Friday, November 21, 2014

“What have you done today to ensure that everything fails?”

My latest at the Diplomat looks at the results of a recent simulation at the Patterson School:

Last weekend, the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, in conjunction with the Army War College, conducted a negotiation simulation on crisis resolution in the South China Sea. The simulation began shortly after an incident between Chinese and Filipino ships resulted in the deaths of five Indians and 95 Filipinos. 
The South China Sea simulation is the third simulation developed by the Army War College. The first two, on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and the Cyprus conflict, have become regular features at foreign policy schools around the country. The AWC regularly conducts these exercises in collaboration with several different schools across the country, as well as with students at the AWC.

The Large-Deck Carrier: The Finale

For previous installments, see Parts I, II, III, and IV

Carriers in the 2020s and Beyond

It is clear that while the large-deck carrier rightly no longer serves as the fleet’s single concentration of conventional striking power, its air wing can still provide power projection and sea denial capabilities of great value—most notably in the event of a protracted major maritime campaign. Moreover, it remains the only battleforce platform that will be capable of hosting the AEW, aerial refueling, and outer screening layer aircraft necessary for sustaining localized sea control throughout opposed maritime operations. When supported by Joint combined arms suppression and rollback of adversary surveillance/reconnaissance capabilities, carriers can exercise these capabilities at a tolerable level of risk from a contested zone’s outer reaches.

All this hinges on the future carrier air wing possessing the requisite capabilities. It is unclear, for example, what aircraft and weapons combinations will be best suited for restoring if not extending the battleforce’s outer screening layer’s range as potential adversaries’ maritime strike aircraft capabilities continually improve. Nor is it clear what aircraft are best suited for resuming the carrier-organic aerial refueling and wide-area anti-submarine roles.[i] Most significantly, it is unclear what balances between stealth (including its electronic warfare support), range, and payload will be sufficiently affordable to expand the space in which carriers can perform power projection tasks at an acceptable risk when needed.

Unmanned systems offer some solution options for each of these categories, with possible concomitant efficiencies in training and other manpower-related expenses. It may nevertheless take the better part of two decades, if not longer, to develop and gain testing-based confidence that autonomous unmanned systems can reliably execute high-end combat tasks in intensely-contested cyber-electromagnetic warfare environments. The nearer-term solution may very well be to develop semi-autonomous unmanned aerial systems that can coordinate their actions with or be commanded by humans via line-of-sight, low probability of intercept communications pathways—which in turn validates the continued relevancy of manned naval tactical aircraft.[ii]

Regardless, a compelling case can be made that the large-deck aircraft carrier will necessarily remain critical to the future Joint force’s ability to wage major maritime campaigns. The carrier’s ability to fulfill the likely doctrinal roles I have outlined in this week's posts will correspondingly depend on resolution of the above questions concerning the future air wing. 




[i] On the aerial refueling question, see Dave Majumdar. “UCLASS Could Be Used As Tanker For Carrier Air Wing.” USNI News, 01 April 2014, accessed 4/2/14; http://news.usni.org/2014/04/01/uclass-used-tanker-carrier-air-wing
[ii] See 1. Daniel Goure. “A New Kind of Carrier Air Wing.” Naval Institute Proceedings 138, No. 9 (September 2012): 27-28; 2. Dave Majumdar and Sam LaGrone . “Navy: UCLASS Will be Stealthy and ‘Tomcat Size’.” USNI News, 23 December 2013, accessed 1/3/14, http://news.usni.org/2013/12/23/navy-uclass-will-stealthy-tomcat-size; 3. Robert Farley. “UAVs and the F-35: Partners in Air Power?” The Diplomat, 03 January 2014, accessed 1/3/14, http://thediplomat.com/2014/01/uavs-and-the-f-35-partners-in-air-power/ ; 4. Dave Majumdar and Sam LaGrone. “Inside the Navy’s Next Air War.” USNI News, 23 January 2014, accessed 1/24/14; http://news.usni.org/2014/01/23/navys-next-air-war

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Large-Deck Carrier: Part 4

For previous installments, see Parts I, II, and III

Carriers and Power Projection


Naval conventional land-attack strikes that must be launched from a contested zone’s inner sections early in a war will probably be performed by guided missile-armed submarines because of their stealth and survivability. Strikes that can be launched from the contested zone’s outer sections likewise can be primarily performed at relatively low risk by guided missile-armed surface combatants. As noted in my Tuesday post, however, the U.S. Navy presently lacks the technical and logistical capabilities needed to reload submarine and surface combatant launchers underway or otherwise in ad hoc locations such as defended anchorages. The need for forward-deployed missile-armed units to cycle through unthreatened friendly ports for pierside reload, combined with this contingent’s relatively small size prior to reinforcement by units sortied from rearward bases in-theater, transferred from other theaters, or mobilized from the homeland, will create significant challenges in sustaining friendly operational tempo.[i]  

Urgently developing the capabilities to overcome this campaign-critical limitation is imperative, but it must be understood that doing so may only mitigate potential operational tempo impacts—not eliminate them. It follows that one must be careful when asserting how an underway/ad hoc launcher reload capability should inform force structure. For example, it has been argued that surface combatants could become decisively more efficient than carriers in the strike role if the former’s vertical launchers could be reloaded underway, and that increasing surface combatant force structure at the expense of carrier force structure would accordingly be warranted.[ii] A key concern with this argument is that it is not clear how it factors in the specifics of launcher reload operations at sea. The nominal duration of a reloading event, the minimum distance the forward reloading area must be from the enemy’s effective reach to execute the event at acceptable risk, and the combat logistics force’s capacity for cycling ammunition ships between rear bases and forward reloading areas all must be explicitly accounted for. It therefore is difficult to tell whether such a concept of operations would be sustainable indefinitely or only during short ‘surge’ periods throughout a protracted conflict.

Even if launcher reload operations could be structured such that they would minimally perturb missile-armed SAGs’ operational tempos, one must not overlook the carrier air wing’s previously-discussed roles providing forward surface combatants with sea control support. Indeed, there might be a breakpoint below which any marginal decrease in carrier force structure to afford increases in surface combatant force structure might not yield any operational tempo benefits—and might actually decrease this tempo while increasing campaign-level risks. With fewer carriers, there would be fewer air wings available at any one time to support SAG operations within a contested zone. Against a near-peer foe with robust theater-wide maritime denial capabilities, this could severely curtail SAGs’ operational tempos—and the overall friendly force’s campaign tempo—in its own right. Neither this nor the launcher reload logistics issue automatically repudiates analysis suggesting surface combatants’ advantages in the strike role, but they do highlight how additional operational analysis and fleet experimentation is necessary to validate such assertions. 

As an alternative, one might argue land-based long-range strike aircraft could assume a large share of the strike tasks presently held by the carrier air wing. If a war was brief, this arrangement might be sustainable. If a war became protracted, though, standoff-range strike missile inventories’ depletion and the likely limited quantities of long-range penetrating bombers suggests large-deck carriers’ operational maneuver and power projection capabilities might become increasingly useful to the theater commander. The advanced ordnance inventory management issue is hardly new to U.S. Navy campaign planning and strategy development. For example, during the early 1980s the Navy estimated there were only enough torpedoes in shore-based stockpiles to rearm 30% of the fleet’s submarines in the event of a major conventional war with the Soviet Union.[iii] As the Royal Navy’s 1982 shipboard weapons, sonobuoy, and missile decoy expenditures in the Falklands unequivocally demonstrated, this particular problem is a core characteristic of modern maritime war. It is entirely possible that ordnance consumption rates might be far higher in practice than what is expected within standing contingency plans.[iv]

The same would be true if the operational tempo needed to prevent an aggressor from attaining its political objectives was so intense or the target sets that must be struck—especially to support frontline defenders—were so expansive that the theater commander simply could not avoid leaning heavily upon large-deck carriers’ strike capabilities.[v] Finding where all the above ordnance inventory management and operational tempo thresholds might lie over the course of a protracted campaign, as well as evaluating their potential severities, will be a crucial operational analysis and war gaming task.

Assuming large-deck carriers will be asked to shoulder however much of the Joint power projection load is necessary at a given time, a paramount campaign-level objective of Joint kinetic and non-kinetic strikes early in a war must therefore be to temporarily disrupt if not permanently attrite an adversary’s wide-area oceanic surveillance-reconnaissance-strike capabilities. When these supporting fires are combined with effective battleforce-level deception and concealment tactics, brief power projection (and sea control/denial) operations by dispersed multi-carrier task forces from the contested zone’s outer sections may be viable even during a major war’s initial phases.[vi] Indeed, the high lifecycle costs and considerable vulnerabilities of potential adversaries’ maritime surveillance/reconnaissance systems-of-systems are generally overlooked in arguments contrasting the large-deck carrier’s lifecycle costs and tactical efficacy relative to individual network-dependent weapons.[vii] The key point is that not all strikes necessarily need to be able to reach, let alone penetrate deep within, an aggressor’s homeland on a war’s third let alone three-hundredth day to be strategically valuable. Just as important to preventing an aggressor’s fait accompli may be strikes that challenge the aggressor’s sea control in certain areas, or that otherwise create conditions supporting eventual friendly sea control in the approaches to isolated friendly territories within the contested zone.

The extent to which the large-deck carrier can thusly contribute is a function of the air wing and its ordnance, not the ship. If the air wing possesses medium-range strike aircraft and organic aerial refueling capabilities, Joint forward forces gain an important tool for launching strikes from a contested zone’s outer periphery in support of defenders fighting within the zone’s middle sections. The frequency and responsiveness of these kinds of strikes would increase as the adversary’s maritime surveillance-reconnaissance-strike capabilities are worn down. Should the air wing’s fighters carry longer-range standoff weaponry and be supported by high-confidence cueing, strike footprints could increase by several hundred additional miles and potentially bring the contested zone’s inner reaches into play fairly early in a war, albeit with a lower number of carried weapons the further the aircraft must fly. In fact, evolved longer-range variants of existing strike weapons could offer ‘gapfiller’ capabilities along these lines at reasonable cost and risk while the long-range, autonomous, unmanned naval strike aircraft technologies that will eventually be needed due to potential contested zones’ anticipated continual peacetime expansions are matured.[viii] As noted previously, though, inventories of such weapons will likely not be large enough to permit protracted standoff-range strike operations. The most logical use of these weapons, therefore, would be to poke holes in an adversary’s defenses (however localized and temporary) that other friendly units armed with more plentiful shorter-range weapons could then exploit. It is also important to point out that not all of these weapons will be kinetic, whether they are long or short-range. Some of the most campaign-critical carrier air wing weapons will be electronic attack systems that must be physically brought within line-of-sight of an adversary’s distributed surveillance/reconnaissance sensors and their supporting data networks’ RF relay nodes.

As alluded to in the previous paragraph, large-deck carrier power projection’s other and often unrecognized aspect is Joint forward aerial refueling. Long-range, high capacity, carrier-based aerial refueling was a most unfortunate post-Cold War budgetary casualty.[ix] The same permissive environments that allowed fixed-location carrier strike operations over the past twenty years also permitted the air wing to fall back upon U.S. Air Force theater-range aerial refueling resources. Unfortunately, the theater-range conventionally-armed missiles potential adversaries now use to hold forward friendly airbases at risk increasingly threaten those resources. The carrier air wing’s maximal offensive as well as defensive employment depends upon assured access to timely aerial refueling at range, and this means a carrier-organic capability must be restored since ‘buddy stores’ on shorter-range fighters is insufficient.

There is a Joint angle, however, in that carrier-based long-range aerial refueling can also support Air Force operations when forward airbases for the latter’s refueling aircraft are unavailable or in maritime areas where they ought not to be risked. Based closer in relative terms to the contested zone, carrier-based refueling aircraft can also step in when Joint forward operational tempo rises beyond what Air Force refueling aircraft can support alone. This same logic would apply to the air wing’s screening, AEW, and electronic warfare support of Air Force operations within the contested zone.[x] Carriers’ inherent mobility can additionally be used to position over-ocean aerial refueling rendezvous that enable the Air Force’s use of unpredictable or unanticipated routes for penetrating as well as retiring from opposed areas. 

Tomorrow, a concluding look at how the air wing's capabilities and composition will determine carriers' future doctrinal roles



[i] Van Tol, 40, 46-47, 56, 78, 90.
[ii] CDR Phillip E. Pournelle, USN. “The Rise of the Missile Carriers.” Naval Institute Proceedings 139, No. 5 (May 2013): 32-33.
[iii] RADN William J. Holland, Jr., USN (Ret). “Strategy and Submarines.” Naval Institute Proceedings 139, No. 12 (December 2013), 52.
[iv] See 1. “Lessons of the Falklands.” (Washington, D.C.: Office of Program Appraisal, Department of the Navy, February 1983), 3, 11, 34, 36; 2. ADM Sandy Woodward, RN. One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 12, 97, 176-177.
[v] For another take on the campaign-level ordnance management dilemma as related to carriers, see Robert C. Rubel. “National Policy and the Post-Systemic Navy.” Naval War College Review 66, No. 4 (Autumn 2013): 26.
[vi] Solomon, 88-94, 99-103.
[vii] A more accurate comparison would count the lifecycle costs and consider the relative limitations and vulnerabilities of the various sensors and network infrastructure necessary for the adversary to effectively use such a weapon. For instance, the lifecycle costs of the satellite(s) relaying targeting data from a reconnaissance scout, any sensor-equipped satellites cueing the scout or supporting weapons targeting, and the navigational satellites providing the positioning data this entire enterprise depends upon are neither inexpensive nor without serious vulnerabilities. Several generations of these satellites will also have to be procured over a carrier’s lifetime. It would not be surprising if the carrier’s lifecycle costs still exceed the surveillance-reconnaissance-strike system’s lifecycle costs, but they would likely be much closer than popularly thought. It follows that one must holistically examine what is actually obtained with those expenditures, as one cannot properly pass judgment on the former’s tactical efficacy and survivability relative to the latter without comprehensively examining the latter’s tactical efficacy and survivability when subjected to protracted withering, combined arms attacks by friendly forces across multiple warfare domains.
[viii] For a strong argument in favor of such unmanned systems, see Thomas P. Ehrhard and Robert O. Work. “Range, Persistence, Stealth, and Networking: The Case for a Carrier-Based Unmanned Combat Air System.” Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2008.
[ix] See discussion of KA-6 Intruder in Norman Polmar. U.S. Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 16th Ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 367.
[x] Van Tol, p. 27, 45.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

AEI/Heritage Project for the Common Defense Weekly Read Board (Navy)









The Large-Deck Carrier: Part 3

For previous installments, see Parts I and II

Battleforce-Organic AEW: Keystone of Sea Control

As important as carrier-based fighters will probably be to future U.S. Navy battleforce operations, the most indispensible air wing element will likely be battleforce-organic AEW aircraft. Since all radars are range-limited by the Earth’s curvature, an attacker can approach from beneath a warship’s effective radar coverage or can fire weapons from beyond it. This obviously minimizes the warship’s raid warning time and defensive interception opportunities. Aircraft and sea-skimming anti-ship missiles’ centimeter-band Radar Cross Section (RCS) reductions also can reduce shipboard radars’ threat detection ranges. Additionally, an adversary can exploit the defender’s shipboard radar emissions to cue its anti-ship attacks.

As perfected by the Cold War-era U.S. Navy, the use of a highly sensitive Ultra High Frequency AEW radar at high altitude addresses the above defensive problems in two ways. First, it enables long range, wide-area air and surface surveillance that exploits attackers’ less-reducible decimeter-band RCSs. Second, it supports a dispersed surface force’s prolonged use of highly-restrictive Radiofrequency (RF) Emission Control (EMCON) for concealment.

Battleforce-organic AEW has additional advantages. It maximizes the endurance of maritime surveillance patrols in remote areas. It allows for rapid-reaction maritime surveillance patrol sorties upon intelligence warning. Perhaps most importantly, it enables maritime surveillance coverage when enemy fires are suppressing friendly airbases ashore.

Battleforce-organic AEW’s historical role cueing friendly forces’ anti-air and anti-surface warfare actions remains central to sustaining naval operations within a hotly contested maritime area. Furthermore, as the core sensor within the emerging U.S. Navy Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability, battleforce-organic AEW will enable Aegis surface combatants to engage low-RCS air threats flying well outside shipboard radar coverage.[i] The use of battleforce-organic AEW in this way supports operations on interior lines of networking, which if implemented smartly can make an opponent's efforts to intercept or exploit NIFC-CA extremely difficult.

A battleforce-organic AEW radar’s weight, power, and aperture-size requirements combined with the AEW mission’s endurance requirements create a need for a relatively large aircraft, which in turn requires a large-deck carrier. The main alternative to this, AEW radars on rotary-wing aircraft, simply cannot provide the on-station endurance, combat radius, radar height-of-eye, or radar gain necessary to detect (and guide engagements against) inbound threats long before the latter can confidently target the supported battleforce ships. 
  
Carrier-based AEW aircraft are also extremely useful in performing battleforce-level Command, Control, and Communications (C3) roles. During the late Cold War, for example, the U.S. Navy came to appreciate how its E-2 Hawkeye AEW aircraft could support battleforce commanders’ tactical control over widely-dispersed subordinate units. This proved especially important when force-level countersurveillance and countertargeting efforts demanded that the battleforce's warships maintain protracted RF EMCON. This support could be indirect, as the E-2 was able to serve as a relay for difficult-to-intercept line-of-sight communications pathways.[ii] It could also be direct, with the battleforce commander delegating the E-2 crew the authority to tactically control battleforce units in accordance with his pre-disseminated intentions messages and command by negation doctrine. E-2 crews even routinely assumed their home carriers’ air traffic management and landing control duties while the latter maintained long-duration RF EMCON.[iii] All these C3 roles supported (and can still support) a battleforce's operations on interior lines of networking.
 

Tomorrow, carriers and Joint power projection



[i] RDML Jim Syring, USN. “Navy IAMD Capabilities.” (PEO IWS Presentation to the National Defense Industrial Association State of IAMD Symposium, 12 July 2012), Slides 18-22, accessed 11/18/14, http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/2012IAMD/Syring.pdf 

[ii] This role could also be assumed by future long-endurance unmanned aerial systems. See Robert C. Rubel. “Pigeonholes or Paradigm Shifts.” Naval Institute Proceedings 138, No. 7 (July 2012): 44. Retaining the capability for airborne human-in-the-loop communications relays, though, will be an important communications/operational security measure.

[iii] See 1. Norman Friedman. Network-Centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter Through Three World Wars. (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2009), 237-238.; 2. “1985 Command History.” (Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron-123, 31 January 1986), p. 5, accessed 11/18/14, http://www.history.navy.mil/sqdhist/vaw/vaw-123/1985.pdf

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Large-Deck Carrier: Part 2

Part I available here

The Carrier-Surface Combatant Relationship

Yesterday I talked a bit about large-deck carriers' traditional doctrinal roles in helping obtain localized, temporary sea control for naval battleforces. In particular, I noted how the air wing historically served as the outer screen in a battleforce's layered defenses. The battleforce ordnance inventory management challenge represents a major reason why this is so. 

Battleforces need to be able to hold their own against fierce opposition while operating within a combat theater, even if those operations are designed to last only a few days at most. They may need to fight their way into the most hotly-contested areas during a major war, and it is quite likely they will need to fight their way back out. Shipboard offensive and defensive missile expenditures during combat operations consequently may be considerable. While it is critically important that the U.S. Navy soon develop means for replenishing shipboard vertical launchers underway, it nevertheless seems highly unlikely that the reloading process (or the associated logistical support ships) would be risked in ‘frontline’ areas where the threat of minimal-warning attack by the adversary was high.[i] In contrast, large-deck carrier ordnance magazines are sized to permit continuous, agile ‘reloading’ of a battleforce’s outer screening layers throughout multi-day combat operations. As in the past, doctrine and tactics can define the battleforce’s division of sea control labor between the air wing and surface combatants such that the latter’s missile expenditures are economized as possible to sustain battleforce operations for several days under heavy opposition.
For illustrative purposes, let’s say the main contested zone at the beginning of a maritime conflict between the U.S. and another great power stretched out as far as 1500nm from the latter’s coast.[ii] At or beyond this zone’s periphery, U.S. battleforce operations would focus on defending the maritime lines of communication to theater allies’ rear-area bases and commercial hubs. Within the zone’s outer or middle sections, battleforce tasks might include raids designed to seduce and attrite enemy maritime forces, disrupt enemy operations, or serve as feints supporting friendly operations elsewhere. Contested zone operations might not only be conducted as sea control-enabling precursors for subsequent power projection operations, but also might be used to maintain or reestablish lines of communication to isolated frontline forces and territories resisting the enemy’s offensive. They might even be used to temporarily dispute or deny the enemy’s sea control in select frontline areas; for example, to situationally support friendly submarine operations by harrassing or suppressing enemy Anti-Submarine Warfare forces. Destroying enemy maritime forces at their bases is certainly preferable in theory, but if this is not possible for military or political reasons, the use of brief operations that strive to selectively draw them into battle at sea under conditions favoring friendly forces is next best.
Major war operations would be shaped by how the relative threat within the operational area, the number of high campaign-value forces available in the theater, and the campaign objectives driving any given operation meshed with the theater commander’s risk tolerances. Under many scenarios, the necessary size of a sea control ‘moving bubble’ and the amount of friendly firepower that must be massed within it may require dispersed yet mutually-supporting multi-carrier task forces as was envisioned in Cold War operational concepts.[iii] In tactical situations where the risks posed to carriers are judged by the theater commander to be excessive, it is conceivable that multi-mission Surface Action Groups (SAG) detached from or independent of carrier groups might be sent forward as raiders with sea control/denial or power projection tasks. Should this occur, carrier-based fighters—supported by battleforce-organic Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and aerial refueling assets, with augmentation by land-based AEW and tanker aircraft as possible—might screen SAGs throughout their contested zone missions. Carrier-based fighters might likewise be sortied forward if a SAG makes heavy contact with adversary forces, or be used to cover an ordnance-depleted SAG’s retirement from the contested zone. The same would be true for providing similar support to maritime forces operating at the ‘frontline’ at the beginning of a war.[iv] Fighters based on land within the contested zone could also render this support, but because their doing so would be predicated on their basing’s survivability and logistical lines of communications’ defensibility, carrier-based fighter support remains a necessary hedge within operational plans.
The key takeaway from this discussion should be that U.S. battleforce operations should not be conceived as singular ‘charges of the light brigade’ deep within the contested zone at the beginning of a war followed by the establishment of long-duration ‘frontline sanctuaries’ for carrier operations. Rather, they should be conceived as sequential (or if multiple task forces are involved, perhaps parallel) hit-and-run operations that gradually degrade an adversary’s ability to fight effectively in the contested zone’s outer sections, which in turn creates the conditions that allow the process to be repeated for the zone’s middle sections.

Tomorrow, the air wing's single most important aircraft


[i] Jan Van Tol, et. al. “AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept.” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010), 40, 46-47.
[ii] Ibid, 21-22. It is important to note the zone would likely begin to collapse inward as U.S. operations against the adversary’s oceanic surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities begin to bite. For context, see Jonathan F. Solomon. “Maritime Deception and Concealment: Concepts for Defeating Wide-Area Oceanic Surveillance-Reconnaissance-Strike Networks.” Naval War College Review 66, No. 4 (Autumn 2013): 87-116.
[iii] Hattendorf, 74, 126, 292.
[iv] Solomon, 98, 114.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Large-Deck Carrier: Doctrinal Roles and Campaign-Level Value

The large-deck aircraft carrier is predominantly associated with power projection ashore. This traces from U.S. Navy carrier air wings’ widespread post-Second World War use for conventional strike operations as well as for providing direct support to ground forces. Indeed, the most common criticisms against the large-deck carrier’s future utility are that potential adversaries’ rapidly expanding maritime denial capabilities, the presently-programmed air wing’s constrained combat radius, and long-range anti-ship missiles’ comparatively low lifecycle costs per target render carriers overly-vulnerable and expensive fleet assets with insufficient tactical reach.

The problem with these arguments is that the large-deck carrier’s wartime value cannot be accurately assessed outside a major maritime campaign’s holistic context. Doing so not only reveals that large-deck carriers’ survivability can be quite high if the combined arms doctrine governing their employment intelligently accounts for risk, but also that the carrier air wing’s innate capabilities will be indispensable in helping U.S. Navy forces obtain and then exercise localized sea control when and where operationally necessary. Such an assessment also suggests that carriers will play crucial roles supporting Joint power projection operations, and should a war become protracted, carriers will likely have to assume a significant share of the Joint force’s strike tasks if an American campaign’s operational tempo is to be sustained.

Carriers and Sea Control

A naval force’s execution of any task, power projection or otherwise, is predicated on it securing control of the localized sea area from which the task must be performed. This localized control is not (and cannot practically be) permanent; it only must be maintained as long as necessary to complete the task.[i] Occasionally control must be obtained over a relatively fixed area, such as when a force is supporting a major amphibious assault. A fixed area is also desirable when the choice is made to maximize aircraft sortie-rate efficiency during routinized overland operations, though this can only be done at low risk when the threats facing the force are minimal. Most commonly, though, sea control occurs as a localized ‘moving bubble’ of maritime superiority as a force maneuvers along its voyage route or within a large operating area.
It is easy to take localized sea control for granted, especially considering the U.S. Navy secured it practically by default during each of its post-1945 combat operations. The Cold War-era U.S. Navy harbored no illusions, however, regarding the sea control challenges it would have faced in forward areas as well as along allies’ oceanic lines of communication had there been a direct clash with the Soviet Union. In fact, the 1980s Maritime Strategy’s much-debated concept for surface operations within the Soviet maritime periphery was explicitly conditioned on the margin of sea control obtainable in any given area at any given time in a hypothetical major war.[ii] Similarly, Second World War U.S. Navy power projection in the Pacific was overwhelmingly tied to the fleet’s ability to attain localized sea control in support of each individual sequential operation. As such, it is worth noting U.S. Navy battleforce operations within Japanese home waters did not begin until February 1945, and even then consisted primarily of hit-and-run land-attack raids due to residual Japanese sea denial capabilities. In both these historical cases, large-deck carrier air wings’ screening, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities figured prominently in securing the localized sea control needed for power projection tasks.
It is true that from December 1941 through the early 1980s, the large-deck carrier’s primary sea control role supporting power projection was to protect itself from attack. This was because carriers, by virtue of hosting the air wing’s strike aircraft, represented the fleet’s core land-attack assets. The other warships within a carrier group therefore served almost exclusively as defensive screens.
The U.S. Navy’s fielding of the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile altered this arrangement. Launchable by submarines and surface combatants alike, Tomahawk permitted striking power’s distribution throughout a dispersed battleforce. What did not change, though, was surface combatants’ reliance on the carrier’s air wing for outer layer screening support. This support was especially crucial when sufficiently dense, timely, or persistent land-based air support for screening was unavailable—a common condition within contested forward zones or mid-oceanic areas. Only the air wing under such circumstances could intercept massed multi-axis maritime aircraft raids hundreds of miles away from a battleforce, and thereby reduce the number of inbound anti-ship missiles that friendly surface combatants had to defend against. Likewise, only the air wing could rapidly respond to a brief detection of an enemy submarine beyond a few tens of miles from a battleforce’s warships when land-based anti-submarine support was excessively distant. Perhaps most significantly, only the air wing could persistently seek out and neutralize adversary surveillance/reconnaissance patrols far beyond the latter’s maximum effective range for detecting and classifying a battleforce warships—or for uncovering the battleforce’s deception and concealment efforts.
The air wing’s outer layer screening role has not evaporated. Instead, it has been tacitly deemphasized over the past two decades of relatively-unopposed U.S. Navy operations. Aegis surface combatants, the middle layer of 1980s battleforce air defenses, largely became the de facto post-Cold War outer layer due to the vastly reduced threat. Carrier and surface combatant-based helicopters likewise served as a battleforce’s sole anti-submarine ‘pouncers’ when land-based fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft were unavailable.
These assignments will likely remain adequate for most contingencies involving lesser powers, though U.S. Navy battleforces’ standoff distances from land during a crisis or a war’s early phases may need to be situationally increased somewhat to complicate such an adversary’s surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting tasks. In contrast, the post-Cold War battleforce screening ‘status quo’ will not be adequate for contingencies involving great powers who possess theater-wide sea denial capabilities. Under such circumstances, and notwithstanding its continuing role providing support to maritime ground force operations, the air wing will need to reassert its historical doctrinal role as a battleforce’s primary outer layer screen.

Tomorrow, the doctrinal relationships between carriers and surface combatants


[i] Julian S. Corbett. Principles of Maritime Strategy. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 100-102, 202, 268.
[ii] John B. Hattendorf and Peter M. Swartz, eds. “Naval War College Newport Papers 33: U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s.” (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, December 2008), 82, 85, 176, 178, 183, 185, 216, 219, 297, 320-321. Of interest, early 1980s U.S. Navy war games conducted in support of the maritime strategy’s development suggested carrier groups could exploit Soviet strategy and doctrine by serving as an at-sea ‘force-in-being’ that tied down sizable Soviet air forces during a major conflict. Carriers performing this role would operate in forward North Atlantic areas firmly controlled by NATO. See John B. Hattendorf. “Naval War College Newport Papers 19: Evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986.” (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, December 2004), 35.

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