The Rise of the Missile Carriers

By Commander Phillip E. Pournelle, U.S. Navy

Rise of the Planet of the Autonomous

Today we are witnessing the rise of autonomous attack systems (AAS). This is the inevitable next step in what some would call the Precision Strike Regime, others the Reconnaissance Strike Complex—and what is more widely known as the Revolution in Military Affairs. 2 The next step in the Reconnaissance Strike Complex is when the weapons become the Reconnaissance Strike Complex itself. In this new era the weapons will navigate accurately at even greater distances, locate enemy forces, identify and prioritize the targets, then hit them with great accuracy.

The rise of the AAS is made possible by the increasing capabilities and decreasing costs of sensors and computing power in weapons that seek, find, and attack. The U.S. Navy has implicitly embraced such weapons as it employs and develops longer-range standoff weapons in the face of improving air defenses. These include the joint air-to-surface standoff missile, the Tomahawk Block IV, the long-range antiship missile/offensive antisurface warfare, the low-cost autonomous attack system (LOCAAS), and others designed to be released long before the launching platform closes the intended target. 3

In the case of the air-launched weapons, the aircraft is just a truck; neither the aircraft nor the pilot has any role in guiding the weapon to the target after release. In fact, the aircraft must release its weapons and run away to survive in the face of advanced air-defense systems. Today’s weapons are taking advantage of sophisticated multi-spectral sensors. Imaging infrared, synthetic-aperture radars, laser radar, millimeter wave, radiation-seeking sensors, and others have given the ability of seeking weapons to map the targets and compare them to onboard templates and/or identify unique signatures coming from the target. Some weapons today employ more than one sensor. Other countries continue to develop weapons that do the same.

In the near future, swarms of weapons, each carrying a different type of sensor and netted together, could coordinate their efforts for best effect and even provide battle-damage assessment with follow-on re-attack. They could then locate the best location on a ship to attack and employ selective forming warheads (blast-frag, penetrating, etc.) to best effect the selected vulnerable positions on a ship (e.g., a phased-array face). These weapons initially will be more effective at sea due to the relatively (emphasis on “relatively”) homogeneous environment of the sea surface, but sooner rather than later such combinations of sensors will be effective for land attack as well. Employing an extremely wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum and sophisticated techniques within each band of the spectrum, it will become extremely challenging to effectively decoy such systems, particularly if the intended target has unique characteristics and emissions.

At the outset, AAS will take the form of both low- and high-speed cruise missiles. Low-speed missiles such as the next evolution of the Tomahawk will be employed for long-range, high-endurance missions, while high-speed ramjet cruise missiles such as the Russian Sunburn and Indian BrahMos will continue to evolve for rapid strike or penetration against enemy defensive systems and hardened targets. Increasingly, guided ballistic missiles will be employed in a similar manner.

To get ahead, the U.S. Navy will need to address current logistical limitations impeding the deployment of AAS. Today, one of the critical advantages of the aircraft carrier and the carrier air wing is the ability to reload at sea. However, existing technologies such as dynamic positioning and articulated cranes, along with new advances in technology, could make possible the reloading of vertical-launch cells while under way. This would make the missile carrier an extremely cost-effective power-projection platform. 4

More Bang for the Buck

Missile carriers are far more cost-effective than the aircraft carrier and the carrier air wing. Moving mass over any significant distance is over 50 times more costly by air than by sea. 5 While the last few tactical miles, requiring speed, are best accomplished by flight, the strategic and operational distances required to get the launch platform in place are far more efficiently conquered by surface transportation.

The large cost difference is revealed when we examine the cost and firepower delivery of a carrier and its air wing vs. those of a destroyer. To properly compare the dollar figures we first determine each platform’s annualized cost; that is, the total ownership cost (including acquisition and operations & support) amortized over the expected service life of the platform. In order to have as near an apples-to-apples comparison as possible we need to compare similar weapons delivered by the different platforms in power projection. The carrier air wing will increasingly be employing the joint air-to-surface standoff missile (JASSM) in air-threat environments, while surface ships and submarines continue to employ the Tactical Tomahawk missile. Both weapons cost about the same, and each delivers a 1,000-pound warhead with similar accuracy. So to compare the different platforms’ ability to project power, we will employ the strike-mile; that is, the distance and number of 1,000-pound warheads each platform can deliver. Delivery of one warhead at 2,000 nautical miles is 2,000 strike-miles, while the delivery of four warheads the same distance would be 8,000 strike-miles. We must also examine how cost-effective the platforms are in a short engagement (day) or long-term conflict (month) when we consider how long it will take to reload and get back into the fight.

With all these factors included in the analysis, Arleigh Burke –class guided-missile destroyers and Ohio -class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines are far more cost-effective missile platforms than the aircraft carrier. (See Figure 1.) Even when adding capabilities such as tanker support, and ironically, missiles fire by escorting destroyers, which improve the effectiveness of a carrier strike group, the strike group comes up short.

Other platforms, particularly surface ships that can reload at sea rather than returning to a port outside the conflict zone, are far more efficient than the aircraft carrier or carrier strike group. The destroyers can devote a much larger portion of their vertical-launch capacity to offensive capabilities (50 percent) while retaining sufficient surface-to-air weapons for self-defense. The Ohio -class SSGN, while having to leave the area to reload, can devote her entire considerable magazine to offensive operations as she does not generally have to defend herself against enemy cruise missiles. However, the Virginia -class submarine, even with the extended payload module, is not cost-effective, particularly in a long-duration conflict.

Alternative strike groups are far more cost-effective than the carrier strike group. For the same cost of acquiring and operating a carrier strike group and tanker support, 8 Virginia -class nuclear-powered attack submarines, 13 Burke­ -class DDGs, or 11 Ohio -class SSGNs could be deployed. (See Figure 2.) The last two platforms in particular provide vastly more firepower than the carrier strike group.

Bombs or Missiles?

While penetrating platforms delivering large numbers of weapons are more cost-effective in benign environments, standoff weapons such as cruise missiles are far more so in even slightly threatening environments. It would appear reusing an airplane, such as an FF-35 dropping six bombs per mission, would save money in the long run. 6 However, should the probability of losing the airplaine, and therefore having to pay for a replacement, rise above 2 percent per sortie, the cost per F-35 mission becomes more expensive than the cruise missile. (See Figure 3.)

Employing only missiles or fighters would give an opponent the ability to employ a strategy to neutralize them. 7 For example, using standoff weapons would encourage an opponent to just ride out the attacks until weapons were exhausted. Having the ability to reload vertical-launch-system cells at sea would discourage an opponent from riding it out. Using solely armed aircraft, particularly manned, would encourage an opponent to focus on raising the threat environment to an unacceptable level to deter their use. A combination of approaches, therefore, is required. There will always be particular targets (mobile or fleeting) and missions (scouting, close-air support, air combat, electronic warfare) requiring manned or man-controlled platforms. But as advanced air-defense systems proliferate, the era of benign air environments that made aircraft efficient attack platforms is ending.

Effectiveness and Survivability

Missile carriers are far more combat-effective and survivable than aircraft carriers because of the rapid volume of fire they can deliver, the distribution in several shooters, and the low signature relative to an aircraft carrier.

The rapid pulse of power was the raison d’être for the carrier’s rise in World War II, but we have reached the logical maximum of this capacity in the new Gerald R. Ford class, and it does not reach that of the vertical-launch system. (See Figure 4) The ability to deliver a massive strike rapidly means the launching platform can rush in, execute the mission, and withdraw. The carrier, on the other hand, must remain vulnerable to attack while the air wing is launched and recovered through multiple cycles.

In the offensive-dominant environment created by antiship cruise missiles and, more recently, antiship ballistic missiles, numbers matter. Missile carriers by design have distribution of capabilities that create resilience for the Fleet and greater deterrence of our potential enemies. Having the bulk of combat power in a single platform (“all our eggs in one basket”) is a significant combat vulnerability that makes the carrier strike-group force brittle and enticing for anyone looking for an “assassin’s mace.” Distributing capabilities also enables greater flexibility and depth when executing missions, such as when a carrier is unable to fly fighters while executing humanitarian-aid/disaster-relief missions.

Missile carriers have a much lower signature than aircraft carriers. The aircraft carrier is one of the largest ships afloat. It has a very large radar cross section, and extremely large infra-red and electromagnetic signatures, not to mention those of the air wing. The Ford class, with its new dual-band phased-array radars, will have one of the most unique signatures in the world. Burke -class DDGs are designed with a much smaller radar cross-section and infrared signature. When detached from defending the high-profile carrier, the destroyers can more effectively conduct electronic emission-control techniques to reduce their detectability. The expected range one can detect a DDG, and the probability of it being hit by seeking weapons, is much smaller than that of an aircraft carrier. And the Ohio -class SSGN, of course, has the inherent stealth of operating underwater.

The Aircraft Carrier’s New/Old Role

In this new era of the AAS and the missile carrier, the role of the aircraft carrier will not be eliminated, but it will radically change. Just as the aircraft carrier eclipsed the battleship, but did not eliminate it, in World War II, the missile carrier will eclipse the aircraft carrier but not eliminate it. The main pulse of power will no longer come from the aircraft carrier in an exchange with enemy forces; it will be delivered by the missile carriers. This change of employment will also greatly change how aircraft carriers should be designed to best conduct combat scouting.

The aircraft carrier was first introduced for scouting, acting as the eyes of the Fleet. They were to locate the enemy’s positions to enable battleships to then engage them. Today, that original role becomes relevant anew, for the employment of AAS has not eliminated the need for human decision-making; in fact, it has probably increased its importance. Manned or man-controlled aircraft will still be required to scout the enemy forces, and understand how events are unfolding and direct the employment of the AAS. Human decision-making will be required to decide where best to place the AAS to conduct their hunt. Manned or man-controlled aircraft will gain an enormous force-multiplier effect as forward controllers for the AAS.

This new era will mean a radical change in the design and use of aircraft carriers in the future. The Ford class, particularly its size and flight-deck design, was intended primarily for the rapid generation of sorties. It is perhaps the most optimized design ship ever built for this purpose. 8 However, its extremely high sortie rate cannot generate nearly the same rapid delivery of firepower as the vertical launch system. Therefore, we no longer need to design carriers or the air wing for that purpose. The air wing can be redesigned for critical missions. Few strike aircraft will be required, and emphasis should be focused on combat scouting, early warning, and combat-management capabilities. The future of the aircraft carrier lies not in quantity but in the greater adaptability of the aircraft on board and the qualitative advantages man-controlled aircraft can bring in scouting and battle management.

Without having to meet the requirements of rapid sortie generation rates and with a smaller air wing, future aircraft carriers could be smaller, affordable, and more numerous, for conducting a wider range of missions. Such a shift would greatly increase the inherent flexibility and adaptability of the Navy–Marine Corps team across a wide range of missions. It would also greatly increase the number of deployable forces with a distribution of capabilities to increase presence, adaptability, and force resilience.

New weapons have greatly changed the world of naval combat. The U.S. Navy has implicitly welcomed this new era with the current and future deployment of autonomous attack systems. It may not have thought through the implications of such weapons, but now that Pandora’s Box has been opened, we must complete the innovation these new weapons will demand.

We must embrace the missile carrier and be prepared for its displacement of the aircraft carrier’s primacy in the delivery of power projection. We are already on the threshold of the missile-carrier era. It is time for the U.S. Navy to step ahead and take the lead. We are developing the weapons; the next step is to develop the ability to reload the platforms that carry them. We must cultivate the requisite doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures and fundamentally change the way we employ our ships and weapons today. The technologies exist now. If we don’t embrace them we may experience a new Pearl Harbor, where weapon concepts we created are employed by our foes to strike us.

1. Wayne P. Hughes Jr., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat , 2nd Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).

2. Barry Watts, The Maturing Revolution in Military Affairs (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2011).

3. Edward J. Walsh, “ New Tomahawks Ordered, Offensive Antisurface Weapon Planned.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , August 2012, 88. Edward J. Walsh, “Antiship Missile Moves Toward Flight Test,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , October 2012, 86. “USN begins future OASuW study,” Jane’s Missiles & Rockets , 7 January 2011.

4. Otto Kreisher, “The Non-Glamorous Prerequisite: Logistics Takes Higher Priority In Navy Planning,” Seapower , May 2001. J. Spezio J. and K. Scandell, “At Sea Rearming of Mk41 Vertical Launch Systems,” NAVSEA, 30 June 2012.

5. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, “Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2016,” . David Hummels, “Have International Transportation Costs Declined?” (Chicago: University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, November 1999).

6. Thomas Hamilton, “Comparing the Cost of Penetrating Bombers to Expendable Missiles Over Thirty Years: An Initial Look,” RAND Project Air Force Monograph, August 2010.

7. Mark A. Gunzinger, “Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long-Range Strike” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010).

8. John F. Schank et al., “Trading Capability for Cost: An Examination of Future Aviation Platform Options,” RAND National Defense Research Institute, July 2012. RADM William Moran, RADM Thomas Moore, and CAPT Ed McNamee USN (Ret.), “A ‘Leap Ahead’ for the 21st-Century Navy.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , September 2012, 18–23.

Commander Pournelle is a surface-warfare officer and an operations analyst. He serves on the staff of the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment. He has a master’s degree in operations analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School.


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