely expensive floating asset whose loss would be a severe blow figure as a
      forward thinking strategy?
      Unmanned assets are apparently the future of air warfare. And long range hypersonic, supersonic and subsonic anti ship missiles are likewise the future, already upon us.
      When a seaborne asset is going to be dealing with swarms of incoming weapon systems, a hit by any one of which could cripple the core of the fleets combat power,
      how is potting all that in one ship a good idea?
      Answer? Its not. The age of the super carrier is waning to be replaced by smaller, more agile, less catastrophic when lost assets capable of carrying unmanned and manned air attack systems.
      Thats the author’s point. And its gone right past you.

      1. Will, I think that’s a pretty drastic misinterpretation – or misrepresentation – of both my argument, and Noels.

        Noel isn’t simply claiming that big carriers will be out-dated one day, ‘are they the future or the past’, he’s advocating their abandonment by 2020 – i.e. after USS Kenedy – that’s 5 years. This is based on an assumption of how naval warfare will look like at some unknown date, on technological trends that are extremely immature and, even if continue without divergence, will not be a significant factor for 20 years or more. We should be honest about what this would mean for the USN’s ability to wage an air campaign. The USN doesn’t operate 100kt supercarriers by accident or just because they worked in the good old days. The fact is a large carrier is simply a far more efficient way to run an air group. 4x 25kt carriers < 1x 100kt carrier, in terms of sortie and strike package generation rates, long term sustainment of an air campaign, persistence, the ability to operate larger platforms, be they manned or unmanned (drastic difference in tanking and ISR assets, for example). This is why the Unites States has 100kt carriers, and it’s why every aspiring naval power wants them. So Noel should be honest about what he is advocating here. Even if the USN turned the 800,000 tons of displacement the cancelled 8 Fords into 800,000 tons of light carriers like the Canberra class, for example, those 32 replacements will not provide anywhere near the combat capability – actual ability to have kinetic effects on well-defended targets – of the vessels they replace, until the F-35B is replaced at least. So we are talking about a 2050 time horizon here before this DRASTIC alteration of the USN’s force structure has the potential to pay off: all of this driven by technology which simply doesn’t exist yet at an operational level. What happens in 2035, when the navy is the US’s primary tool for delivering tactical air power to a conflict in the western pacific? With what? F-35B’s with very poor AEW? Sounds great.

        Additionally, he is simply asserting, as you are, that smaller carriers will be more survivable in an environment with 'swarms of incoming weapons systems'. But how will the swarms of 2035 or 2050 be any different, fundamentally, to the swarms of SS-N-27As in 2015, the swarms of AS-4s of 1980 or the swarms of Kamikazes in 1945, considering evolving countermeasures? The USN operated a mixed fleet of large and small carriers in the 1940’s, and faced drastic air threat based on mass. If your reasoning is axiomatically true then the CVL should have proved more survivable, but history shows it did not, either in terms of ability to take or avoid kinetic effects. Large carriers have better battle-damage management systems, and because of the displacement can actually absorb several significant weapons strikes. Yes, this may mission kill a CVN, but that’s a hell of a lot better than it sinking. Do I need to bring up the example of Yorktown being towed half way to Pearl Harbour, to play a decisive role at Midway? So yes a DF-21D impact will mission kill a Ford class, it will sink a Canberra class. As for dispersion being an effective defence, again the ability to mass defensive assets around a carrier proved to be more effective than dispersing them around dozens of CVL’s. Funnily enough this has been the primary defensive formation utilised by ALL navies since; co-ordinated, layered and massed defensive systems designed to protect high value assets. I have not heard any actual argument, from either Noel or yourself, that this will no longer be tactically effective, just bare assertions.

        And you’ve completely misunderstood, or misrepresented, my position here. I brought up other nations because Noel made the alarmist claim that the USN was potentially forfeiting its advantage in blue water to its competitors by relying on large carriers, but that seems like a strange argument when all of them are striving to achieve a semblance of the capability the USN has now in carrier aviation. The international trends are towards large deck carriers, not away from them, which is pretty significant evidence to the contrary if you ask me.

        My wider point here was not that CVN’s WILL BE dominant platforms in 2050, but simply that they are now and will be for a realistic time horizon (20~30 years). And what Noel is advocating here is their abandonment now, which given the significant uncertainty of the technology we are talking about, seems premature to say the least.

        I’m all for having a conversation about the future of carrier aviation, but the cancellation of the Ford class to make way for ‘drone carriers’ has all the hallmarks of star wars to me.

    2. 1, Name a single one who does ? You dont know what China, Russia is planning. They may be saying one thing but doing other.

      2, Aircraft carrier was great in ww2 since it could protect itself with bombers against surface ships before they came close with their weapons etc. But in 21st century you cant protect aircraft carrier reliably its just too risky because of dedicated missiles. Which means in a conflict there will always be losses. Therefore its much better to have huge number of lower value assets (corvette class ships, destroyers, submarines, missile boats, surface trucks with long range missiles, etc) since their survivability is same as aircraft carrier. Future platform points to corvette class ship, submarines with anti-ship, anti-surface long range cruise missiles. In fact thats exactly what China, Russia are doing.

  7. I respectfully suggest the author should re-think his battleship/carrier linkage. The battleship was replaced by the carrier because it could not deliver the same amount of ordnance, consistently at long range over time as could the carrier. The carrier’s air wing is the original modular weapon system and near-infinitely upgradable, where the battleship was much more challenging/difficult to modernize. Finally, the carrier has always been seen as vulnerable due to the nature of its mission and embarked airing. Its defense has always been based on its airing and escorts rather than the hull. In replacing the carrier, the author suggests that the missile combat folks at the Navy Postgraduate school have a possible successor in massed missile strike. That concept, however, has its own problems. ASCM’s, unlike aircraft (manned or unmanned), cannot be recalled after launch and NPS’ mass of small missile craft must return to base to refuel/re-arm while the carrier group can remain at sea and continue to strike. An interesting article, but the author makes a significant historical error in linking the “obsolescence” of the battleship or the carrier.

    1. Thats the problem. Carrier group cant remain at see and continue to strike anymore. You hope to launch all your aircraft before inevitable deadly missiles are coming and destroy carrier so no more sorties. And since those missiles have longer range then F-35 you wont even make it within range to launch them before enemy missiles are already coming. Yes the mass missile strike option is not ideal or genius idea but there arent always perfect solutions just best possible of available options.

  8. I am waiting for the Navy to launch the star ship U.S.S. Enterprise.
    I read recently of innovations in weaponry including lasers, rail guns, etc., that will pack more punch than many large cannon in the past, but I don’t know how effective they might be against high speed, anti-cavitating torpedoes rumored to be available to possible foes.
    There also have been a few articles claiming that the U.S. Navy can produce fuel from seawater which replaces the logistical problem of fueling stations.
    The Chinese have demonstrated that building bases on sunken islands can provide outlying platforns for aircraft. I am sure that the Naval engineers have paid attention and have a few ideas of their own.
    All this provides some comfort that progress is still being made in the throes of the blockade.

  9. I respectfully suggest the author has improperly connected the demise of the dreadnoughts with the problems of the present carrier air wing. The battleships was replaced by the carrier, but not because it was vulnerable. One carrier could deliver a greater tonnage of ordnance at much greater range consistently over longer periods than could a squadron of battleships. The real question is whether the Naval Postgraduate School folks (Hughes, Klein, Pournelle) mass of missile combatants can replace the carrier air wing in assuring sea control and deep strike. Cruise missiles, unlike manned or unmanned aircraft, cannot be recalled. A carrier and its escorts can remain at sea longer and in higher sea states than missile combatants that must frequently return to refuel/rearm in vulnerable advanced bases. An interesting article, but I suggest the author has not been successful in making his case.

  10. So, much of the discussion is about uncertainty. However, from looking at the discussions it appears that we lost sight of what the author pointed out in the very beginning:

    “The U.S. Navy is confined to a narrow intellectual roadstead, effectively corralled in its thinking and investment decisions by the three horsemen of budget constraints, bureaucratic sclerosis, and constricting congressional mandates.”

    So the real challenge is in creating a process for which we can reliably react. Relying too heavily on a crystal ball to tell us everything is like constantly shaking the 8-Ball.

    We see this in Cyber Security a lot. The changes happen quickly and we as security professional can adapt but the rest of the business is not structured around this dynamic ecosystem of threats. And, it goes both ways. Typical vendor terms of contract are no less than 1 year. So, what does the business do? Buries itself in bloated relationships with single vendors for egregious amounts of time. So much so that when it does come time to change it’s hard to remove the rattle from the babies hand.

    1. I’m all for having a realistic conversation about the future of US naval aviation, and had that been what Noel was doing here I don’t think I would have objected. But the only way you arrive there is by cherry picking the above article. Example:

      “We should stop building CVNs after CVN 79, USS Kennedy, which is currently under construction. Procuring just the platforms is already crushing the ship account, and the necessary new payloads to make carriers viable in high-end conflict are cost prohibitive.”

      That is a little more than simply saying we need to have a conversation about large deck carriers, or the ability of the USN to adapt to technological change, don’t you think?

  11. This discussion is not so much about innovation and bureaucratic recalcitrance, as it is about perspective. A more negatively connotative word is bias.

    Ladies and gentlemen, let’s pause for a moment for station identification. The author and the august cohort of other naval officers he cites are thoughtful and well written scholars, but they approach this problem and offer solutions based on their respective backgrounds. For example:

    LtCol Noel Williams (Ret), a Marine, and CAPT Harry Hendrix (Ret), a P-3 Naval Flight Officer have collaborated in the past to propose more and smaller carriers based on amphibious ships. The embarked airwings would be populated with F-35B and long-range UAVs, along with expeditionary land bases in order to project power. In essence, the fleet would be better off if it looked more like the Marine Corps and Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aviation.

    CAPT W. P. Hughes (Ret) and CDR Phil Pournelle are Surface Warfare Officers and have proposed flotillas of numerous swarming missile boats supported by logistics motherships outside the A2/AD zones and defended by larger surface combatants. So, the fleet looks like Naval Aviation, except it’s floating on the surface.

    LtCol Williams has criticized the carrier’s cost; CAPT Hendrix, in a populist turn, has gone so far as to relate it to the building of 350 new public schools. Carriers are expensive, that is an acknowledged problem, but so were triremes, men-of-war, dreadnaughts, and fast battleships. In any case, the Ford will still cost $4,000,000,000 less than Americans spent on Valentine’s Day this year ($18.9B).

    A modern nuclear powered aircraft carrier is more than its name reflects. It is a floating hotel with 5000 beds, five restaurants, four gyms, a convenience store, a bank, and a jail. It is a world-class medical facility with an emergency room, mass casualty trauma center, operating spaces, and dental office. It is an operational and intermediate level maintenance facility for the every type/model/series aircraft in the fleet with a jet engine rebuilding and test facility, electrical test benches, parts storage hub, and naval magazine. The carrier is an intelligence center, maritime and air operations center, planning, briefing and debriefing spaces for up to 10 squadrons. It also happens to be a mobile airfield that can launch four 33 ton aircraft in 30 seconds and recover a 24 ton aircraft every 45. If you leave all those functions ashore, you are tethered to the beach. You will fight tonight with the equipment and information you have, because you will not be reaching back to the rear.

    How much would it cost to replicate Kadena AFB and all its functions, and have it be able to travel anywhere in the world at 30 knots?

    Speaking of vulnerability, every established base or potential expeditionary site in the Western Pacific that is capable of projecting power has been ranged by the adversaries. None of those fixed bases introduce a 227 square mile target location error problem every 15 minutes.

    Is there room for discussing the total number and investment in super carriers? Sure. I’m an advocate of a high-low mix. Is there room for unmanned aircraft in Naval Aviation? Absolutely, but manned unmanned teaming is the logical first step. If there’s one thing a combat UAV will never leave home without, it’s a manned controlling aircraft within LOS. How well do you think your long-haul UAV SATCOM links are going to fare in a near-peer away game fight? Am I question talking? Let’s move on.

    In the political sphere, Republicans and Democrats have found a way to list each other as their number one enemy, with radical terrorists a distant second. We don’t need to engage in warfare insignia identity politics.

    We can and are having a debate about the future fleet composition, but declaring the matter “settled law”, characterizing your opponent as either a calcified bureaucrat or short-sighted luddite is not helpful.

    1. Another realistic assessment. Large carriers remain the United States’ most survivable method of delivering effective air power, en masse, into the western pacific, A2/AD or no A2/AD, given how vulnerable and soft first island chain bases are. Their abandonment must be accompanied with the procurement of platforms which can sustain a commensurate level of tactical air power, and project it across an ocean. If not, then the United States has to be comfortable with forfeiting its ability to intervene militarily in the western pacific in the matter it has been accustomed to for the last 70 years.

  12. Focus on Fleet Design

    Your piece raises a number of crucial points, yet mischaracterizes our recent Hudson Institute report.

    Examining threats, you justly note “the seriousness of the circumstances” and aptly recognize the current and projected advances in “precision lethality and unmanned persistence.” You makes a compelling argument that “the combination of ubiquitous Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and small platforms capable of effectively engaging large platforms will shift the calculus for platform size and numbers within the overall fleet design” and accordingly recommends the Navy work overtime to revise fleet and ship design.

    In your piece, you propose a different fleet design that distributes capability and leverages layered and integrated capabilities across the domains. Of particular note, you recommend the adoption of small, minimally-manned ships capable of launching “more capable and more affordable unmanned options,” arsenal ships, at sea forward arming and refueling platforms, and expeditionary land bases for a range of purposes.

    Despite the wisdom of many of these recommendations, you err in your characterization of the recent Hudson Institute report written by Seth Cropsey, Bryan McGrath, and me: Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict. Your piece states the report contends “that if we replace the current carrier air wing with a new one, the Ford will perform admirably in future high-end conflicts” and that the addition of additional combat systems “would render the new Ford carrier highly effective in a conflict with China.”

    The report makes neither of those assertions. Instead, the report’s Effects Chain Analysis section offers a soberingly realistic portrayal of current and projected threats to Carrier Strike Group (CSG) operations that lead us to conclude: “The CSG faces major constraints and vulnerabilities that reduce its campaign utility to the Joint Force in high-threat scenarios.”

    Nowhere in the report do we assert CSGs would be wholesale “highly effective”; in fact, it is likely that if enough attention were paid to other ships as it is to carriers, similar effects chain analyses would find that few if any ships will be independently “highly effective” in all scenarios. Instead, in nuanced fashion, we recognize the growing requirements for sea-based air power for strike, air warfare, and surveillance and contend that with recommended changes to concepts, capabilities, and capacities CSGs would be capable of fulfilling necessary Joint Force requirements. This will likely increasingly entail a focus on relatively greater sea control requirements than power projection requirements, as adversary (especially Chinese) Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) and sea control capabilities grow.

    Hopefully the Hudson report stimulates discussion not only of the carrier, but of the broader carrier as a system, and the Joint Force as a whole and sparks the critical fleet design review that you seek. For instance, the report closely analyzes the Combat Logistics Force (CLF). Improvement of the CLF and the development of Vertical Launch System at sea reload would aid not only the performance of the carrier force, but the entire navy, and would likely improve the viability of attractive concepts and capabilities that increase the relative importance of non-carrier elements of the force.

    Over time, this can result in a force that leverages the best features of Anti-Access capabilities (in particular long-range missiles launched from land, sea, and air) and the best features of Power Projection forces (such as carriers, bombers, nuclear submarines, and surface combatants). Jim Thomas of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has a term for this hybrid force: “an Anti-Access Enabled Power Projection Force,” and it may be what China is pursuing as they progressively develop the capabilities for global sea control (such as carriers) while continuing to build on their considerable advantages in Anti-Access systems. The role of the carrier in the Joint Force is clear, so those in the U.S. that question the carrier’s utility should ask not “why do we have carriers?”, but rather “why don’t we have adequate long-range missiles?”

    As communicated by your piece, the future size and composition of the Fleet (and the Joint Force overall) is inadequate to meet U.S. interests. Entering into an era of great power competition, this will require political leadership to dedicate more resources to defense. Taking the lead, Senator Marco Rubio has called for the Navy to quickly grow to a minimum of 323 ships. It will also require, though, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Navy to think more critically about the requirements of future fleet and ship design. A clean-sheet, Strategy, Scenarios Assessment-based review of Navy fleet design as an element of the Joint Force should be undertaken to determine whether the future capabilities, posture, and forces of our Fleet are appropriate for the nation and to identify requisite changes that can be quickly pursued.

    As stated in the Hudson report, some of the proposed changes “will be disruptive to existing plans, programs, and paradigms; however, the alternative is a rapidly weakening force that incurs greater operational risk not only for itself but also for other components of the Joint Force.” Overall, you are absolutely correct that we must quickly change course.

    1. An additional point.

      ‘Jim Thomas of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has a term for this hybrid force: “an Anti-Access Enabled Power Projection Force,”…. The role of the carrier in the Joint Force is clear, so those in the U.S. that question the carrier’s utility should ask not “why do we have carriers?”, but rather “why don’t we have adequate long-range missiles?”’

      Wouldn’t you say that the need for an “an Anti-Access Enabled Power Projection Force” is being partially addressed by the development and adoption of the JASSM family of missiles? In terms of ‘bursting’ A2/AD bubbles JASSM is an invaluable tool, striking critical ISR enablers and comm nodes from distance, with JASSM-ER allowing a the strike platform to standoff a massive 500nm. Obviously the average CSG can throw a large number of TACTOMs as well, though these may well prove far less survivable than JASSM’s. Is this insufficient for counter A2/AD work as it stands in 2020, or are you advocating the development of 1000nm+ ALCM’s?

      As for the Joint Force being ‘Anti Access Enabled’, isn’t LRASM a huge step in that direction? 500nm range, autonomous routing and targeting, two way data-link, significant IR and EM signature reduction, 1klb warhead: unless I’m missing something LRASM will simply outclass the PLAN/AF’s ALCM’s in terms of range, survivability and lethality. AFAIK they are yet to field the YJ-12, which is at base 1980’s technology (KH-31 development). This system alone, combined with US ISR capability, should provide the CSG with a significant A2/AD bubble 1000nm in diameter for surface targets. Doesn’t this go some of the way to achieving the capability you are advocating? It seems to me that the USN is moving in this very direction.