Carrier Strike Groups Should Be Ready to Go Dark in Conflict
The multiple “Taiwan war” games now being fought at think tanks and universities across the United States share something in common: A Chinese missile strike on a U.S. aircraft carrier during the war’s opening volleys. For the adversary team, it is common to continue targeting U.S. carriers throughout conflict. But how long can the strike group evade one of China’s far-reaching Dongfeng anti-ship ballistic missiles? And even if the carrier dodges a DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile (with an estimated range of 2,200 nautical miles), what can the carrier strike group offensively bring to the fight?
The short answer? Not much.
During multiple iterations of a 2022 Center for Strategic and International Studies war game, at least two U.S. aircraft carriers were sunk and their air wings destroyed. If a carrier somehow managed to flee the second island chain unscathed from the war’s initial salvos, it would have to continue operating (or hiding) outside the second island chain until U.S. submarines and bombers cleared out China’s “carrier-killer” platforms.
Based on these war games, contemporary navalists are now coming up with ways to defend strike groups. Strategists should also be thinking about how to make them force multipliers. The U.S. Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers rack up an annual $13 billion in operating costs alone. For that kind of money, U.S. taxpayers deserve more than 11 wartime liabilities.
Should the United States face a real conflict with China, carriers will need to “go dark” for two reasons. Carriers may decide to strangle their unique (military) emissions to escape detection and targeting (emissions control). Or they may be forced to operate without external communications because the Chinese military has jammed U.S. radars or knocked out satellite constellations (operating in a denied and degraded command-and-control environment).
The U.S. sea services should develop and deploy tactics, techniques, and procedures that stress-test the carrier strike group in order to ensure it can offensively operate under emissions control and a denied and degraded command-and-control environment all while maintaining superior battlespace awareness.
Presently, such awareness demands gigabytes of data derived from sophisticated, high-bandwidth satellite communications and internet protocol-based radio networks. In conflict, these tools could vanish. As the carrier strike group operates alone and unafraid, information warriors will need to wean themselves off emission-intensive methods and go “back to basics.” This will require resurrecting the carrier’s organic resources and low-emission communication methods while shifting from a “transmit” to a “receive” mindset.
Areas of Uncertainty
The People’s Liberation Army has spent two decades training a counter-intervention force and building an anti-access/area denial zone that depends on a diverse, multi-domain battle network to either destroy or blind American aircraft carriers.
First, in order to destroy U.S. carriers, the Chinese military has developed a “constant, controllable, and high-impact” network that integrates with “high-intensity and fast-paced” precision strikes to wreak “irreversible damage and powerful destruction” on U.S. forces. Although the DF-21D and DF-26B anti-ship ballistic missiles are the archetypal “carrier-killer” missiles, U.S. aircraft carriers are enveloped by overlapping weapon engagement zones, or WEZ, the moment they enter the second island chain. Many of my Navy colleagues like to say we “wake up in the WEZ.” And it’s true. Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles — launched from submarines, surface units, fighters, and bombers — can join anti-ship ballistic missiles in attacking a carrier and its escorts as far east as Guam. Moreover, the Chinese military has left few doubts about which ships are in its boresight. In late 2021, the People’s Liberation Army constructed a mock two-dimensional silhouette of an American carrier strike group (one aircraft carrier and two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers) at the Ruoqiang missile range in central China for probable DF-21D target practice.
Sheer capability and intent, however doesn’t confer lethality. In 2018, Forbes writer Loren Thompson reasoned that the People’s Liberation Army would be hard-pressed to find, fix, track, and target a carrier, skirt its “multilayered defense,” strike it, and collect an accurate bomb hit assessment. A carrier’s real-time maneuverability, he argued, would allow it to avoid detection altogether or transit far enough between Chinese military detection and launch to flee missiles.
Unfortunately, in my experience, escaping from China’s well-linked kill web is harder than it sounds.
The Strongman of Space
China’s diverse suite of sensors likely provides its military with a reliable common operating picture to strike adversary targets. Surface ships, unmanned surface vessels, maritime militia units, or over-the-horizon radar sites can tip and cue unmanned aerial vehicles, special mission aircraft, and China’s distributed, redundant imaging and signals intelligence satellites to build and maintain a quality target track for anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles to engage. And when the carrier strike group moves — as ships do — these missiles’ advanced homing systems close the area of uncertainty and strike.
For more than a decade, Chinese military doctrine has emphasized the importance of “outer space and cyber space.” Lectures on the Sciences of Space Operations, a pivotal Chinese military treatise on the future of space warfare released in 2013 by the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences, argues that whoever wields “space superiority will master the initiative in warfare.” No space support? No victory. Yet these writings also see space superiority as a zero-sum game. Future space operations, according to Lectures, demands guaranteeing one’s own “space strengths” while “limit[ing], weaken[ing], and destroy[ing] the enemy’s space strengths.” This almost certainly requires China’s Strategic Support and Rocket Forces to “blind and deafen” U.S. carriers by destroying key operational and communication nodes that require persistent network access, thereby paralyzing American naval operations. To achieve this, Chinese military theorists recommend a combination of soft- and hard-kill methods to destroy critical military hubs, nodes, and networks including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, early warning, navigation and positioning, and imaging and communication satellites.
From a soft-kill perspective, the People’s Liberation Army will probably jam ship-borne radars and GPS. It could also wage offensive cyber operations against a satellite’s ground-control link. Kinetically, the People’s Liberation Army has developed operational ground-based antisatellite missiles to target U.S. satellites in low-earth orbit and likely are developing antisatellite weapons to strike GPS and communications satellite architecture. These satellites are critical to strike group operations.
To defend against these threats, a carrier would have no choice but to “go dark.” Regaining those senses requires carrier strike groups to become comfortable and capable operating alone. Fortunately, routine practice operating in a denied and degraded communications environment can neuter the Chinese military’s two-pronged destructive strategy.
Passivity Begets Lethality
In an August 2022 Proceedings piece, Patrick Goldman urged ships to set a strict emissions control posture underway to familiarize sailors and mask the ship’s “electronic footprint.” Operating in such a way, Goldman argued, will make surface ships a “force multiplier” and provide “a strategic advantage.” Evading the enemy may tire them out, but going dark will still not make strike groups an effective fighting force.
In fact, a strike group will become a force liability if it operates with little awareness of what lies over the horizon. To overcome this challenge, the Navy should consider four options.
The first is deploying passive detection sensors to track the adversary while operating in their anti-access/area denial zone undetected. Passive sensors generate no detectable signals. These sensors instead collect signals, silently listening for emissions bouncing around the battlespace. Processors or analysts correlate these raw signals to specific radars and platforms. And because passive sensors do not emit signals, the adversary will not find them. These sensors allow U.S. commanders to build an accurate common operating picture while minimizing risk to the force.
The U.S. military has made advancements in passive surveillance. Raytheon’s advanced radar detection system, for example, is a passive electronic intelligence sensor attached to sea or ground platforms, designed to detect ground-based emissions. The new shipboard panoramic electro-optic/infrared program will provide U.S. warships with “a scalable 360-degree electro-optic/infrared passive automatic detection and tracking solution.” But these advances do not go far enough. Raytheon’s radar detection system should be upgraded to detect sea- and air-based emissions, too. The current detection range of passive sensors already on board warships should be extended. In short, the U.S. Navy should allocate more research and development to passive signals intelligence and electronic intelligence sensors that will enable strike groups to avoid detection and protect the fleet while finding and striking the enemy before the enemy responds in kind.
The U.S. military should also develop an intelligence and surveillance network organic to the carrier strike group. During the Cold War, a strike group largely relied on its carrier air wings to know what lurked over the horizon. Back then, air wings fielded a host of organic intelligence and surveillance platforms, including electronic intelligence collectors (ES-3A Shadow), submarine hunters (S-3 Viking), and the F-14 Tomcat’s tactical airborne reconnaissance pod imagery collection system.
Advancement of national sensors and theater reconnaissance platforms (such as the P-8, RC-135V/W, MQ-4C) since the Cold War allowed air wings to abandon these missions. But in a conflict with China, strike groups will likely lack the bandwidth to access information derived from national technical means — if such means remain operable. And although theater intelligence and surveillance aircraft may be able to transmit data to aircraft carriers, theater and national tasking may out-prioritize strike group collection requirements. Left alone, the strike group should develop an organic surveillance network to identify, locate, and track adversary forces and unknown units within its surveillance areas. This collection architecture necessitates three lines of effort.
First, develop carrier-borne, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance-focused unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy should upgrade the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker into a sensing platform. It should carry an electro-optical/infrared camera, synthetic aperture radar with maritime moving target indicator functionality, and a signals intelligence payload. This platform should penetrate deep into the first island chain and emphasize stealth capabilities to reduce its radar cross-section. To ameliorate detection, carriers could also maintain control of the drones for launch and recovery but transfer control to a ground station to execute strike group tasking and report activity via long-range radio communication.
Second, incorporate unmanned surface vehicles into the strike group as escorts. The Navy has decided to match China’s ambitious shipbuilding program by investing in a “ghost fleet,” comprised of an estimated 150 unmanned surface combatants by 2040. Each strike group should be equipped with at least three unmanned surface vehicles to support strike group movements, much like manned cruisers and destroyers. Tasking would include antisubmarine warfare, mine countermeasures, intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities, and counter-surveillance detection.
Third, remember that every aircraft is a sensor. All carrier air wing platforms should contribute to the strike group’s surface search coordination mission. This intelligence and surveillance tasking should not subvert primary missions, but aviators should communicate in real time with strike group intelligence cells to gain and contribute to greater awareness during flight operations and proficiency training. This includes information warriors directing surface search missions to prosecute unknown or adversarial units operating near the carrier.
The Navy should also embrace secure low-emission radio communications or “receive transmissions.” Long before emails and internet-based messaging tools, U.S. warships could communicate with surface units outside the strike group or at higher-echelon commands and support elements using secure, high-frequency communications that can be exempt from certain emissions-control restrictions. Most U.S. Navy ships still sail with these devices, despite their age. Information technicians should be trained to work on, troubleshoot, and improve them. When operating in a denied or degraded command-and-control environment, high-frequency transmissions are largely immune to enemy interference and offer a redundant alternative to satellite communications. Unfortunately, high-frequency communications are easy for adversaries to intercept and locate. Ships transmitting via high-frequency communications risk being found and targeted, which is why shore-based command-and-control nodes should broadcast vital tactical information to ships at sea without those ships giving away their positions by acknowledging receipt. Additionally, surface units should utilize onboard “receive-only” communication platforms to receive intelligence products and tippers from higher headquarters that can provide threat warnings and influence the commander’s decisions.
Finally, the U.S. Navy should invest in systems to better understand the theater’s pattern of life. Online tools that seek to autonomously classify surface or air contacts permit shipboard intelligence personnel to become proficient in disseminating packaged intelligence but not analyzing data or exploiting information — two key steps in the intelligence cycle. Carrier strike group intelligence cells should develop hard-copy libraries and study guides that document Chinese military assets, capabilities, and bases as well as images or “heat maps” with known operating areas for adversary platforms. If cut off from outside or external intelligence sources, the carrier should have its own threat libraries and expertise to remain tactically viable.
In a fight with China, U.S. warships should gracefully retrograde their onboard technological information warfare capabilities. Some warfare areas already embrace this trend. At Naval Officer Candidate School, officers practice navigation with paper charts and maneuvering boards lest GPS stops working. The information warfare community should also go back to basics, back to pen and paper, back to the fundamental resources that allowed the U.S. Navy to maneuver undetected without sacrificing lethality in previous clashes. Routine drills that test a strike group’s ability to control its emissions and operate in a restrictive communications environment are an ideal opportunity to test and train all information warriors.
After two decades of post-Cold War technological advancement, the information warfare community has grown complacent, dependent on advanced, data-intensive tools that may be degraded or ineffective in conflict. Only by developing and reinstating resilient, low-emission, and low-tech capabilities will carrier strike groups be able to neuter China’s anti-access/area denial threat and mount a formidable challenge to the adversary.
Nick Danby is an active-duty U.S. naval intelligence officer. He is assigned to Carrier Strike Group Five staff, permanently embarked on USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) in Yokosuka, Japan. He graduated magna cum laude with highest honors from Harvard University. He has been published in Proceedings, Naval History, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, and The Diplomat, among other publications.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.