Large Carriers: A Matter of Time

In various forms, the galley ruled in the Mediterranean for more than 1,000 years. Its contemporary, the Norse longboat, had a similar reign in northern seas. Both were gradually driven into extinction by the evolution of the Western European sailing warships. The reign of the sailing "ships of the battle line" lasted about 300-400 years. They were replaced over a relatively short span of time by steam-driven ironclads. Within the next 50-60 years, the dreadnought ushered in the era of the heavily armored, centerline gun battleship. Reigning only for about 40 years, the dreadnoughts were abruptly dethroned by the aircraft carrier early in World War II. The carrier has now been the capital ship for more than 40 years.

The proponent counters that such a broad brush of 2,000 years of naval history does not establish a case; moreover, that only recent history is relevant. Since World War II, the dominance of the large aircraft carrier is well documented.

Since the late 1940s, the Navy's forward-deployed carrier battle groups have played a key role in U. S, posture and in the resolution of nearly every crisis. In the major cases where overall deterrence failed - Korea and Vietnam - carrier battle groups clearly displayed their warfighting ability.

The territorial integrity of the Middle East and the vital oil supply lines to the West depend heavily on the combination of the Sixth Fleet carrier battle groups and the presence of at least one battle group in the Indian Ocean. There is no other U. S. force-naval or otherwise that could continuously maintain a credible stabilizing and deterring presence in this volatile area.

The critic insists that each of the long line of queens of the sea had clear portents or harbingers of impending doom which were invariably first ignored, then discredited, and, finally, frantically countered by the proponents of the reigning queens. The results were almost always disastrous.

When King Philip of Spain decided to send an invasion armada against England, he was wise enough not to use his fleet of Mediterranean galleys. However, he was not wise enough to prevent the Armada from carrying two vestiges of the galley, both of which contributed to the Armada's doom: his ships carried the heavy, short-range guns characteristic of (and probably transferred from) galleys, and were manned predominantly by soldiers. They were no match for the nimble English men-of-war manned by seamen firing lighter but longer-range guns. True, the sea claimed most of the Armada, but the English ships not only thwarted the invasion, they forced the Armada to attempt to return home by the long, treacherous route around the British Isles rather than run the gauntlet of English ships in the English Channel.

At Hampton Roads, the wooden-hulled ships of the Union Navy could not cope with the single Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia. Only the arrival of the ungainly (and, until then, unpopular) Monitor saved the day. While the ensuing duel was indecisive, the two large, centerline guns of the Monitor signaled the end of the 80-, 100-, and 120-gun ships of the line.

The German shift to submarine warfare in World War I, signaled by the sinking of three British armored cruisers in one hour by a single submarine, provided warning of a new and deadly form of naval warfare. The belated British response proved to be an expensive lesson.

In World War II, the sudden loss of two British battleships to Japanese air attacks helped to seal the doom of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This shock, the U. S. battleship disaster at Pearl Harbor, and the momentous U. S. victory at Midway forced both navies to belatedly attend to naval air warfare and antiaircraft defenses. While the battleship continued to play a role, notably in shore bombardment and antiaircraft defense of carriers, clearly her time had passed.

As George Santayana wrote, "He who fails to learn the lessons of history is doomed to repeat them." One of the reasons that the carrier appears to be destined for such a long reign is that, since the carrier duels and island campaign of World War II, she has not been seriously challenged in conflict. The performance of carriers and carrier aircraft in Korea and in Vietnam was commendable, but there was no enemy challenge to the carrier herself.

Today, clear and growing threats to the carrier battle group (CVBG) include long-range bombers armed with air-to-surface missiles, submarines and surface ships equipped to fire antiship missiles, and even land-based missiles.

It is not clear what will ultimately dethrone the carrier. There are several potential challengers: nuclear-powered submarines, surface effect and/or SWATH (small waterplane area twin hull) ships, land-based aircraft, and long-range smart missiles launched from a great variety of platforms.

An apparently overlooked or ignored quote from Aviation Week and Space Technology (in a column entitled "Laurels for 1981”) may provide a hint of one of these possibilities:

"Col. B. J . Palmer and Lt. Col. Harold W. Blot of the Marine Corps for successfully demonstrating at sea the value of V/STOL aircraft with a detachment of British Aerospace AV-8A Harriers operating from the helicopter assault ship Nassau. Use of the aircraft in STOL takeoffs with combat loads simulating V/STOL Forger aircraft kept large-deck Navy carriers constantly harassed, demonstrating the value of V/STOL aircraft and their rapid deck cycle capability."

How about a future force of AV-8B (or follow-on) V/STOLs deployed from several modest-sized surface effect or SWATH ships? Given some development funding now, they could be fielded in significant numbers in 20-25 years. Battle groups of such forces might be more survivable and therefore a more credible deterrent than the planned CVBGs.

Recent studies, analyses, simulations, war games, and fleet exercises point to a current need to assemble forces of three or four CVBGs in order to survive against concerted Soviet threats in key areas around Eurasia. Table I in the Secretary of the Navy's 600-ship Navy article indicates a wartime need of four CVBGs in the Sixth Fleet and five in the Seventh Fleet versus 1.3 and 2.0 average peacetime CVBG deployments, respectively, in these areas. These are signs that, within this threat spectrum (which is growing both qualitatively and quantitatively) , in a rapidly developing future crisis, the few peacetime forward deployed carriers may find their advanced positions untenable. To avoid irreplaceable losses, they may have to be withdrawn until they can be reinforced, thereby giving the enemy the initiative in these key areas. These same signs point to an even more vulnerable posture against future nuclear threats. Shades of Billy Mitchell and the "Gun Club!" How do you hope to cope with the steady · growth of such problems for 40 or 50 more years? "You, Mr. Proponent, have the burden of proof, and please don't tell me that the solution is to commit ourselves to building and SLEP-ing more, bigger, and better carriers."

“You, Mr. Critic, are very sketchy and selective with your history and with your arguments,” responds the proponent. The Spanish Armada was not even commanded by a sailor. It would not have worked with whatever kind of fleet Philip sent. England has not been successfully invaded by anyone, by any means, in 1,000 years.

The Union forces at Hampton Roads did not choose its predicament. They came up with a timely solution and learned their lesson. In fact, they learned it too well: the U. S. Navy overemphasized the very limited monitor design for the next two decades.

The U. S. battleships at Pearl Harbor were sitting in a neat row in port on a Sunday morning. The Japanese attack (and the next six months of the war) clearly demonstrated two things:

Ø  Do not get caught by surprise attacks an objective to which our forward deployed carrier groups provide a crucial contribution.

Ø  The beginning of the carrier age: This was not another of the critic 's long chain of evolutionary changes in naval warfare. It was revolutionary. It began a whole new evolution based on aircraft carriers and carrier aircraft. We have since seen the application of nuclear propulsion, supersonic jet aircraft, and electronic warfare to our CVBGs. These changes are the history that is relevant. What went before is not.

Perhaps most importantly, the critic seems to ignore the significant improvements introduced into carrier battle groups. The defense-in-depth posture works and will continue to work. Now it includes the incomparable F-14-Phoenix interceptor-missile combination; the Aegis cruiser; the dedicated, direct support nuclear submarine; and several other effective forms and layers of antiair, antisubmarine, and antisurface warfare. We are deploying large numbers of a variety of missile systems in rapid-fire vertical launchers, steadily advancing in all forms of electronic warfare, and keeping pace with all known and realistically projected threats to carriers.

The critic infers that we are not giving adequate attention to new systems and new technology; he is wrong. For example, the Tomahawk missile system dilutes threats to the carrier by spreading our offensive counter threats across the entire combatant fleet. We are carefully considering all of the various designs for advanced naval platforms and aircraft. Wisely, however, we are not betting the future of our country on longshots. We will first ensure that we build, maintain, and modernize the requisite numbers of our proven performer-the carrier battle group.

If Congress and the public can be convinced to commit the necessary resources to build our carrier strength to the necessary level and maintain it, and then provide the additional funding necessary to develop and prove some of the more promising advanced concepts , we are prepared to do so. We will not, however, risk weakening the Navy in these perilous times by diverting critical funds and resources in order to “take a flier” on unproven concepts.

In short, according to the proponent, the critic's arguments lack substance and definition. Until he can support his claims of impending doom and define an alternative that can match the versatility and staying power of the carrier battle group, the burden of proof rests with the critic.

"True," says the critic, "the Spanish Armada had no admiral, but then the overall English command was also entrusted to a landsman." Yet, had the Armada consisted of comparable, modern fighting ships, it would surely have given a better accounting of itself. And the Union ships were not at fault at Hampton Roads; U. S. naval planners were. The same is true of the British and U. S. Navy "gun clubs" before and during World War II.

The proponent's argument about “tracking the threat” is specious. The ·studies, analyses, simulations, war games, and exercises referred to are generally set in the 1990s. These evaluations incorporate all current and programmed improvements, and generally conclude that, even with these advances, we will need to assemble forces of three or four carrier groups in order to survive and then counter the initial onslaught of current and expected Soviet threats almost anywhere around Eurasia. Hence the wartime requirements outlined in Secretary Lehman's article. Fulfilling wartime requirements assumes no significant initial losses by the one-third of these forces that is continuously forward deployed. For the next decade or so, there may be good reason to feel comfortable with such an assumption. However, committing the lion's share of our naval budget and, maybe more important, naval thought to the assumption that for the next half century - in the face of growing, evolving, and perhaps unforeseen threats-our requirements for naval forces will remain "more of the same" demands more faith than I can muster.

There is another sure lesson from naval history. The imminent demise of any "dominant" weapon system is invariably signaled by the onset and blossoming of the process of involution-the process of turning inward. When the design, equipping, manning, operation-indeed the whole philosophy of a ship-reaches the point where the de facto mission has become survival, and all else is subordinate, doom is approaching.

Hence, some of the last vestiges of the Mediterranean galley were huge, unwieldy quadriremes and quinquaremes with several hundred galley slaves and hundreds of troops. Similarly, the sailing ship met its fate as an elaborate, ornate, and cumbersome 100-120 gun, 1,000-man ship of the line. The last battleships were almost impregnable to any but the largest shells, and they bristled with antiaircraft batteries; their complement had grown to almost 3,000. Each, in turn, of these queens fell victim to longer-range offensive systems.

A modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with her air wing on board has a complement of more than 6,000. Because of the steadily growing threats, an ever- increasing percentage of the funds, resources, and brain-power poured into an aircraft carrier is devoted to her survival. Other very expensive resources in the battle group around the carrier, notably the Aegis cruiser and the Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class nuclear submarine, were specifically designed to defend aircraft carriers. Involution has set in.

It is time to pursue some alternatives, even if this requires some future diversion of funding and other resources. This need not have any impact on our current or planned near-term posture.

"You, Mr. Proponent, must recognize that the burden of proof is yours" says the critic. "The inexorable march of technology and events is making the burden heavier. The longer you wait the more distasteful it will become. Time is against you."

The proponent counters: "You are still speaking in generalities and dodging the facts. What about the spread of offensive power in the Tomahawk that you have chosen to ignore? If the doom of the large carrier is nigh, why have the Soviets decided to build some?''

"Tell me," responds the critic," in what way does the effectiveness of the Tomahawk in spreading offensive power depend on its deployment in close company with aircraft carriers? Tell me why the purely defensive SM-2 surface-to-air missiles get the bulk of the slots in the new vertical launchers in a carrier battle group.

"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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