Forward presence demonstrates U.S. commitment, strengthens deterrence, and facilitates transition from peace to war. . . . Because of their limited footprint, strategic agility, calculated ambiguity of intent, and major strategic and operational deterrent capability, naval forces are invaluable. Our ability to rapidly move these forces in 1993 and again in 1994 from the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Gulf to positions off the coast of Somalia and Kuwait demonstrates extraordinary utility and versatility . . . the carrier battle group, in particular, has been an unmistakable sign of U.S. commitment and resolve in the Central Region. —General Binford Peay, U.S. Army Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Central Command
In the summer of 1950, U.S. aircraft carriers operated in the vicinity of Taiwan to dissuade the People’s Republic of China from carrying out hostile acts against that island. Forty-six years later, carrier battle groups again were operating in Far Eastern waters in response to Chinese pressure on Taiwan. In 1948, the Sixth Fleet—built around carrier task forces—began sustained operations in the volatile Mediterranean Basin; almost 50 years later, a carrier-centered presence is still there.1 The geopolitical situation in both regions has changed dramatically since the early Cold War years, but the value of a U.S. carrier presence in these and other important areas endures.
Forward Presence and Naval Forces
Forward military presence, combined with other elements of national power, helps to shape the international environment by influencing the perceptions and conduct of potential adversaries, friends and allies, and neutral nations in key areas around the globe. The objective is to demonstrate a firm commitment to allies and regional security so that war—and its costs in blood and treasure— can be avoided. Our National Military Strategy echoes this theme by placing peacetime engagement and deterrence and conflict prevention on the same level of importance as fighting and winning our nation’s wars.
Consequently, a credible U.S. military presence is critical to the maintenance of regional stability.2 Presence forces are a means of deterring potential aggressors, and they also can act as an early defensive and enabling force if deterrence fails. Beyond this, a reassuring forward presence can underpin broader national interests such as political and economic access, and combined exercises and personnel exchanges foster military-to-military relationships that ultimately can form the basis for collective security arrangements in peacetime and military coalitions during conflict.
The U.S. military’s forward presence posture in a specific area will take into account the prevailing security environment and the types and level of threat. This, in turn, dictates which forces will be used.
No matter which forces are chosen, however, to be an effective deterrent they must be both visible and lethal.3 In addition, they must be usable; forces that are deployed but that are hamstrung by a web of host-nation restrictions may be visible, but they are not very lethal.
For these reasons, naval forces will play a key role in the U.S. forward presence posture in most overseas regions. Stationed in international waters, naval forces give U.S. policymakers a wide range of options, free from the political and diplomatic constraints associated with the use of bases on foreign soil. They can be positioned adjacent to a crisis area almost indefinitely, their presence immune from veto by a foreign government. Naval presence can maintain a discrete over-the-horizon stance that does not discomfit friendly governments who find it politically difficult to cooperate openly with the United States. Conversely, it can provide a highly visible show of force, ratcheting visibility up or down as required by the situation.
On-scene U.S. naval forces have a significant ability to project power ashore. This power can be asserted quickly, without a preparatory buildup, and it is multifaceted, covering a wide range of missions and operational tasks from limited, stand-alone combat actions, to enabling actions that allow the deployment of follow-on forces, to full-scale hostilities.
Most of the diplomatic and military impact of U.S. naval presence comes from aircraft carriers. Other warships and task forces are important—Tomahawks give many surface warships and submarines a precision strike capability and amphibious ready groups provide an important expeditionary warfare capability—but aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings are the key to the effectiveness of U.S. naval forward presence forces.
The Carrier Contribution
The U.S. aircraft carrier force has all of the advantages that accrue to sea-based forces plus the unique combat capabilities conferred by sea-based aviation. Air power in general is playing an increasingly critical role in U.S. national security and national military strategy. Control of the air makes all other missions possible. Offensively, air power allows the United States to attack all elements of an enemy’s military and its supporting infrastructure—a capability demonstrated dramatically during Desert Storm. As a deterrent, U.S. air power confronts potential enemies with its ability to neutralize much of their military and economic strength, which they do not have the means to offset directly. As such, forward-deployed air units may be the most visible and lethal—and therefore most credible—peacetime presence assets available to U.S- regional war-fighting commanders-in-chief.
Both the Navy and the Air Force can provide air power, but much of the Air Force’s combat aviation cannot escape the shackles that come with land basing. For example, Air Force composite air wings that have operated from airfields in Saudi Arabia and Turkey since 1991, flying missions over southern and northern Iraq, certainly are visible and perceived as lethal by Iraq’s leadership. But they can be used only for narrowly defined missions, and any change or addition to their current mission must be approved by the governments of the two nations. Both the Saudi and Turkish governments would be hard-pressed to approve an expansion of the U.S. air presence or a broadening of its mandate, if it became necessary. Indeed, because of domestic politics, neither is completely comfortable with the U.S. presence in the first place.
When regional countries are asked to provide access, basing, or logistics support for U.S. land-based air operations, their governments may even demand veto power over the size and composition of the force. During Operation Deliberate Force (bombing of Bosnia) in 1995, for example, the Italian government refused to allow the United States to deploy F-117 stealth fighters to its airbases. Once deployed to a theater in response to a crisis, land-based forces also cannot easily and quickly redeploy to another region, for both political and logistical reasons.
U.S. carriers face no such constraints. Supported by underway replenishment groups and seaborne logistics, carrier battle groups are essentially free to move where and when U.S. decision makers desire. They can maintain varying degrees of visibility and can be withdrawn and reintroduced as the United States sees fit, without diplomatic repercussions. Carrier battle groups also embody significant combat power, from the carrier air wing to the Tomahawks carried on board the accompanying surface warships and submarines. Carrier battle groups may not provide all of the combat power needed in every situation, but they do provide a depth of capability and freedom of action unmatched by any other force package of similar size.
In addition, carriers routinely shift between geographic theaters and crisis areas. Since 1993, U.S. carriers regularly have been called on to leave station in the Adriatic, where they support U.N. and NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia, to respond to Iraqi threats to the Persian Gulf region. In August 1995, the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) was recalled from the eastern Mediterranean (where she was standing guard against potential Iraqi threats against Jordan) to take part in the opening round of strikes against the Bosnian Serbs in the Balkans. In December 1995, the America (CV-66) steamed from the Persian Gulf to the Adriatic in just nine days to support NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. And, in March 1996, the Nimitz (CVN-68) left her station in the Persian Gulf to join the Independence (CV-62) off Taiwan, coincident with Taiwanese elections and threatening naval exercises by the People’s Republic of China.
These movements showcase the mobility of carriers and their battle groups. In each case, the ships arrived in theater ready for combat, with no prior logistical buildup or prepositioned supply pool required. Neither did each movement have to be preceded by a round of diplomatic negotiations.
New forward-presence concepts are being proposed that promise to reduce the need for overseas carrier deployments. Would-be carrier replacement systems often have war-fighting value, but they cannot by themselves duplicate the operational flexibility and capability of the aircraft carrier and its air wing.
Some argue that “presence” forces based in the United States that can move rapidly to the scene of a crisis can deter as successfully as units deployed overseas. This line of reasoning, vociferously advocated by former Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak, argues that “visibility” does not always require forces on scene, because highly lethal forces such as long-range bombers could reach any crisis area in about a day.4 Their ability to influence the decision making of a prospective foe, therefore, should be the same as that of forward-deployed forces.
In today’s world there is no basis for accepting this argument as anything more than an untested theory. A similar argument about the efficacy of Air Force B-36 bombers as a global deterrent was made in the late 1940s—right before the Korean War broke out. Now, as then, visibility is crucial for conventional deterrence.
Long-range bombers operating from the United States could—with massive aerial tanker and other support—maintain a presence of sorts in the airspace over a potential flashpoint, but the constancy and cost-effectiveness of such a presence would be doubtful. In addition, in the absence of full-scale conflict, bombers represent a somewhat one-dimensional form of military power. For this reason, tactical aircraft have been the fixed-wing air assets of choice for overseas presence missions because of their ubiquitousness, their ability to perform a wide range of offensive and defensive missions, and their proximity to potential crisis areas. Conversely, launching a stream of bombers from the continental United States to keep one or two constantly visible in the airspace above places such as Bosnia or Iraq for years on end would be a waste of valuable resources, let alone inconceivable as a viable operational plan.
Another proposed alternative to the carrier, the arsenal ship concept—a large, missile-carrying platform—ignores the tactical and operational flexibility that carriers bring to U.S. naval forces.5 Arsenal ships undoubtedly could add to the offensive punch of deployed naval forces, but like bombers their utility is limited to certain narrowly defined missions. Unlike carrier air wings, these ships cannot perform the full panoply of prospective missions that the Navy might have to undertake: They could not enforce no-fly zones, nor could they conduct aerial interception or escort missions or operations such as the one that forced down the Achille Lauro hijackers in 1985. They could not act as a base from which to paradrop Naval Special Warfare units or match a carrier’s joint command-and-control capabilities. Even as missiles and unmanned systems are taking on greater roles, they cannot match the flexibility and adaptability of manned aviation, and their launch platforms cannot be modified as a carrier can to absorb new or expanded missions.
Bombers, arsenal ships, and other assets will have great value under some circumstances, but they are not the carrier’s equivalent in terms of flexibility, capability, and usefulness to U.S. leaders and war-fighting commanders. This is why carriers have been used in roughly 75% of the crises to which the Navy and Marine Corps have responded since 1991. As the former Commander-in-Chief of Central Command, Marine Corps General Joseph P. Hoar, noted, “When CinCs get together to discuss what we ought to be sharing among ourselves, we don’t argue about submarines and bombers. . . . We argue about carriers and amphibs. We need them out front.”6
1 Adam Siegel, The Use of Naval Forces in the Post War Era: U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps Crisis Response Activity, 1946-1990 (Alexandria, VA: Center For Naval Analyses, February 1991), pp. 17-27.
2 These objectives are discussed in greater depth in several sources, including Adm. William Owens, USN, High Seas: The Naval Voyage to an Uncharted World (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), pp. 38-49; David S. Yost, “The Future of U.S. Overseas Presence,” Joint Forces Quarterly (Summer 1995): 70-82; and Col. Ronald E. Dietz, USAF, “Presence Is in the Beholder’s Eye,” letter to Joint Forces Quarterly (Summer 1995): 112-13.
3 Dietz, p. 112.
4 For a more recent example of this argument, see Col. Brian E. Wages, USAF (Ret.), “Circle the Carriers,” Armed Forces Journal International (July 1995): 26- 31.
5 For example, see Eric Schmitt, "Aircraft Carrier May Give Way to Missile Ship,” The New York Times, 3 September 1995.
6 Don Ward, "Navy Fires Back at McPeak’s Salvo,” 14 March 1994, pp. 8.
Captain Johnson is the Director of Naval and Maritime Programs at the Center for Security Strategies and Operations, Techmatics. A former naval aviator and fighter pilot, he commanded Fighter Squadron 51 and Carrier Air Wing 14.