Pentagon budget battles inevitably bring out the long knives. But in the age of sequestration absolute lunacy has taken over. Left-leaning and libertarian think tanks as well as pundits of various stripes have declared open season on our Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers and the carrier strike group (CSG) concept, calling them outdated and obsolete in light of current threats.
Some politicians agree with them. These pols see the high cost of building and operating carriers as a pot of gold to be raided to pay for everything else they can think of, and they can think of a lot of ways to spend tax dollars. And it’s not just the carriers they want to defund. Many see themselves as the next Sun Tzu or Mahan so they frequently target the high priced heart of each service’s core capability, seeking to replace it with supposedly better and cheaper (albeit unproven) ways of warfighting. They do so at our nation’s peril.
In 1897, Mark Twain joked that reports of his death were exaggerated. The same should be said today of reports of the demise of aircraft carriers/carrier strike groups as effective warfighting platforms.
If the anti-carrier pundits have it right, the development of anti-ship missiles by nations such as China, with range exceeding the combat radius of carrier-based strike aircraft, marks the end of carrier naval warfare. The carrier’s demise is fortuitous, they argue, as its costs are clearly unaffordable. They are very mistaken.
While the carrier’s reputation is increasingly maligned in some circles, the carrier strike group remains the fastest way to deploy American forces — whether in a show of force or a real fight — that America has or is likely to develop. The only alternative is to build, arm, man, and maintain foreign bases around the world forever at a cost that would probably be far higher than what it costs to keep our CSGs on patrol.
Carriers have been efficiently pumping strike aircraft into U.S. war efforts and they have been the most used naval platform in actual combat operations since WWII. Our nuclear carrier strike groups represent the singular warfighting capability that distinguishes the U.S. Navy from all others. Carriers have provided sustained peacetime presence and have been first-on-scene for nearly every crisis over the past 75 years; where and when needed without the fiscal and political investment required for shore basing.
To have an honest discussion about the cost of carriers, critics should balance the investment with the value, versatility, and combat capability they represent. Putting cost in context, over the past 50 years the cost of buying a new aircraft carrier has risen at about the same average annual escalation rate as a Ford F-150 truck. The aircraft carrier is expensive, but its capabilities are numerous. The platform is huge, dense with technology, and serves for 50 years. On a pound for pound cost basis, carriers are one of the least expensive ships the Navy buys.
In today’s world it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure shore basing rights in critical regions. Our use of them has sometimes been denied by host countries during contingency operations. And where predictions of which regions will be critical for future operations are often incorrect, shore basing has not provided the capability to rapidly relocate carrier forces that CSGs have. While the potential vulnerability of our mobile CSGs must be considered — and those threats dealt with — it would be far more responsible to our national security and defense strategy to do that rather than scrapping one of the most capable weapon systems we’ve ever had without otherwise providing an equivalent capability with something else.
Much of the recent carrier criticism arises from predictions that the Chinese DF-21 missile’s long range will keep CSGs from the high-end fight (meaning anything goes except nuclear weapons). But high end warfare is significantly more complex than simple range comparison, and Navy leadership has made clear that tactics and technology are in hand and in development to deny targeting of the battle group and to provide defensive weapons capable of destroying or disabling the threat. That’s why our next carrier — the USS Gerald Ford — has a growth margin built into it to absorb these future capabilities.
Some think tanks suggest we should replace the strike capacity provided by carriers with cruise missiles from surface ships and submarines. Cruise missiles from surface ships and submarines are certainly a part of the strike warfare equation and when they are combined with carrier air wing ordnance that provides alternative capability and capacity not provided by cruise missiles, the CSG provides unmatched capability and sustained operations at sea across a full range of military operations. Additionally, the air wing better addresses the implementation of complex and nuanced rules of engagement that are scenario dependent.
The value proposition of the CSG rests in its ability to provide a broad range of credible capabilities to any theater. It is supported by a robust command and control complex that is key to success in any conflict or natural disaster. It performs many important missions that simply cannot be accomplished by other assets. It is not dependent upon extensive footprints ashore, it does not require permission from others when in international waters and airspace, it is not as locatable as fixed targets ashore, it is not an occupying force that stays — it is a force that is flexible, sustainable, and self-deployable.
Current views of the demise of the carrier clearly do not consider all the facts and perpetuate a dangerous fantasy that future conflicts will be prevented and wars won from a standoff sanctuary. The value that the CSG provides in maintaining peace and fighting wars is an investment that our country must be committed to continue if we wish to maintain our role as a world leader. Killing the carrier without substituting a successor weapon system that provides all its capabilities including speed of deployment would be enormously dangerous to our nation’s defense.