Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Breaking the Seaborne Phalanx

Thank you Captain Jeffrey E. Kline, USN (Ret.). Will the Navy finally think about network-centric warfare and what it means for the ultimate in platform-centric power--the big deck aircraft carrier?


In January of 2015 the U.S. Navy’s surface leadership publicly described the concept of distributed lethality.[ii] In broad terms, distributed lethality proposes creating small offensive adaptive force packages comprised of surface action groups (SAG) with a variety of support elements that operate across a wide region and under an adversary’ anti-access sea denial umbrella. Its purpose is to confound adversary locating and targeting while introducing a threat to their sea control ambitions. It is an offensive concept for the U.S. surface forces. After decades of investment in defensive technology, systems, and training to counter cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and submarines, distributed lethality represents a course change for surface warfare, or at least a return to accepting a major role in sea strike that had been ceded to the carrier air wings.

This is what I wrote in 2005 on this issue (which built on an article that the United State Naval Institute purchased from me many years before that, but did not publish):

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. ...

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.

Even in a network-centric world, carriers will remain potent power projection platforms against enemies without anti-ship assets. But that's a different debate, really.

Kudos to Captain Kline. The Navy really needs to hear this.

UPDATE: While I remain skeptical of CNAS, figuring anything they write about carriers is to cut Navy spending rather than redirect it to other platforms, their basic point is right:

A report published Monday by the Center for a New American Security, a D.C.-based think tank that focuses on national security, claims that the Navy’s carrier operations are at an inflection point. Faced with growing threats abroad, the United States can either “operate its carriers at ever-increasing ranges … or assume high levels of risk in both blood and treasure.”

Yes, let me add another post of mine from 2006:

Our next carrier will be the giant CVN-21. Aircraft carriers are wonderful weapons for fighting small nations without significant air or naval power. Afghanistan and Iraq are good examples of how this has worked well for us. North Korea would be another. Any little brush fire around the world would, too. The problem comes with fighting a country with significant air and naval power.

And a 2002 post on the limits of carriers for sea control noted that my submission to the Naval Institute was in 1999. So I have a history on this issue.