UPDATE with Forbes statement WASHINGTON: At $4.7 billion over budget, Ford-class aircraft carriers have taken a beating in Congress. This morning, though, the House Seapower subcommittee chairman will roll out a report from the conservative Hudson Institute that’s a ringing defense of the carrier — but which also contains a stinging indictment of the aircraft that fly from it. The report calls for upgrading current multi-mission planes for longer range and building multiple new types of more specialized aircraft, potentially including two different models of UCLASS drone.
Nuclear-powered super-carriers are irreplaceable, co-author Bryan McGrath told me, and the Ford is a good design. But, he said, “the air wing will have to be completely rethought…to win and deter the war we cannot lose.”
That’s also the war we often dare not name: a war with China. “What bothered me was the degree to which there was a self-evident, high-end argument that was not getting made by the Navy,” McGrath said. “So I, with my partners at Hudson, said, ‘we’re going to have to do this for them.'”
Rep. Randy Forbes, the House Seapower chairman who’ll headline tomorrow’s roll-out, has frequently criticized the executive branch for pussyfooting around the Chinese threat. While a strongly partisan Republican, Forbes takes congressional oversight seriously and once hammered a Bush administration official for 22 minutes just to get him to admit Chinese espionage was a problem.
One of Forbes’s favorite stories about such self-censorship concerns “a very good personal friend” he otherwise much admires, former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. “When they were at the War College, they had a young officer stand up and ask them in a very, very sincere way, how do we talk about Chinese competition?” Forbes recounted Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation. “The admiral said to even talk about China as a competitor goes across the line and goes too far.”
The Navy’s current case for carriers is the Islamic State. For 54 days until allies okayed the use of land bases, only carrier-based aircraft could strike targets in Iraq and Syria. But you don’t need the Ford for that, McGrath said.
“If all you wanted to do was sit off some Third World nation and plink targets 12 hours a day, you wouldn’t need a $12.9 billion aircraft carrier,” said McGrath. “In order to really talk about why $12.9 billion is worthwhile… the opponent that makes that investment most worthwhile is China.”
That argument’s pretty counterintuitive in national security circles. The conventional wisdom is that carriers are great for projecting American airpower around the world, just as long as nobody can shoot you down or sink you. If the enemy has long-range, precision-guided anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons, plus the sensors and networks to target them — what’s often called “anti-access/area denial” or A2/AD — you can kiss your carriers goodbye.
That’s precisely wrong, McGrath argued. The A2/AD threat makes the carrier more relevant. “If you think that the aircraft carrier is vulnerable,” he said, “what is the word you use to describe First Island Chain airbases” — i.e. islands within range of China — “that don’t move at 40 miles an hour?” Land-based aircraft, like Air Force fighters, are going to be bombed out of their bases in short order by salvoes of long-range missiles. So, he said, “if you hope to have tactical air power to do all the things the joint force needs” — defeat enemy fighters, escort friendly bombers flying from intact, distant bases, and so on — “the only way you’re going to have it available is from the aircraft carrier.”
(The implicit criticism of the Air Force here, McGrath acknowledged, is another reason why the Navy can’t make such arguments in public).
That said, the report hardly recommends sailing aircraft carriers into the East China Sea on day one of a war. To the contrary, “just after the shooting starts…aircraft carriers and surface ships are likely to be brought back beyond the range of the hardest of the A2/AD weapons,” McGrath told me. “The submarines will then go in, and [Air Force] long-range bombers with long range weapons, and they will do the business of creating opportunity by taking out ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capability, creating pockets of reduced risk to operate.”
Note that word, “pockets.” You don’t try to bring the whole A2/AD defense down so the carriers can return to their standard offshore circling, launching a steady stream of airstrikes. Instead, the report advocates “pulse” tactics. Once other forces tear a hole in the A2/AD defense, several carriers and their escorts race into it, launch a few huge raids, and then get out. Essentially, the report acknowledges, this is a massive hit and run attack.
The Navy will need new kinds of training to figure this out, McGrath said. “We haven’t operated multiple aircraft carriers in an integrated manner in my memory,” he said. Carriers might operate near one another and split up targets, but they don’t mass their air wings together as a single striking force.
The air wing is the carrier’s main weapon and it’s also the main target of the report’s critique. The big problem is short range. As long as they can get mid-air refueling — mainly provided by vulnerable Air Force tankers — F-18 Hornets from a carrier in the Indian Ocean can hit targets in Afghanistan. Without aerial refueling — all too probable in high-threat airspace — “the striking range of a modern aircraft carrier is about what it was in World War II,” McGrath said.
The Navy’s standard F-18 Hornet can hit targets roughly 600 miles from the carrier without refueling. Against China, that’s not enough: Chinese anti-ship missiles like the DF-21 and DF-26 have ranges between 2,000 to 2,500 miles. As a result, “the air wing is what drives much of the carrier’s vulnerability,” McGrath said. “If we create… an air wing that buys some of that range back, then the aircraft carrier operates in a less risky profile,” striking from greater and safer distances.
Central to this long-range future air wing is the UCLASS drone, Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance & Strike. There’s been a fierce debate over whether UCLASS should be optimized for long-duration surveillance patrols, with strike secondary — the Navy’s position — or for deep-penetration strikes, with surveillance secondary — the position of Rep. Forbes and Sen. John McCain. McGrath and his colleagues say that we need both, even if that means buying two kinds of UCLASS aircraft.
“I had been for the longest time a strike-oriented-UCLASS guy,” McGrath said. “We have plenty of surveillance with P-8 [Poseidon] and [MQ-4C Triton, aka] BAMS.” But while writing this report, he said, he realized the Poseidons and Tritons are unstealthy, unmaneuverable, vulnerable aircraft that might not be make it from their distant land bases to provide surveillance inside an A2/AD zone. That puts a premium on a survivable scout drone that can fly from the carrier itself.
Two kinds of UCLASS would be just a start. The Navy has spent decades getting rid of specialized airplanes — the S-3 Viking sub-hunter, the F-14 Tomcat interceptor — in favor of multi-purpose fighter-bombers, the F-18 and future F-35. But it’s time to bring back the specialists, the report argues. For example, the next Navy fighter, the still-notional F/A-XX, needs to be a thoroughbred air superiority machine rather than a fighter-bomber.
UCLASS, F/A-XX, and “sea control” sub-hunters make a formidable shopping list, especially in a time of sequestration. Even in flush budget times, it would take decades to implement the new air wing. But then aircraft carriers are proverbial for how long they take to turn around.
UPDATE“Carriers provide our commanders with an unrivaled range of options, but both the ships and their air wings need to evolve to stay ahead of changes in the security environment,” Rep. Forbes said in a statement to Breaking Defense praising the report. “The Navy has given a great deal of thought to the future of the carrier and its air wing, but it is critically important to have independent experts offering their own insights about the capabilities and concepts we will need.”