Thursday, July 10, 2014

Carrier Debate has Geographic Solution

     Bryan McGrath and Robert Farely recently conducted an online debate on what constitutes an "aircraft carrier" in the early 21st century. McGrath rightly described the current big deck flattop as "a single combat system" equipped to conduct a multiplicity of activities beyond mere strike operations. These include airborne early warning (AEW), antisubmarine warfare (ASW), and means of countering enemy aircraft and surface to air missiles (SAM's). McGrath also identifies these requirements and a host of others that enable the independent operations expected of U.S. carriers as the principal drivers of large carrier size and cost. Robert Farley believes large amphibious assault ships of the LHD (Essex) and LHA (America) classes ought to also be included on the carrier rolls with perhaps the designation

USS George Washington  (CVN 73)
of "light carrier". He asserts that these ships can perform some of the roles of larger carriers when equipped with strike aircraft such as the current AV-8B Harrier and the incoming F-35 Lighting aircraft. As McGrath stated, the amphibious assault ship carrier cannot perform the the sort of independent operations expected of true flattops, but there may yet be a role for Farley's "light carrier" concept. Significant changes in strategic geography now allow both variants to operate in the regions best suited to their capabilities. The history of carrier development in the period between the world wars and combat in the Second World War also point to geographic assignment of different carrier types. The U.S. can maintain its nearly all of its present carrier fleet, conduct a significant rebalance to the Pacific of capital ships, and still retain the ability to operate naval aviation in the western Eurasian littorals.

                                            A Change in Strategic Geography

     The present strategic geography is significantly different from any period since before World War 2. The United States is no longer supporting a large ground force engaged in deterrence, active combat or lingering counterinsurgency operations (save Afghanistan). While Russia's long term intentions in Eastern Europe remain uncertain, there is no longer a large Soviet ground force meanacing Western Europe. No Saddam Hussein-like Middle Eastern tyrant is poised to invade a neighbor. Iran rattles its saber from time to time against Israel and other opponents, but does not appear to contemplate the employment of ground forces against adjacent states. North Korea remains threatening and China is more aggressive, but both are located in the now vital Indo-Pacific destination of rebalance. In short, there does not appear to be the potential for a large scale U.S. ground conflict for the foreseeable future.
An AV-8B Harrier leaves USS Kearsarge (LHD 3)
     In this environment the U.S. might transfer all but one or two of its large carriers to the Pacific Command (PACOM).  The large maritime spaces and relatively scarce land-based aviation facilities there are well suited to the employment of larger carriers that deploy complete warfare package. Despite a nominal partnership in the Air/Sea battle concept, the U.S. Air Force brings little to the concept of long range maritime strike. The intercontinental B-2 and B-1 bombers are small in number, and the venerable B-52 bomber is rapidly aging. The USAF's tactical strike aircraft are relatively short-ranged and might not play a useful role in a Pacific battle far from friendly land bases. Given this combination of factors, the large conventional aircraft carrier might be by far the significant provider of airborne strike assets in any significant Indo-Pacific conflict.
     While they might play a supporting role in the Pacific, Farely's "light carriers" are much more suited to employment in and around the European Eurasian littoral, the Mediterranean and in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf. In these regions the U.S. does not face a peer/near peer networked competitor with significant Anti Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capability. Friendly airfields are much more numerous and closer in range to potential threats. A deployed force of one or more LHA/LHD-based carriers could support operations ashore if supported by land-based surveillance and electronic warfare assets. USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) performed this role during the 2011 Odyssey Dawn operation against Gaddafi forces in Libya. The one or two remaining carriers based on the U.S. east coast could provide a surge capability if the opposition is expected to require greater, long range striking power.

                                           Naval History Provides Support

HMS Ark Royal; a well protected "European" carrier with
a nominal complement of 40-50 aircraft
     The period of carrier development during the interwar period and naval combat in World War 2 further support a change in present U.S. carrier deployment. British naval historian Geoffrey Till noted that "strategic geography affected conceptions of battle" in the Pacific theater. The United States and Japan developed large carriers for a variety of reasons but one principal requirement was the need to conduct campaigns across wide Pacific spaces. Land-based aircraft could cover only limited areas. Big carriers with large embarked airwings enabled both Pacific powers to bring significant striking capability to remote areas. Great Britain's Royal Navy by contrast was principally threatened in Northern European and Mediterranean waters. In those regions shorter maritime distances and more terrestrial space favored the development of large, land-based aviation arms. While the RN faced significant budgetary, organizational, and strategic challenges in preparing for war in the 1930's, the strategic geography of the Western Eurasian littoral favored smaller, better protected carriers with smaller embarked airwings. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's boast that Italy was an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" is often ridiculed by historians. Despite this mockery, Italian and German aircraft based in Italy sank dozens of warships and merchantmen in the Mediterranean during World War 2. Large carriers with big airwings did not make sense in a theater well covered by land-based aircraft.
USS Enterprise  (CV 6); A "Pacific" carrier with a nominal
complement of 90+ aircraft
     There is also historical precedent for a large scale movement of U.S. naval assets to a region of potential conflict. When Japan became a potential U.S. opponent after the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the bulk of the U.S. battle fleet was moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific. More modern units only returned to the Atlantic in 1939 with the outbreak of war in Europe.


The A-6 Intruder
     The present strategic geography favors another division of the U.S. Navy's embarked aviation assets. The bulk of the U.S. big deck carrier force should be moved to Pacific waters while large aviation capable amphibious warfare ships outfitted as an updated "light carriers" cover the waters of Northern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Such a shift is not a complete remedy for a lack of U.S. naval strength in the Pacific. Current large flattops airwings no longer contain long range strike aircraft like the A-6 Intruder of Cold War fame. Tactical aviation, cruise missile, and submarine threats to the U.S. carrier battle group have increased since the days of the Cold War. The U.S. Navy needs a new long range strike aircraft (manned or unmanned), as well as an improved antiship cruise missile to replace the 1970's era Harpoon weapon. Other experts are already suggesting similar changes. Seth Cropsey from the Hudson Institute just recently recommended reassignment of two carriers to the Western Pacific (7th Fleet). Such moves of ships, their crews, families and support elements will undoubtedly cause anger in Virginia and other east coast locations where U.S. carriers and their supporting warships are based. Warship transfers are costly to both the Navy and to supporting industries. The U.S. however appears unable to maintain the eleven carriers currently in active service There are threats to retire USS George Washington due to budget constraints. In such an environment only stark choices are available. While inactivating another large flattop is extremely undesirable and entails strategic risk, moving all the big CVN's to the Pacific may partially offset the loss.
     A significant rebalance of large carriers to the Pacific will augment U.S. strike and sea control capabilities there and not significantly undermine the U.S. ability to strike in European and Mediterranean waters if required. This concentration of heavy units may again enable a period of fleet experimentation on a scale not seen since the interwar "Battle Problems" that led to the concept of the fast carrier task force. It will reassure the nation's close allies in the Pacific that the U.S. remains committed to their defense. Most importantly, a large rebalance of heavy naval units will send a clear signal to potential adversaries that the U.S. is very serious about preserving its present position of naval superiority in the Indo-Pacific basin.

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