Robert Haddick has a provocative post at
Foreign Policy suggesting that the rise of strategic
air power and anti-ship weaponry might render carriers obsolete, and cause major inter-service conflict to boot.
He might be right about the second part, but I have strong doubts about the
This isn’t the first time the aircraft carrier as we know it received an early obituary. In the wake of World War II, the advent of strategic bombing and nuclear weapons strongly suggested to a number of overeager politicians, along with Army and Air Force officers, that the Navy and Marine Corps were on their way out. The arguments? Expensive supercarriers capable of fielding aircraft that could carry the day’s five-ton nuclear bombs were too expensive, unwieldy, and vulnerable compared to strategic bombers, immediate aerial force, rather than support of ground operations, was the overwhelming concern for rapid response, and access to theater land basing would be either reliable or unnecessary.
There certainly was a massive breach in inter-service relations, as the Revolt of the Admirals and the attendant fallout revealed. Yet the carrier did not die. and indeed it rose in prominence as an instrument of U.S. power. Today, though, Haddick suggests carrier killer technologies are sufficiently disruptive, and carriers sufficiently expensive, to keep them out of useful combat range, to the point where they would require sortie-limiting midair refueling.
This misses half of the anti-access/area denial challenge. Certainly, countries such as china and Iran have increasing access to anti-ship weapons ranging from cruise missiles to small boat swarms. However, these countries also possess increasingly sophisticated capabilities to strike land basing. As RAND studies of air warfare have pointed out, China could also choose to rain ballistic or cruise missiles on U.S. air bases in the Western Pacific, forcing the U.S. to operate from a long distance and rely on tankers anyway. Countries can also simply choose not to provide overflight or access to theater basing for tactical aircraft.
Haddick suggests that bombers with precision weapons could elide these issues. Yet the continuous presence of strategic bombers is still dependent on thorough SEAD. SEAD operations, though stealthy aircraft can participate, still rely in significant part on specialized short-range aircraft such as the EA-18G and F-16CJ, as well as hundreds of TLAMs from naval vessels. Haddick recognizes that longer-ranged carrier aircraft, such as carrier launched-UAS, could shift this balance (as lighter nuclear bombs shifted the logic of carriers after the Revolt of the Admirals), but then asks why intercontinental drones could not work,
Simply looking at carriers ability to dispense aerial firepower, however, is insufficient to understanding their value. Carriers project power, not just firepower. Bombers can support troops in contact in Afghanistan, sure, but Afghanistan isn’t exactly the height of the A2/AD challenge (and you can see plenty of F/A-18s providing airstrikes there too). Indeed, with the exception of landlocked countries, anywhere that the U.S. is providing close air support to American troops in contact, it will likely have a naval presence nearby. Indeed, if access to theater basing for tactical aircraft is diminishing, than projecting a ground presence into an area is more, not less, likely to necessitate a carrier. Carrier Battle Groups will likely need to integrate their operations more with strategic bombers and tactical aircraft, to confront A2/AD challenges, but for some kinds of crisis response, strategic bombers likely won’t cut it.
The best response to a crisis isn’t always delivering the largest amount of warheads to the largest amount of foreheads. You can’t evacuate American citizens to a B-2, or drop a JSOC team out of one. Maritime power remains more flexible than air power for supporting ground operations thousands of miles away from home, and where maritime power goes, it is good to ensure a whole variety of tactical aircraft - from helicopters to EW and SEAD platforms to close-air support and air superiority jets - can follow. Despite the run of good luck in Libya, The messy business of ground operations won’t always be easy to outsource, and theater basing will not always be easy to procure. The spectrum of operations necessary to conduct under those circumstances will likely quantitatively overburden and qualitatively outstrip the limits of the bomber force.
As a final point, naval power provides an effective show of presence and force that intercontinental bombers cannot. Although gunboat diplomacy may seem like 19th century skullduggery, the ability to park a huge amount of floating combat power offshore is a more effective demonstration of presence than strategic bomber patrols, and more politically flexible (and economically inexpensive, in many cases) than trying to secure theater basing for non-amphibious ground forces or tactical aircraft. Ultimately, A2/AD is going to make it more difficult for all forms of power projection, not just carriers. Even if the platform’s halcyon days are behind it, the continued dependence of U.S. forces on maritime control and power projection generally is likely to give the carrier a continued, if increasingly circumscribed, role well into this century.
When it comes to issues of irregular
warfare and Middle Eastern conflict, there is an understandable focus on the
terrestrial domain and the problems of insurgency and terrorism. Furthermore,
given the recent record of that experience, it’s unsurprising that direct
engagement in land warfare is something of an anathema in debates about the
American strategic future. Avoiding “land wars in Asia,” whether by
substituting local soldiers for Americans or by avoiding such conflicts
altogether through a strategy of “offshore balancing” is again the new vogue.
Many commentators and analysts, particularly those of the realist persuasion in international relations, have sought seapower and “offshore” models of power projection as a refuge from the problems that now seem inextricably linked with land warfare and land presence generally - terrorism, insurgency, occupation and nation-building. Even the rhetoric of the “pivot to Asia” and the seeming defense policy transition from a large-footprint counterinsurgency force to a suite of unconventional or offshore counterterrorism and counter-A2/AD capabilities suggests an escape from the messiness of the Middle East and irregular conflicts.
Yet as the recent death of one fisherman and the wounding of several others off the coast of Dubai should remind us, naval operations - and maritime-centric strategies and policies - are still messy, even if they are not as obviously costly or politically painful as those of the past. The USS Cole bombing and Iran’s persistent use of irregular maritime operations to harass American shipping should make it clear that the problems of irregular conflict on land - the unclear distinction between combatant and noncombatant, the counteraction of American conventional superiority with unconventional platforms and tactics, and the persistent risk of violent entanglement with American presence still remains in the Gulf. Indeed, as a comparison of American responses to Iranian naval provocations and its well-documented operations against American forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan shows, the risk of wider conflict breaking out appears higher at sea than due to American land presence.
Far from being an easy extrication from “perpetual war,” America’s maritime presence, and the sorts of missions and political interests associated with it, has often been a trigger of major conflicts. The Quasi-War, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam all had maritime incidents as serious triggers. As the U.S.S. Cole bombing demonstrated, even in areas where the U.S. does not have a permanent basing presence, naval vessels pose potential targets.
“Gunboat diplomacy,” and all the political and cultural connotations it presents, should disabuse us of the notion that offshore power’s exercise is inherently more warmly received. Not only that, however, but a clear delineation between offshore power projection and onshore warfare is not likely to remain a viable strategic concept. As the recent report of the Amphibious Capabilities Working Group points out, a “single naval battle” approach requires addressing challenges not simply in the maritime domain, but in the air, space, cyberspace and on land. Whether the maritime threat includes a state’s sophisticated land-based defenses or home ports for pirate vessels, the arbitrary political division between offshore assets and onshore warfare requires a competent and reliable ground complement for operational and strategic coherence.
In cases such as Libya, the U.S. and its allies were lucky enough to work with an irregular ground force capable of matching Gaddafi’s military and paramilitary assets, albeit likely with support from contractors and allied special forces. In Somalia, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and I have noted, the U.S. has worked with a wide network of partner nations and proxy groups within Somalia, often buttressed with private contracting, to accomplish ground operations in support of substantial U.S. offshore assets. Yet it’s unlikely that local allies will always be able to furnish the requisite ground power to enable the muddier aspects of the “single naval battle,” let alone war aims more firmly rooted in enemy soil.
As Chris Rawley has noted, war on land is not synonymous with the modes of warfare the U.S. has charged its land forces with in the last decade. The offshoring of U.S. power, if it does occur, should not and probably will not mean an end to the frequent use of land power as an instrument of U.S. policy. Nor is such an approach ultimately incompatible with an austere, downsized military with limited national aims. After all, the Small Wars Manual was a product of a Marine Corps fighting in a relatively underfunded military with low tolerance for large footprints and in a political framework under which the U.S. enjoyed far less flexibility and international freedom of action compared to today.
On the high-intensity end of the warfighting spectrum, Brett Friedman argues that even a concept such as AirSea Battle, which gives land warfare a backseat in its very name, ultimately will have to relate to a theory of victory that addresses land power. Ultimately the division between air, sea, cyber, land land, is one of political convenience, obscuring a strategy reality where someone, at America’s behest or in America’s aid, provides Wylie’s “man on the scene with the gun.” As in the late 19th and early 20th century, after the sound of the cannons fades, or beyond the reach of their shot, even an invulnerable offshore force faces the problems of land warfare.
History has also demonstrated, since then, that naval power projection and naval forces do not provide an escape from irregular warfare or regional military entanglement. Ultimately, while an “offshore” strategy and its supporting policies may have many reasons to recommend them, they do not necessarily mean a low footprint, a less bellicose foreign policy, or even an escape from the problems of land warfare. Instead they demand a reconsideration of ways of warfare, especially amphibious operations, that will likely prove a necessary complement to any sea and air-based defense posture.