Monday, July 11, 2016

Big Carriers Can Be Mission-Killed, are Expensive, and Aren't Key Naval Weapons

The Navy is right not to panic about Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles. But they are wrong if they miss the bigger picture about the threat to aircraft carriers in a sea control mission.

Okay, sure:

While U.S. Navy officials—and many Washington, D.C., think tanks—have talked about the potential threat to the service’s aircraft carrier fleet from weapons such as the Chinese DF-21D and DF-26, the difficulty of developing a true A2/AD capability is seldom discussed.

As Richardson pointed out, A2/AD strategies have existed since the dawn of warfare. What makes the new Chinese capability different is the combination of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability with long-range precision weapons....

However, that does not mean that the aircraft carrier is obsolete or that the carrier air wing is unable to conduct its mission. As Navy officials have mentioned repeatedly in private conversations—weapons such as anti-ship ballistic missiles require an extensive “kill chain”—including ISR sensors, data-networks, command and control and other systems—in order to be effective.

Yes, the anti-ship ballistic missile can be defeated at many points along the kill chain as I explored here.

But dismissing the anti-ship ballistic missile threat by saying it is just part of a broader threat is ridiculous. Carriers getting close to land-based anti-ship power within that combination of ISR and long-range precision weapons of whatever type is the problem.

And saying these threats don't make carriers obsolete ignores the question of what missions are and aren't obsolete.

Remember, with the Navy pursuing distributed lethality with the "strategic cloud" (what was once called network-centric warfare) that allows for the concentration of effort from widely scattered platforms, why do we persist in thinking we need the queen of platform-centric warfare, the big deck aircraft carrier?

I'll never claim that aircraft carriers aren't very good for bombing enemies who don't have air or naval power. But with China building a navy to challenge our dominance, is that what we should spend our fleet dollars on?

Don't panic over the DF-21 and longer-range cousins. But don't assume sea power is defined by big deck carriers.