Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Most Advanced Target Ever

We are working on new designs for an advanced aircraft carrier. The new CVN-21 will cost nearly $14 billion--twice the cost of the current carrier class:

As the successor to the 102,000 ton Nimitz/Theodore Roosevelt Class super-carriers, the CVN-21 program aims to increase aircraft sortie generation rates by 20%, increase survivability to better handle future threats, require fewer sailors, and have depot maintenance requirements that could support an increase of up to 25% in operational availability. The combination of a new design nuclear propulsion plant and an improved electric plant are expected to provide 2-3 times the electrical generation capacity of previous carriers, which in turn enables systems like an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS, replacing steam-driven catapults), Advanced Arresting Gear, and a new integrated warfare system that will leverage advances in open systems architecture. Other CVN-21 features include an enhanced flight deck, improved weapons handling and aircraft servicing efficiency, and a flexible island arrangement allowing for future technology insertion.

I am skeptical that this is a wise investment. Carriers are great, but only if we face no enemies able to harness network-centric naval warfare.

As much as I respect what our carriers have accomplished in the past and even the very recent past; and even though I understand how they can be useful for decades to come, their usefulness will erode. I concluded in a recent post (based on work I did for an article that was purchased but not published about 6-8 years ago):

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.

I almost feel sorry for our potential enemies who try to match our carriers (at great expense) just as we supplant them.

Now our carriers will be just as big and will be twice as expensive. We need carriers, I think, but the huge ships we plan may be too big to survive in a network-centric battlespace and too expensive to risk losing. And they may be irrelevant to fighting anyway as surface combatants and submarines with networked missiles and long-range cannons create the ability to mass effect without the need to have the projecting assets massed on one platform. Smaller carriers able to deploy smaller numbers of manned plans plus unmanned aerial combat vehicles, and able to double as amphibious warfare platforms, may be more appropriate for a networked Navy.

I was too hasty in feeling sorry for our enemies.