At the Point of Inflection . . .

By Major General Timothy C. Hanifen, U.S. Marine Corps

Changes in Battlespace Visualization

The operational-reach advantage, previously offered only by land- and carrier-based tactical aircraft, has been replaced by the combination of advanced ballistic and cruise missiles and their supporting long-range targeting and battle networks. Missile-firing air, surface, submarine, and mobile-land platforms are capable of combined- arms engagement of opposing fleets and naval forces from geographic positions well outside existing U.S. and allied fleet air and missile counterstrike capabilities. The geometry and operational reach of the families of long-range, theater-ballistic and cruise missiles being developed by India, the People’s Republic of China, and Iran are illustrated in Fig. 2. It indicates potential and successive ballistic-missile engagement ranges from 1,500 to 2,200 nautical miles and beyond. New ASTBM and ASCM missiles, when employed with the other conventional military-strike capabilities of those nations, represent an extended-range and continuous combined-arms engagement challenge for U.S. and allied war planners.

As they formulate campaign plans, commanders must “no longer conceptually divide the battlespace into deep, close and rear” but instead, “must always view it as an indivisible entity.” 1 In other words, it will be a single, continuous Fleet and MAGTF expeditionary battle within the joint campaign, from point of first probable submarine or ballistic-missile contact, through force generation and closure, and until either weapon stocks are exhausted, force attrition occurs, or campaign objectives are achieved.

What once were regarded as strategic and operational/campaign level (extended range) distances, considerations, and associated weaponry between forces, now can be tactically employed—with relative counter-strike and suppression impunity—against both forward-deployed/based, or rapidly reinforcing U.S. and allied joint and naval forces. Technological advances again are changing the past conceptions of and the definitions for the levels of warfare, time, operational tempo, force geometry, and relative combat-engagement distances. Such changes require a less sequential, less segmented, and more holistic visualization of the joint campaign and the simultaneous integration of its air, sea, subsurface, land, space, and cyber components across all levels of war—strategic, operational, and tactical.

Logistically, in order to sustain the Fleet’s capability to fight near-continuously across vast distances, a game-changing technology-development effort is needed in the area of rapid at-sea vertical-launch system (VLS) replenishment and reloading. Current pier-side VLS reload requirements force a disruption of Fleet combat tempo and increase the probability of warship engagement in port, when it is most vulnerable. With rapid at-sea replenishment and an adequate combat reload inventory, the fleet could continue to leverage the vastness of the seas to complicate targeting and lower effective engagement probabilities, while simultaneously maintaining a very high and sustained combat tempo during both force closure and across the joint campaign. Without that ability, battle-force operations increase in risk as they become more tied to naval-base replenishment and thereby more predictable, sequential, and vulnerable.

Even Hardened Forward Bases at Risk

Large forward-theater naval bases, military airfields and runways, and theater command-and-control locations, even if hardened, will increase in vulnerability and become easily denied through successive and sustained long-range, precision-guided missile and aircraft strikes. The operational reach and precision targeting of potential adversary ballistic and cruise missiles combined with follow-on, stand-off aircraft strikes eventually will overwhelm any system of fixed-site air and missile defenses. The United States and its allies time and again have demonstrated the capability to suppress or destroy hardened airfields. Future adversaries should at least be given “parity” credit for both similar thinking and combat capabilities.

The assumption that our side will always operate from a position of air dominance using large sanctuary airfields (up to 10,000-foot runways) is no longer valid. Instead, we should assume that forward ports, airfields, and bases are at risk and will be suppressed. Airfield and runway hardening and rapid repair are mitigation measures, but ultimately they do not complicate the targeting challenge for potential adversaries, or significantly lessen the operational vulnerability of land-based aviation concentrations.

As a result, air, naval and expeditionary forces must further develop the inherent organizational capabilities and manning to conduct widely distributed, dispersed, and sustained combat operations with smaller tactical elements than wings, groups, or even squadrons. Concentration of assets and logistics, even if well-defended, equates to vulnerability, increased risk, and eventual focused suppression or destruction. Dispersion, distribution, and periodic displacement of U.S. air and missile units across a greater number of large and smaller airfields, expeditionary airfields, and temporary road-network forward operating bases is the only truly viable means to complicate adversary targeting. That should become the new combat standard within joint and naval-aviation force design and development. Additionally, one as-yet-unexploited defensive technique—not generally incorporated within land-based kinetic air and missile defenses—is to equip forward bases and operating locations with a full array of layered active and passive cyber, electronic warfare measures, and decoy suites similar to those used in Navy warships to increase combat survivability and resiliency.

The Shifting Role of the Carrier

The threat of potential adversary long-range weapon systems does not spell the end for surface-combatant warships, the aircraft carrier, or the amphibious expeditionary MAGTF. All remain viable and important fighting components of the Fleet. However, naval warfare has passed the aforementioned point of inflection in Fleet and expeditionary force development.

As in the mid-to-late 1930s, a balanced approach toward risk and adaptability remain the two cardinal principles of force planning. 2 With deeply constrained naval shipbuilding budgets unfolding, the nation and Navy today cannot afford to repeat the example of pre-World War II naval planners, who designed the Iowa - and later Montana -class battleships to fight and win the next Jutland- or Trafalgar-like fleet-to-fleet battle when technology and naval warfare already had evolved well beyond that point. Once the centerpiece of the Fleet, by 1942 those ships were a supporting asset to the range and striking power of the fast carrier and naval aviation.

Now the large, legacy supercarrier finds itself at a similar technology-driven inflection point. Even with aerial refueling, the carrier and its strike aviation are outranged and can be overpowered by the combination of long-range surveillance and targeting, antiship ballistic and cruise missiles, and other air, sea, and submarine strike capabilities. The Fleet’s significant progress and improvements in layered defenses erode and mitigate some of those threats, but cannot overcome them all. As difficult as it is to acknowledge, the role of large carrier force and embarked naval aviation has come full circle; it is back to a supporting role in the surface battle force.

The new naval point of inflection creates both dilemmas and opportunities for the Navy and Marine Corps team. It is time to reconsider the capability investment, total cost, and construction of an all- Ford -class carrier force, and instead embrace the development of a carrier mix—a few large legacy 100,000-ton nuclear-powered Nimitz - or newer Ford -class carriers coupled with the development of a new, smaller short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) strike carrier (CVSS). Those smaller STOVL strike carriers could be conventionally or nuclear powered, and comparable in size to the either 60,000–80,000-ton Kitty Hawk or the even smaller (45,000–69,000-ton) Midway strike carrier. 3 Notably, CVSS designs of that size would still rank among the world’s largest and most capable carriers.

The high end Nimitz - or Ford -class carriers would embark air wing squadrons with a mix of 85-90 aircraft operating legacy F/A-18 E/F/G Super Hornet/Growler aircraft, some F-35C Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft, and unmanned combat air systems such as the X-47B. The lower end of the mix would be a larger number of the new, smaller-crewed CVSS. It should be sized for a rotational capacity of four, ten-aircraft strike squadrons of F-35B STOVL JSF aircraft and a to-be-determined number of helicopter, tiltrotor, and armed reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles. The CVSS should be designed and built primarily for 24/7 rotational-presence and crisis-response operations—the majority of its lifetime operational employment—yet capable of augmenting the few large Nimitz/Ford carriers in major-theater war much like the World War II combination of large fast-strike and small jeep carriers.

Shifting from an all- Ford class to a mixed large-and-small carrier fleet is a heretical proposal. It is not an equal-capability or equal-cost proposal, relative to construction and operation of an all- Ford -class carrier fleet. Rather, it is a substitution proposal. The Navy and nation are paying a premium for Ford -class carriers at nearly $13.5 billion each. 4 They’re based on uneconomic five- year centers in order to support tailhook aircraft with an unrefueled operational radius difference of only about 190 nautical miles between legacy Navy F/A-18 E/F/G and the F-35C (about 640 nautical miles) and the Marine F-35B STOVL (about 450). 5 Though an operationally significant difference on an aircraft-to-aircraft comparison, the radius delta becomes less compelling relative to:

• The construction and total ownership cost of a large carrier and the air wings to support it

• The ballistic- and cruise-missile threat and range disadvantage by a factor of two to three

• The resulting shift in roles back to one of Fleet support

• The mission employment and cost environment in which the carrier spends the majority of its operational life—in lower-demand rotational presence, contingency, and crisis-response roles rather than in high-tempo, major-theater warfare

• Day-to-day operational roles that a CVSS could equally fulfill at lower relative manpower, operational, and total ownership costs.

The potential power of a CVSS design can be seen in the recent Libyan crisis. A large aircraft carrier was not available, but the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) Amphibious Ready Group and elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit provided continuous NATO airspace and aircraft control and management. They also conducted sustained AV-8B Harrier STOVL strike and MV-22 Osprey combat aircrew recovery operations.

By building a mix of existing large, legacy carriers and a new, smaller CVSS class, the Navy would achieve the following:

• Allow for major-theater wartime surge aircraft capacities on board larger carriers

• Build a smaller and lower-cost STOVL strike carrier optimized for rotational-presence and crisis-response with fifth-generation aircraft

• Embark strike and support aircraft equal to the reduced sustainable rotational numbers of squadrons deploying today

• Retain and add a fifth-generation F-35B/C capability to the legacy F/A-18 E/F strike-fighter force across the Fleet

• Provide a near-equal refueled and unrefueled aircraft operational range/reach (as with today’s F/A-18 E/F) from smaller CVSS platforms that require far less manpower to operate across their 50-year life

• Keep the shipbuilding industry at work and create fiscal assets for reinvestment in needed, more asymmetric Fleet and naval capabilities going into the future.

Thus the point of inflection also points to some new, undefined surface or subsurface Fleet “centerpiece” combatant, one capable of firing ballistic and cruise missiles as well as new advanced weapons.

The Return of the Battle Cruiser

Tactical naval aviation—carrier, amphibious, or expeditionary—even with aerial refueling cannot overcome the operational reach and range advantages of air-, surface-, or subsurface-launched conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. That range disparity has caused the point of inflection and reversal of roles for the aircraft carrier back to a Fleet-supporting role. Missing from the new battle force of today is a 21st-century heavy conventional ballistic- and cruise-missile-centric battle cruiser—a dreadnought or battleship equivalent for both fleet-to-fleet combat, strike, and land-attack missions.

It is time to look at resurrecting the old arsenal-ship concept either via an entirely new heavy-missile-firing warship design or using commercial tanker-derived designs capable of supporting weapons. Hull forms could be constructed to either naval or enhanced commercial steel-vessel rules with additional wing tanks for protection and buoyancy, and cross-connectable power distribution for greater overall combat survivability and resilience. Design features should include:

• Extended-range ballistic and cruise missiles for fleet-to-fleet surface combat and land attack

• Dense layered air- and missile-defense of the Fleet, deploying SM2/3/6 missiles

• The electromagnetic railgun (EMRG) and both directed-energy and kinetic close-in weapon systems 6

• Underway VLS replenishment and reload capabilities.

In long-range striking power and layered air and missile defense, such a warship would become the new centerpiece of the battle Fleet. As such, it would be supported by the previously mentioned mix of Ford -class and new STOVL strike carriers. That battle force combination would provide Fleet commanders with a more flexible warship mix and combined-arms capabilities with which to maintain sea control, assure access, respond to crises, maintain freedom of decision, action, and Fleet maneuver, and to support expeditionary presence, engagement, and power-projection operations in peace, contingency, and war.

Holding Adversary Capabilities at Risk

As an example of A2/AD thought and planning that faces fleets, Fig. 3 illustrates the Chinese leadership’s and the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s view the Pacific terrain and the first and second island barriers (or island-defense chains) vis-à-vis the operational reach of their ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, and long-range aviation strike assets. Those same island chains are also critical barriers to eastward expansion affecting Chinese ocean access, sea lines of communication and supply, freedom of action, and the defense of their mainland, if viewed from the U.S. perspective.

Use and control of those first and second island chains by the Chinese require the development and construction of not just long-range air and missile forces, but also large and expensive conventional combat fleets capable of out-of-area operations and mine clearance, fleet logistics support, and expeditionary power-projection landing forces and capabilities. 7 As the map illustrates, the island chains sweep through and affect most of the current Pacific allies of the United States. Additionally, in the Chinese view, a third island barrier chain runs through Hawaii, which is considered the strategic depth/rear area for the United States. 8

The continent and the two barrier-island chains represent potential sanctuary areas for conventional mobile ballistic- and cruise-missile-firing units as well as submarine, naval, and air force expeditionary aviation, and fleet concentration areas from which strikes can be conducted against both U.S. and allied forward bases, a rapidly reinforcing Navy Fleet, and embarked expeditionary MAGTF. Currently the U.S. joint force and allied fleets lack extended-range conventional warship or MAGTF means to rapidly counterstrike, suppress, and gradually eliminate fixed and mobile missile-firing assets as they uncover and fire. As the sophistication and precision of adversary long-range antiship ballistic and cruise missiles increases, a rapid Fleet and MAGTF missile counterstrike capability coupled with strong and layered defenses becomes vital for combat success.

A ballistic-missile counterfire/suppression and defense capability could be provided by a new 21st-century battle cruiser. Those warships would be comparatively ugly, highly utilitarian, effective, and cost-effective, armed and equipped as noted above. Potential options to consider leveraging and costing would include: alteration of retiring combatants such as the Austin -class amphibious transport docks (LPDs), eventually older Aegis cruisers, or dock landing ships of the LSD-41/49 class as it is replaced; modification of existing combatant hull designs under construction, such as the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke - and Zumwalt -class destroyers, San Antonio -class LPDs, or littoral combat ships, where weight, open space, and power are available; alteration of some logistic and strategic-sealift hull designs such as the joint high-speed vessel, the T-AKE dry cargo/ammunition ships, or the T-AKR fast deployment logistic ships; or even the adaptation of large or small commercial variant oil/cargo/container/fast sealift ship hull forms in the 12,000–25,000 ton range. The development of a U.S. warship design described herein will be a key Fleet asset in the future.

Back to the Future: Seizing Advance Bases

The long-range air, submarine, and antiship ballistic/cruise missile targeting and engagement of adversaries present a new and more complicated force-closure challenge for reinforcing Navy Fleet, amphibious expeditionary, and maritime prepositioned squadron forces. They face early engagement and attrition at distances well outside the immediate joint theater combat zone. What was once a more streaming and sequential pattern of joint and naval deployment, force closure and combat will require a more planned, methodical, and simultaneous operational approach in order to close naval forces without significant losses.

As a result, Navy amphibious warships and embarked Marine expeditionary landing forces will now play a revitalized role in advanced-base establishment or seizure in support of Fleet maneuver, layered Fleet air, missile, and antiship strike and defense, and overall joint force closure.

The establishment of a series of supporting austere MAGTF expeditionary airfields, early warning, long-range missile counterstrike, and layered air, anti-fleet and ballistic-/cruise-missile defense sites along the geographic flanks and center of the battle Fleet’s avenue of approach would constrain adversary air and surface fleet engagement. That additionally would augment layered defenses, and provide counterstrike nodes that either limit or pattern an adversary fleet’s freedom of maneuver toward either a relative positional disadvantage or a naval fleet ambush. The early and rapid establishment of a series of U.S. joint or naval “redoubts” in a conflict would have significant effect, imposing a change in campaign design, execution and tempo; a reallocation and re-apportionment of available adversary resources; and countermove on potentially disadvantageous or parity terms.

The Guadalcanal campaign of 1942–43, with its land, air, undersea, and major naval surface battles, provides a historical example of Navy and Marine Corps advance-base and airfield seizure severely affecting an adversary’s operational design, campaign execution, and overall fleet and ground-force freedom of maneuver. Japanese attempts to dislodge the American forces required the diversion and commitment of a significant amount of Japan’s limited air, land, and naval forces (carrier and surface) to heavy and sustained combat on near-parity terms of battle. Over time, through sustained combat, available Japanese forces gradually grew weaker, and the campaign culminated in Allied victory.

Times have changed, and the divestitures of the past in Marine air and missile defense and long-range missile strike need to be revisited. The Marine Corps needs to examine the possibility of fielding a limited number of MAGTF expeditionary missile batteries for intermediate air and both ballistic-missile defense and counter-strike engagement. The batteries could be either independent or a firing source within a larger, more distributed, interoperable—and more survivable—cooperative engagement “cloud” in which Fleet warships and radars could cooperatively share targeting data, then capture and guide missiles fired from expeditionary land-based launchers as part of a more integrated air and missile defense.

To rapidly create these kinds of MAGTF expeditionary capabilities, the focus should be on the integration of existing common technologies for mobility and employment and not new capability development. Existing, successful technology investments in radars such as the ground/air task-oriented radar, the AN/SPY2 volume search and AN/SPY3, or the Patriot PAC3 AN/MPQ-53 phased-array radar, along with launchers such as the high-mobility artillery rocket-system launcher should be adapted to fire common Navy standard missiles (SM) 2/3/6. In the future, expeditionary, mobile EMRG, and directed-energy batteries will add to the long-range air and missile defenses as well as the cooperative engagement and counterstrike capabilities of the overall battle force.

As the Navy looks at weapons development, the next generation of longer-range, larger-diameter, heavier explosive throw-weight land and antiship ballistic and cruise missiles for surface combatants should be developed as a two-edged sword—with both warship and amphibious expeditionary tracked-vehicle employment in mind. Imitation remains the highest compliment. Again, leveraging and adapting from existing firing systems and launchers, the Navy and Marine Corps team should develop ballistic and cruise missile antiship and strike capability on highly mobile wheeled or tracked vehicles similar to those of the Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Indian militaries.

As the Fleet and follow-on joint forces close the distances, such expeditionary joint and/or MAGTF assets would augment Fleet air- and missile-defense/strike capabilities and help hold an adversary’s land and fleet airstrike and missile-firing forces and capabilities at equal risk. Fielding those kinds of supporting capabilities within the Marine amphibious expeditionary landing forces reverses the A2/AD challenge and imposes the same kinds of operational and force development issues, costs, and choices on potential foes and their military planners.

The Naval Gun and Layered Defenses

The threat of precision-guided weaponry is not new to the Fleet. Arguably, the kamikaze of World War II represented the first precision, long-range guided weapon—a primitive forerunner to today’s antiship ballistic and cruise missiles. The Navy’s answer to the threat of kamikazes and massive land- and carrier-based aviation was a layered, overlapping defense with multiple technologies providing weapons engagement and density at long, medium, and close-in ranges.

At present, the Navy is developing very capable and elegant anti-ballistic intercept missiles that allow its ships to defensively engage with precision at long ranges. The Fleet also has less-elegant, close-in missile- and weapons-capabilities. What is potentially missing is an intermediate-range naval gun capability that increases engagement opportunities and adds both density and depth to layered defenses. Within the Navy, there are a total of 106 MK 45 5-inch 54/62-caliber guns that can be linked via warship sensors for shared battle-network awareness and cooperative-engagement capability—one that is currently unused.

The existing guns, if outfitted with common, modular, long-range 5-inch rounds, could provide both an individual warship and the overall Fleet with a greater engagement range and weapons-effects density through the massing of fires. That massing of fire could be accomplished against over-the-horizon high and low targets at long ranges, then gradually shifted in successive engagement opportunities to direct line-of-sight fires within the radar envelope. It could effectively create a wall of shrapnel pellets and fragments into which in-bound aircraft and missiles would fly and be destroyed—not unlike the old 3-inch/50 variable time and radio-frequency fuse weapons effects of World War II. A 5-inch pellet/flechette round would have equally blinding and devastating effects on adversary surface and land-based radars and electronic systems, swarming small boats, command-and-control ships, and sites ashore—with a value-added naval surface fire support application against ground forces.

Developing a near-term, long-range naval gunfire engagement capability for air, missile, and surface defense is feasible, achievable, and affordable. Recently, the Zumwalt -class destroyers’ advance gun system 6-inch/155-mm long-range land attack projectile round was successfully and accurately fired to a distance of about 62 nautical miles. Advances in its technical maturity and adaptability have made it possible to develop and produce a smaller, common 5-inch long-range variant. For the equivalent research-and-development cost of procuring fewer SM3/SM6 missiles, the Fleet could potentially design, develop, and field a modular 5-inch long-range round to be used in both the MK 45 and EMRG gun mounts when the latter enter service in the mid-2020s. The common 5-inch round is conceptually, technologically, fiscally, and developmentally feasible and achievable. It should be pursued and fielded at flank speed.

The executive summary, then, is this: The advent and proliferation of long-range targeting and antiship ballistic- and cruise-missile technologies and forces have caused fundamental shifts in naval warfare not unlike those experienced by the Navy and Marine Corps during the run-up to World War II when the battleship line was being replaced by land- and carrier-based aviation. The aircraft carrier remains an important—but now Fleet-supporting—asset. Embarked tactical aviation is giving way to long-range, precision-guided strike technologies and new combinations of weaponry and forces. As a result, many of today’s accepted assumptions regarding joint and naval warfighting are at the point of inflection where a change or alteration of course is needed to match future combat realities. Change is always difficult. However, it is time to shift rudders, alter course line, and make the necessary naval capability, force, and platform design changes for a new naval future.

1. Single Battle Concept, MCWP 5-1 Marine Corps Planning Process PCN 143 000068 00, (Albany, GA: Marine Corps Logistic Base, 2001) pp. 1–3.

2. Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace and Strategy , (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007).

3. For Kitty Hawk see; for Midway see .


5. For F/A-18, see F/A-18 E/F/G; for F-35C and F-35B see .


7. Toshi Yosihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over The Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge To U.S. Maritime Strategy , (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010) pp. 46–47, 51–56.

8. .

Major General Hanifen is the current Director of Expeditionary Warfare (N85) in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.


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