The plume of smoke, illuminated by a 20-foot cone of fire, is a brilliant white against the night sky. A 35-foot-long missile is perched high atop the flame, accelerating slowly as it leaves the launch tube and begins to arc lazily toward the east. The missile rushes ever faster as it climbs, breaking the sound barrier while continuing to accelerate toward the edge of space. Once free of the stratosphere, the missile will scribe a roughly ballistic trajectory before reentering the atmosphere in pursuit of its primary target: a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Few images evoke the U.S. military’s forced evolution—and, by extension, the Navy and Marine Corps’—than the threat of China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” missile. Or perhaps it is the photo of a PL-15 supersonic missile with a 110–nautical mile (nm) range and a modern active electronically scanned array radar seeker being launched from the internal weapons bay of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force J-20 “Mighty Dragon” stealth fighter.1 Maybe it is the video of China’s Type 001 aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, leaving port for her latest at-sea exercise, followed by China’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong. Or satellite photos of China’s Type 003 carrier, currently under construction and rumored to be approximately the same size as a Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier.2 It could even be Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley’s recent statement that China’s successful hypersonic missile test was “a very significant technological event,” noteworthy because “they’re expanding rapidly in space, in cyber, and then in the traditional domains of land, sea, and air.”3
Everywhere you look, China is making aggressive gains in shipbuilding, aircraft, and weapon-development programs. The counterterrorism mission that largely defined U.S. naval missions and strategy development for the past three decades has rapidly receded in the rearview mirror, with a return to peer competition now filling the windscreen for warfighters, planners, and policymakers. The only constant seems to be China’s penchant for beating estimates for when a new system will meet initial operating capability (IOC). If a system was expected to reach IOC in 2025, there is a high probability it will be fielded a year or two sooner.
In some ways, having an aggressive “pacing threat” is valuable for the United States: High-level military competition drives better strategy, crystalizes investment decisions by Congress, and provides a much-needed foil for U.S. forces to train against. As is said repeatedly at TOPGUN: If you can succeed against the very best, you’ll do just fine against lesser threats. If you can’t handle a lesser threat, however, good luck facing off against a highly trained and resourced military.
U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation forces continue to evolve to meet global demands and U.S. diplomatic and security needs. But to accurately assess the force requires a clear-eyed appreciation for the current political and military operating environment and how much it has shifted in a short period after decades of relative consistency.
Today’s shift in capabilities, resourcing, and policy is a continuation of priorities stated in the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy.
Its predecessors, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), gave a tip of the hat to the coming changes. The DSG hinged heavily on concluding the war on terror, deterring and defeating adversary aggression, and countering weapons of mass destruction.4 Fiscally constrained by the 2011 Budget Control Act—and notwithstanding sequestration—the strategy sought to shape “a Joint Force for the future that will be smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced.”
As millions of men and women across the military force can attest, a “leaner” and “ready” force is an interesting juxtaposition: In reality, the force leaned out, equipment and supply shortages hampered readiness, training lagged, and deployment lengths skyrocketed. (As a side note, various studies conducted following sequestration determined that what makes readiness a challenge is that it is cumulative. One cannot simply add funding and watch readiness rise back to previous levels in short order. In most cases, it takes years to recover once resources are restored, a lesson that must be remembered in future defense spending cycles.)5
For its part, the follow-on 2014 QDR report emphasized three pillars for U.S. armed forces: “Protect the homeland, build security globally, and project power [to] win decisively.”6 Throughout the 88-page document, terrorism was mentioned 51 times, Russia 10 times, and China only 8 times.
Despite a U.S. strategic desire to move beyond counterterrorism, extremist attacks in London, Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere kept attention focused primarily on counterterrorism efforts—a position only strengthened during the Trump administration’s subsequent campaign to defeat ISIS. As the saying goes: Your enemy gets a vote.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy provided much-needed clarity and direction to the U.S. military. The United States faced an “increasingly complex security environment defined by rapid technological change” as it transitioned to “inter-state strategic competition” as the primary concern in national security.7
This led to the “4+1” moniker: four named competitors—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—alongside the ever-present threat of global terrorism. When characterizing these threats to congressional and cabinet members at Camp David, then–Secretary of Defense James Mattis described them as follows: North Korea as the most urgent threat, with rapidly maturing nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities undercutting Indo-Pacific stability. Iran as a rogue regime, sowing discord in the Middle East while continuing to support depraved organizations and their actions. Russia as a powerful—if fading—military, seeking to exert veto authority over nations on its periphery, a position continuing to play out today as its forces build up at the Ukrainian border.
China, however, is the most worrisome for one reason: Chinese leaders not only seek to secure regional hegemony, but also to supplant U.S. global leadership. Moreover, China has demonstrated long-term strategic vision, resource alignment, active private-sector participation, and a willingness to remain focused on actionable steps to achieve relative superiority, including military overmatch when compared to U.S. forces.
The past few years have demonstrated China’s desire to accelerate its technological adoption as it seeks to lead in emerging technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and quantum-based technologies. China also is actively engaged in digital theft on a massive scale, acquiring decades of intellectual property through onshore manufacturing agreements and cyber espionage.8 Its weapon and platform developments—of course—continue apace.
The Department of Defense’s 2021 report to Congress, Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, outlines the situation clearly. China seeks to “strengthen the People’s Liberation Army into a ‘world-class’ military,” modernizing its capabilities “so that as a joint force” it can conduct full spectrum warfare.9 The report also states that the PLA Navy is the largest navy in the world, with more than 145 large surface combatants and modern, multirole platforms. The PLA’s combined air force and navy aviation assets represent the largest aviation force in the region and the third largest in the world.
There is one additional problem with which U.S. naval forces may have to contend: A growing alignment between Chinese and Russian military forces.10 Facing combined forces in the Indo-Pacific, or time coincident action by Russia in Eastern Europe and China in the South or East China Seas, would be a far more difficult task than taking on either nation by itself.
With a clear-eyed view of the challenges in the maritime domain, Navy planners continue to make incremental improvements throughout the naval aviation enterprise.
The Navy’s newest flagship, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), continues to move toward full operational capability nearly five years after its July 2017 commissioning. The ship’s 11 weapon elevators are now in working order, summer 2021 shock trials went well, and the crew was certified in November for its first deployment, currently planned for 2022. The aircraft carrier is now in its planned incremental availability period at Newport News Shipbuilding.
The first four ships in the Gerald R. Ford class are now accounted for. The USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) was christened in December 2019, is scheduled for delivery in 2024, and should be deployed by late 2025 or 2026. The $15.2 billion multiship contract for the USS Enterprise (CVN-80) and Doris Miller (CVN-81) was signed in January 2020. Construction on the Enterprise has begun, and the Doris Miller’s keel laying is slated for 2026; these two carriers are slated for delivery in 2028 and 2032, respectively.
Increased carrier presence in the Indo-Pacific is becoming the norm as three of the four U.S.-named strategic competitors—China, Russia (partially), and North Korea—reside in the region. In January 2022, the Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Groups conducted joint operations in the South China Sea to “improve combat capability, reassure our allies and partners, and demonstrate our resolve as a Navy to ensure regional stability.”11
Although new hardware improvements continued to be introduced across most naval aviation platforms in 2021, the biggest improvements come by way of software. As then–Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert touted in 2012 with the move to a “payloads over platforms” approach to systems development, capability improvements can be made more rapidly with upgraded software, as compared with the much-longer lead times typically required for hardware development, testing, and fielding.12
Using this approach, strike/fighter aircraft capabilities continue to evolve. The Navy began accepting Block III Super Hornets in 2021, with a total of 78 planned. Block III jets include the Advanced Cockpit System with 10-inch-by-19-inch large area touchscreens, reduced radar cross-section for greater survivability, and built-in AN/ASG-34 infrared search-and-track capabilities. In August, however, the Navy canceled the conformal fuel tank option, which would have provided an extra 3,500 pounds of fuel with reduced drag compared with customary external tanks.
The F-35 Joint Program Office closed 2021 by touting the Block IV suite of capabilities, which will include dozens of advanced hardware and software-enabled technologies and introduce an additional 14 weapons to the aircraft. Lockheed Martin announced in January that—as of the end of 2021—F-35Bs flown by the Marine Corps and Royal Air Force had logged more than 1,300 sorties, flown more than 2,200 hours, and conducted 44 combat missions.13 The carrier-based version, the F-35C, completed its first deployment on board the Carl Vinson in February 2022. On 24 January 2022, an F-35C crashed while conducting flight operations in the South China Sea. Because the aircraft represents the latest in U.S. aircraft design, weapons, and sensor technology, the Navy announced plans to recover the aircraft before Chinese or other foreign actors can do so.
Similar improvements continue with software upgrades for the EA-18G Growler electronic-attack and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye early-warning aircraft. Early EA-18G aircraft are now being upgraded as part of a five-year modification program to bring them to Block III standards, including improvements to their ALQ-218 radar receiver systems so they can better operate in increasingly complex electromagnetic environments.14 Similarly, the E-2D is receiving a set of planned multiyear software updates to improve sensing, communication, and target-sharing capabilities, to improve survivability in antiaccess/area-denial scenarios and to enable interoperability with the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control (JADC2) system.15
Rotary-wing aircraft continue to follow the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program that will see a combination of manned and unmanned aircraft. Rear Admiral Greg Harris, director of the Air Warfare Directorate (N98), said development of FVL is necessary to replace the aging MH-60R/S Seahawk helicopters and will include platforms such as the MQ-8C Fire Scout, which is on board the USS Milwaukee (LCS-5) conducting its first operational deployment.16 The MQ-8C’s radar brings the ability to survey large areas of sea space, providing over-the-horizon capabilities for smaller surface combatants.
Given the Indo-Pacific’s large open-water surface area and increasing number of adversary submarines, maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft are critical. The P-8A Poseidon—the Navy’s primary long-range antisubmarine, antisurface warfare, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform—is now testing the AN/ALE-55 towed decoy system to improve survivability in contested regions. A “high-demand, low-density” platform, the P-8A is likely to be targeted early during future high-end conflicts, making survivability a key component to operational success. Leveraging the AN/ALE-55 pod, already proven and tested in the F/A-18 fleet, makes perfect sense to extend existing capabilities to a wider range of platforms. Once the multistatic active coherent sonobouys and high-altitude torpedoes reach full operational capability, the P-8A will be able to achieve the high-altitude antisubmarine warfare concept championed in 2014.17
An increasing shift toward the Indo-Pacific also means greater need for unmanned aircraft with long loiter times. Undoubtedly an increasing part of the next-generation air-dominance family of systems, unmanned (or optionally manned) aircraft can provide advanced capabilities and longer range and enhance the capabilities of manned systems in the kill chain.
Naval aviation has several unmanned aircraft at work, spanning from the MQ-25 Stingray launching from a carrier’s flight deck to the MQ-4C Triton providing maritime surveillance for broad areas, chokepoints, and—in the future—increasingly contested environments.
Data is the new oil for the Department of Defense. With an ever greater need to provide intelligence for policy makers, allies, and military operations, the naval services need to rapidly increase investment flows, experimentation, and technological innovation to meet the nation’s exponentially increasing data fabric requirements. Meeting this need will enable more autonomous decision-making at “the edge” of the battlespace, streamline relevant information to provide back to data centers, and enable greater domain awareness needed during future conflicts.
Despite continued capability and readiness improvements in naval aviation, one bright-red warning light continues to flash in the cockpit: overtake.
For decades, the U.S. defense sector has invested in exquisite, expensive capabilities. While the United States chose high-cost stealth platforms, Russia and China pursued larger numbers of capable platforms with active jamming capabilities and passive sensors that seek to target U.S. forces outside the electromagnetic spectrum at increasing range. The U.S. system for major programs takes decades to create requirements, conduct “analysis of alternatives,” submit budgetary requests, align resources, then produce, test, and field various capabilities. Other nations can turn inside the U.S. production loop with much quicker “flash-to-bang” timelines.
This overarching near-term question ultimately will dictate long-term success: Can the time required to transition from concept to reality be decreased to move at the speed of relevance?
Put simply, in today’s increasingly competitive national security space, actions speak louder than words. Although U.S. naval aviation sustains a qualitative edge, incremental improvements risk being—and in some cases already have been—overtaken by China’s rapid advances in military technology and the impressive numbers of aircraft and weapons the PLA is fielding.
It is time to reverse that trend.
1. Jeffrey Lin and P. W. Singer, “Chinese Air-to-Air Missile Hits Targets, Spooks USAF General,” Popular Science, 22 September 2015.
2. Bloomberg News, “China Nears Launch of First Modern Aircraft Carrier, Report Says,” Bloomberg, 9 November 2021.
3. Oren Liebermann, Ellie Kaufman, and Kristin Fisher, “Top U.S. General Says China Hypersonic Test Is ‘Very Concerning,’” CNN, 28 October 2021.
4. U.S. Department of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2012).
5. For example, Navy CAPT Thomas Bodine’s study on Naval Aviation Enterprise readiness circa 2017.
6. U.S. Department of Defense, Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.
7. U.S. Department of Defense, “Unclassified Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2018).
8. “China Cyber Threat Overview and Advisories,” Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
9. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2021).
10. Brad Lendon, “Chinese and Russian Forces Link Up, But Analysts Say Both Sides Have Differing Objectives,” CNN, 16 August 2021.
11. U.S. Navy, “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Joint Force Conducts Dual Carrier Operations in South China Sea,” remarks by RADM J. T. Anderson, Commander, Carrier Strike Group 3, 24 January 2022.
12. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 138, no. 7 (July 2012).
13. Seapower Staff, “750 F-35s in Service as 2022 Begins, Lockheed Martin Says,” Seapower Magazine, 3 January 2022.
14. “Boeing Inducts First EA-18G Growler for U.S. Navy Modification Program,” Boeing, 19 March 2021.
15. Dan Parsons, “Navy Plans Upgrades to Fly E-2Ds into the 2040s,” USNI News, 4 August 2021.
16. Brett Tingley, “MQ-8C Fire Scout Is the Long-Range Eyes for Beleaguered Littoral Combat Ships,” The Drive, 25 January 2022.
17. LCDR Ryan Lilley, USN, “Recapture Wide-Area Antisubmarine Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 140, no. 6 (June 2014).