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)|
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)|
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
|USS Enterprise (CV 6); A "Pacific" carrier with a nominal|
complement of 90+ aircraft
|The A-6 Intruder|
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.