war on the rocks

How Do We Make Our Carriers Deadlier With What We Already Have?

November 2, 2015

Why would the United States send a $13-billion, 90,000-ton hulking symbol of military might with nearly 5,000 sailors aboard to a fight in which its survivability was, at best, questionable? Conventional wisdom suggests we wouldn’t, but it may be time to reevaluate that assumption.

The Hudson Institute recently published an exhaustive study entitled Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict, and it has created something of a stir within the national security world. Seth Cropsey, Bryan McGrath, and Timothy Walton challenge widely held notions about the effectiveness of the carrier strike group (CSG) and its survivability in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment. On the surface, their arguments seem to ignore the “long reach” threats associated with the A2/AD concept. However, through detailed analysis and their own wargaming, the authors make a compelling argument that a CSG (or multiple CSGs) will be an essential guarantor of success in hypothetical high-end fights against peer and near-peer adversaries. Indeed, they insist that the CSG is the best option for just such a fight.

It would be easy for our senior civilian and uniformed leaders to cite this study as a validation of the status quo, but this would be a misuse of the authors’ work, because it is not today’s CSGs that they defend. Instead, this study serves as a conditional endorsement of what the CSG can become with new platforms, weapons, and tactics.

An overwhelming majority of the recommendations offered in the study would require tremendous capital investments that might be unrealistic in our fiscally uncertain waters. As reference points, consider the estimated $1.5-trillion total cost for the Joint Strike Fighter program, $92 billion for the Ohio-class replacement submarine, and another $130 billion for the planned purchase of ten Ford-class carriers. And, those figures represent what is already planned or purchased — not any of the authors’ suggested follow-on programs. Bryan McGrath was recently quoted saying, “Washington is full of people trying to spend less money. … I’m in the business of trying to say … the Navy needs more money.” While I do not disagree that more and better platforms or weapons are national security imperatives, this article focuses on two areas of the study that do not necessarily require entirely new acquisition programs to realize improved CSG capabilities in an A2/AD environment.

Quiet is Key

Addressing the persistent question of “why the CSG?” — as opposed to land-based airpower — the authors correctly assess that both forms of power projection are vulnerable to A2/AD threats. However, they note, only the CSG can maneuver. A carrier’s inherent ability to operate in one locale and then quickly reposition elsewhere has proven invaluable since the Second World War. At issue in the 21st century is the CSG’s heavy reliance upon radio communication and tactical datalinks, and how that reliance would affect the proposed “Power Pulse” operating concept. The concept of Power Pulse operations stems from an anticipated inability to maintain a CSG in one location for extended periods of time due to A2/AD threats. Executing Power Pulse tactics would have CSGs loiter at the edges of an enemy’s A2/AD volume, “employing long range weapons against select targets, before high speed movements in radio silence to the next operating area.” Simply stated, Power Pulse operations are hit-and-run attack conducted under complete radio silence — EMCON (Emissions Control), in military parlance. The intent of this tactic is to capitalize on the CSG’s inherent advantage of maneuverability, but that advantage is quickly nullified if it the CSG cannot operate quietly.

In recent years, an increased focus has been placed on unmanned systems and how to integrate them into an anti-A2/AD concept of operations. While the capabilities unmanned systems bring to a hypothetical fight are undeniably impressive, they should not be seen as a panacea, as some have suggested here at WOTR and in companion studies. The mere fact that these vehicles rely exclusively on networked tactical data links only serves to further highlight one of the Navy’s largest vulnerabilities. The Navy and its CSGs must relearn how to lead, plan, and fight without the benefit of tactical data links, satellite communications, and persistent command and control. This focus and effort should be underway now with existing platforms and personnel to avoid jeopardizing future programs.

The Long Pole of Logistics

Another less flashy yet undeniably important element of this study is its discussion of logistical and supply vulnerabilities. The authors correctly point out that the Navy’s modern reliance on a limited number of forward-deployed supply stations (particularly in the Pacific) should be cause for concern, as these facilities would likely be early high-priority targets. The presumed loss of vital in-theater staging, resupply, and repair facilities will place an added premium on a CSG’s ability to conduct underway replenishment (UNREP). While the Navy has worked hard to develop a high level of proficiency conducting UNREPs, the existing fleet of supply vessels is inadequate to support a sustained Pacific campaign. Adding a layer of complexity to this issue is the inability of non-carrier surface combatants to receive and load certain weapons while underway — weapons required to carve out patches of maneuvering and operating space in an A2/AD environment. Whether we look at the matter through the lens of refueling or rearming, this study makes clear that the U.S. Navy is wholly unprepared for a sustained Pacific campaign.

To address this vulnerability, the authors draw upon Second World War experiences to form recommendations for the 21st-century fleet. During World War II, the Navy used the concept of distributed basing, which allowed it to take advantage of dispersed islands and atolls to serve forces across the immense Pacific theater. Because the majority of our current forward staging bases face significant A2/AD threats, the Navy must consider previous lessons and work to develop a greater number of advanced and intermediate pre-positioning and supply stations to improve depth and flexibility. Obviously, expanding the number of bases outside A2/AD threats will help to preserve those bases themselves. However, it is also reasonable to conclude that the dispersed and decentralized nature of this model would complicate enemy targeting efforts against bases inside the threat ranges as well. In the event one of these “near” staging bases was attacked, the fact that it represented just one of many would reduce the attack’s operational significance. In other words, the authors suggest we increase the number of baskets in which we place our eggs.

Distributed bases alone will not meet CSG logistical demands. We still must be able to move materiel from bases to ships at sea. As such, underway replenishment will remain a vital force enabler. The current Combat Logistics Force (CLF), consisting of 29 ships, has met existing demands, but a large Pacific campaign would quickly eclipse the capacity of the current fleet. Pointing to an analysis performed in 2002, the authors determine that “using more stressful planning factors that do not assume major fleet bases near potential contingencies, and that anticipate the development of a potent Chinese sea control threat, would result in a significantly higher wartime requirement for CLF ships.” The gap between current inventory and required inventory is specific to CSGs. If we consider the real requirement, including the added demand from amphibious ready groups tasked to establish distributed bases, the CLF shortage becomes even more concerning. The obvious response is to simply build more CLF vessels, and while the Navy plans to build a new class of 17 T-AO(X) oilers, the authors argue this number is too small. Building (and paying for) more ships is not the only recommendation offered. In order to improve CLF performance and survivability independent of the eventual number of hulls, the study suggests the addition of defensive armament, the employment of convoy operations, and a reassessment of current plans to place two fast combat supply ships in reserve.

Unfortunately, more or better-protected CLF platforms still don’t address one of the larger supply issues facing the CSG in a hypothetical high-end Pacific campaign. Despite design requirements to the contrary, the inability of either cruisers or destroyers within the CSG to reload vertical launch system cells (storage and firing cells used for surface to surface missiles) while underway presents a distinct disadvantage during anything other than a very brief campaign. Existing configurations and capabilities require surface combatants to retire from the line in order to rearm. While a greater number of distributed bases would help alleviate this problem, operating in the massive expanses of the Western Pacific will require additional steps. The authors support ongoing efforts to address the shortcoming because “the ability to reload the Navy’s surface primary magazine is a telling metric of whether the Navy is actually prepared to fight against a major threat like China or Russia.” Of course the ability to reload is not limited to the physical ability to bring the weapons aboard — the weapons have to actually exist. In fiscal year 2015, the Navy proposed no new Tomahawk Land Attack Missile orders after 2016, even though the missile’s successor remains in the design phase.

Evaluating and Accepting Risk

So-called high-end warfare, regardless of the enemy, will result in American casualties and losses of materiel not experienced since the Second World War. It is difficult but not impossible to imagine a scenario in which the loss of an aircraft carrier (or carriers) would be acceptable. Part of the national security establishment believes a war between China and the United States is an economic impossibility. These opinions are short-sighted and ignore history, which explains why it is so refreshing to find a comprehensive study that directly addresses the issue. Cropsey, McGrath, and Walton have succeeded in doing what many in uniform have long refused to do: openly discuss the real requirements that such a war would impose on our nation’s most visible symbol of military might — the aircraft carrier — and the cascading effects to the larger Joint Force.

Open and honest conversations about a $13-billion ship’s value and efficacy serve those of us in uniform, the tax-paying public, and our civilian budgetary masters. These elected officials are responsible for balancing their responsibility to provide the nation with the best fighting force against myriad competing domestic interests. Serious conversations like those in this study play a critical role in informing those calculations, but those of us in uniform cannot sit back idly and wait for the next great technological breakthrough. The current crop of sailors, junior officers, and commanders must recapture the innovative spirit that has been the Navy’s hallmark for 240 years to begin reevaluating and honing existing tactics using the platforms and weapons we have today. The recommendations made in this study are insightful and should serve as a forward vector, but we can’t afford to wait for the Joint Strike Fighter, F/A-XX, or longer-range missiles to take EMCON seriously. Accordingly, we don’t need new supply ships (or surface combatants for that matter) to figure out how to resupply vertical launch system cells or refuel from civilian vessels.

Today, our ships and squadrons are stretched thin — that much is undeniable. This fact can’t serve as an excuse to cease seeking new ways to squeeze every last ounce of capability out of ourselves and our machines. Conversely, our civilian leaders needs to ask themselves a very tough question: If we can’t (or won’t) adequately fund the force we have now, how will we justify even larger outlays for a future fight with the kind of grave consequences we haven’t seen since the 1940s?

 

Jack Curtis is Naval Aviator with 15 years of service. He is a graduate of the University of Florida and the Naval War College. A proud member of the Tailhook Association, he has logged arrested landings on eight different Nimitz-class carriers. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

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