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One of the hottest issues in Washington currently is the reshaping of the roles and missions of the armed forces. In a floor speech in July 1992, Senator Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that the changing world situation and domestic concerns dictate that our nation “reshape, reconfigure, and modernize our overall forces,” and that a vital part of this effort must be the elimination of redundancy among the military services. He identified airpower projection as one of the principal areas where there was potential for reducing duplication, and said the central question was: “What is the best and most cost-effective way to provide air interdiction in the future—with long-range bombers from the United States or with large numbers of aircraft carriers
By VADM W. P. Lawrence, USN (Ret.)
NORTHROP / INSET: U.S. NAVY
Aircraft carriers and long-range bombers such as the B-2 perform complementary, yet distinctly different, roles in our national defense. Naval forces, led by carrier battle groups, provide unmatched mobility, versatility, and forward presence.
with medium-range bombers on their decks?” He further postulated that a roles-and-missions review might indicate that the number of aircraft carriers could be reduced as a result of the availability of long-range bombers.
An analysis of the specific employment of these two systems will show otherwise. In our recent experience and in the most likely crises of the future, aircraft carriers and long-range bombers performed and will continue to perform distinctly different roles in national defense. Since
World War II, U.S. military forces have been employed more than 200 times in protecting U.S. national interests worldwide. These events have ranged from hot wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq to low-intensity conflicts in Grenada, Libya, Panama, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf to humanitarian relief operations such as that in Somalia. Aircraft carriers participated in a broad and versatile way in more than 90% of these operations. Long-range bombers, on the other hand, were employed only in the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq wars, in highly selective missions that were launched mainly from bases either in or near the theater of operations, not from the continental United States. All of the above events were regional or Third World in nature, which defense experts contend will define the most likely crises of the future. It can be assumed, therefore, that the aircraft carrier and the long- range bomber will continue to make similar relative contributions in the decades ahead.
The argument will be made that, with the end of the Cold War and the reduced commitment of long- range bombers to the nuclear mission, these units can make a greater contribution in future conventional crises. There are, however, inherent limitations to the effective use of long-range bombers launched from the United States on conventional strikes. Conflict scenarios can be very fluid and dynamic, and, during a 10-12 hour transit from the United States to enemy territory, the target situation could change significantly from what was briefed to the bomber crews prior to takeoff. In the Iraq war, for example, bombers would have been of little value in attacking the mobile Scud missiles or in providing the close air support so vital in ground battles. Aircrew fatigue during 20-24 hour missions could impact both safety and combat effectiveness. Considering the small inventory and high cost of the B-1 and B-2 bombers—with unit costs approaching $1 billion—it would be very risky to send these aircraft unescorted into even a moderate antiair threat environment, comprised of air-to-air fighters as well as surface-to-air missiles, in spite of the B-2 s stealth capability. Prudent commanders would insist, at a minimum, on fighter escort and electronic countermeasures support for these bombers. In the absence of overseas bases, such support logically would be provided by carrier-based aircraft, further confirming the importance of maintaining carrier force levels.
The destabilizing effect of employing land-based
bombers also must be understood. These aircraft principally were designed as nuclear weapons delivery platforms, a fact well known among the nations of the world.
If these bombers depart on a mission to deliver conventional weapons, the threatened countries might assume they are under nuclear attack. This could precipitate rash actions by those nations possessing their own nuclear capability—with dire consequences.
The fundamental issue in the debate as to whether land- based bombers can replace aircraft carriers is versatility. Land-based bombers are single-mission-capable aircraft that can only be employed in a narrow range of scenarios. For example, in the Vietnam and Iraq wars, B-52s Were employed almost solely against troop concentrations. Aircraft carriers, on the other hand, with their complement of multimission aircraft, can perform a broad range of missions of immense value to U.S. national interests, including interdiction, antiair warfare, antisubmarine warfare, close air support, electronic countermeasures, and amphibious warfare. The carriers’ mobility and flexibility enable them to be present in the varied trouble spots around the globe, deterring conflict and, if necessary, providing a powerful, versatile response if hostilities occur.
As the Cold War was ending in 1990, President George Bush enunciated a new national security strategy based °n the following key elements: nuclear deterrence and defense, forward presence, crisis response and force reconstitution. Of all the weapon systems in the U.S. arsenal, the aircraft carrier battle group, because of its broad mission capabilities, makes the greatest contribution to that national security strategy. Land-based bombers, on the other hand, while filling a vital role, make a lesser contribution because of their limited versatility.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the major threat to U.S. viability has become economic. Our economic strength and national standard of living are vitally dependent on international trade. More than 95% of the prod- nets entering and leaving the United States travel on the World oceans. Naval forces, led by carrier battle groups, §uarantee the free use of these global trade routes. In time of conflict, these same sea lanes—protected by naval forces—are used to transport the bulk of U.S. forces and material to the combat zone.
The following statement from the study Carrier-21, future Aircraft Carrier Technology,” conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, explains the value of aircraft carriers:
Since 1942 carrier-based aviation has been central to the exercise of our naval power. It has been the most called-upon initial instrument to exercise military power in instances when the President has needed such an instrument. In four wars and many lesser missions of deterrence and presence it has been a major base for air power brought to bear against the opposition. A review of the position of aircraft carriers during the • . . study of the Navy’s future showed that despite in fact, because of—changes in the world military power balance ... it can be expected that in the future carriers will be called upon continually to fulfill
this national role and mission.
Finally, the following excerpt from the white paper “. . . From the Sea,” which defines the post-Cold War role of the Navy and Marine Corps, provides the most compelling argument in support of the aircraft carrier:
As the U.S. withdraws from overseas bases, naval forces will become even more relevant in meeting American forward presence requirements.
The Navy and Marine Corps operate forward to project a positive American image, build foundations for viable coalitions, enhance diplomatic contacts, reassure friends, and demonstrate U.S. power and resolve. Naval forces will be prepared to fight promptly and effectively, but they will serve in an equally valuable way by engaging day-to-day as peacekeepers in the defense of American interests. Naval forces are unique in offering this form of international cooperation.
Operating forward, naval forces demonstrate U.S. commitment overseas and promote American interests. A scheduled coalition-building multinational exercise involving U.S. Navy and Marine forces provides visible assurance to friends—and a warning to potential enemies. Humanitarian assistance and nation-building efforts have similar effects.
Naval forces also contain crises through forward operations and rapid response with flexible and sustainable sea-based forces. The seeds of conflict will continue to sprout in places where American interests are perceived as vulnerable. The art of managing crises in these areas is delicate and requires the ability to orchestrate the appropriate response and to send precisely tailored diplomatic, economic, and military signals to influence the actions of the adversaries.
Naval forces provide a wide range of crisis-response actions, most of which have the distinct advantage of being easily reversible. If diplomatic activities resolve the crisis, naval forces can withdraw without action or build-up ashore.
If diplomacy fails, naval forces operating forward, as part of a joint U.S. military team, can project U.S. combat power as required.
The aircraft carrier battle group will be central to naval forces fulfilling the important and versatile roles articulated in “. . . From the Sea.” It is readily apparent that long-range, land-based bombers located in the United States, capable only of conducting air interdiction strikes, could not duplicate the broad contribution ot the aircraft carrier. The roles of the aircraft carrier and the long-range bomber are complementary, not redundant. It would be detrimental to U.S. national interests, therefore, to reduce aircraft carrier force levels based on the availability of land-based bombers.
Admiral Lawrence is president of the Association of Naval Aviation, a former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, and a former Chief of Naval Personnel. He spent nearly six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Proceedings / June 1993