Saturday, June 24, 2006

General Purpose Carriers

I think that aircraft carriers face a declining role in traditional strike warfare in an increasingly networked Navy that no longer needs big platforms to mass effect on targets:

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.

In this light, this RAND study (Tip to Defense Industry Daily) on alternative uses for our big carriers--which will be around for half a century with proper maintenance--is an intersting read.

The roles they mention all have historical precedents. And although the study says combat will always be their priority when demands compete, just the idea that we might adapt our carriers to be more ready for the non-war missions says a lot about our threats and our capabilities. You don't risk your primary weapon on non-war missions.

Our carriers are declining in combat value (see here, here, and here for other posts of mine). And it isn't just because our naval threats are declining. If we had major threats, I think that our carriers would lose their value a lot faster. It is only because we are dominant on the blue waters that carriers can have a long career--fighting inferior powers and saving lives. The RAND study shows how we will use these big platforms in other missions in light of a declining centrality in both fighting enemy fleets and projecting firepower ashore. Heck, in their twilight, maybe we could replace their reactors with conventional power sources and tow them to international waters off of places like West Africa to use them as cheap mobile offshore bases. Put in hospital and barracks facilities and they could host a small number of UCAVs, helicopters, and V/STOL aircraft. [UPDATE: Oh, and a small force of ground troops at all time, which should be able to fit in existing bunk space. There should be room for surging more ground troops. That's why I wrote that barracks facilities should be added.]

The Battle of Midway is long gone. But these proud ships can still serve us well for a long time, I think.