Monday, March 11, 2013

At What Cost a Carrier?

Captain Henry J. (Jerry) Hendrix is one of the smarter people wearing a Naval Officer’s uniform these days.  A career naval aviator, he has released a monograph through the good offices of the Center for a New American Security entitled “At What Cost a Carrier?” as part of their “Disruptive Defense Papers” series.  Bound to create a stir among navalists, its appearance is a sign of the continuing health of the intellectual core of the Navy and its capacity to engage in serious debate, even when one of its central capabilities is criticized.  That said, I think that while Hendrix has aimed at the carrier, his precision guided ideas did not find their target. Rather, he reinforces arguments made elsewhere that it is the carrier’s weapon system—commonly referred to as the air wing—that must evolve, in order to respond to threats he believes have sped the carrier’s obsolescence. 
Captain Hendrix contends “future wars should be characterized by smaller target lists that emphasize discreetly interrupting capacities, not destroying them.” While a convenient projection for the future of conflict, in doing so, he possibly falls prey to the “Last War-Itis” Secretary Gates warned of: in my view, entry operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (where the U.S. enjoyed overwhelming superiority, selectively engaged targets, and relatively easily weakened the will of the enemy) will likely be aberrations from the historical record, rather than strong indicators of the character of future warfare. Instead, the scale of air strikes in challenging scenarios—especially to counter the aggression of A2/AD threats such as China—would likely far exceed the number of targets engaged in the initiation of conflict the past few decades.
Additionally, the record of naval aviation support to counter-insurgency operations in the course of the last decade at times produces misleading statistics.  In support of his argument, Captain Hendrix bemoans that the lifecycle cost for each bomb dropped by an air-to-ground strike-capable aircraft in the Navy’s inventory was an astounding $7.5 million as an average of only 16 weapons per aircraft were dropped.  What he fails to mention is that naval aircraft spent a significant majority of their time (and sorties) not bombing terrorists or insurgents but rather providing support operations such as ISR and electronic warfare.  This was not a function of the lack of utility of carrier aircraft but rather the decision to employ carrier aviation in the CENTCOM AOR, the relative lack of threats compared to the number that would be found in a great power war, and at times restrictive Rules of Engagement.  
Moving on, Hendrix writes “No one can doubt the diplomatic power of carriers, for presidents, it seems, are always asking where they are.  Allied nations and the U.S. combatant commanders persistently request additional naval presence to shore up their interests….and no platform is requested more than the carrier.”  Assuming that both American presidents and the leaders of other nations are rational actors then, it seems that there might be something “special” about the presence of an aircraft carrier, something that even the agglomerated presence benefit of more numerous DDG’s or LCS’s simply doesn’t provide.  Hendrix then rightly questions “…can the United states afford the carrier”, a good question given both the state of our economy and the plain truth that those who very often seek the security of the carrier bear none of its costs.  So then, what are those costs?  Hendrix fixes the “life cycle costs of an associated carrier air wing, five surface combatants, and one fast-attack submarine, plus the nearly 6700 men and women to crew them, it costs about $6.5 million per day to operate each strike group.”  This may strike the reader as a colossal amount of money.  But let’s unpack that a bit.
Let’s start with GDP; if one assumes a $15.1 trillion GDP, we can then calculate a “daily GDP” of $41.4 billion.  What then, is the percentage of national treasure spent each day to operate three carrier battle groups?  My (admittedly spotty) math reveals that the $19.5M a day breaks down to about four one-hundredths of a percent of our daily GDP.  Does this strike you as excessive, given what we get from the investment?  Next, let us compare that $19.5M to the total military budget.  Let’s assume a $500 billion budget, so that we then arrive at a “Daily Military Budget” of $1.4B.  How does that $19.5M compare to that figure?  Three carrier battle groups out and about deterring aggression, providing presence and crisis response and assuring friends and allies comprises 1.4% of our daily military expenditure.  Again, does this strike you as excessively expensive?
My point is this—aircraft carriers, carrier battle groups, surface ships, submarines, aircraft—all of the accoutrements of naval power—do not come cheaply.  But what we GET for the investment—the ability to deter and assure, the maintenance of global trade and order—dwarfs what we spend to obtain and sustain them.  Yes, $13.5 billion is a lot of money to construct a CVN—but over the course of its 50 year lifespan, that initial cost comes down to $740,000 a day—a bargain for what it brings us.
Which brings us to the next question, and that is, can the CVN continue to “bring us” the things it does in the face of mounting A2/AD threats in the hands of a peer competitor. 
The first thing to consider is that the only “new” threat to the aircraft carrier in this vaunted Chinese A2/AD regime is the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).  The other components of the threat—cruise missiles, submarines, etc., have existed throughout much of the life of the aircraft carrier, and between the air wing and its escorts, the carrier has flexibly responded to all of them.  But the ASBM is important, and so it should be treated specifically.  Hendrix agrees, as it is featured in his report, first in a comparison of the costs associated with China’s production of the missiles (vis-à-vis the cost of an aircraft carrier) and then in the range advantage it the missile has over the aircraft carrier strike aircraft.
By estimating the cost of each DF-21D, Captain Hendrix informs us that China could build 1227 DF-21D’s for every carrier the United States builds “going forward”.  This is interesting, but I’m not sure it is entirely relevant, because China—believe it or not—has budgets and budgeteers just like we do.  And while I know it is fashionable to believe China capable of just about anything it wants to do militarily, China is also fixated on maintaining as close to double digit economic growth as it can on a yearly basis.  There are opportunity costs associated with building missile inventories, and I have seen no estimates that lead me to believe that China is now (or is capable of) building at the rate of Captain Hendrix’s hypothetical. 
Next, Hendrix makes a significant error—by stating that “U.S. defenses would have to destroy every missile fired, a tough problem given the magazines of U.S. cruisers and destroyers, while China would need only one of its weapons to survive to effect a mission kill.”  This just isn’t so.  U.S. forces do not have to destroy incoming DF-21’s; they simply have to not be hit by them.  Some incoming missiles will have to be intercepted, but unlike land targets, near misses at sea are as good as an intercept, and these near-misses could be hastened by any number of advanced electronic and cyber techniques.  Additionally, if the DF-21D works like other weapons systems, its accuracy and employability are both impacted by range to the target, something over which an aircraft carrier has some say.  In summary, any suggestion that our approach to this threat is to try and outgun it is simply incorrect. 
Captain Hendrix provides a simple graphic to reinforce the range issue, estimating the range of the DF-21D at 1087 miles while the unrefueled range of the F-35 maxes out at 690 miles.  This is, generally speaking, the relationship upon which most carrier critics seize most often, surmising that we would not risk our multi-billion dollar carriers in order to get close enough to launch meaningful strikes.  This raises the problem I brought up first with Hendrix’s argument, and that is, his beef should really be with the air wing, and not with the aircraft carrier.  Over the past few decades, naval aviation came to value sortie generation over range, as our ability to operate as close to shore as we generally wanted was barely challenged.  But it wasn’t always this way.  Carrier attack aircraft previously had unrefueled combat radii far in excess of that which even the F-35 will bring.  As we move to unmanned combat air vehicles, a premium must be placed on re-gaining that range—and in developing stand-off weapons that can fly extended ranges without exposing the launch aircraft to enemy Integrated Air Defense Systems (CNO’s emphasis on payloads over platforms applies here).  
Put another way, the carrier is not approaching obsolescence; its air wing is.  Extend the range of the air wing through long range UCAV’s and stand-off weapons, and the mobility, power and flexibility of the aircraft carrier remains.  In fact, it is the evolution of the air wing over the decades that have created the long life of the carrier.  No one seems to point to air bases as “obsolete”, yet they have been subject to attack throughout the life of the carrier.  The carrier brings with it the benefit of mobility, a tremendous asset in enabling it to evade targeting, especially when one considers the alternatives. 
In my view, unmanned aviation will create a new golden age of aircraft carriers.  In fact, the day is fast coming when we design a carrier from the keel up to launch and recover primarily unmanned aircraft.  When a UCAV returns from its mission, it will recover, be re-armed, refueled, re-greased, and re-missioned on an assembly line that will enable high sortie rates even with the extended range of the missions they will fly.
In the meantime, aircraft carriers will continue to provide forward stationed striking power—efficiently and economically—in addition to crisis response, deterrence and assurance. 
If—as Hendrix indicates—aircraft carriers are fast becoming obsolete, why then should the Navy invest a dime in a follow-on to the F-35, manned or unmanned?  With the same zest he exhibits in putting the carriers out to pasture, he advocates for unmanned strike aircraft operating from—you guessed it—aircraft carriers, albeit smaller (and presumably cheaper) ones.  Why these smaller (and less capable) carriers would be less subject to the Chinese A2/AD regime is beyond me, but apparently their best attribute is their cost.  Furthermore, I am open to design recommendations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if technology evolves. However, my understanding is that currently, range requirements largely influence low-observable aircraft platform design, thus dictating a large size for a long-range aircraft—be it manned or unmanned.  Hence, if you want the UCAV to have long range to be able to launch from outside the A2/AD envelope, it will need a large-decked ship to operate from.  Consequently, the idea of simply designing smaller UCAVs for smaller amphibious carriers might not fly.
Captain Hendrix has started a worthwhile debate and has added some serious intellectual fire-power to the argument to move faster to unmanned strike aviation.  He has not authored the execution warrant for the aircraft carrier.  

UPDATE (13 March):  It might be worthwhile to re-read Captain Hendrix Proceedings article from nearly two years ago that presaged this CNAS paper, and the response I posted then.

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