The Aircraft Carrier’s Enduring Relevance

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Written by Eric Sayers, Contributor

98185350The recent announcement from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, following an intense defense strategy review, that the U.S. Navy will continue to operate a fleet of 11 nuclear-power aircraft carriers (CVN) was a welcomed one, but it came as no surprise. For seven decades the carrier has served as the “capitol ship” of the U.S. Navy, routinely adjusting to the prevailing security environment to offer decision-makers a range of diplomatic and strategic advantages. Now, as new challenges to the carrier have developed like the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), another round of carrier innovation is necessary to ensure American presidents will continue to demand “where are the carriers?” when a crisis arises.

The carrier’s enduring utility can be attributed to its range, operational flexibility, and modularity. First, a CVN provides U.S. policymakers with unlimited range and mobility. In an unpredictable and competitive global environment, America’s 11-carrier fleet gives it the capacity to deploy two or three carriers to the Pacific and Indian Oceans at the same time. This provides the President a constant symbol of strength to project America’s intentions to both friends and competitor states during, for example, missile tests on the Korean Peninsula, tensions in the Straits of Hormuz, or elections in Taiwan.

The CVN’s operational flexibility can help balance America’s critical need for overseas bases with the diplomatic and geopolitical challenges often associated with maintaining overseas basing rights. Indeed, the Pentagon’s new Joint Operational Access Concept identifies the pressures on America’s overseas defense posture as one of the three trends affecting its ability to gain access to areas contested by competitor’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. A carrier’s ability to freely operate in international waters allows it to surge to a regional crisis when called on and then withdrawing quietly when tensions subside.

Finally, the modularity of the carrier platform ensures its continued adaptability to emerging threat environments. Traditionally, a carrier fleet has operated as a regional strike platform that can project its power with short-range tactical aircraft. For instance, tactical strike-fighters were used during the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). But despite the carrier’s clear utility in theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq, some defense analysts have doubted its survivability in anti-access/area-denial environments. Sophisticated competitors like the People’s Republic of China are developing the means to harness the power of anti ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) that can strike at naval assets at ranges up to 1,500 km from its coast, placing constraints on Washington’s freedom for action. Several defense analysts have gone so far as to call this development a “game changer” for U.S. defense policy in the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, even with the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on its deck, the carrier would have to remain in range of future Chinese ASBM to project its power into the western Pacific.

To overcome this dilemma the U.S. should not disqualify the carrier the way some have suggested. Instead, a carrier’s modularity can be exploited by rearranging the mix of aircraft on its deck. Along with F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets and F-35B JSF, the Navy aims to deploy an Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft with a combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles or more sometime in the early 2020s. According to the Under Secretary of the Navy, Robert Work, this would “transform a U.S. aircraft carrier from a system with unlimited global mobility and relatively short tactical reach into a multipurpose global reconnaissance strike-platform.” Perhaps more important, a UCLASS aircraft with the ability to strike targets at such extended ranges could reduce the strategic advantage offered by an ASBM, thus calling into question the PRC’s investment in the anti-ship technology.

In the decade ahead the UCLASS program will face many hurdles, including escaping the $489 billion in defense cuts levied on the Department of Defense by the Budget Control Act of 2011. But the promise of the UCLASS program should be considered on par with the early 20th century leap from 20-nm battleship gun battles to carrier air strikes from 300 nm. Just like during this period of innovation and transition, civilian and military leaders will have to lead the Navy forward into a future where new technologies will again transform the service’s core capabilities.

Eric Sayers is the Military Legislative Assistant to a Congressman on the House Armed Services Committee. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s March/April edition.