September 03, 2012

Twilight of the Carriers?

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.