Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Network's Platform

Once upon a time, America's carriers represented our sole long-range offensive punch. They were the ultimate platform in platform-centric naval warfare. Submarines, even nuclear-powered subs, still had a comparatively short attack range. Our surface vessels had guns with short ranges and at best primitive missiles. Their most important role was to protect the carriers.

With Harpoon we gained a missile that could be--and was--put on all our surface ships and submarines. We reduced the critical importance of our best platform--the carrier--and distributed our offensive power throughout the fleet (and in the air with air-launched missiles). Our enemies could no longer hope to cripple our offensive power with a dozen large missiles striking our carriers. The Soviets trailed our carriers during the Cold War so they could try to decapitate us. But this is no longer possible since our carriers aren't the sole source of offensive power.

As the Navy works on network-centric warfare, the ability to mass effect both offensively and defensively from widely scattered platforms, the importance of individual platforms is decreased even more. This reduces our vulnerability to the loss of individual platforms. Other assets can fill in the hole seamlessly and our Navy's targets will never know that a missile from a different platform destroyed it. It will be an irrelevant detail.

Now the Navy is making the distributed platforms even more flexible with the new DD (X). The weapon of choice will be the gun, for now the poor cousin of the Navy:

At the dawn of the 21st century, the Navy's primary antisurface gun battery consists of one 5-inch gun with a range of 13 nautical miles. But if the Navy sticks to its schedule, by 2012 two DD(X) ships will be operational, each armed with a battery of two 155mm (6.1-inch) Advanced Gun Systems with a range of no less than 68 miles.

Stealthy and well protected with long-range eyes, the gun will give the ship the ability to attack land and sea targets:

DESPITE ALL THIS, the most intriguing element of DD(X) is its guns. Each 155mm gun will fire a Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP). The LRLAP has already been successfully tested to 83 nautical miles. Though it only carries 24 lbs of high explosives, the Advanced Gun System (AGS) is fully automated and holds a magazine of 300 rounds. With a rate of fire of 10 rounds a minute, the AGS should be able to provide the volume fire capability the Navy so desperately needs, and with GPS-guidance the LRLAP will be extremely accurate.

Still, you may say, the carrier provides the range that even the new 155mm gun wih long-range projectiles cannot match. True, but this gun is not the last word:

All of the technologies discussed so far have already been successfully tested, but the DD(X) is also designed to allow for the rapid deployment of technologies still in the pipeline. The Navy hopes to fit these ships with an electromagnetic rail gun by 2020. The rail gun would be capable of firing a guided projectile up to 267 nautical miles, which would put all of North Korea into range from either coast of that peninsula (or, to take another theoretical example, allow the Navy to bombard Paris from the English Channel).

This is a significant event for our Navy:

The modern era of the carrier battle group has not yet drawn to a close but DD(X) may offer a glimpse at the future of Naval combat. The focus on stealth and firepower may augur a new way of fighting at sea--one that doesn't leave large numbers of American sailors and marines vulnerable to sea-skimming missiles and air attack.

When guns have range that rivals effective aircraft range, the carrier risks being supplanted by guns in a revenge of the lanyards that reverses the demotion gun-armed ships experienced when carriers took the place of honor in World War II.

In 1999, the United States Naval Institute purchased an article I submitted that addresses the pending demotion of our large carriers. Sadly, it has never been published. I made several points in the article that the DD (X) article addresses.

I wrote that network-centric warfare signals the beginning of the end for the United States Navy's large aircraft carriers, which will lose their value as an instrument of forward presence. Carriers will become valuable targets that, if struck, will encourage an enemy at the outset of war by apparently demonstrating that American technological prowess can be nullified and beaten. Indeed, our new surge strategy for our carriers addresses this vulnerability of essentially having a solitary carrier out as bait where an enemy can plan a first strike to get a very big CNN moment.

In the long run, given networked and very long range cannons, large aircraft carriers will add little to most offensive missions and will absorb scarce resources and assets simply evading attack rather than striking the enemy and contributing to victory. The concentrated power of the carrier platform's air wing will simply be one element of the massed effect of dispersed attack platforms such as DD (X) achievable in network-centric warfare. An enemy will face massed firepower from all directions launched by U.S. forces wielding a plethora of weapons deployed on surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. This attack capability will be potent whether carriers are part of the network or not.

Today, even though more and more of our surface combatants possess potent offensive weapons and are capable of more independent operations, they are still tied to the carrier battlegroups. In this role, their primary mission is to protect the carrier. Expeditionary Strike Groups are a new exception to this since I submitted the article. ESGs wed Marines on amphibious ships to surface warships capable of supporting a littoral operation.

To exploit the network, the capable surface ships we will build must be cut loose and dispersed in accordance with the logic of network-centric warfare. Aircraft carriers will not add a bang commensurate with the billions of bucks they cost. Writing just after the Kosovo War, I asked did the Theodore Roosevelt really help in Kosovo? In my opinion, no. A couple score of shooters was irrelevant in NATO's thousand-plane force.

The worst part of carriers, even if we accept that carrier-launched planes are not the most efficient or effective manner of attack in the future, is that they will grow increasingly vulnerable. Eventually, an enemy will develop a network even if it only covers their immediate area or is limited in scope. The problem of defending in a networked environment will be brutally apparent to the Navy if it fights an enemy possessing a similar attack network which will seek the high value target of an aircraft carrier. If the Navy's carriers enter an enemy grid to come within striking range, they will no longer have the safety of getting lost in the vastness of the oceans. Nor can large carriers be made stealthy enough to remain obscured within an enemy grid. They will need to dash to striking range, strike, and get out before being struck themselves.

When the Navy faces such an enemy, the carriers will be a tremendously important "something" to America, and the loss of even one will shock the American public and might well stop the war if fighting for anything short of a vital American interest. Setting a carrier afire will make excellent CNN footage.

A network does not need a high value asset. Certainly, it is true that network-centric warfare defenses can bring dispersed air defenses together to defend the carrier (if they have sufficiently long range) but why expend that effort? In a developed networked force, the aircraft carrier adds little that numerous smaller platforms cannot provide and only represents a potential loss of great propaganda value.

The emergence of network-centric warfare does not mean the near-term obsolescence of large aircraft carriers. They represent large investments and there is no need to simply retire them any time soon. The useful roles for these aircraft carriers will diminish in time, however, beginning with the forward presence role. As I noted, we've already altered our naval presence from rotating a couple carriers to forward location in favor of being able to surge a large number in a crisis. In a peacetime operating routine, aircraft carriers that sail in another nation's surveillance and strike network will be vulnerable to a bolt from the blue and may actually invite war rather than deter it. Only against enemies incapable of striking them--as was the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq--will carriers retain their power to inflict punishing destruction.

Our carriers may become the aging gunslingers relying on their reputation from the glory days. As strike platforms in the Navy's network, aircraft carriers will retain a role far decades to come, but even in this role they will face limits. The Navy will need to keep them far from the enemy, closing the range only to strike.

Carriers are the ultimate in platform-centric warfare--even with unmanned aerial combat vehicles. But network-centric warfare is our Navy's future. The gun-armed surface warship, dispersed physically but networked to mass effect at sea or against targets on land, will keep our Navy dominant as it has been for more than sixty years. I love our carriers and their historic exploits are thrilling. But we cannot hang on to them forever when new platforms for a new network are built.

I almost feel sorry for our potential enemies who try to match our carriers (at great expense) just as we supplant them.