About the Series: As U.S. spending on defense declines, hard choices will need to be made to ensure the health of U.S. Armed Forces and their ability to promote and defend America’s interests. The Disruptive Defense Papers are designed to be hard-hitting arguments dealing with controversial issues in U.S. defense policy. The opinions in these papers are those of the authors, as CNAS does not take institutional positions.The first inning of the creative friction game is out, and its author is hail fellow well met, friend of the blog, and regular on Midrats - our own Captain Henry J. Hendrix, USN (Ph.D.) titled, "At What Cost a Carrier."
You need read it all. It has something for everyone; a bit of history, a bit of philosophy, a bit of number crunching, but more importantly it challenges you to think about your assumptions and to take a clear look at the hardness of facts and the tyranny of technology, speed, money, and distance in this line of work.
You don't have to agree with all of it - I don't - but that isn't the point. No one has the exactly right answer. Only through good, vigorous, open, and informed debate can each side push the center-point closer to the truth.
I would be remiss if I didn't give you at least a peak at what managed to get me to scribble in the margins, and here are a few points and observations I'd like to make, if Jerry would be so kind as to indulge me.
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 air power 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 are good reasons and bad reasons for that. You have to not only look at the vulnerabilities of the carrier - but also its capabilities. What can it do better than other assets, including the opportunity costs? If satellite imagery and long-range precision strike missiles are a game-ender, then why are so many nations working to get their own carriers? To kill other carriers? No. Not that, that is the job for a submarine. No, other nations see what we do with our carriers and want that, which is why so many nations are building them. There is your value proposition. Define what need it is meeting - and see if it is the best answer.
This report does just that;
This report explores the evolution of the aircraft carrier, its utility, power, costs and vulnerabilities, and then suggests a different course for U.S. naval forces, one that emphasizes far greater use of unmanned aircraft – generally described as UCAVs, for “unmanned combat aerial vehicles” – as well as submarines in combination with long range precision strike missiles.There you go.
Going back to the first pull quote, as far as threats to capital ships come, this is a long story that requires one to not have a static view of threat and counter battery. At one time or another in the last century or so, the torpedo boat was seen as the killer of capital ships for a farthing. The depth charge was to be the simple end to the submarine threat, then the homing torpedo. The Dreadnought was to sweep the seas of all, and after WWII, well ... the nuclear weapon was going to make all navies and conventional armies obsolete in the face of this epoch ending technological leap. Anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) was to be what the torpedo was supposed to be.
It didn't turn out quite that way ... it never does. Torpedoes and the boats above and below the surface that carry them, depth charges, gunned warships, ASCM, and even nuclear weapons have made their mark and have found their place ... but they only modified the rules of the game, not radically change them. Caution, informed caution. Never feel that what you have is the best, and don't put all your hope in the latest. Build a little, test a little, learn a lot - think even more.
The director of the Air Warfare Requirements Division and the program executive officer for aircraft carriers (two rear admirals) published an article arguing that cutting the carrier force would lead to a decrease in the U.S. maritime presence and that large deck carriers are necessary to meet the nation’s strategic objectives in the 21st century. They also argued that only carriers possess the global reach, sustained airpower and proof of purpose to influence the global arena and maintain the U.S. position in the world.The core of this argument parallels in many respects the CNO's "Payloads Over Platforms" discussion. Something for those two rear admirals to explain though is why TACAIR has painted themselves in to a flight deck of light fighters which - as the report outlines - significantly weakens the utility of the carrier as a strike platform in all but the most permissive environments. We once knew that - but in the budget battles and parochialism spawned by the end of the Cold Wart, we threw that institutional knowledge away.
...analysts have begun to lay the theoretical framework of a broader argument that persistent presence, even with low-end platforms, encourages conflict avoidanceSo we have the important question of scale of impact. Do 2 CVN have as much of an impact for conflict avoidance than 3 large-deck amphibs? 4? Also, if you have to transition from conflict avoidance to peace enforcement or open conflict - which platform in place gives you the most capability?
Given that the aircraft carrier is the benchmark for current naval presence missions, for the purposes of discussion, assume it has a presence value of 1.00 on a sliding scale where a riverine detachment, on the low end, has a value of 0.01. This means that the current acquisition cost of 1.00 presence is $13.5 billion, which raises the question of whether an alternative combination can achieve this level of presence at a lower cost. What is the presence value of a destroyer? Can one assign it a 0.2 presence value? Would spending $10 billion on five destroyers to create a 1.00 naval presence value at an operating cost of $1.8 million per day be a better investment? What about a littoral combat ship? Does its presence, bearing the Stars and Stripes, not assert American interests near a 0.10 presence score at a cost of $500 million apiece? Would not a $5 billion investment in 10 littoral combat ships, at a combined operating cost of $1.4 million per day – ships that could be present in many places simultaneously – not meet U.S. presence requirements more economically?Those are the questions that need to be asked, answered, and argued.
Though I like crunching numbers - spreadsheets and graphs are my favorite - you can argue numbers, but you need a starting point. This works for me.
The Nimitz-class carriers can generate approximately 120 sorties a day. The Ford-class carriers, with the new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), are projected to launch around 160 sorties per day, a 33 percent increase in launch capacity. This seems very impressive until one realizes that the USS George H.W. Bush, the last Nimitz carrier, cost $7 billion and the USS Gerald R. Ford is coming in at $13.5 billion. In the end, the nation is paying nearly 94 percent more for a carrier that can only do 33 percent more work. Even factoring in projected savings from reduced manning and lower maintenance costs, this investment is still not a good use of U.S. taxpayer money, especially given what U.S. sortie requirements are and what they are projected to be.Here is one of the "I think you may have missed a shift" moments I have with the report.
... the observation by Colin Powell – former secretary of state, national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – that modern warfare plays out under “Pottery Barn rules” (if you break it, you own it and you will pay to replace it). Reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan has cost the American taxpayer more than $109 billion since 2002. Future wars should be characterized by smaller target lists that emphasize discreetly interrupting capacities, not destroying them.I think things have changed. I get the sense that the experience of a decade of war started a shift in the American public and politicians. We have moved from the early '90s "CNN Effect" and Powell's rule what for a lack of a better description would be a neo-realist "French Rule" as roughly seen in recent Libyan and Mali operations. It is a mixture of colonial policing and punitive expeditions. A power sees a problem and says to the source of problem and the world, "You are a problem. You tire me, and in order to move you to the back page I am going to try to kill you and as many of your friends as possible. I am going to break your stuff, and then I am going to hand things over to my friends and your enemies to finish the rest. Besides that, not my problem. Stay in your hole and I'll leave you alone. Oh, and don't bother sending the bill."
The 19th century Russians understood this quite well, and as did we in our own way until the Progressive Era.
Though I find them a challenge and a tough tactical nut to crack - I'm not as set back on my heels by by the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and the hypersonic cruise missile - though I'm close.
... no weapon has captured the imagination of American naval strategists like the DF-21D missile. Using a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) placed on a CSS-5 missile, China’s Second Artillery Division states that its doctrine will be to saturate a target with multiple warheads and multiple axis attacks, overwhelming the target’s ability to defend itself. The MaRV warhead itself would use a high explosive, or a radio frequency or cluster warhead that at a minimum could achieve a mission kill against the target ship. While the United States does not know the cost of this weapons system, some analysts have estimated its procurement costs at $5 million to $11 million. Assuming the conservative, high-end estimate of $11 million per missile gives an exchange ratio of $11 million to $13.5 billion, which means that China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the United States builds going forward. U.S. defenses would have to destroy every missile fired, a tough problem given the magazines of U.S. cruisers and destroyers, while China would need only one of its weapons to survive to effect a mission kill. Although U.S. Navy and Air Force leaders have coordinated their escorts to develop the means to operate in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment by disrupting opposing operations, the risk of a carrier suffering a mission kill that takes it off the battle line without actually sinking it remains high.For the Chinese and others, saying it an doing it are two separate things. New threats are only a problem if one doesn't recognize it in time to counter the threat.
There is also a grand military tradition of bluffing your opponent in to thinking you are more dangerous than you are. King snakes and butterflies are masters of it. Just something to get your cool-headed intel guys on.
Back to UCAV. Unmanned systems need to be looked at as evolutionary, which is exactly what UCAV is. So much of the discussion about the UCAV falls in to a trap that so many have fallen in before – getting way ahead of the capability and over emphasizing their utility. We saw in with the previously mentioned nuclear weapons hype – something that every war from Korea to Afghanistan shows to an exaggeration.
We saw it with guided missiles, which from the F-4s over Vietnam to the British Fleet in the Falkland Islands showed their limited utility across the broad spectrum of tactical requirements. I think we are in danger of repeating that love of the new and shiny with UCAV. As I read it, the report supports a forward looking, but cautions approach. That is the way to go.
All these factors indicate that a turn toward UCAVs is long overdue. The advent of A2/AD technologies is pushing U.S. carrier strike groups farther from their targets, and the combat radius of the F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), is simply not going to solve that problem. One solution would be to cancel the always-troubled JSF now while simultaneously extending production of the lower-cost Hornets. That would allow the Navy to invest the nearly $70 million cost differential between the JSF and the F/A-18 in accelerating the development and production of a UCAV that could operate both from large carriers and from smaller, less expensive, light amphibious carriers. New Hornets operating from the legacy large carriers would allow the United States to meet its obligations in the near term while investment in UCAVs would begin the Navy’s pivot toward the new strategic environment. The new UCAVs would be flown only when operationally needed. UCAV pilots would maintain their currency in simulators, reducing personnel and operational costs and extending their airframes’ lives by decades.As UCAV and other unmanned systems are simply an evolution of an existing tool, they are not a replacement for most of the toolbox. As it stands right now, it is best looked at as a re-usable TLAM. It won’t really be what many want it to be for awhile, as until it has the capability to operate autonomously in an EMCON profile – it won’t be close to meeting the promise. The connectivity and electromagnetic spectrum leashes are just not acceptable in any but the most permissive environment. Any electron leaking out of a UCAV is like a sniper with a disco ball over his head. An UCAV unable through AI to have pre-planned evasive maneuvers is little more than a slow, modern, reusable V-1.
With caution, within a decade we should through UCAV have a good “door kicker” especially to go in areas where you don’t want a POW, but policy makers must have a clear-headed understand of its limitations and the very real handicap of not having a human in the cockpit. That too is both a capability, and a vulnerability.
Another limitation is cost. UCAV are not cheap and definitely should not be seen as expendable. Until we can get the performance and cost curves to cross in our favor, UCAV will be a bit too Tiffany, as the F-117 was in her age, to be any more than a support player. An important one, but just a support player and enabler.
UCAV performance on average is not earth shaking. Yes, it can take more G forces … but its situational awareness to know where to go to evade is just not there. There is a big difference between defensive air combat maneuvering and flailing around.
The last paragraphs of the report opens with a reminder of what made our Navy such an innovator – and something we should make sure we don’t lose.
An innovative culture has characterized the U.S. Navy throughout its history. The carrier had its day, but continuing to adhere to 100 years of aviation tradition, even in the face of a direct challenge, signals a failure of imagination and foreshadows decline. Money is tight, and as the nautical saying goes, the enemy has found our range. It is time to change course.I think it is too early to say the carrier’s day is over. Now, to say there needs to be more tools with different capabilities to meet changing requirements – that is spot on. Carriers are part of that, but the argument must be joined if there needs to be an adjustment to Fleet composition. To do it right, we must challenge inertia and established norms; break the intellectual adhesions and make sure we have the right answer to the right question.
Captain Hendrix's report is a nice shot across the forward CATS – and a solid starting point. Excellent job of being in the arena, Jerry.