Monday, March 14, 2016

The Tyranny of Distance From an Actual Sea Power Debate

This article in defense of aircraft carriers really misses the point. The case against them is not just that carriers are more vulnerable to attack in sea control missions. It's that in a network-centric naval world, we don't need these kings of platform-centric power to mass striking power.

To point out one flaw in the defense of carriers, I should add that I believe the carrier debate is split, with carrier defenders arguing more along the points for their power projection role; and carrier critics arguing against their supremacy in the sea control role.

But that's not the only problem with this defense of carriers. Yes, aircraft carriers in the past faced potent forces that threatened carriers, as the author notes to argue that we must fight through similar threats today. The Cold War and World War II were cold and hot examples.

I've noted this continuity, too. Heck, I identified potential weak points in the kill chain of anti-ship ballistic missiles. I'm not panicking, clearly.

The Cold War remained a theoretical threat. And with that in mind, I offered for consideration a potential solution for operating in defense of Taiwan based on our Cold War plans.

Somehow noting that we suffered over 31,000 dead sailors to overcome those World War II threats in the Pacific theater is less of a defense than the author thinks it is.

I'd like to point out that the threats we faced in the past did not include the network-centric world we face today when cheap and precise anti-ship weapons from scattered launching points--some not so obvious--can be pointed at a single target to overwhelm the local defenses. So this is a qualitatively different threat than we faced in the past.

And more to the point, this network-centric development means we no longer need the expensive and vulnerable aircraft carrier to mass killing power against an enemy. With a networked surveillance grid, dispersed submarines, surface ships, land-based aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and--yes--even aircraft carrier aviation assets, we can mass their warheads against single target groups.

And yes, the Navy is thinking of this issue of "distributed lethality".

So even when defenders of carrier survivability point to networked defenses as the salvation, I will ask why expend that effort on an offensive asset we don't need for sea control missions?

Aircraft carriers remain valuable weapons against small nations without the ability to shoot at our carriers (power projection).

But in the sea control mission, carriers really are more vulnerable to enemies with potent fleets and air forces.

And worse from the carrier defenders point of view, we can increasingly do without the platform-centric power of the super carrier to carry out the sea control mission.

Still, the author's point that we will endure possibly heavy losses to fight for control of the sea against a capable enemy is a reminder worth taking heart. We're used to thinking of ground warfare as the casualty machine. In the past, both naval and air warfare have piled up the body count.

Maybe we need to stop having carrier debates and start having sea power debates.