Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Another Carrier Debate?

As we find ourselves short of forward-deployed carriers (even if for a good reason), we should have a carrier debate. Heck, let's have a seapower debate.

If the Navy has decided to pick a number about how big the fleet must be, the aircraft carrier has to be part of the debate because that's where the money is for getting numbers.

It's on!

Calling the U.S. aircraft carrier the "backbone" of America's global military presence, the Navy's top brass highlighted the risks of failing to maintain a big enough fleet during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

But a new report on the future of aircraft carriers suggests that the Navy's problems run deeper than the number of ships or planes on these mobile airfields.

I know nothing about the author of the report, although I normally think little of the Center for No American Security that put it out. But these ships are so central to our fleet and so expensive that we should debate their role and prominence.

First off, we need to have rules on the debate so those on both sides don't argue past each other using their favorable side of the debate. Remember, carriers have two main roles, power projection and sea control:

Power projection is what we've done with our carriers since world War II. Sail them off the coast of some country that doesn't possess a potent navy or air force, and use it as a floating air base. Without the need to fight for control of the sea, we exercise that control of the sea from the start of a conflict. We've done this a lot. And the carriers have performed superbly.

This history of power projection is what the defenders of carriers point to.

But what the anti-carrier side points to is usually the sea control mission. In this mission, by definition we face a nation with a navy and air force capable of fighting us for control of the seas--or at least denying us full control.

And for nations without carriers, advances in persistent surveillance and guided missiles give them a potent weapon to use against our big carriers.

Further, while defenders of carriers like to call them sovereign pieces of American real estate that can host our planes, unlike actual real estate, our carriers float and therefore can sink. Or just burn and become mission kills. Really.

We don't like to admit it and rarely practice what we do if a carrier goes down, but they can be sunk. They can be sunk by relatively cheap missiles. They can be sunk by relatively cheap missiles guided by relatively cheap surveillance assets.

We like to think of land warfare as casualty intensive and air and naval warfare as cheap in lives. But lose one carrier battle group in the middle of the ocean and we could lose more sailors in one day than we lost in the entire Iraq War on the ground over years.

So, our big deck carriers are very valuable in the power projection mission (or in peacetime disaster response where the disaster isn't shooting at us).

But we have to be careful using them in a sea control mission. Especially since the range of our carrier aircraft has bizarrely gone down over the decades, meaning we have more problems striking enemy assets that can target our carriers.

Two, carriers are far too central in our ability to kill ships in a sea control mission. I was shocked to find that we were phasing out Harpoon in the surface fleet--until the Navy thought better of that.

I was even more shocked this week to find that it has been almost two decades since our subs had Harpoon anti-ship missiles!

The Navy is investigating adding an anti-ship missile to its submarine force — bringing it inline with the majority of the world naval submarines, the director of Naval Reactors said on Wednesday. ...

The U.S. submarine fleet did use the UGM-84A Harpoon anti-ship missile but that Harpoon variant was retired in 1997. The current primary attack submarines is the anti-ship weapon is Mk 48 heavy torpedo and is limited in its range relative to anti-ship missiles developed and deployed with foreign navies.

How did I miss that? As God as my witness, I thought our subs had Harpoon anti-ship missiles all this time. It is possible I knew it but forgot, since I am a member of the US Naval Institute so get their magazine. Surely they mentioned this.

The CNAS report does validly point out that another cost-saving measure was made--losing the range of carrier-based aircraft that World War II experience had taught us had to be long to keep the carriers at a safer distance from threats.

Even though I long suspected--even in the Cold War--that carrier survivability was a major problem,  I figured that with anti-ship power spread throughout the fleet we had a good backup to gain control of the seas if our carriers burned.

But instead, our carriers returned to the center of our fleet with the rest just supporting characters.

In one sense I can accept that in an era when sea control was assured because the Soviet navy was rotting away in port and the Chinese navy was a glorified coast guard that saving money by getting rid of redundant anti-ship weapons and aircraft range to focus on power projection made some financial sense.

But here we are with a rapidly growing and technologically advanced Chinese fleet and a more aggressive Russia and our fleet still needs our carriers for the bulk of anti-ship missions?

At least the LCS is being redesigned as a frigate with better anti-ship weapons.

If we are to build carriers, perhaps to justify them we need to think of them as reserve amphibious ships since the Marines are short of amphibious warfare vessels (of course, the amphibious carriers would have a reserve carrier role, too).

And I think that while the carrier has a major role in power projection missions, it must have a supporting role in sea control as networked ships, subs, and planes with long-range anti-ship missiles take out the big threats to our carriers before they can pursue the enemy and finish them off.

Face it, the aircraft carrier as a symbol of American power is far greater than their power for sea control missions. Losing one or more at the outset of a war would be a devastating morale blow against us and would encourage our enemy--regardless of the actual impact on warfighting capabilities. We didn't have to face that reality since the Cold War did not go hot at sea.

I'm just not upset that we have carrier gaps in our forward-deployed naval forces. I'm of the opinion that routine forward deployed ships in range of major enemies should be expendable. Rather than dangle these symbols of our power before an enemy, I'd keep our carriers tethered to home waters to support a surge of carriers for either sea control or power projection in time of war.

And for God's sake, distribute anti-ship weapons throughout the fleet and supporting air power. And make that air power have sufficient range to lessen the danger to the carriers.

Heck, let's be radical and instead of having another useless carrier debate where defenders and attackers argue past each other, let's just have a seapower debate.