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It Takes A Carrier

Naval Aviation and the Hybrid Fight

By Rear Admiral Terry B. Kraft, U.S. Navy

Carriers still provide capability unmatched by any other weapon system in the U.S. arsenal.

One need only open a newspaper to see the incredible challenges facing our military today. An unprecedented “high-low” mix of overseas operations, rising regional superpowers, and transnational trends such as piracy and radical Islam all contribute to a complex range of scenarios for military planners and defense analysts. In this budget season, there are widely divergent views regarding the shape of our current and future military and how to remain responsive to an ever-increasing list of contingencies.

Much of this discussion has centered on the need for continued construction and support of our nation’s aircraft carrier force. Large investments must be justified, and carriers, air wings, and support ships come at significant cost. This interest in carrier strike groups is nothing new; since 1976, more than ten different studies have examined size and configuration issues for aircraft carriers.1 Smaller ships, more vertical take off and landing (VTOL), and other power projection methods have been examined. After much time and taxpayer money is spent on these studies, the results have always been nearly the same: to project enough force ashore to make a difference, you need about 4.5 acres of flight deck carrying around 50 strike-fighters and support aircraft. The key comparative issue centers around keeping a sufficient number of aircraft airborne and on station for extended periods of time. Repeatedly, studies show that a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier provides anywhere from 2.5 to 5 times as many ground support aircraft when compared to a smaller carrier, despite carrying only twice as many aircraft. 

Current and future operations require aircraft to be there, on station, and responsive to asymmetric threats while being ready to attack moving ground targets. Ground forces, particularly troops in contact, need flexible, multi-role air power to respond immediately. At longer ranges, the challenge to support these requirements becomes even greater. A look back at the beginning phases of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) is instructive here. In 2001, despite strong international support and invocation of NATO Article V, there were no practical basing options for tactical aircraft at the start of hostilities. Not surprisingly, aircraft carriers were the only viable solution for tactical air support and in fact provided 75 percent of OEF strike sorties through December of that year.2 Hornet air crews became accustomed to six- to eight-hour strike sorties while simultaneously providing flexible, armed overwatch of troop movements. EA-6B Prowlers began missions that continue to this day, denying the electromagnetic spectrum to the enemy.

Today, one aircraft carrier provides 49 percent of OEF fixed-wing sorties immediately after reporting on station.3 On a recent deployment, Carrier Air Wing Eight operating from the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) flew more than 3,000 OEF sorties supporting troops-in-contact nearly 500 times. They spent over five months of their deployment off the coast of Pakistan. Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) has been similar. During my time in the Persian Gulf on board the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), every type of air wing aircraft directly supported ground operations on a daily basis, including E-2 airborne early warning aircraft flying 4.5 hour missions in-country. In looking at this and other combat operations from Bosnia to Iraq, carriers have proven indispensable, particularly in the key early stages of a conflict.

Hybrid Warfare         

What makes aircraft carries unique has not changed over time; they are independent, potent, and when they show up off the coast, impossible to ignore. Shore-based aircraft and long-range missiles all play a part, but the fact that the geographic coordinates of their hangars and bases never change makes them instant targets. When the requirement for host nation permission is added to the mix, diplomatic challenges often hamper operational effectiveness. Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan is a prime example. Although the U.S. government has been able to negotiate for continued basing rights, the costs have skyrocketed, tripling to more than $60 million, which does not include $66 million for capital improvements to the airfield. Even with all the money going to the government of Kyrgyzstan, the field cannot be used for tactical missions and is limited to support only.4 Issues such as this highlight how dangerous it would be to assume current basing privileges as options in future conflicts.

Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the point that we need to configure our military for “the wars we are fighting now.” His sense is that Pentagon planners too often focus on the big ticket items while not providing what our troops need in the field at the moment. While it would be inexcusable to let that happen, I would also offer that the Navy is currently up to its armpits in operations ranging from piracy patrols to 14,000 Sailors on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. What may be surprising for some is that the one constant in these overseas contingency operations (irregular warfare or whatever other term of the day presents itself) is the aircraft carrier and embarked air wing.

In his now famous Foreign Affairs article, Secretary Gates divided U.S. military forces into three groups: 50 percent for conventional warfare or major contingency operations (MCOs), 10 percent for irregular warfare, and 40 percent that could be used for both.5 In looking at current combat operations and future contingencies, it becomes clear that carrier strike groups hit the sweet spot and in fact make up the most significant portion of that “hybrid” 40 percent.

A typical argument against the aircraft carrier is that it is a remnant of the Cold War or only viable in MCOs. Several analysts would argue otherwise. Tactical aircraft, special operations forces, and helicopters have played key roles during the last 11 years in a wide range of security operations, none of them reaching the level of an MCO. This includes Operation Desert Fox in 1998—when carrier tactical aircraft launched the initial strikes on Iraq—to OEF in 2001. In the early stages of OIF, five carriers provided critical air support for regular and special forces. In the case of the two carriers in the eastern Mediterranean, those support missions spanned more than 700 nautical miles. Amazingly, 8 different strike/fighter orbits were maintained for 27 days.6

There are plenty of other examples of carrier hybrid actions. The USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) led tsunami relief efforts in 2004. The USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) deployed with critical special operations forces at the start of OEF. What is most interesting about all of these engagements is that none of them would fit the definition of a Cold War scenario or a traditional major contingency. Carrier strike groups were there when needed, provided crucial support across the spectrum of operations, then redeployed when their work was complete or they were relieved on station by another carrier strike group.

All of this underscores the fact that carrier strike groups are busier than ever before. Beginning with a wide range of contingency operations during the Clinton era to sustained combat operations over the last four years, there have not been enough strike groups to meet combatant commander demand. Vice Admiral Barry McCullough, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Integration of Capabilities and Resources (N8), recently noted that this “presence deficit” includes areas such as the Black Sea, Baltic Region, Indian Ocean, and areas off the African coast.7

Enhanced Air Wing Capabilities

While the carriers themselves look the same, the air wings have changed significantly since the days of the Cold War. The F/A-18 Super Hornet remains the most significant and flexible aircraft in the world for supporting a complete range of activities from unconventional warfare to major contingencies. Equipped with ATFLIR, ROVER targeting system, and Shared Reconnaissance Pods, with crews fully trained as airborne forward air controllers, the Super Hornet presents the most capable and survivable ground support aircraft in theater.

Another significant change is the current air wing on board the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), which includes a mix of 19 SH-60 R/S aircraft. These helicopters are particularly well suited to irregular warfare, with capabilities spanning antisubmarine warfare to combat search and rescue. Future air wings will add even more capability with the advent of the EA-18G Growler and inclusion of unmanned aerial vehicles. These systems are currently without peer as a “fifth-generation” irregular warfare aircraft since, as Secretary Gates noted “the F-22 [has] never flown a combat mission in Iraq or Afghanistan.”8

All of these facts underscore why critics of aircraft carriers have had little success in challenging the viability and utility of these ships and their air wings. The flexibility of what they do and the respect they garner on arrival remains unmatched by any other weapon system. Long after conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, Navy ships will continue to provide vital presence in troubled regions. Key tenets that Secretary Gates has discussed certainly will be tasked to the Navy: capacity building through presence and engagement, institutionalization of counterinsurgency, and an unambiguous ability to deter future conflicts.

Floating Targets?

Unable to effectively criticize aircraft carriers based on need or warfighting utility, some have latched on to yet another tired argument: “Carriers are vulnerable! They’ll be taken out by missiles!” Once again, such discussions are not new, and in fact date back to World War II. In a recent television series on the Discovery Channel called Enterprise, graphic computer animation demonstrated how carriers of that era were constantly under attack from the entire battlespace. The USS Enterprise (CV-6) fought in nearly every significant sea battle of World War II, surviving to eventually earn 20 battle stars.

What the Enterprise series brings home is that lucrative targets need determined defense to prevail. Carrier strike groups of today get underway with sophisticated, multi-layered, and fully netted three-dimensional defensive systems. Advancements such as Cooperative Engagement Capability, as well as advanced antisubmarine warfare and missile defense tactics will continue to protect high-value units at sea. 

When looking at carrier threats, much has been made of China’s DF-21/CSS-5 antiship ballistic missile. This journal went so far as to feature a picture of a carrier (and unlucky cruiser) blowing up on its May cover. While it is important to look closely at weapon innovations of other countries, it is just as important to not over react to what may or may not be on the horizon for China or any other nation. Last year it was the low-end swarm attack that concerned analysts, now the DF-21 has provided new ammunition for the old argument of aircraft carrier vulnerability. While the range of the DF-21 is under debate, what remains central to the success of a 1,500-km missile is targeting and locating data. The strident article from Dr. Erickson and Mr. Yang (using information primarily from Chinese field manuals) in the May Proceedings devoted exactly one sentence to the task of locating and targeting an aircraft carrier, stating that it would be a “key technical challenge.” In fact finding a ship at sea in the middle of thousands of square miles of ocean, even an aircraft carrier, is extremely difficult. The question remains as to whether potential adversaries have the level of persistent accuracy needed to stage antiship ballistic missile attacks. Should targets not cooperate by radiating military radars or communication gear, the challenge becomes nearly insurmountable given the current technical state of play. 

One final question to ponder regarding the DF-21 is what type of situation would lead China to launch such an attack. Presumably there would be plenty of other indicators of increasing hostilities leading to a range of military options to defend our assets. Such things do not occur in a vacuum. Moreover, ceding the maritime high ground seems imprudent simply because some believe we can’t keep pace with the competition in the Pacific. The German Navy after Jutland comes to mind.

The DF-21 discussion is useful, however, in that it highlights a key tenet of China’s possible military strategy in the Pacific: area denial. If the Chinese can push naval striking forces farther out to sea, those platforms become less effective. Long-range missiles, submarines, and even a future Chinese aircraft carrier will undoubtedly be part of that mix. At a time when things like the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and budget pressures are coming to a head, some of these “threats” seem to have taken on a life of their own. Like the first carrier Enterprise, U.S. military weapons and technology will flex to meet this challenge and ensure we continue to operate “inside the ring.” 

The Global Commons

What must not be lost in this discussion is the rise of the Chinese navy. By the next decade, China will have more warships than the United States. They are building submarines five times faster than us as well.9 As the Chinese acquire more deepwater ports, the concept of area denial in the Pacific comes into sharper focus. While the possibility of direct conflict with China is remote, what concerns regional allies is the ability of U.S. ships to freely operate throughout the region, unhindered by the Chinese or any other nation. Since World War II, the Navy has provided critical engagement and deterrence options to U.S. leaders and our key allies in the Pacific.

Military analysts and political leaders devote much time and effort trying to predict future conflicts that will in turn inform requirements and configuration decisions for our military forces. In the requirements business, we live in the world of “five years from now” due to the inevitable delays and limitations or the acquisition process. It’s a challenging way to shape a force.

One interesting vision of the future comes from academic and author Robert D. Kaplan. Based on current and projected energy demands, he notes the importance of the vast energy trade transiting the Indian Ocean and Strait of Malacca. Instability in Pakistan and the rise of India are interesting trends in the region. The United States will continue to be tasked to guard the global commons, controlling piracy and providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief while interdicting terrorism. He notes that by 2030, India will have the largest population of any country in the world.10 With this regional growth, it becomes clear that the competition for resources will be acute. These factors help explain the current naval expansion of both India and China and highlight the need for the Navy to remain engaged in the theater. Kaplan further notes that “the U.S. Navy may in the future be able to work with individual Asian countries, such as India and China, better than they can with each other.”

Kaplan’s vision of a Navy involved in the theater and engaged with multiple sea-going nations is beginning now. Combined Task Forces 150 and 151 patrol from the Gulf of Aden to the Seychelles and comprise a force of more than 27 different navies, including, interestingly, China. These types of efforts underscore the significant leadership responsibilities of the United States in the region and argue for continued presence. 

The Way Ahead

The final argument in favor of continued aircraft carrier construction might be the fact that everybody else seems to be building them. Last November, an official in China’s Ministry of National Defense mentioned for the first time in a public venue the possibility of his nation acquiring aircraft carriers. Around the same time, Admiral Hu Yanlin, former political commissar of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, stated “China has the capability to build aircraft carriers, and should do so.”11 His country has already purchased three carriers built by the former Soviet Union and one built by Australia. It has also been reported that, since 1987, China has been training PLA pilots to one day command aircraft carriers. The United Kingdom, Russia, and India have all shown a keen interest in building carriers.

It seems clear, then, that aircraft carriers continue to provide the kind of “hybrid” weapon system so critical for current and future defense and presence operations. I would argue that, rather than attempting to link aircraft carriers to the Cold War or fret about supposed vulnerabilities to untested weapon systems, we focus on what is important to the future of our Fleet and how to ensure carrier strike groups remain relevant tomorrow. The first challenge will clearly be the looming strike fighter shortfall, something that has been articulated by Navy leadership over the past year. While the Navy remains committed to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), continued acquisition of the F/A-18 presents the best and most cost-effective way to populate our aircraft carriers with air wings of sufficient size to generate a meaningful amount of combat sorties until the JSF becomes a reality. It is also important that we retain our sharp focus on the need to pursue effective defensive systems to protect our capital ships. As a nation we must continually challenge how our defense dollars are spent. In the case of aircraft carriers and the Sailors and aircrews that execute the Navy’s mission around the world, that investment pays off every single day.

1. Center for Naval Analyses, “Small Carrier Capabilities” letter to ADM Nathman, 23 May 2005.

2. Fox, Mikolic, Brown “Carrier Operations,” Study by Center for Naval Analyses, 13 May 2009.

3. CNO Comments, Naval War College Current Strategy Forum, 16 June 2009.

4. Jessica Golloher, “US, Kyrgyzstan Reach Deal on Continued Use of Manas Air Base,” Voice of America News, 23 June 2009.

5. Robert M. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, New York, Jan/Feb 2009, Vol. 88, Issue 1, pp. 28-32.

6. CNA Carrier Study, Fox.

7. VADM McCullough, OPNAV N8, Comments Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary Forces of the House Armed Services Committee on Shipbuilding, 15 May 2009.

8. Testimony, Secretary Gates to House Armed Services Committee, 13 May 2009.

9. Robert D. Kaplan, “Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century,” Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr 2009, Vol. 88, Issue 2, pp. 16-29, 31-32.

10. Kaplan, “Center Stage…”

11. Bao Daozu, “Military Deputies Urge Building of Aircraft Carriers,” China Daily, 6 March 2009.

Rear Admiral Kraft is a career naval aviator. A veteran of Operations Eldorado Canyon, Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, his commands have included the USS Shreveport (LPD-12) and the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). He is currently Head, Maritime Aviation, Unmanned Systems & Aviation Training Plans and Programs.


This article is reprinted courtesy of the United States Naval Institute Proceedings




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