Monday, June 10, 2019

The Truman Decision: There is History and Then There is History

We'll start this week with a response to last week's guest post by Bryan McGrath, from a man who should be very familiar to regulars here and Midrats; Robert C. (Barney) Rubel, Captain, USN (Ret).

As you will read below in a guest post from Captain Rubel, the pros and cons of the recent USS Truman refueling is bringing out some of our best minds to understand the argument. 

Barney, over to you.

Bryan McGrath, in his recent post concerning the Navy’s decision to forego refueling USS Truman, attempts to channel CP Snow’s book on the clash of the scientific and humanities cultures as a kind of strawman aimed at criticizing the decision. Contrasting the relative ability of history majors vs operations analysts in thinking broadly about the security environment, he attempts to show why America needs as many carrier battle groups as possible, in the process talking down those who assert the carrier’s vulnerability, asserting that history has refuted them time after time.

Now, truth be told, I was a beer major in college, scraping out a bachelor’s in liberal arts with the minimum required hours at the University of Illinois (anybody seen Risky Business?). The thing is, though, I actually lived some history as a young A-7 pilot aboard USS Independence back in late 1973 when the US Sixth Fleet faced down the Soviet Fifth Escadra in the context of the Yom Kippur War. The Soviets had 96 ships and we had 63. They had anti-ship cruise missiles and war-at-sea tactics and doctrine, we did not. Even as a nugget I could see that if it came to a fight, we were screwed. After that crisis blew over I became my squadron’s weapons and tactics officer and I worked for the next several years on anti-ship tactics. What I found was that even with a launch in the air it took almost 45 minutes to organize a strike against a Soviet formation whereas all they had to do was push a button.

Even with F-18s carrying LRASM, a carrier is way less responsive than a missile-armed surface combatant. So, the first thing a fleet commander does not want to do is place his carrier battle groups within hostile missile arcs during crisis or brink of war situation. When your threat sector is 360 degrees, I don’t care how good your defenses are, you will likely take hits, especially if you can’t fire first.

The history that Bryan cites is wrong; the assertions of carrier vulnerability have not been refuted because it has never come to an actual test. There have been cases of self-inflicted wounds such as on Enterprise and Forrestal, and in each case the crew reacted heroically to limit the damage. The contention has been that despite the damage those carriers were capable of operations within hours. Maybe they could have launched a few aircraft and recovered a few, but whether they could have continued to actually fight is quite another matter. The former USS America absorbed weeks of punishment from various weapons on a sinkex and still had to be scuttled. Again, this does nothing to prove the ship could have continued to be an effective fighting platform after receiving such hits. Remaining afloat and being combat effective are two different things. Because there has been no true test of naval combat we have continued to build carriers because, as Bryan says, they are outstanding presence platforms and they enjoy an almost legendary reputation. But it is well to remember that in 1944/45 the USN put dozens of carriers forward for operations within the range of Japanese land- based aircraft. Despite our carriers escaping harm at the Battle of the Philippine Sea due to excellent fighter defenses, many were subsequently damaged from Leyte onward to the end of the war.

In 2001 I was director of a small analysis cell within the Wargaming Department of the Naval War College. One day a faculty member, a retired Navy intel officer, came to me with a proposal to do an independent project concerning China’s buildup of ballistic missiles in the vicinity of Taiwan. What he proposed to do was count up all their missiles of various types and use this data to try and infer what kind of strategies might be available to them. I liked the idea and made that study his principal function. This led, over the years, to the formation of the Halsey Group, a student advanced research program that conducted iterative wargaming at the top secret level. They focused on high end war with China in various scenarios. I received outbriefs on their results every year for the next thirteen years. While I cannot share much of that information, I can say that it convinced me that the aircraft carrier is the wrong platform to use as the Navy’s principal offensive weapon in that scenario. I subsequently became director of wargaming and had the opportunity to design, direct, umpire and observe any number of games dealing with high end naval war. All of them, in various ways, supported this view. The latest game I observed was Global 8, a game in which Admiral Scott Swift brought key members of his Pacific Fleet staff to play. Again, it was a highly classified game, but I can say that it did not change my outlook on carriers. I contended in an article on wargaming I wrote a number of years ago that properly run wargames are a form of artificial military history. As such they are better evidence than broad assertions based on no test.

The bottom line on all this is that we really do not know how vulnerable aircraft carriers – as ships – are to modern anti-ship missiles. It is one thing to dash into Indian Country, make a strike and then bug out such as Enterprise and Hornet did for the Doolittle raid, and quite another to hang out continuously and support landings on Okinawa. We may wish for a quick, decisive engagement if war over Taiwan breaks out, but we have to be prepared for a drawn out slugfest; wars have a way of going on longer than anyone expects. In that case, the longer the carriers operate within Chinese threat rings, the better their chances of getting hit. If you think that there is no chance of them getting hit or if they do, they can shrug it off and keep fighting, then, in my estimation, which is not uninformed, you are mistaken.

But focusing solely on the hull does not address how vulnerable the airwing is to modern air defense systems. More history. I was a strike leader on USS Eisenhower during the 1980 hostage crisis. As we planned our contingency strikes we found that the Iranians had, among other US-furnished equipment, Hawk missiles. Turned out our warning gear could not see the Hawk continuous wave illumination radar. We ended up putting Fuzz Busters – which could see the Hawk - on our glare shields. However, the missile was good enough that if the Fuzz Buster went off, it just meant you had 20 seconds to live. Our losses would have been such that the wing would have been neutralized after maybe four strikes. Modern Russian SAMs are at least as good as the Hawk; probably much better. In order for the air wing to have any staying power, it will have to employ missiles from outside the considerable envelope of the S-300 and 400 systems, making the F-18 and F-35 expensive booster stages. Why not just use Tomahawk? Recent history shows a preference for Tomahawk strikes on defended targets.

Regarding the goods and others of the aircraft carrier as a presence platform, let me share some more personal history. In the summer of 1990 I was CO of VFA-131 aboard USS Eisenhower. We had been on cruise since February and it had been pretty much a love boat cruise compared to earlier ones I had made. The Soviet Union was in its death throes and everyone around Europe was glad to see us; pretty much in a celebratory mood. Even the French were welcoming. We put thousands of people through the Ike on tours during the Cannes film festival. Most all the crew wore their uniforms ashore in order to increase the chances they would be shanghai-ed by a delegation from a surrounding village, to be feted at a dinner. We were amazed at the reception but proud to show the flag.

Ike was in the Med pretty much due to the strategic momentum left over from the Cold War. Then on 2 August Iraq invaded Kuwait. Within two days we were dispatched to the Red Sea via the Suez Canal. It was eerie as we transited, watching Egyptian MIGs fly cover for us. We were convinced that Saddam would continue south into Saudi Arabia and expected to launch strikes as soon as we issued out the south end of the canal. The Air Force already had F-15s in Riyadh and tankers in Jeddah. The night of the transit we planned our strikes. The best we could come up with, even with USAF tanking, was six aircraft continuously in the Kuwait Theater of Operations, it being almost 700 miles from the ship’s position. At that point Saddam had hundreds of aircraft at his disposal, so the odds looked pretty bad.

We figured that in an all-out fight the wing could sustain losses for three, maybe four days and still have some effect. On the positive side, we were the only game in town from a US perspective. Although the Air Force quickly had jets on the scene, it took them over a week to get ammo up from the storage bunkers down in the UAE. We showed up ready on arrival to operate for at least a week at full bore. USS Independence, operating just outside Hormuz, was farther from the KTO than us; not being able to enter the Gulf because the stub oil platforms had not been surveyed, and hitting a semi-submerged one would be worse than hitting a mine.

But nothing happened. Perhaps our arrival dissuaded him from going further. My shipmates and I like to think so, but it is impossible to say. As the weeks went by, additional carriers showed up, and the Navy decided to send us back to Norfolk in September. The Navy invested six carriers in the operation and planners knew there would be an aftermath to whatever happened in Kuwait. Ike had been on cruise almost eight months at that point and needed maintenance before going back out. If SECDEF wanted a carrier presence in the region after a war, Ike needed to come home. In fact, the war disrupted carrier deployment cycles for several years after. Carriers need lots of maintenance, and any perturbation to the deployment cycle creates readiness ripples and not in a good way.

So let’s review the bidding. On the good side, the Ike was a marvelous naval diplomacy platform, more impressive than anything else the US could deploy. When called to respond to a crisis, she was there in a couple of days and ready to fight in a sustained way with no footprint on the ground in a sensitive country. This is why presidents ask where the carriers are when trouble arises. On the down side, there were very real limits to what the air wing could bring to bear. If the issue could be handled by a one-time Eldorado Canyon-like strike, we were good to go; if the situation required a sustained air campaign in which losses occurred, then a single carrier was not enough. In any case, we needed Air Force refueling in order to reach the area of operations.

Same deal later in OEF. What allowed us to plan for even six aircraft at the end of our “chainsaw” operation was the fact that there was no appreciable threat to the carrier. Had there been real threat (rumors of a missile-toting Lear Jet aside) a significant portion of the air wing would have been tied up in defending the battle group. My point is that as a presence platform the CVN has many advantages, but some very real limitations. Carrier proponents – ones who have not been, say, strike leaders - tend to overlook the details. They assume the CVNs can be moved around the geopolitical chessboard like queens. In an age where the Russians can sell highly sophisticated, land-launched anti-ship missiles to anyone, the limitations start tipping the balance scale toward the others.

Now let me be clear as I can on all this. Saying that the carrier should not be the Navy’s principal offensive weapon in a potential war at sea versus China is not the same as saying they are obsolete or that we should not buy the Ford Class – or even that we should not refuel Truman. What it does mean is that the Navy must come up with a new fleet design for the specific purpose of fighting for sea control in East Asia. In that design I envision the Ford Class – once the bugs have been worked out – as a key enabler for the Navy’s distributed maritime operations (DMO) force, uniquely able to support long-range, high-endurance unmanned aircraft that will perform a number of critical functions. A new air superiority fighter (son of Tomcat?) will keep the DMO force, including the P-8s and MQ-4s, from being shot up by Chinese aircraft. Elsewhere in the world, Nimitz Class CVNs will continue to provide credible US presence. But how many CVNs should we have? Elsewhere I believe Bryan has said, and I agree with him, that we live in a 15 carrier world. If you think about the assessment of goods and others in the previous paragraphs, you can quickly conclude that CVNs should operate at least in pairs. Thirty would thus be a reasonable number. That said, how many can we actually have? Here Bryan and I disagree.

Bryan’s post makes a tacit assumption; that Congress will eventually produce a budget that will support both an 11 carrier fleet and development of the DMO force. So far, there is no indication that is the case, which is why the Navy elected to trade Truman for development of DMO platforms. Certainly there was some number crunching involved, but in the end it was a decision based on forward-looking strategic judgment. In my view, the US cannot afford to let China successfully invade Taiwan or militarily enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea. If we cave or are driven off, our credibility will be shot and we will be faced with either becoming tributary to China in their version of a new global system or we will have to escalate, probably to nuclear weapons. In 1973 we discussed running west through the Straits of Sicily to get to TACSIT III; untargeted and unlocated. However, that would have ceded the Eastern Med to the Soviets. If we had stood and fought we would have lost two, maybe three carriers. The NCA would have been faced with the unappetizing choice of ceding the Eastern Med or escalating, probably to nuclear. If we had had a DMO-style force we could have faced down the Soviet fleet with confidence. The USN, along with the other Services, MUST be able to win a conventional war at sea in East Asia, and that means a DMO force. That strategic imperative, combined with very real budget limitations, is behind the Truman decision, math or no math.

If Congress coughs up extra funds to refuel Truman, so much the better. If the Navy has to eat the cost, our strategic risk level will go up considerably, as we could find ourselves, as in 1973, ill-equipped to face the naval threat that pops up and as in 1980 when entering certain air defense zones was virtual suicide. That is history rhyming, and I don’t like the sound of it. I may not have majored in history, but I have sure as hell lived it.

Robert C. (Barney) Rubel, Captain, USN (Ret) is a Professor Emeritus at the U.S. Naval War College.

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