Nobody Asked Me But...The Last Days of Carrier-Based Aviation?

By Lieutenant Richard C. Arthur, U.S. Navy

Strike Warfare . The ability to project power to targets from great distances is the primary mission of the aircraft carrier. With new technology, this mission soon will be performed more efficiently by a combination of the Tomahawk missile and the next generation of naval gunfire support. The Tomahawk missile is extremely accurate, relatively cheap, and carries no threat of either losing an aviator or—worse politically—having a naval aviator taken prisoner. At present, ground-based surface-to-air missiles pose a major risk to our strike aircraft. These missiles are cheap and effective, and are likely to become even more so in the next ten years. The Tomahawk missile is able to skirt many of the threats posed by surface-to-air missiles, and in the worst-case scenario you haven't lost much if a Tomahawk is shot down. The principal advantage of carrier aviation compared to Tomahawks is the ability of planes to provide more firepower and deliver an on-the-scene assessment of mission effectiveness. But, mission assessment is now done mainly through satellite and high-flying reconnaissance aircraft.

Naval surface fire support also is entering a new age. Currently, gunfire systems are being developed that can be retrofitted into existing vertical-lauch-system platforms and built into the next generation of surface combatants. In the future the best of these systems—the vertical gun for advanced ships—will combine conventional ballistic artillery with rockets to produce a 200-pound shell that can travel more than 100 miles. Using GPS technology, these shells can be targeted to an accuracy of within 10 feet. What makes this system so appealing is the ability to send a sustained salvo of five rounds per minute to a target, easily outgunning an entire squadron of F/A-18s—and being many times cheaper, as well. There also is the rare situation when a target lies several hundred miles inland and requires more firepower than a flight of Tomahawks can provide. This scenario does point to the value of the aircraft carrier, or perhaps closer integration with Marine Corps aircraft forward deployed on amphibious assault ships.

Local Air Control . Currently, Aegis-equipped ships work closely with carrier-based aircraft in accomplishing this mission. Using the SPY-1 radar, the Aegis ship is able to monitor and defend enormous amounts of airspace. Carrier-based aircraft are tasked by the air warfare commander on the Aegis ship to identify suspect air contacts and act as a first line of defense (though Aegis ships can defend themselves quite well). The carrier-based aircraft's ability to identify suspect air contacts and use show-of-force to defeat hostile intentions is the strongest argument in favor of carrier aviation. However, if this is the sole justification for the multibillion dollar carrier, couldn't we implement a system where this mission is accomplished by aircraft based on the ground or by AV-8s embarked on amphibious assault ships?

Antisubmarine/Electronic Warfare/Intelligence Gathering . These missions are really ancillary missions to the aircraft carrier and are routinely carried out without the support of aircraft carriers by submarines, surface ships with helicopter detachments, and ground-based aircraft. Little more needs to be said.

Clearly, the aircraft carrier will become a symbol of a centrist era. In the battles of tomorrow there will be no big-symbol ships around which the fleet will gather, with the exception, perhaps, of the amphibious assault ship. The future naval fleet will become a decentralized network of air power, surface power, and undersea power, linked and informed via satellite. The aircraft carrier's powerful message served us admirably in the 20th century. However, the preliminary designs for the next generation of carriers seem odd—more akin philosophically to a modernized square-rigger than a warship to fit into tomorrow's battle plan. Just as America's politicians are learning to cope with post-Cold War conditions, it is time for our Navy to implement sharper tools and symbols to attain superiority on the high seas.

Lieutenant Arthur is an officer recruiter at NRD San Francisco. He has served on the Germantown (LSD-42) and the Belleau Wood (LHA-3).


Lieutenant Arthur is assigned to the Naval Recruiting District San Francisco, California. He served in the Westen Pacific in the Germantown (LSD-42) and the Belleau Wood (LHA-3) home-ported at Sasebo, Japan, and most recently was a United Nations observer in the Western Sahara.

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