An apology for aircraft carriers

By lex, on July 25th, 2006

Just like the cicadas, every 17 years or so, someone smoking a pipe and wearing a tweed jacket will come out with the bold proposition that maybe it’s time for the US Navy to buy smaller, or fewer, or no aircraft carriers. This year, it was former Carter-era CIA director Stansfield Turner, joined now by US Rep Roscoe Bartlett, R-MD.

Admiral Turner wrote an article in the July issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings, entitled: “Do We Need Carriers?”

Turner argues that other, cheaper ships, equipped with large stocks of computer and satellite-guided missiles, could deliver as much combat power as a carrier without risk to pilots and other airmen.

“All weapons systems have their day and we move on,” Turner said in an interview. He worries that “military people have a tendency to stay with what’s tried, true and proven” without fully studying alternatives, he added.

The Admiral had no such traditionalist compunctions as CIA director, firing over 800 human intelligence, or HUMINT agents in what came to be known as the Halloween Massacre, while increasing focus on technical intelligence capabilities such as SIGINT and IMINT. The gaps in intelligence generated by these technology-focused solutions – our inability to divine intentions to go along with assessed capabilities – have been vividly illustrated in empty Mesopotamian weapons bunkers and wounded New York skylines, but never mind: The admiral’s faith in technological solutions to national security problems appears unshaken.

I would not trade our Navy for the next three combined, and the fact remains that a robust carrier force is what separates our shrinking service from those of the rest of the world – as a maritime nation with global responsibilities and roughly 300 ships, we can ill-afford to throw away the competitive advantage in firepower, persistence and flexibility that bringing 4.5 acres of sovereign US territory, 60-odd tactical jets and 44 strike fighters per deck offers us, far less the synergies we achieve when we combine multiple carrier strike groups into one striking force.

We can, and do have the world’s best submarines and submariners. We can and do have potent destroyers and cruisers with a professional officer corps and heroic, hard working Sailors. But unless we abandon the global reach that has been the focus of our maritime strategy since the days of Mahan, unless we are content to use what ships we have left to merely patrol the maritime approaches to the continental United States, we will never have the advantage of interior lines and short logistic tails. With global responsibilities, the fast-moving nature of modern warfare, the tyranny of distance and a paucity of ships, we no longer have the capability to “flood the zone” with sea power. Instead, the geographical advantages of interior lines will nearly always accrue to potential adversaries in far flung fastnesses.

To balance this advantage we have air power at sea, which, when combined with surface and subsurface power, add up to three dimensional maritime dominance.

We have had the “jeep carrier” discussion before, and even tried it out during WW II and Korea – but with the current fiscal constraints on total ship numbers, no one today wishes for less capability or capacity at sea than we currently have, and a ship half the size of a Nimitz-class carrier is easily less than half as capable. In any case, where would we ever find the money to build and man the escorts for these smaller, less capable ships?

The “Arsenal Ship” was an interesting design, much along the lines of Admiral Turner’s carrier replacement platform, but operationalizing this concept had severe limitations, and the idea did not survive the death of its main advocate. First, in the scale of conflict from peacetime operations to full scale war, there are many fine gradations along the way – and hopefully, many potential “off ramps.” A missile sitting in a silo or vertical launch cell over the horizon is binary – it is either off (sitting in its cell) or it is “on” (i.e., en route to a target). Regardless of their latent potential, missile ships at sea have nothing like the deterrent value in an “approach to hostilities” phase of a carrier air wing flying “training missions” just outside a country’s national airspace.

In a transition to hostilities, missiles also tend to have much less destructive force – smaller warheads, in other words – because they must also have aerodynamic bodies, guidance packages, control suites and fuel capacity than does a precision guided free fall weapon like a laser guided bomb or joint direct attack munition (JDAM). This means that you either have to content yourself with pinpricks, or else use so many missiles as to make the apparent cost savings much less attractive – attacking hardened targets with unhardened missiles is an exercise in noisy futility.

Finally, no computer yet designed or even envisioned has anything like the native processing power as the human brain – especially in support of fast-moving ground forces in a fluid land campaign: Close air support. If I was a soldier or Marine in trouble and I needed high explosive ordnance dropped danger close and in the next few minutes, I’d want to make sure the operator doing the dropping had his own eyeballs on me, and on the enemy, and I could hear it in his voice – unmanned aircraft will never fill this role.

The Global War on Terror is primarily a land campaign, augmented to a degree by tactical air from the sea or ashore, but mostly fought out in the shadows by “operators” and in the gray areas between engagment and destruction by young men with dusty boots, rifles and incredible responsibilities. If the GWOT was all we were ever going to do, the argument in favor of carrier aviation would be far less persuasive, but there were good reasons to maintain dominance in the maritime regime before the GWOT began in earnest, and those reasons have not gone away in the meantime.

There may indeed come a time when carrier air power is no longer required, but such an event must necessarily be preconditioned by all of us beating our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. The only other alternative perhaps would be when we have at last withdrawn from the rest of the world entirely.

No time soon, in other words.

“Whatever happens, we have got / the carrier group, and they have not.” — John Derbyshire, channeling Hilaire Belloc

 

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon

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