Thursday, April 30, 2015

Let's Have a Sea Power Debate

Instead of having a carrier debate, can we have a sea power debate?

Our defense budget is in question. We can't spend without regard to harming the economy and fiscal strength that is the base of our economic power. Deficit spending and debt matter. So we have to spend money more wisely rather than count on surges in defense spending. Should aircraft carriers give way to other vessels?

The budget will have serious consequences for the size of the fleet and its ability to maintain combat readiness, which in turn will have consequences for U.S. strategy. If the Navy wants to address its budget crisis, its falling ship count, its atrophying strategic position, and the problem of its now-marginal combat effectiveness — and reassert its traditional dominance of the seas — it should embrace technological innovation and increase its efficiency.

In short: It needs to stop building aircraft carriers.

It does seem as if carriers are risky and expensive ships to be the core of our fleet given new technology:

Rapid growth in the capability and quality of guided missiles — mostly Chinese in origin — is causing the U.S. Navy to rethink the number of surface ships it needs to effectively fight a high-end war.

Early estimates based ongoing war games could mean the current number of 88 large surface combatants — the Navy’s fleet of guided missile destroyers and cruisers — needs to grow to more than a hundred into the 2020s just to keep to today’s current level of risk, USNI News has learned.

However, increasing a fleet of multi-billion dollar ships by almost 25 percent is highly unlikely given declining U.S. military budgets current funding restrictions and the wind-down from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As we have this carrier debate, we have to remember that the opposing sides generally argue past each other, with carrier defenders pointing to the power projection mission--air strikes against land powers without much naval or air power to threaten them (or humanitarian missions); while carrier critics point to the problem of sea control missions--defeating other navies and air power to deny them use and guarantee our use of the seas--in the face of those guided missiles and the growing ability to aim them properly at identified targets.

I think we need means (ships and subs and aircraft) other than carriers for sea control while we need aircraft carriers for power projection.

So I think we need fewer large deck carriers and more network-centric vessels capable of focusing combat power from widely scattered and diverse assets.

It may be that we build fewer carriers to maintain a smaller force of power projection capability (and a supporting role for the sea control mission) and have some reserve carrier capability by building even larger amphibious warfare ships by building amphibious warfare-optimized Ford hulls with a backup aircraft carrier mission. (And I freely admit that I'm throwing that out without the expertise to evaluate the notion.)

Carriers are an asset to have sea power. We should want sea power, and allow the debate to honestly come to a conclusion to decide the fate of the assets to create that sea power.

UPDATE: More on the small American Cyclone class vessels that I mentioned reacted to Iran's seizure of a Marshall Islands ship in the Strait of Hormuz.

Because our Navy must travel so far to reach patrol waters, we can't really have many of these kind of ships. We need ships to be large enough to sail around the globe. The small vessels fill a niche need. In the Persian Gulf (or the South China Sea) that is an important niche, however.

Hopefully our Navy doesn't seriously still think the LCS (or the frigate replacement newer models will become) are appropriate for that threat environment, and buys more small vessels to replace the ships now all in the Persian Gulf and to have some for the western Pacific, too.