Thursday, November 29, 2012

This Week in Aircraft Carriers

What a wonderful week for the navalist, no?  The Middle Kingdom has taken its aircraft carrier to sea and operated jet aircraft on it.  Not to be outdone, the King of Aircraft Carrier Navies (the U.S.) is pictured loading a UAV for deckspot testing.  As we say in the world of TACAIR close control, "Fight's On".

Some random thoughts on these events, if you will.  First on China.

It has been interesting to read the varied reactions to China's accomplishment this week.  Those who believe the military threat from China is overblown tend to downplay the news, citing myriad operational issues they will have to overcome in order to become proficient, not to mention the clear overmatch the US holds in both numbers and proficiency.  On the other hand, those who believe the threat from China is real and mounting point to these events as the latest evidence of a nation whose ability to bend learning curves to their will is something to behold. 

I tend to come down closer to the latter crowd.  The plain truth is that for seven-ish decades, the US Navy has made much hay from the peacetime presence, deterrence, and assurance roles that its aircraft carriers play.  And while (for the time being), I see the Chinese carrier as a big, fat, target for US attack submarines, that advantage accrues only when the shooting starts.  In the meantime, China begins to add to its toolbox of regional persuasion.  It is not difficult to see how this capability could change the steady-state regional security picture, especially if China fits out several of these ships. 

As for the United States, the photos of the X-47B being loaded onto the HARRY S. TRUMAN are occasion for great anticipation.  We are watching the future of naval aviation play out before our very eyes.

The relevance of the aircraft carrier has been much bandied about lately.  It is unfortunately, a misplaced discussion.  The aircraft carrier is no more rendered irrelevant by threats to it than are tarmac and airstrips by threats to them.  The CVN is a means, not an end.  The combat power of an aircraft carrier is a function of several things, including its size and sustainability.   But no factor is more important than the configuration of the airwing.  The blithe assumption of Sea Control made for the past several decades drove our airwings to evolve into short-legged sortie generation machines.  As presently configured, a modern aircraft carrier and its airwing DO appear increasingly obsolete.  But the photos we saw in the past few days of the X-47B show the way forward into decades of additional relevance.

This relevance will be built along two lines--one will be long(er) range strike, and the other will be sea control.  The X-47B is a hint of the future of long-range, strike; stealthy enough to be difficult (but not exquisitely stealthy) and armed with long range stand-off weapons.  CNO's "payloads, not platforms" mantra in action.

Where I don't see similar progress is in the evolution of the airwing to act as a part of a grander Sea Control CONOPS.  The ability to project power from the sea depends on the capability to control the seas one wishes to operate in.  It grows increasingly clear to me that Sea Control must rise in the priority of Naval Aviation planners, even if it means privileging Strike less handsomely.  An airwing that can strike at range while contributing to the dominance of its own environment is critical to the nation's ability to project power from the sea, something it appears to still value. 

The P-8 will play a large role in Sea Control from the air, but organic (to the battle group) capability will still be required. 

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