Carriers Sail On

On the other hand arguments for small carriers provide too few aircraft, and too incapable a mix, to deal with some of these Third World air forces. Libya, for example, has 509 combat aircraft; Syria 448; North Korea 800; and Ethiopia 150. Larger carriers should , however, still be viable against such air forces given the carrier's advantage in numbers of current-generation aircraft. Two or three Nimitz-class air wings should be adequate for dealing with most threats. This trend appears likely to continue. While a small number of air forces are buying large numbers of modern fighters, most are buying relatively fewer, the result being that the gap between those countries that can only afford 8, 12, 24, or 48 modem fighters and carrier air wings flying 60 each will, if anything, widen further.

This trend appears to be true of other weapons as well. The proliferation of ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, antiship missiles, coastal submarines, and novel threats such as small, fast launches all pose a threat to naval forces that are deployed without adequate air cover. The low-threat environment has become an endangered species. Although air power was not always available, recent successes of carrier aircraft in dealing with the Libyan and Iranian navies demonstrated convincingly the fate of a one-dimensional navy confronted by a three-dimensional one. Multiple large carrier battle groups supported by their own electronic warfare aircraft should be able to deal with most threats in the foreseeable future.

In the 1986 Libya operation, most targets were attacked by Navy carrier aircraft with other naval fighters providing support for U. S. Air Force operations. This may set a pattern for future cooperation, particularly if the requirement is again to be able to put a heavy tonnage of bombs on a range of targets in the course of one short, night attack. The Strategic Air Command's (SAC) current thinking about the importance of conventionally armed bombers and the Soviets' interest in using their navy for strategic air defense suggest a very profitable avenue to explore and an entire range of missions that may fall to U.S. Navy carriers as the Navy and SAC build up their capability to implement the options required under the discriminating deterrence strategies suggested in 1987.

The advantages carrier aircraft have compared to most of their land-based opponents will increase if the United States can deploy more of its technological advantage as called for under the competitive strategies approach.  Slowing the development of the new in favor of the old (beyond a certain point) would be a decidedly false economy. The introduction of the Air Force advanced tactical fighter (ATF) and the Navy A-12 advanced tactical aircraft should destroy the numbers argument by providing an unmatchable increase in the capability of the few versus the many. Stealth will pose major problems for the Soviet air forces, but against the rest of the world's armed forces the advantage should be even greater. If stealth technology is exported only to the United States's closest allies, other air forces are likely to find themselves in an impossible situation. Against a force they cannot see, most of the world's fighters and ground defenses will be reduced to the position of blind hunters looking for deadly and fully sighted prey in a vast landscape.

The competitive strategy should produce other advantages. If countermeasures prove as difficult as anticipated to develop or afford and are not exported, other technologies should also serve to widen the gap. The difficulties experienced by the United States with the ALQ-137/ 1611 165 electronic countermeasures (ECM) programs suggest that few nations will be able to follow. The combination of night vision equipment, stealth, ECM, and new electro-optical countermeasures technology seems to offer the potential to operate when the enemy cannot, to be invisible, and to blind and otherwise jam his acquisition and weapon systems if by luck opposing fighters or antiaircraft systems should locate U. S. naval aircraft.

Improvements in U. S. weapon systems should also enhance carrier firepower in absolute and relative terms. The introduction of the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) will enable fighters to carry more medium-range missiles, engage more targets at once, and enjoy once again a real range advantage over enemy aircraft, the latter resulting from the AMRAAM's range and the fact that its active homing will allow the launching aircraft to turn away after firing instead of having to proceed forward into the opponent's missile range. The eventual introduction of the advanced air-to-air missile (AAAM) to replace the long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile should have even more impact. Less weight will allow more missiles per fighter, changing the caiculus of patrolling fighters versus attacking bombers. Even an increase from four AIM-54s to eight AAAM (15 have been suggested as a maximum) would be very important if it allowed every pair of fighters on combat air patrol to engage 16 targets rather than eight.

The scope for thickening fighter defenses against bomber and missile attack is enormous. Current suggestions that the AAAM could be carried by aircraft other than the F-14 and ATF, i.e., the F/A-18, A-6, A-12, and perhaps even the P-3C and its follow-on, would allow available air-defense air power to be increased by factors of four compared to current capabilities. Proliferation of long-range air-to-air missiles around the carrier air wing and beyond should also create exciting new deployment options with all the consequential tactical and strategic advantages. If we add to this the impact of increasing numbers of Aegis systems in defense of the fleet and the future possibility of even better surface-to-air missiles, it is clear that few air forces are likely to pose a significant danger to the carrier battle group . Though the Soviet naval air arm and Soviet Air Force will still pose a real threat, most other air forces will likely follow the example of the Libyan and Iranian air arms and remain resolutely grounded.

Technology also offers a riposte to those who argue that 10-20 A-6Es have too little firepower to provide an effective strike capability. The deployments of the high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM), standoff land-attack missile (SLAM), Tomahawk long-range cruise missile, and Tacit Rainbow anti-radiation missile offer new capabilities to strike farther and with more effect. Future deployment of autonomously guided weapons and new generations of standoff missiles and bombs will magnify this effect. Modern nations may prove exceptionally vulnerable to the loss of a few key installations while developing states may offer few vital targets. The key systems of developed nations, such as electricity generation, radars, command posts, communications links, bases, and industrial complexes, should still provide a finite number of aimpoints for the new air-to-ground missiles. Libya, on the other hand, provided only five targets in 1986. Though some targets may require more ordnance, there are few that could survive a couple of hits from a submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) or 2,000-pound bomb. In an age in which intelligence systems know where every fixed target is, and attacking weapons know where they and where their prey is, 20 U.S. Navy attack aircraft are likely to be more than enough deterrent to any leader.

The revolution in offensive weapon accuracies strengthens the case for the carrier as a floating air base. Although much discussion of land-based aircraft vulnerability has overstated the threat, the development of weapons capable of taking out individual hardened aircraft shelters poses questions about the future of land-based aircraft. Dispersal may allow many to survive, but in areas where alternate landing strips are not available, airfields could become decidedly threatened places. In a contest between land-based air limited to known locations and mobile sea-based air, the rise of the “brilliant” standoff munition may bring an important shift in favor of the latter.

Other developments may make the carriers more survivable and increase their chances against the threat. Aircraft commonality, for example, would be a welcome development. Should the ATF and ATA be used by both the Navy and the Air Force, a range of tactical and strategic opportunities would become available. Tactically, aircraft could be deployed from shore to sea and vice versa to meet requirements for changes in carrier force structure or to get aircraft within reach of their targets. In a strategic sense, airframe commonality would greatly improve the ability of the United States to maintain sorties throughout a long war. If land bases were overrun and carrier aircraft suffered attrition in early campaigns, surviving Air Force aircraft could be deployed to continue the war from surviving carriers. The capability to fight a long war, and the deterrent effect that might have, would also be improved if current plans to replace conventionally powered carriers with nuclear-powered ones proceed. Some or all of the conventionally powered ships could go into reserve, providing an improved ability to replace combat losses.

The deployment of the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft represents another opportunity to open new strategic options. If the Osprey enters service with U. S. special operations forces and the Marine Corps, it will vastly increase naval capabilities to deal with lower intensity combat the most immediate threat facing the West for the next few decades. Possible antisubmarine and airborne early warning variants of the Osprey look very promising. The fact that the proposed antisubmarine SV-22 could be forward deployed on amphibious ships, forward strips, and perhaps some escorts and merchantmen allows a number of new options. Ospreys could be deployed far forward of the fleet, working from bases that do not reveal the location of the parent carrier and providing antiair and antisubmarine defenses in even greater depth than currently available. The Osprey might also allow ASW functions to be devolved back to smaller carriers or other units to which the Ospreys could be assigned, allowing additional fighter and attack aircraft to take the places of carrier S-3 aircraft.

There may also be some potential to exploit further the Navy's ability to "hide" the carrier. Money spent on strategic deception programs is money well spent. Tracking a nuclear-powered carrier that can move 700 miles a day may prove difficult for the most sophisticated opponent, but it will clearly be impossible for most nations. Better carrier defenses and over-the-horizon targeting should deny most opponents any opportunities to target U. S. carriers; over-the-horizon radars and the remotely piloted vehicles being evaluated will clearly be important. Widescale deployment of SLCMs not only deters nuclear attacks on the fleet, but vastly increases the number of units the enemy must keep under surveillance. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) may offer an additional shield, even in its early phases. Should the Navy decide that satellite surveillance poses a severe threat, there appear to be a number of early SDI weapons that could destroy adversaries' satellites.

All of this will, of course, be expensive, particularly when the $21 billion naval ship construction (SCN) budgets promised in the early 1980s have shrunk to $9-11 billion budgets in the late 1980s. Current proposals to build one carrier every three years from fiscal year 1996, however, do not seem extravagant.  This will entail about $1.2 billion a year, comparable to the Trident program, which should by then have been completed. Carriers will still have to serve for 45 years and longer, continually demonstrating just how much carrier procurement funds do buy. It may be that frozen budgets will not even provide $10-11 billion for ship construction by the year 2000 as operations costs rise in real terms, but the argument will not be whether 15 or 12 carriers will be adequate. Stable defense budgets have far more serious implications than those who talk about reducing carrier numbers by one or two seem to appreciate. A budget that cannot procure one carrier is actually going to provide nothing to all of the forces.

Just how far real cuts in U. S. defense capabilities will go and what the outcome of any subsequent defense debate will be lies , of course , in the hands of the executive and legislative branches. However, some external factors are likely to intervene that will strengthen the Navy's case in strategic terms.

Any review of defense policy in the 1990s is unlikely to confine itself to one scenario. The Army and Air Force have improved their situations since 1977, and the Maritime Strategy has offered a complimentary naval case. It now appears that once again all the services are prepared to stress short war requirements, if for no other reason than to rationalize defense procurements. Explaining how the Air Force might be forced to relax its sustainability requirements, the Secretary of the Air. Force told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1988: "It makes absolutely no difference if you have 30 days or 60 days of supplies when you are sitting at the channel on day 15." Any review of U. S. defense priorities, which must include peacetime power projection needs , will almost certainly seek some alternative to being marooned at the channel on day 15.

In fact, any such review will find a pretty comprehensive argument supporting the maintenance of 15 carrier battle groups. Such a fleet offers deployment options that avoid difficulties with allies and might prove less escalatory than deploying land or air units directly into the front line. It offers options to pose threats in crises or take action short of nuclear escalation in any short war. A short, conventional, European scenario does not argue against naval deterrent gestures to deter the war from starting. Nor does it preclude navies from having an influence on the outcome. Nor does it remove the need for reinforcement, particularly if the threat of a bolt-from-the-blue attack recedes. Navies can still deploy armies forward, given warning. Indeed, the commitment to provide NATO with ten divisions in ten days by air is still, in fact, a commitment to move in 30-40 days largely by sea.

Navies also offer reach into otherwise inaccessible areas, putting fighters, strike aircraft, and accompanying escorts into positions to mount offensive operations. Because public opposition to some types of weapons is growing, carriers may even become the only available home for some necessary elements of the deterrent arsenal. Fleets with their own air cover and offensive capability will also continue to carry the capability to confront an opponent with the threat of a protracted war. Without carriers, U. S. leaders would, for the foreseeable future, have only the options of nuclear escalation or surrender and isolation in response to any successful Soviet conventional probe on the Eurasian rimland. Carriers would not only be essential to maintain forward-based forces in a long war, but if the early stages of that war were lost those carriers and SAC remain the only way of holding the ring and taking the war to the aggressor.

The case for carriers is also supported by the changing agenda of international politics. Attention is being focused toward the Pacific, on those who are succeeding or, more often, dismally failing to match the rise of the Pacific powers. The population explosion, which will crowd eight billion people onto this planet by the early 21st century, threatens to bring renewed ravages and discontents. The return of nationalistic, tribal, and dynastic disputes seems likely to accelerate rather than decline. Religious revival and antagonisms seem likely to create many new martyrs, and terrorism still lurks. The spread of sophisticated weapons to ascending regional powers such as India is a sign of change. The U.S. Navy's operational future is likely to be more of its recent past-operations much like Grenada, Libya, the Achille Lauro, and the Persian Gulf. Alternative means of deploying U. S. power also seem likely to decrease as some allies take over more of their own defense, local threats diminish, and numbers of U. S. bases decline still further.

Thus, the Navy's goal to have 15 carriers and maintain five forward deployed seems likely to grow in stature as U. S. presidents find themselves facing these dangerous changes. The alternative of 247-day deployments has been shown not to work. The fact is that there will be no other way of responding militarily in these areas unless the Navy continues to prosper.

Perestroika is likely to restructure the Soviet naval threat. Arms control should lead to major reductions in Soviet ballistic-missile submarine levels. Force levels and out-of-area deployments are already falling, although the Soviet fleet is clearly not to be discounted should Soviet leaders wish to do more than defend their homeland. The threat in the year 2000 may be a smaller, individually more capable Soviet fleet that would be available for a wide range of new missions if the U. S. Maritime Strategy does not continue to force it to remain on the defensive. Paradoxically, as arms control succeeds, the offensive capability of the carrier battle group may become more important to U. S. strategy. It should also become increasingly apparent, as perestroika bites at numbers, that the Soviet Navy is not 100 feet tall. It is a formidable adversary, but not, as many critics imply, one likely to turn the tables on a properly equipped U. S. Navy.

More significantly, the role of military power may also evolve as the cold war breathes its last frosty breath and public opinion looks inquiringly at the post-1945 settlement and its deployments and rigidities. In Europe, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's claim that "the world is sick and tired of tension" seems to echo some Western public opinion and may encourage the growth of this feeling. This may accelerate the tendency to lower force levels already induced by economic and demographic trends. Although U. S. withdrawals might make neither strategic nor economic sense, it would be a wise man indeed who would predict U. S. force levels, and which bases U. S. Air Force aircraft would be allowed to operate from 20 years from now. Cuts in U. S. deployed forces in Europe, perhaps matched by longer warning times provided by confidence-building measures, might place further demands on U. S. capabilities to reinforce Europe by sea, increasing demand for offensive and defensive naval actions to protect the reinforcement shipping.

The U. S. Navy seems uniquely prepared for such a post-cold war world, should it emerge. If Western voters and the adversaries of the United States will not sustain a fixed, massive, deterrent response, then less obvious, and more fluid, more attuned, and more skillfully deployable deterrent posture will be required. What may be needed is a deterrent that enters into any potential enemy's calculations, but does not overtly remind the public of the costs and risks of maintaining security. Positioning thousands of U. S. tactical nuclear weapons (and 86,256 American school children) forward in Europe is one form of deterrence, and it has been effective at maintaining the peace until now. Perhaps other forms will assume some of the burden in a more ambiguous world. There are no perfect instruments of deterrence and in an even more complex world deterrence will be ever more demanding. The U.S. Navy, with its carriers-suitably supported by its submarines and escorts, may prove to be the best instrument the United States can build to maintain its interests, stability, and peace.

n|&?tx??0 H?ce:none'>"I wish that, like you, I could draw comfort from the Soviets' having belatedly emulated our carrier program. Unfortunately, in the areas where it may really matter, we can't pose the kinds and levels of threats to their carriers that they can to ours. Nor can we make quick losses of three or four carriers such a devastating blow to their maritime strategy.

 

"Perhaps the message that we should be getting from Soviet carrier building programs is that they now feel assured that we will doggedly stick to our carrier and CVBG support programs for another 50 years. Since this effectively precludes us from developing and fielding significant numbers of anything else (except, of course, the Trident strategic deterrent force), they may be confident that threats from the U. S. Navy will essentially be in-hand. They should get some encouragement from our apparent preoccupation with defense and survivability. While this may challenge their anticarrier strategy, they have had 40 years to work on the problem (which probably explains our current emphasis on self-defense). Given another 40 or 50 years, they should get pretty good at it.

"Incidentally, whatever the reasons for and merits of the current Soviet large carrier program , it is worth recalling that the Japanese completed and deployed the Yamato (quite ineffectively) long after they taught us the value of aircraft carriers and signaled the end of the reign of battleships."

The proponent: ''The facts are that our programs and plans are the consensus of the best experienced naval judgment. They are subjected to continuous scrutiny and review. This includes careful consideration of all of the points you have raised. When and if this tried-and-true process indicates a need for changes, they will be made. Be assured that changes - if any - are not going to result from the strident but shallow arguments of a shrinking coterie of naysayers."

And the debate goes on and on. Perhaps the only true burden of proof is on the future and only the course of events over the next half-century will resolve the debate. It is hoped that the winner turns out to be right.

 

 

 
 

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