A former CIA Director Says Technology May Make Them "Superfluous"
A recent article in Proceedings took the position that the Navy should retain 12 large-deck aircraft carriers indefinitely. The article was exactly wrong because it did not consider probable changes in the political need for carriers or changes in technology that will likely impact their utility. To take these factors into account, we need to go back to when carriers became the centerpiece of U.S. naval strategy. On 7 December 1941 the Navy still considered the battleship to be that centerpiece. The Japanese attack that morning hit primarily the battleships moored in Pearl Harbor. The Pacific Fleet's carriers were out at sea. fortunately. Unscathed, they moved into ascendancy and became the backbone of our Navy.
The 65 years from Pearl Harbor to now have been a good run for carriers. In the Pacific they took World War II all the way to the Japanese homeland, were a key to holding the Pusan perimeter in Korea in 1950, and provided air bases proximate to North Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. It is difficult, though, to expect any weapon system to dominate for as long as 65 years, especially when military technology has been changing markedly. It is also difficult, however, for military organizations to abandon weapon systems that have proven their usefulness. Such systems gain adherents who are hard to move.
In the case of carriers this is especially true. Carriers are the province of the aviation community of the Navy. The alternatives to bombing by carrier aircraft are missiles fired from surface ships and submarines. These latter belong to the surface and submarine communities. Clearly the aviators do not want to cede a mission to the surface and submarine types. Nor do surface officers look forward to having to justify every surface ship, when for half a century the authorization for a carrier bought a squadron of escorting surface ships with it, with little to no effort by the surface community. These parochialisms and easy sells are hard to beat down.
In a classic work on military resistance to change, Men, Machines, and Modern Times, the late MIT professor Elting E. Morison explains how difficult it is for military organizations to abandon familiar weapon systems. He cites the instance of the first U.S. Navy ship constructed from the beginning with steam propulsion, albeit with sails as well. This was the USS Wampanoag, commissioned in 1866. It could literally run circles around sailing warships whose freedom of maneuver was restricted by the direction and force of the wind. The Navy, though, decommissioned the Wampanoag in 1868. A board of officers decreed, in part, that it would be injurious to the fighting esprit of the captain of a ship if he could not see and direct every element of his ship from his position on deck. Men in an engine room would be outside of the captain's control. This new concept of a steam plant below decks was just too revolutionary to win acceptance quickly. The Navy did not build another warship with steam propulsion for 15 years! Arguments for the much greater operational effectiveness of steam propulsion just could not compete with the long tradition of sail.
In this tradition, there is no visible inclination in Navy circles today to evaluate whether a carrier-centric Navy is what best suits our nation's needs on the seas today and tomorrow. At the same time, one does not have to do much more than scratch the surface to see that substantial changes in naval weapon systems are taking place. Startling new technologies are becoming available.
To begin with, the lethality of weapons has increased many fold. Targets can be located at long distances by remote sensors such as drones or satellites. Then a weapon can be maneuvered by remote control to its target with far greater precision than with the traditional aircraft bombsight and freefall weapons. For example, some weapons being launched against targets in Iraq from ships in the Persian Gulf today are being directed onto their targets from command centers in the United States. The bombardiers are sitting in air-conditioned command centers, not flying through flak.
These developments of increased accuracy and remote control of weapons mean that there is less need for large carriers with large numbers of aircraft and large amounts of ammunition. A few aircraft with precise weapons can accomplish what traditionally has taken much greater effort. Even more startling, manned aircraft are not even needed. Missiles can be launched from ships or submarines hundreds of miles away from a target and remotely aimed and guided.
In addition, political circumstances today do not demand the large quantities of munitions that putative targets of the Cold War era did. For years our carriers practiced "Alpha Strikes" against the Soviet Union and its allies. These involved as many aircraft as could be loaded and launched in a single strike, each with a maximum bomb load. With the possible exception of China, there is not likely to be a demand for Alpha Strikes in a world of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations.
Warfare at sea, then, is inexorably moving in the direction of unmanned, remotely controlled weapons that are highly accurate and launched at long distances from their targets. This, of course, means less exposure for pilots or none if missiles are launched well away from the target. That can be an important factor in smaller contingencies where U.S. interests are less than vital, but where we opt to light nonetheless. It can also mean less collateral damage, which can he very important in wars where winning hearts and minds is the key.
We need, then, to step hack and take a long-term perspective before purchasing another large aircraft carrier at a cost of more than $10 billion. It would take a good ten years to fund, build, and shake down a new carrier. Would we for another 20-30 years after that be likely to continue in the traditional pattern of carrier warfare? Or will we not shift to remotely controlled, long-range missiles aimed at remotely detected and identified targets, making aircraft from carriers superfluous?
If that is the case, it can best he accomplished by distributing the Navy's capability to project power ashore over many platforms, not just a few large carriers. We are moving inexorably in that direction anyway. The Chief of Naval Operations recently advocated dropping from 12 carriers to 11, presumably because of costs. How much further down will the Navy be forced to go? Navy budgets are very likely going to decline. There is no perceptible threat to our use of the seas to justify a large Navy. While there will always be reasons for the Navy to be able to project power ashore, these will be smaller contingencies, such as our present involvement in Iraq. Besides, there will almost always be an alternative in the Air Force. It will be increasingly difficult to justify Navy budgets in the $150 billion range.
Further, a Navy constrained in size will do well to spread its striking power over as many ships as possible, not to concentrate it in a shrinking carrier force. Cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious ships can be equipped with ship-to-shore missiles that can be guided to targets from long distances.
Whether this analysis of the changing role of carriers and their aircraft is correct, it is certain that the changes that new technologies are bringing to warfare will have a substantial impact on traditional weapon systems such as the aircraft carrier. At the very least, we need to open our thinking to the possibility that time and technology have passed this classic weapon system by. If, as with the Wampanoag, we refuse to confront what is a sea change in naval warfare, it will not only be carriers that will be superfluous, it will also be the Navy.
Admiral Turner was Commander-in-Chief of NATO's Southern Flank and Director of Central Intelligence.