Thursday, November 29, 2012

Building Dreadnoughts in 1940

Why are we worried about a dreadnought race with China as if this was 1940?

This article contrasts the baby step of the Chinese landing a plane on their first Soviet-build carrier hull while one of our carriers is delayed on a mission to CENTCOM:

China has showcased its first aircraft carrier landings while maintenance woes have reduced the United States to a single carrier in the Gulf, pointing to the beginnings of a subtle shift in the balance of naval power.

With South China Sea tensions growing, the threat of Middle East conflict still very real and counterterrorism and counter piracy operations also demanding resources, demands on Western navies - and the U.S. in particular - seem ever-growing.

Even as it emerged that problems with the USS Nimitz would leave Washington unable to maintain its standard two-carrier Gulf force for the first time since 2010, its navy found itself sending new forces to a volatilce eastern Mediterranean.

I'll ignore the possibility that the delay is based on equipping Nimitz for a possible attack on Iran in the spring under the guise of maintenance issues.

By the time China can build and learn to operate several carriers, it may be obvious that the age of the super carrier as the dominant sea control ship has passed.

Instead of trying to adapt to operate in the future networked environment, why don't we try to adapt our Navy to operate in that environment? We will have smaller carriers by then, after all. With precision weapons they can fill the ground support role in wars such as Iraq or Afghanistan despite holding fewer aircraft while being less of a loss, hull for hull, compared to the super carriers of today.

Let's do more of that by picking a number of ships we need to police the seas we want to contest and building what we can afford while reaching that number, rather than hoping that somehow money will rain from the heavens to allow us to build the expensive ships we want in the number we say we need.

Yes, I know, defenders of the big decks will point to all the great things our carriers have done in the wars we've fought since the end of World War II up to today. All true accomplishments. All valuable accomplishments. But this is conflating the usefulness of super carriers in power projection missions with their vulnerability in sea control missions.

China is developing carriers just as their age is passing. We should welcome their determination to win the dreadnought arms race as if it was taking place in 1940, on the eve of the age of carriers.

We're entering the age of the network. Build the network.