The April 2018 coalition missile strike on Syrian chemical weapons targets is an indicator of a sea change that has been taking place in the U.S. Navy for decades—the substitution of missiles for manned tactical aircraft in strike warfare. Introduced during the first Gulf War, the use of Tomahawk missiles for missions too dangerous or politically sensitive for manned aircraft has become routine.
The strike into Syria was launched from two U.S. destroyers, a U.S. submarine, British and French warships, and U.S. Air Force bombers; no aircraft carrier was deployed to the Mediterranean at the time. In fact, because of delays in the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and unanticipated extensions of maintenance work on several Nimitz-class carriers, the Navy has substituted surface forces for carrier presence on several recent occasions.1 These factors and others point to a need to rethink how the country uses its aircraft carriers. There will continue to be occasional needs for carriers to conduct power projection missions ashore; however in the age of great power competition, the focus of carriers will need to be supporting missile-centric forces, especially those in the littorals that are engaged in high-end combat. As the carriers’ focus changes, the composition of their air wings also will need to change.
“Where are the carriers?” According to Navy lore, that is the question U.S. presidents ask when crises erupt—and judging by the frequency of their use in the seven decades since the end of World War II, there appears to be substantial truth to the claim. Among the attributes carriers possess that would prompt such a question is their ability to launch strikes from the sea at targets located hundreds of miles inland. Such strikes could be mounted without warning, and the air wing, at least as configured up to the 2000s, could deliver roughly 50 tons of ordnance in a single strike. Such capability, independent of any shore base, had considerable utility. It was effective if employed and thus possessed both coercive and deterrent value. A major factor has eaten into the utility of aircraft carriers since the late 1990s, however: increasingly effective enemy defenses, both antiair and antisurface.
Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles are often the weapon of choice for strikes against heavily-defended targets. They offer the political advantage of not putting pilots in harm’s way. (U.S. Navy/Matthew Daniels)
The Russians and Chinese have developed several kinds of antiship missiles that pose threats to the carriers, prompting considerable controversy over the past few years concerning their survivability. Perhaps a more significant problem is the development of highly sophisticated and capable air defenses. While carrier-based aircraft still can operate at an acceptable level of risk in the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq, in areas defended by modern integrated air defense systems (IADS), the odds are high that carrier air wings will suffer losses. Thus, even if a carrier had been available in April 2018 in the eastern Mediterranean, the weapon of choice still likely would have been cruise missiles. The loss of two aircraft in the 1983 Lebanon raid illustrated the problems of using manned aircraft in missions aimed at sending a political message.2
The introduction of the stealthier F-35C Lightning II is not likely to make the air wing immune to losses. While a carrier air wing has 48 strike fighters—a substantial force compared to the air forces of most nations—the loss of an airplane or two on repeated strikes would soon reduce the wing’s combat power, in addition to the problems caused by having aircrew down in enemy territory. The combat radius of the FA-18 also is less than former strike aircraft such as the A-6 Intruder. The F-35 will add some range, but the wing still will have a smaller strike radius than in past decades.3
The other major limitation on carrier-based power projection is the reduced number of aircraft carriers the Navy operates. If the Navy wanted continuous carrier presence on three stations (Mediterranean, Arabian Sea, East Asia), it would need 16 carriers according to one estimate.4 Given the ongoing war in Syria, the anti-ISIS operations in Iraq, the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, and the on again/off again crisis in North Korea, it is clear that the United States does not have sufficient carriers to make them the centerpiece of deterrence and combat efforts in all areas. While various studies call for the U.S. Navy to increase the size of its carrier fleet, the cost of the Gerald R. Ford class makes such prospects uncertain. Even if the Navy had 12 carriers, it would have to develop a long-range, penetrating bomber, which, given the expense of the F-35 program, seems like a fiscal stretch.
The obvious first step already has been taken by the Navy: substituting surface combatant presence for carrier presence on an as-needed basis. As the Navy’s new concept of distributed lethality takes hold and more surface ships are outfitted with offensive missiles, these forces could be substituted for carriers more often, easing the readiness pressure on the carrier force. This might lead some to conclude that the carriers have lost their utility and fewer would be needed, but a closer look reveals they still will be needed, but for different reasons.
Aircraft such as the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat featured long range and heavy payloads for strike missions, but the long-range air-to-air role may be what the Navy needs to bring back to carriers in the future. (U.S. Navy/Jayme Pastoric)
Aircraft carriers have been dominant for so long, and their use so focused on power projection, that their other functions have been diminished. In the early days of carrier aviation, a key function was to support the battle fleet (consisting of the battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and logistics vessels) by scouting, spotting for major caliber guns, and maintaining air superiority. Once the aircraft carrier became the key capital ship, the air superiority function coalesced into carrier battle group defense. As the distributed lethality concept takes hold, the fleet’s offense and defense will be, at times, physically separated, and elements of the fleet will be widely dispersed. While this will complicate and perhaps degrade enemy targeting, it means that units will operate out from under the defensive envelope of the carrier strike group. While individual ships may be able to avoid attack through the use of electronic countermeasures and maneuver, there are a number of key fleet assets that will need fighter protection.
A modern over-the-horizon missile fight will be highly information-dependent. Enemy units must be located and identified, and it is likely that space assets will be neutralized in one way or another. It may well be left to aerial vehicles of various types to take up the slack for reconnaissance and communications relay. Moreover, fleet support from land-based MQ-4 Tritons and P-8 Poseidons will be critical, and these aircraft, to be effective, must operate within the battlespace. The enemy, knowing this, is likely to attack these assets, which therefore must be protected. It may be difficult to protect them using air defense ships, so their defense could fall to the carrier air wing. Given that such aircraft would be widely distributed and likely operate continuously for days, the defensive effort could require many fighter aircraft in a carrier air wing. In fact, for an extended theater of operations, two or more carriers might be needed to provide adequate protection for the array of “information forces,” some of which will be based on carriers.
All of this suggests the aircraft carrier’s mission portfolio should include supporting the missile-centric, distributed lethality force, with the Navy investing aircraft development dollars in a new long-range, long-endurance fighter, capable of carrying multiple advanced, long-range, air-to-air missiles. This sounds like a throwback to the Cold War F-14 Tomcat, but an enlarged version of the F-35 might be suitable. Concurrently, the Navy should speed the development of its MQ-25 unmanned tanker to allow more distant and numerous fighter patrol stations. However, fighter defense is not the only support the carriers could provide to the missile force. The F-18G, F-35C, and E-2D can provide targeting, electronic support measures, and electronic warfare capabilities. The carrier also can mount offensive counter-air, antisurface, and antisubmarine warfare.
There are those who would argue that to keep the carrier and air wing relevant, the Navy should develop a long-range, penetrating attack aircraft, either manned, unmanned, or optionally manned. The notion fails on a number of grounds. First, the Navy’s goal ought to be operational effectiveness, not maintaining the “relevance” of a particular platform or system. Second, the technical requirements of such an aircraft would be rigorous—perhaps more so than the F-35. This likely would be cost prohibitive, and there does not seem to be a compelling mission for such an aircraft when so much can be done with missiles.
Proponents also might argue that such an aircraft is necessary for “level of effort” missions requiring repeated sorties over time to conduct extensive bombardment. However, given the opportunity costs mentioned above, long-range missiles are more cost effective and obviate the potential of crew losses. Even if the range of a new carrier-based attack aircraft is long, it would require the carrier to hang out in threatened waters, increasing risk. Also, if there is a mission that requires a penetrating bomber, it should be the province of the Air Force, which already is working on such an aircraft. An electronic warfare- and air-superiority-oriented carrier force could support such Air Force operations.
A shift of mission focus does not mean the aircraft carrier fleet will be devoid of power projection capability. When political and operational conditions are conducive, the carriers still will be able to conduct presence, crisis maneuver, support for troops ashore, and strike missions. The aircraft carrier is, after all, a very flexible platform. Relieved of the onus of being the Navy’s principal strike weapon, it can be used more flexibly, and carrier air wings could have more opportunity to train for the most demanding combat scenarios as well as to conduct experimentation, especially multi-carrier doctrine.
Of the three recent congressionally mandated fleet architecture studies, two prescribed a two-tiered fleet: one part consisting of distributed forces such as destroyers, frigates, submarines, and unmanned systems, and the other composed of carrier and amphibious groups. This basic approach to fleet architecture requires an altered aircraft carrier mission portfolio. It also may ease deployment scheduling challenges if the Navy and Marine Corps can agree on using the large-deck amphibious ships, now home to the F-35B, as light aircraft carriers (CVLs), at least on a part-time basis. Using both CVNs and CVLs as support platforms in a two-tiered fleet architecture would reduce the operational handicaps imposed by the combat radius deficiencies of the FA-18 and F-35.
The U.S. Navy is heavily invested in aircraft carriers and it is in the interest of the service and the nation to keep them viable, but further investments in defensive measures needed for opposed-strike missions puts the Navy on the wrong side of the cost equation. Shifting the prime combat mission of aircraft carriers to the support of distributed lethality forces would reduce the amount of investment needed for defense, allowing more to be focused on offense.
George Friedman once wrote that a weapon system becomes “senile” when the amount of money and effort required to protect it outweighs the value of its offensive capability.5 In the absence of serious opposition, the carrier air wing has been a cost-effective instrument for the United States. However, the development of a range of new counters to both the carrier and its air wing has put it on the road to senility as a strike platform. Shifting the mission of the aircraft carrier in the context of a two-tiered fleet architecture avoids that trap and allows the Navy to extract continued return on the massive investment it has made in sea-based tactical aviation.
Some aircraft carrier proponents may oppose a mission shift out of fear it would reduce the day-to-day demand signal for aircraft carriers, resulting in reduced numbers. Certainly the calculus for determining the number of carriers would need to change. At this point, it is not clear exactly how many carriers the Navy will need in the coming decades, but experiments, wargames, and complex exercises such as Fleet Problems will help determine the numbers required and the ways they will be employed in a high-end fight.
1. Christopher Cavas, “Middle East Now Without a US Carrier,” DefenseNews, 28 December 2016, and Jamie McIntyre, “No US Carriers Were at Sea for the Past Week. That Hasn’t Happened since World War II,” Washington Examiner, 5 January 2017.
2. Bernard Trainor, “83 Strike on Lebanon: Hard Lessons for U.S.,” New York Times, 6 August 1989.
3. Jerry Hendrix, “The Future of the Carrier Air Wing Looks Dim,” War On the Rocks, 21 October 2015,
4. Seth Cropsey and Bryan McGrath, “How Many Aircraft Carriers Does the US Need?” The Hill.
5. George and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996), 26 and chapter 8, “The Aircraft Carrier as Midwife,” 180-204.
Captain Rubel was a Navy pilot who flew light-attack and strike-fighter aircraft. He retired after 30 years of active duty and then served for 13 years on the faculty of the Naval War College, including eight years as dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He has published more than 30 articles and several book chapters on naval and military subjects.
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