Thursday, March 14, 2019

When the Ford Was Still a Blueprint

Is the Pentagon dethroning the carrier as the queen of the fleet?

The Pentagon reportedly wants to cancel the mid-life refueling for the aircraft carrier USS Truman, an unexpected move that would save $1.5 billion in fiscal years 2021-23, but only $16.9 million in 2020. More than a desire for cost-savings seems to be at work here.

The decision to prematurely retire Truman likely represents the first skirmish in an internal Pentagon clash concerning the future warfighting relevance of aircraft carriers. The debate pits those who believe aircraft carriers are obsolete against those who are confident that new tactics, weapons, and changes to the carrier air wing can keep the aircraft carrier the critical component of the joint force for the foreseeable future.

I won't bother to go over the arguments made in defense of the carrier. Suffice it to say that the problem of arguing the merits of power projection apples versus sea control oranges is continued to the detriment of a real seapower debate.

What I will do is post an entry I submitted to the United States Naval Institute back in 2000 when the Ford class was but a gleam in the Navy's eye. It was accepted for publication but never published. Based on my experience since then I clearly made a rookie mistake of not prodding them until they published it. I recently got my rights to it back from USNI and was thinking about modernizing it. But I doubt I will get around to it any time soon.

So here it is (with end notes removed), my two-decade-year old support for the desire to downgrade the big deck carrier as the queen of the fleet. If you have followed this blog, you will no doubt recognize the arguments made in pieces over the years (here's a post with a selection of post links on the subject).


The end of the Cold War presents the United States with the opportunity and obligation to re-evaluate both strategy and forces. The debate over what the post-Cold War world means for American security and foreign policy has been vigorous. So too has the debate over the potential of the developing Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Adopting and implementing the naval application of the RMA, network-centric warfare (NCW), is a "fundamental shift from what we call platform-centric warfare[.]" Both the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and National Defense Panel (NDP) final report of 1997 endorsed NCW as the proper path for the Navy. Victory in warfare dominated by networks will in large measure depend on making strategic choices that fit with the new and changing system. After over forty years of optimizing our naval forces to fight the Soviets in a global war, taking a fresh look at the Navy is a daunting task.

The question of whether large aircraft carriers deserve to be the center of our future naval strategy is a fundamental question that has not been adequately explored. Network-centric warfare signals the beginning of the end for the United States Navy's large aircraft carriers. They will lose their value as an instrument of forward presence and become valuable targets that, if struck, will encourage an enemy at the outset of war by apparently demonstrating that American technological prowess can be nullified and beaten. In the long run, 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.

Network-Centric Warfare
Under the conditions of today’s platform-centric warfare, dispersal weakens a force and makes it slow to respond and mount a concentrated attack. In order to concentrate effect in an attack with platforms, forces need to be collocated or, if dispersed, near the enemy (or collocated with or near the friendly asset to be defended). Aircraft carriers overcome this problem of delivering massed effect by collocating a powerful air wing on a mobile airfield that, on its own, can deliver strong blows. While a carrier may be assisted by outside sensors and weapons systems, the carrier's and associated battle group's organic capability to fight enemy assets is substantial and greater than any other individual naval platform. Before Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles entered service with the fleet’s escorts, the carriers were the sole means of offensive action and represented “the highest value seaborne target against which an enemy could aim.” These newer weapons allowed any surface action group to conduct offensive warfare.

According to the United States Navy, the basic advantage of network-centric warfare is that the Navy will be able to deploy widely dispersed units that mass effect in a timely manner without needing to mass the components themselves, as platform-centric warfare requires, for coordinated action. Superior surveillance, communications, mobility, and weapons effectiveness and range will allow this geographic dispersal of units. Even before the dawn of network-centric warfare, the widespread deployment of surface-to-surface missiles throughout the Navy made the aircraft carrier an important asset rather than one vital for offensive missions. By allowing all the units in the network to fight as a physically dispersed but tactically unified force, networks will make the carrier platform’s ability redundant. Concentration of effect will no longer rely on concentration of forces. In addition to the evident offensive value, this characteristic has defensive value by reducing the footprint of our forces, thus avoiding giving the enemy an attractive, high-value target. Dispersed small units that can fight as one yet remain dangerous despite the loss of even many of the individually less capable platforms will confound the enemy's efforts to deliver a decisive strike against the Navy.

The NDP recommended accelerating network-centric operations linking sensors and weapons generally and, for the Navy specifically, recommended "small-signature ships capable of providing sustained long-range, precision firepower." The panel also recommended a new smaller carrier (CVX) for short take off/vertical landing (STO/VL) aircraft and various unmanned aerial vehicles, including weaponized versions. Clearly, a networked Navy built from scratch would look far different from our current Navy which has evolved over time with overlapping assumptions and new technologies governing ship design over a generation or two.

Force Structure Today and Tomorrow
The Navy's reevaluation of its role following the collapse of the Soviet Union began with ... From the Sea and identified projecting power ashore as the primary mission of the Navy. The blue water focus of defeating the Soviet navy in the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Mediterranean disappeared and there is no new peer competitor on the horizon. Almost overnight, the Navy could assume it would control the seas at the very beginning of a war rather than fighting to achieve control. The Navy can now sail in the littorals close to the enemy's home and directly influence events ashore. Forward ... From the Sea: The Navy Operational Concept specifies three missions for the forward-deployed Navy: peacetime engagement; deterrence and conflict prevention; and fighting and winning.

In carrying out this wide range of missions reflecting America’s worldwide interests and history as a maritime nation, the Navy must reconcile its current inventory with the RMA and the new post-Cold War operating and fiscal environment. A planned force structure maintained at about 50 SSNs, at least 125 surface combatants (although the QDR called only for 116), 12 aircraft carriers, and a full range of amphibious and support vessels plus aircraft, will strain the Navy’s budget as it seeks to replace retiring ships. The Navy's assumptions about ship life may prove to be far too optimistic to sustain the surface fleet at projected replacement rates. Retaining at least 125 surface combatants will be especially difficult after 2010 as large numbers of ships reach retirement age. Even if the Navy can maintain these numbers, some argue this will be insufficient and that nearly 70 submarines and perhaps 145 surface warships are necessary.

The twelve aircraft carriers remain the core of the Navy. Although possessing great power, carriers do not operate alone. An ideal battle group also contains six surface warships, two attack submarines, and a combat support ship. The supporting warships add defensive capabilities to fend off attacks on the carrier. The carrier battle group is a glaring exception to the dispersal possible with network-centric warfare. First, the threat of aircraft and missiles made protective escorts a necessity long before network-centric warfare. Enemy networks will enhance this air threat. Second, screening warships may be required because of the difficulty of integrating anti-submarine warfare (ASW) into network-centric warfare (also true for offensive submarine warfare but this is not an issue impacting Navy carrier survivability). It will be impossible for the Navy's large carriers to sail alone even though the battle group's screening surface vessels are capable of dispersing into the network to fight. Both the air and submarine threats require carriers to retain a large protective entourage.

The question of whether large aircraft carriers should remain the Navy's main striking platform has so far been answered with a solid 'yes.' The QDR supported the Navy's purchase of a tenth Nimitz class carrier to sustain America's forward deployment of carriers. The smaller post-Cold War Navy's determination to maintain a large aircraft carrier force including the battle group’s supporting ships will absorb much of the Navy's budget and personnel at the expense of preserving the rest of the fleet let alone funding newly emerging systems that the NDP would like to see. The crew requirements for the carrier (3,200 to 3,400) plus the air wing (2,480) are a great burden on a much smaller Navy having difficulty recruiting and retaining sailors. The 50-year life-cycle costs for either conventional or nuclear-powered carriers, at $14 and $22 billion respectively, are a tremendous cost. The Navy does recognize that the Nimitz behemoths suffer because of recruiting shortfalls in an economic expansion. The Navy also knows it needs to reduce the detectability of such large and valuable ships.

Implications of Network-Centric Warfare for Large Aircraft Carriers
Under network-centric warfare, the United States Navy will fight in a completely new environment. Forces with the characteristics of "speed, precision, and reach [will] achieve the massing of effects versus the massing of forces." Network-centric warfare has three themes:

1) Emphasis on the network and not the platform;
2) Platforms are not independent but part of a larger continuously adapting system; and
3) The importance of making strategic choices to adapt to the changes.

The sensor grid of a network will increase situational awareness and make it constant rather than fluctuating. The offensive power of this network, especially against a platform-centric enemy, will be tremendous. The defensive problem of fighting so close to an enemy’s land-based power as ... From the Sea foresaw, can be overcome with a networked Navy fighting as a resilient system and not individual platforms.

In an offensive orientation, with a level of transparency hitherto unknown to the Navy, commanders will know where friendly forces are and their status; and will see the enemy's units as they enter the American sensor grid. Allocation of strikes based on this knowledge will be devastating, responsive, and promote economy of force. This capability will allow the rapid destruction of important enemy assets rather than stretching out their losses in a war of attrition. This speed is more important than the simple number of assets destroyed because when "50% of something important to the enemy is destroyed at the outset, so is his strategy. That stops wars--which is what network-centric warfare is all about."

The concentrated power of the carrier platform's air wing will simply be one element adding to the massed effect of dispersed attack platforms achievable in network-centric warfare. An enemy will face massed firepower from all directions from 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 surface-to-surface missiles and are capable of more independent operations, they are still tied to the carrier battle groups. In this role, their primary mission is to protect the carrier. To exploit the network, the capable surface ships 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. Did the Theodore Roosevelt really help in Kosovo? A couple score of shooters was irrelevant in NATO's thousand plane force.

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. When the Navy faces such an enemy, the carriers will be a tremendously important "something" to America, and the loss of even one will shock the American public and might well stop the war if fighting anything short of a war for a vital American interest. Setting a carrier afire will make excellent CNN footage. Given the potential of network-centric warfare, the demise of the proposed Arsenal Ship, a floating magazine with few integral defenses that would have relied on a networked air defense for survival, should be applauded. Although cancellation has been derided by some as reflecting a lack of vision, the Arsenal Ship does not fit the vision of network-centric warfare. This ship would have been just another high value "something" whose loss would cause disproportionate harm to the Navy and therefore draw disproportionate attention from an enemy. A network does not need a high value asset. Certainly, it is true that network-centric warfare defenses can bring dispersed air defenses together to defend the carrier (if they have sufficiently long range) but why expend that effort? In a developed networked force, the aircraft carrier adds little that numerous smaller platforms cannot provide and only represents a potential loss of great propaganda value.

The emergence of network-centric warfare does not mean the near-term obsolescence of large aircraft carriers. The useful roles for these aircraft carriers will diminish in time, however, beginning with the forward presence role. 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 will carriers retain their power to awe in peacetime engagement. They 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 longer, 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. This will preserve the carriers for war fighting missions on American terms and preclude tempting an enemy into initiating a conflict in order to strike a serious blow at the onset of war.

Pulling back the carriers will also reduce the need for the number of carriers now maintained to provide a rotation base for forward deployments. The expense of maintaining large aircraft carriers when equivalent effects can be duplicated in other cheaper, less vulnerable, and more numerous platforms argues against extraordinary efforts to retain aircraft carriers in the long run. Fewer carriers will lessen the Navy's recruiting problem and free resources for newer platforms better suited to network-centric warfare as the NDP recommended.

Although America does not yet need to retire aircraft carriers, we should certainly be beyond the conservative debate of oil versus nuclear powered carriers. We need to consider whether to build new carriers at all; and, if carriers can play a role in network-centric warfare, whether CVX should be significantly smaller than Nimitz class ships (though bigger than the British jump jet mini-carriers). Nor can the debate over large versus small carriers be argued with the platform-based threat data of World War II and the Cold War. Network-centric warfare may have rendered such data irrelevant and the proper debate is whether we need even small carriers when survival depends on dispersal. We must honestly evaluate carriers to see if the Navy can replace the effects of the present large carrier battle group with platforms less vulnerable, costly, and personnel intense.

The Navy must evolve as the RMA changes its environment. Even as the Navy pursues network-centric warfare, the inescapable conclusion that a fully functioning network-centric Navy simply does not need large carriers is not broached in polite society. Yet remaining silent in the face of a naval RMA does the Navy no favor. An enemy with its own network will pose a deadly danger to the Navy's large carriers. The Navy must not loyally but blindly defend expensive large carriers simply because they were once (and admittedly still are) the best naval system in the world. We will not, however, refight 1942-1945 in the Pacific and we must consider the possibility that as network-centric warfare develops, the value of our carriers will degrade.

Just as battleships are mostly fit for a niche market of shore bombardment when once they ruled the waves, large carriers will fall from the centerpiece of our fleet. Even though we debate whether we should utilize our existing battleships for their narrow usefulness we do not debate building new ones. The decline of carrier usefulness will be obscured by the continuing value large carriers will retain. But that value will be in situations narrower as time passes. Eventually, they will occupy only a niche market but will absorb tremendous resources to carry out their missions. Still, the large carrier will not be obsolete overnight and the Navy has decades of service left from them if adapted to their narrowing utility.

The Navy’s carriers are sacred. Their achievements after persevering in the face of doubters before World War II still shield them from criticism today. Their epic fight in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor and their central role in Cold War crises is a record that inspires strong loyalty. A revolution produces a new elite and displacing the carrier elite will be difficult. But such a challenge to the status quo must begin now. The old elite is entrenched and has the advantages of doubt whether the new warfare will work, the history of successful carrier aviation, and the enthusiasm of the network challengers who will claim too much too soon and be demonstrably wrong enough times to sow doubt. The challengers will also display the arrogance of true believers which will not endear them to defenders of the status quo. Nonetheless, we must be willing to endure a line if inquiry that may radically change the Navy we have spent lifetimes perfecting. The United States Navy exists, after all, to control the sea and project power ashore, not to persist in any particular form.

Will the rules of naval warfare change so much because of network-centric warfare that we must change the way we look at the value of the various platforms in the Navy? If the potential of network-centric warfare is realized, and if we commit to it (or even if just our enemies do), then we must change how the Navy trains, organizes, and allocates resources. Most would agree in theory that when circumstances change, wisdom requires us to re-evaluate our course. Longstanding questions about carrier survivability in the face of massed Soviet-era missile strikes have perhaps made carrier loyalists dismissive of yet another round of questions. Although difficult to accept, when network-centric warfare evolves into a mature system, the Navy must either abandon the platform-centric power of large carriers or America's enemies will sink them.

Losing a carrier, which will remain a symbol of American might even when other vessels have superseded them in importance, will be a shock that could compel the United States to halt a war before we can marshal our power to win. Coming to terms with the implications of networks and eventually phasing out the carriers over decades will allow the Navy to evolve and continue to fulfill its valuable roles of peacetime engagement; deterrence and conflict prevention; and fighting and winning. We must be prepared to let the Navy’s large aircraft carriers take their well-earned place in our history along with our fir-built frigates, gritty river ironclads, and the battle line of dreadnoughts. If the Navy sends carriers into battle beyond their time, they will have their fine reputations tarnished even if the United States overcomes naval setbacks to emerge victorious in a war. The United States Navy, even without carriers as its centerpiece, will still be a vital asset to the nation and will carry on a tradition of excellence that will bring America pride in the post-Nimitz Navy defined by network-centric warfare.

Since then I've concluded that if we are to have sea-based aviation they should be big carriers for efficiency rather than medium or small. Our small amphibious ships are useful as mini-carriers only because they are actually built as amphibious warfare ships for their primary role. Having a secondary carrier role is a bonus. It would not be useful to build carriers that size as a replacement for the big carriers.

May the skirmish commence. Let's have a seapower debate and not a carrier debate.