Henry Holst / The National Interest & Justin Bachman / Bloomberg – 2018-08-23 01:09:12
Are Aircraft Carriers “Too Big to Fail?”
Henry Holst / The National Interest
(August 19, 2018) — Are carriers too big to fail? If so, US policymakers need to break themselves from the assumption that carriers are the end product of the evolution of naval technology.
The United States must maintain its leadership role in military innovation; not fall into the age-old trap of other great powers by absconding modernization and relying instead on time-tested dogma and tradition. In the future our carriers and Navy servicemen may pay the ultimate price due to our complacency and failure to innovate.
Various defense pundits, scholars, and journalists have spent a considerable amount of digital ink debating the various threats to America’s carrier fleet while avoiding a more central question. In the cliche phrase of our time: “Are carriers too big to fail?”
(This article first appeared in 2016.)
Clausewitz tells us, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Is there any political situation of such gravity that losing a carrier would be deemed an acceptable risk? In other words, how expendable are carriers? The answer to this question has large implications for the tactical and strategic options available to US policymakers.
Total security from all risk is impossible. The aircraft carrier is not invulnerable to attack. The new US Ford-class aircraft carrier will be a floating home to over 4,000 sailors and comes in at the hefty price tag of around $12 billion dollars . In light of the development and proliferation of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weaponry, does this enormous investment of human resources narrow US tactical and strategic options ?
What are the implications of the sinking of a US carrier?
Over 4,000 American soldiers died during the recent eight and a half year Iraq war. These casualties played a large role in the extensive domestic opposition to the conflict.
Imagine for a moment that a similar number of sailors perish in less than an hour. Such an event would be a national catastrophe and would likely create enormous political pressure to end combat operations. Such a catastrophic scenario is characteristic of naval warfare.
In his book Seapower, Naval strategist Geoffrey Till tells us that:
“The nature of forces engaged in maritime operations. . .are expensive, hard to replace, and even the smallest units represent a sizeable investment in human resources, whose loss can be sudden and instantaneous and very hard for publics and governments to bear.”
The US public is not conditioned to enduring high amounts of casualties. The last time commensurate numbers of US troops died in a single military engagement was in 1950 during the Korean War. Knowing that, what would be the reaction if a US carrier were attacked and sunk?
(This first appeared in 2014.)
How it Could Happen
To those who doubt such a scenario will ever unfold, consider this: Nothing is ever truly invulnerable. The sinking of the Titanic and the Bismarck as well as the passing of the “Battleship” era can all attest to that. Consider the various threats from Beijing’s A2/AD missile arsenal, specifically the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) and YJ-12anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM).
The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2013 global defense assessment, The Military Balance, states that the DF-21D has gone through limited testing and has been deployed to the Second Artillery, the branch of China’s military that controls its nuclear and conventional missile arsenal.
Managing Editor for The National Interest Harry Kazianis brings up the point that simple math weights in the favor of the attacker when it comes to anti-ship weapons like the DF-21D.
The US Navy has a total of 30 ships equipped with the state-of-the-art Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system. Even if Washington utilized every Aegis BMD-equipped ship from across the globe, there is a limited amount of interceptors America could bring to the fight. American ships would be sitting ducks once they ran out. Worse, thousands of such missiles can be expended and not even come close to approaching the cost required to field a fleet capable of taking on the US Navy.
The threat of a full carrier-strike group anchoring offshore has always been a cornerstone of US deterrence. The sinking of a US aircraft carrier — possibly by A2/AD style weapons — would likely be the defining moment where the era of perceived US global military dominance would come to an end. Such an event — greatly magnified by a 24-hour global news cycle and the rise of social media — would alter the entire globe’s political and strategic balance.
Any regime seeking to carve out local spheres of interest would scramble to seek the means to fend off the US Navy. After all, the US Navy is the single most important force providing security for the globalized economic system . Clearly American security assurances wouldn’t carry as much weight with a carrier sitting at the bottom of the sea.
If the Navy’s worst nightmare came true and US adversaries strengthen their ability to threaten aircraft carriers, how does the Navy reorganize itself to project power? The entire concept of a carrier strike group (CSG) is based on putting bombs on target by primarily carrier-based planes. This is a large part of the Navy’s new operational concept, Air-Sea Battle.
Air-Sea Battle (ASB) integrates forces from all domains: space, air, land, sea, and cyber, in order to defeat ” adversaries equipped with sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities.” An asymmetric weapon that can bypass a carrier’s layered defenses and have even a remote chance at hitting a carrier would throw a wrench in a plan that may be costing US taxpayers around half a trillion dollars.
Too Many Eggs in One Basket?
While the chances of a US-China conflict are remote, Beijing is investing heavily in A2/AD weapons. More importantly, in our current age of breakneck technological development and cyber espionage, nobody can predict what military technologies US rivals may have in five or ten years.
Those who believe in the invincibility of the US carrier strike group are tempting fate. The US Navy may be limiting its options by putting too many of its eggs — or shrinking defense dollars — in one basket.
Captain Henry Hendrix sums up this fear in a Center for New American Security paper, stating that aircraft carriers are:
“Big, expensive, vulnerable — and surprisingly irrelevant to the conflicts of the time. . . . The national security establishment, the White House, the Department of Defense and Congress persist despite clear evidence that the carrier equipped with manned strike aircraft is an increasingly expensive way to deliver firepower and that carriers themselves may not be able to move close enough to targets to operate effectively or survive in an era of satellite imagery and long-range precision strike missiles.”
There is a considerable amount of inertia behind the carrier program in the United States. In a recent article about China’s DF-21D Time magazine quoted retired Navy Captain naval-strategist Bernard Cole explaining how our Navy, domestic industry, and politicians all have a deep-rooted interest in keeping carriers as the centerpiece of our naval strategy.
Indeed, these behemoths have accompanied us during the entirety of our rise to military preeminence. However, our close relationship with the carrier has its drawbacks.
Historically, one advantage that developing militaries have is that they get to base their doctrine and fighting methods on current technology in the relative absence of entrenched interests. Conversely, consider the damage that obsolete ideas of warfare wrought during the beginning of World War One.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died before the major European militaries were able to shed themselves of their dogmatic doctrine and antiquated leadership. If aircraft carriers are being eclipsed by various A2/AD weapons systems and asymmetric strategies, the military-industrial inertia behind the carrier program is a strategic disadvantage to the United States.
Why Do US Navy Ships Keep Crashing?
Fewer vessels and insufficient training
may be a common theme in four incidents in 2013
Justin Bachman / Bloomberg
(August 22, 2017) — The dejÃ vu collision of the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with an oil tanker near Singapore was the Navy’s fourth serious incident in the western Pacific this year, and mirrored a similar disaster in June that claimed the lives of seven sailors off the coast of Japan.
In January, the USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan, where the US Seventh Fleet is based. In May, the USS Lake Champlain ran into a South Korean fishing vessel. And just last week, the Navy relieved the commander of the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer that on June 17 was hit by a container ship, with deadly consequences.
Now, with 10 sailors dead or missing following the McCain incident Aug. 21, the question of what, if anything, these accidents have in common has become front-of-mind.
One distinct possibility is a fleet that’s stretched too thin, forced to combine training with deployments over a vast area teeming with US strategic interests, according to two retired Navy officers. In a Facebook video, the chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, said he has directed “a more comprehensive review to ensure that we get at the contributing factors, the root causes of these incidents.”
“This trend demands more forceful action,” said Richardson, who ordered a short “operational pause” for the Navy to assess how the fleet operates. He said there is no indication of foul play, such as hacking or sabotage, but that all possibilities are being considered.
From 1998 to 2015, the Navy shrank by 20 percent, to 271 ships, while the number of vessels deployed overseas remained at about 100 ships, Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, wrote in a 2015 article for The National Interest. Clark concluded that each ship has to work 20 percent more to meet demand.
The current fleet size doesn’t properly support the demand for 85 ships to 105 ships deployed to sea at any given moment — the average for the past 50 years — said retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix, who also served as director of naval history and is now a senior director at the Center for a New American Security. “When you’re trying to keep that many out to sea . . . something’s got to give,” he said. “The bucket that gets taken away from is training. I think the training has begun to break down in the fleet.”
Bryan McGrath, a retired Navy captain who commanded a destroyer similar to the McCain, the USS Bulkeley, said that what “we’re seeing is a fraying Navy, especially over in the western Pacific.”
The Cold War’s end led to a Navy-wide diminution of “basic war-fighting skills,” he said. “We won the war and as a result, we took a big deep breath, and now we are recovering from that breath,” said McGrath, an analyst with defense consultancy FerryBridge Group LLC.
“Having these two ships taken out of action has a real tactical impact”.
The Seventh Fleet has from 40 to 60 ships operating in the region at any given time. Both the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions occurred in darkness, with much larger commercial vessels, in seas with heavy traffic.
The ships are two of the Navy’s most-advanced, most-maneuverable Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which were first commissioned in 1991 and constitute the core of the service’s surface warfare capability. With cruise missiles for striking land-based targets and a complement of undersea weapons to combat submarines, they are also used as part of aircraft carrier strike groups.
“Our ships are well maintained, and our sailors are well trained,” a Navy spokeswoman, Captain Elizabeth Zimmermann, said on Monday.
The operational loss of the Fitzgerald and McCain, nicknamed “Big Bad John,” will have “real implications” for air defense in the Pacific arena, said Hendrix. In the western Pacific, the US is determining how best to address missile threats from North Korea while containing Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea.
“These incidents are not without problems and strategic implications,” said Hendrix. “Having these two ships taken out of action has a real tactical impact.”
The Navy’s overall fleet size, currently at 276 ships, is inadequate, given the size of its workload, Hendrix and McGrath said. In December, the Navy laid out an aspirational benchmark, seeking a 355-ship fleet as part of its “Force Structure Assessment.”
That number of vessels is “the level that balanced an acceptable level of war-fighting risk to our equipment and personnel against available resources and achieves a force size that can reasonably achieve success,” the Navy said in the report.
But critics say the focus on bulking up to that many ships risks spending too much on relatively cheaper but less capable vessels such as the troubled Littoral Combat Ship, which is vulnerable to attack.
The Navy “has overemphasized resources used to incrementally increase total ship numbers at the expense of critically needed investments in areas where our adversaries are not standing still, such as strike, ship survivability, electronic warfare and other capabilities,” Obama administration Defense Secretary Ash Carter wrote in a memo to the Navy in 2015.
For now, the temporary loss of the McCain and the Fitzgerald has made a complex playing field more difficult to manage.
“This nation has global responsibilities and global interests,” McGrath said. “And when you have two emerging competitors in China and Russia, and then two other threats in Iran and North Korea, that makes for a very, very busy Navy.”
One, he added, that is “thinly stretched.”
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