Home » Aviation » Opinion: It’s Time to Rethink U.S. Carrier CONOPS

Opinion: It’s Time to Rethink U.S. Carrier CONOPS

USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) on May 20, 2016. US Navy

USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) on May 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

There has been a lively debate in recent years over whether the appurtenance of American military might—the supercarrier—will be rendered irrelevant, even obsolescent, by the burgeoning anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems of the likes of China and Russia should war ever break out between them and Washington. This state of affairs is not helped by a glaring capability shortfall the U.S. Navy faces currently and in the foreseeable future: the lack of a carrier-based deep-strike aircraft due to the relatively short “legs” of its mainstay Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet attack fighter as well as the upcoming Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

The Navy’s A2/AD Quandary

The Hornet has a combat radius of about 500 nautical miles and the JSF is only marginally better at 550 nm. The upshot is that their mother ships would have to operate well within the A2/AD envelope of a potential adversary such as China during a conflict. After all, the People’s Republic is said to possess anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) that can hit targets “exceeding 1,500km (810 nm) away.” To overcome that problem, defense experts have been exhorting the development of a long-range, stealthy unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of operating in high-threat environments—a highly chimerical notion considering the infancy of unmanned technology.

An F-35C Lightning II carrier variant, into a 45-degree dive during an external GBU-12 weapons separation test February 18, 2016. US Navy Photo

An F-35C Lightning II carrier variant, into a 45-degree dive during an external GBU-12 weapons separation test February 18, 2016. US Navy Photo

Seen in that light, the Navy’s recent rescindment of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft program and the move to replace it with the Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System initiative (which is now known as the MQ-25A Stingray) is hardly surprising. As one defense commentator noted, the talk about fully combat-capable carrier-based UAVs is purely theoretical as the lone stealthy aircraft on carrier decks in 2030 would realistically be only the F-35C.

Hence, the Navy being encumbered with a short-ranged Sunday Punch in the coming years, how best then could its much-vaulted supercarriers stay relevant in combat against near-peer adversaries? The aforementioned commentator argued that American carriers would do well to learn to “fight while under attack,” whereby advanced capabilities such as the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air network are fully exploited. That would certainly help—but only at the tactical level of war. At the doctrinal level, which is just as important if not more so, the panacea for the Navy’s A2/AD dilemma arguably lies in a reassessment of the current carrier strike group (CSG) concept of operations (CONOPS).

Re-examine the Role of the Flat-top


A Tomahawk cruise missile hits a moving maritime target Jan. 27 after being launched from the USS Kidd (DDG-100) near San Nicolas Island in California. US Navy Photo

A Tomahawk cruise missile hits a moving maritime target Jan. 27 after being launched from the USS Kidd (DDG-100) near San Nicolas Island in California. US Navy Photo

Key to that endeavor is the need to reassess the primacy of the aircraft carrier in U.S. naval doctrine. The vessel has been the “Queen of the Waves” for more than 70 years, having supplanted the big-gunned battleship in that role during World War II. It is worth noting that prior to 1942, American naval planners delineated the carrier to play a supporting role to the battle fleet: its planes were to scout for enemy battleships and attack them if possible so as to “soften” them for one’s own battle fleet to deliver the coup de grâce. However, during the course of WWII, the flat-top came to provide an order-of-magnitude upsurge in striking reach over the dreadnought. Ever since, the carrier has been the primus inter pares of warships with the surface fleet largely acting as its protective screen.


The advent of the long-range Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (TLAM) and its deployment on the American cruiser-destroyer (CRUDES) force is on the cusp of upsetting the current carrier-surface ship dynamic with some commentators arguing that the relationship could come full circle since WWII if cruise-missile platforms were to overshadow carriers during an actual war. U.S. naval planners would do well to bear that in mind. After all, the latest variant of the TLAM can hit targets some 900 nm away—a considerable edge over the 500-odd nm range of U.S. carrier strike aircraft. While a CSG stationed 900 nm off China’s coast is probably still within Beijing’s ASBM deployment envelope, the carrier force could now operate at the outer limits of that envelope, and thus reduce its susceptibility to that uniquely Chinese weapon. Moreover, operating much farther out from the enemy coast reduces the threat posed by shorter-ranged platforms such as medium-attack planes, coastal craft and diesel-electric submarines.

In addition, the introduction of the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) to the U.S. CRUDES fleet in the coming years could further enhance the survivability of American naval forces engaging a near-peer enemy. This is because the reach of the 500 nm-ranged weapon could be doubled by reducing the size of its 1000-pound warhead but without adversely decreasing its capabilities, as one eminent naval analyst has argued. Equipped with such a modified LRASM, any Navy force would operate even farther out from the enemy in an access-denial milieu.

All that being said, what is needed, therefore, is for the Navy’s leadership to consider—blasphemous as it may sound—a new concept of operations based on the notion that the large-deck carrier could be superseded by its cruise missile-armed consorts in a fight against near-peer opponents. This new CONOPS should see the designation of the CRUDES force as “first day(s) of war” platforms, with the carriers playing a supporting role during the opening blows of the conflict. To that end, the flat-top would carry out air superiority, scouting and other duties to facilitate the CRUDES force firing its TLAMs, as well as to enable the U.S. Air Force’s deep-strike missions. Indeed, the carrier would enter the fray only after the enemy’s metaphorical A2/AD “door” has been “kicked down” with the softening of enemy defenses by the missile shooters.

Seen in that light, the flat-top would no longer be the warp and woof of U.S. naval doctrine during a high-intensity conflict—at least during the initial stages; its escorts would, ironically. All in all, the carrier-surface ship dynamic in this concept of operations would be poignantly characterized by symbiosis more than ever as there would be an imperative for both platforms to mutually support one another during the different stages of a counter-A2/AD campaign.

Minimizing Detection is Also Key

A naval soldier of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) views through a pair of binoculars onboard China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning as it visits a military harbour on the South China Sea. Xinhua Photo

A naval soldier of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) views through a pair of binoculars onboard China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning as it visits a military harbour on the South China Sea. Xinhua Photo

Allied with this revised doctrinal role of carriers in the new CONOPS would be the need to minimize detection. To be sure, stressing the centrality of cruise missile-armed platforms would put the USN farther out of harm’s way in an access-denial environment, but the latter would still be within the engagement zone of the adversary’s long-range missiles and bombers. As such, there is a need to reduce enemy detection so as to improve the friendly force’s survivability in the area of operations.

The doyen of naval tactics, retired Navy Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, maintains in his groundbreaking book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat that being able to attack effectively first is the “great naval maxim of tactics,” adding that the principle should be regarded as the “very essence of tactical action for success in naval combat.” Looking at this argument from the other side of the coin, by reducing one’s detectability, the friendly force would be able to forestall the enemy getting in the first shot. And operating dispersed and under emission control (EMCON) would go a long way toward achieving that. The Navy should take a cue from two operating concepts it experimented with from the 1950s to the 1970s: Haystack and UPTIDE.

Simply put, the Haystack concept involved American warships operating dispersed with reduced communications and utilizing deception to mitigate the threat posed by Soviet bombers and submarines. Ditto UPTIDE (Unified Pacific Fleet Project for Tactical Improvement and Data Extraction), which incorporated lessons gleaned from the Haystack exercises. The two operating concepts from the height of the Cold War are highly relevant today as they show that the Navy was able to operate in a similar, non-permissive milieu with a reasonable degree of success.

To be sure, hiccups—especially in the realm of communications—surfaced during the Haystack and UPTIDE exercises, but that is hardly surprising considering that strict EMCON was practiced during those maneuvers. With assiduous practice and fine-tuning, however, mitigating those problems should be possible. All in all, any new American naval CONOPS concerning carriers should incorporate the insights derived from Haystack and UPTIDE and adapt them to suit 21st century realities. Doing so would no doubt stand the Navy in good stead in an A2/AD environment.

The Way Ahead

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Black Aces of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 41 takes off of USS John C. Stennis' (CVN-74) on May 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Black Aces of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 41 takes off of USS John C. Stennis’ (CVN-74) on May 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

In sum, the concept of operations for the Navy as proposed offers a viable amelioration of its anti-access/area-denial conundrum. By stressing the centrality of platforms carrying long-range cruise missiles, it could operate its assets farther from harm’s way. And putting into practice operating concepts to reduce detection by the enemy would accentuate the survivability of friendly forces.

Armed forces are inherently conservative and dyed-in-the-wool entities, the Navy being no exception. In the face of emerging threats that could seriously undermine America’s hallowed large-deck carriers, Navy brass should do some serious evaluation and consider measures that could genuinely address the problem. That being said, the crux of the proposed CONOPS—the ostensibly heretical relegation of the carrier to play second fiddle to the cruiser/destroyer force—would undoubtedly ruffle many feathers in the naval aviation fraternity. Indeed, if the doctrinal role of the flat-top were really to be reassessed as suggested, the term “carrier strike group” would probably a bit of misnomer, given that the carrier would have to share the title of being Numero Uno with its consorts.

That begs the question: Would then we see the day when the pre-eminent American naval entity is a “missile strike group” rather than a carrier strike group? Given the current dominance of the “brown shoes” (aviation) community over that of the “black shoes” (surface fleet) in the Navy, it seems unlikely. However, it is noteworthy that a roughly similar situation—when black shoes held sway over brown ones—existed on the eve of WWII, and the rest, as they say, is history.


    Bring back a squadron of Grumman A-6E Intruder “Bomb Trucks” from Davis Mothan and deploy them to send a “message” to the Russians and ChiComs that an Aircraft Carrier can still have “Reach” if needed.

    • USNVO

      Sorry, can’t happen. Everyone seems to forget that the A-6E was sent out to pasture because it had severe cracking and fatigue issues that couldn’t be replaced without a complete airframe replacement. The service life had been lowered to 2400 flight hours and most of the fleet was close or already beyond the mark when the aircraft was retired. Besides, the aircraft at the boneyard have been stripped for parts for almost 20years to keep the Prowlers flying.

  • Please verify something other than years old info listing the F-35C radius as 550nm. 20k of internal fuel for one engine…….. The F-14 with that same fuel load and 2 engines went farther. I highly doubt the F135 engine burns that much gas.

    • Joey Gibson

      The F-14 was lighter by nearly 15,000 pounds and carried more that 2k more fuel than the F-35…The 35 can also carrier a larger payload than the 14. That being said…..I would bring the 14 back….Upgrade it and put one squadron in each CVW.

      • Maybe empty weight, but the F-35 will be clean, The F-14 at the end of its life left the carrier at 69k lbs mission weight when carrying a heavy bomb load. The F-14, which I agree should still exist in an updated ASF-14 or AST-21 form, has a larger area and should generate more surface drag, especially with external load. There’s a no way a clean F-35C will be held to 550nm radius. It should easily reach or extend beyond A-6 and F-14 ranges.

        • Joey Gibson

          Seeing the “Bomb Cat” take off was a sight to see. 4 AIM-9’s and the rest were MK-82’s, 83’s, and 84’s with the occasional MK-20 cluster bomb. Total launch weight of 70,000 to 72,000 pounds.

          • publius_maximus_III

            Interesting that photo included of the PLAN sailor on his “new” (old Russian) ski slope deck aircraft carrier. They’re quickly learning that such an approach can get an aircraft launched into the air, just without any weapons hanging from its wings, i.e. a Toothless Tiger.

            For the real deal, a catapult (steam or electric) or VTOL is the only way to go.

      • As per the LM site, the F-35C radius is listed as “greater than” 600nm. and the range is merely double that. It carries only 800lbs of fuel less all internal than an F-14 with external tanks. Again, we’re not publicly talking about it but the F-35C should have a range that very few carrier aircraft have ever seen.

      • sferrin

        “The F-14 was lighter by nearly 15,000 pounds and carried more that 2k more fuel than the F-35”

        On this planet the F-14 was significantly heavier than the F-35 and carried about 3k LESS than the F-35.

        • Joey Gibson

          You just might want to look up the specs.

          • sferrin

            I have. Many times. That’s why I said you were living in Fairytale Land. F-14D maxes out at 74,349lbs and change with about 16,500lbs internal fuel. The F-35C maxes out at 70,000lbs with 19,000lbs internal fuel. The F-14D has an empty weight of 43,735lbs. The F-35C 34,800lbs. You would know that if you had ever, you know, looked up the specs. Next.

          • USNVO

            Why would some one look up the specifications when “everyone” knows that the F-14 was a “long” range fighter while the F-35C is a “short” range fighter. Just look at CAPT Hendrix’s paper on CVW range, the only aircraft with a quoted combat radius was the F-35C which then somehow morphed into an identical combat range. They must be the same thing, right? Shoot, even the “short” range F-35B has a 450NM combat radius which is just below the 500NM combat radius quoted for the F-14.

      • muzzleloader

        The only Tomcats left are the B+C models which number around 60 aircraft. The A models were scrapped not long after they were retired. The A’s were truly worn out. As for the A-3’s they still have half their airframe life left, plus the TF-34 overhaul facility at FRC Jacksonville is still in business.

        • Nope. A’s were decommed in 2004. Bs in 2004-5, and the last 2 D squadrons in OCt 2005. Only acknowledged F-14s still “flying” are the airframes in iran.

          • muzzleloader

            When I say 60 aircraft left, I mean those parked in the desert. I am well aware that the USN is no longer in the Tomcat business.

          • I see now. We have less than 10 left in the boneyard. I think 7? might be the accurate or maybe even 4. They’re museum pieces. One is the remaining VF-32 MiG killer F-14A. Theres one D and maybe 2 Bs left, as of March IIRC. Everything else is soda cans and razor blades sadly.

    • Scott Anderson

      Combat range is 615 mile while its flight range is 1379 miles. These are the Program Mangers estimates.

      • I appreciate the look up. But I’m highly skeptical of this. It’s like saying a B-52 has an effective radius of 800 miles because its 8 motors burn a lot of gas. I can’t imagine a clean airframe, though heavy with nearly 20k of fuel for one powerful motor, has such poor performance. The math doesn’t add up unless it cruises at an AoA of 10 degrees or some other ridiculous mandated high drag flight profile.

  • vincedc

    I think Mr. Beng is confusing tactical and strategic missions. No one is going to attack mainland China with a few squadrons of Super Hornets. When we get to that part of the war, the SSBNs have already done their job. Today’s carriers are for proxy wars and low intensity conflict. They do a great job. World War III will play by a different set of rules.

    • Tim Ryan

      “Today’s carriers are for proxy wars and low intensity conflict” and for choking off China’s maritime supply routes far removed from the A2AD bubble. US technology is more likely to render her own flattops obsolete before any competing power will.

  • Curtis Conway

    Well, let’s see . . . “…how best then could its much-vaulted supercarriers stay relevant in combat against near-peer adversaries?” …in an… A2AD environment? We have increased the size and complexity of the CVNs, as we reduced the size of the air wing, reduced the range of the high-end jets, and reduced their load (compared to F-14 Tomcat/A-6 Intruder). HHMMM! No more F-14 like platforms. No more A-6 like platforms, although I have to agree that the Super Hornet is quite an all-weather capable ‘Jack of all-trades’ kind of weapons system, and the F-35C will be even more so, but lack the range of the older CAG model, and we have no large, fast and capable tanker – just ‘Buddy Stores’ burning up hours on our valuable fighter/bombers.

    Really like the E-2D Hawkeye, NIFC/NIFC-CA and the new FORCEnet-21 which appear to be the only real bright lights in the future, since the surface force low-end reduced in combat capability significantly, and is not likely to rise to a relevant level any time soon . . . so we take three steps back and one step forward in my opinion.

    A very capable tanker/COD (S-3 variant) would solve problems TODAY, not just 10-20 years from now. That platform could have been present with some reasonable consideration, and with a little patriotism demonstrated by Lockheed Martin (KC-3A Super Viking), just like Boeing is in the KC-46A Pegasus Program. That KC-3A would solve more than one problem (tanker/COD/SOF Support, and other as funds were made available like an E-2 replacement platform in the future).

    The very argument that a cruise missile with its limited warhead size could even be compared to a manned aircraft with a full load is ludicrous, with the exception that we no longer have the tankers to support that eventuality, and we have yet to see what the MQ-25A Stingray will look like, and what its ‘give’ will be once it reaches the limit of its reasonable support range.

    Perhaps it’s time for the ‘Large Deck Aviation Platform’ Concept to begin to grow and mature with the deployment of the USS America (LHA-6). We very much need a VSTOL/STOVL AEW&C platform to make that happen, and round out that package.

    As for the Harpoon analysis, most anything that can be launched from a ship, can in some form be dropped from an aircraft usually from a closer range to the target. This I believe will be an emphasis for future US Navy.

    To maintain relevance of the CVN force the new low-end surface combatant should best be the introductory platform for a new Hybrid Electric Drive (HED) with Passive Detection/Tracking/Directing systems, huge electrical power generation/distribution capability, and Directed Energy Weapons to be able to not only defend itself, but protect the force against mass attacks of Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs). Such a vessel will make the perfect augmenting partner for the battle group, and make less relevant the “Beijing’s ASBM deployment envelope”. Now there is a CONOP I can get behind!

    As for the “…imperative for both platforms to mutually support one another…” . . . this person does not sound like someone who has ever served underway in a battle group setting, for that is the reason we are all there in the first place.

    Just my 2Ȼ.

    • Joey Gibson

      Spot on. Perfectly said. This old OS agrees 100%.

      • Curtis Conway

        Thinking like an old OS that put a lot of time in PAC, LANT, CENT supporting staff units and conducting exercises, while handling real world.

    • sferrin

      Wait, so you bemoan the lack of A-6 like range and F-14D like CAP and you propose to replace them with THIS???

      “Perhaps it’s time for the ‘Large Deck Aviation Platform’ Concept to begin to grow and mature with the deployment of the USS America (LHA-6). We very much need a VSTOL/STOVL AEW&C platform to make that happen, and round out that package.”

      YGBSM. What can (and will) be done is replacing the legacy Hornets with F-35s and, eventually, the Super Hornets with FA-XX. Tanking will be done with the UCAV they’re currently in the process of defining.

      As for the so-called “carrier killer” (which they’ve not demonstrated even ONCE can do what it’s claimed to) there are little things like SM-3 and SM-6. If they really thought it was as dangerous as the press likes to hype they could always install PAC-3 MSE in the Mk41 VLS (4 to a cell) which would make short work of the thing. Even the original PAC-3 was shooting down maneuvering RVs 15 years ago.

      • Curtis Conway

        The lack of Naval Air Wing Range is the relevant issue in the analysis, particularly considering A2AD factor. Remember Vice Adm. Jerry O. Tuttle’s deployments with his Carrier Battle Group performing at least one 1,000 mile strike using carrier air wing organic assets for the entire trip? Now, to augment the current capability (short/medium range), the Large Deck Aviation Platform provides a whole new metric to the equation. A low-end response for GWOT tasking, and an aviation-centric response to ‘Show The Flag’ hotspots without sending the whole Carrier Strike Group.

        The very capable tanker/COD (S-3 variant) would solve problems TODAY, not just 10-20 years from now. That platform could have been present with some reasonable consideration, and with a little patriotism demonstrated by Lockheed Martin (KC-3A Super Viking), just like Boeing is in the KC-46A Pegasus Program. That KC-3A would solve more than one problem (tanker/COD/SOF Support, and other as funds were made available).

        Like the PAC-3 coming out of Mk41 VLS idea. The SPY radar (any flavor) can support that mission because it does not have a Rotating Antenna. The LCS/FF needs a non-rotating 3D radar even if it’s just a TRS-4D with four array faces providing base/upgrade capability that a rotating radar cannot touch.

        • sferrin

          I don’t disagree they could come up with some band-aids for tanking short term, but that’s all they’d be and they’d be taking money from a real replacement making that take longer still. And the problem with lengthy development cycles is the brain drain. It just leads to more costs and people have to reinvent the wheel or make mistakes that might have been caught by somebody with more recent experience. (But that’s a whole ‘nother problem.) I think they missed out on long range strike when they repurposed UCLASS. I get where they’re coming from though. Better to give the entire strike wing a bit more range than to leave them hobbled so our silver bullet can get way out there.

      • Curtis Conway

        “…you bemoan the lack of A-6 like range and F-14D like CAP…”

        First off the A-6 had more than range. Those long legs came with a ‘All Weather’ capability and quite a load . . . AND the F-14D was much more than just a CAP . . . HUH?

    • Sam Riddle

      As just a plain old enlisted man whose been out of the Navy for many years, I kept asking myself, why hasn’t the author even mentioned TANKERS?

      Has the Military done away with tanker support? IDK…

      • Curtis Conway

        Back in our day it was considered a primary support item. Today the F/A-18 will act as a KA-3B Skywarrior or KA-6D Intruder (TEXACO) with Buddy Store hose and drogue with extra tanks to increase give. The US Navy needs a decent tanker with speed and payload like the Skywarrior. The S-3B Viking was a great tanker but lacked the Skywarrior’s speed. there are about 108 S-3 airframes out in the desert for the conversion effort. However, Lockheed Martin has just about finished up a deal to make S-3 sub hunters for the South Koreans, so we wont use those very valuable airframes for our own use.

        The new CBARS RAQ-25 carrier-based unmanned aerial tanker is being competed. I hope Boeing’s large tanker gets the nod.

      • R’ Yitzchak M

        Tankers would defeat his whole narrative.. For example if the timing is critical there are the means for the F-18’s to go for the “pear to pear” refueling.. I know KC-3A’s is a MUST and the only FLAT DECK can have that option as opposed to the “jumping” “carrier” wannabe. With each unit’s 5t of the available fuel on departure and on the returns could make quite the difference to the projection of power. As well the Carrier and its task force are the first fence that would respond to the existential threat to the mainland for example utilizing ABMS today on board of Ticonderoga, Zumwalt and yes even the F-18F’s in either at the point of ascension (when the missile is the most vulnerable) or even at the orbital stage. KC-3A’s are the MUST that exponentially do make the difference in options and PROJECTION of those “options”. The potential foes are also able to read and to figure out what the potential consequence could be from any of their adventure they might be contemplating. Flexibility given to the commander exponentially increases options and to the strategic solutions by having that formidable tool at his hand. There are about 90 of those platforms that are already be able to be utilized right now under the minimal cost.. Where there is will there are the MEANS but only if you have the good “old” flat decks that will allow you that OPTION

        • RainToh

          Well….tankers are just as vulnerable. China is using Su27 derivatives that has double the range of the F18s. They can simply make their presence known but not engage, and still be able to disrupt the refueling process. Not to mention the latest ultra long range A2A missiles. As long the tanker formation is under threat, if not under direct attack, you think the tankers will just hang around while enemy fighters are prowling around just outside missile range?

  • Spencer Whitson

    I noticed that you neglected to mention tankers and their effect on combat radius. Just something you might want to consider.

    • Curtis Conway

      It’s added.

  • Ed L

    They didn’t mention anything about ASW fixed wing Aircraft either. On the Tomcat I always like the imagine viewer that it carried. A-6 a bomb truck non better. or are manned aircraft going the way of the dodo bird? buy hundreds of thousands Cruise missiles Sub sonic and Super Sonic. As far as ASW I also though the Echo class submarines were a go throw away against a Carrier while the Charile was hiding somewhere in between the outlying threat and the close in threat.

    • Curtis Conway

      e.g., the S-3 (KS-3A follow-on development) mentioned in my comment.

  • sferrin

    Oh look, another, “ZOMG carriers gonna die!!!” article. I guess the author never heard of things like Oscars, Backfires, AS-4s, Shipwrecks, Sandboxes, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. Nothing else can control battlespace over and under the ocean like a carrier. It’s not going anywhere. He did make some good points about Haystack and UPTIDE though. There are definitely many similarities with today’s China and 80s USSR. (Although I’d still rather face a handful of “carrier killers” fired off into the wild blue, than regiments of AS-4 armed Backfires with Oscars joining the party.)

  • Andre

    Warfare is moving in the direction of denied areas and long-range stealth precision-strike, and in this environment stealth missile-carrying platforms are of more use than aircraft carriers.

    Aircraft are less expensive and more versatile than cruise missiles, however, the USN will have to figure out a way to extend its CAWs’ payload and range if it is to keep CVNs relevant beyond supporting missions.

  • Oh hello

    Navy’s answer to this is Distributed Lethality. Not too much new here.

  • Tony4

    It would be good to go back and read Corbett and see what he had to say on the subject. Denied areas have always posed a challenge to the capital ships of the day- be they ships of the line, battleships, or carriers. It has never in history been a good idea to take capital ships into a denied area – carriers are no different.

  • Ken N

    So has this Chinese ASBM “carrier killer” ever hit a moving target ?

  • BSmitty

    Oye.. The author needs to do the math on what it would take to fight near-peer (i.e. China).

    We have around 10,000 VLS cells in the fleet. Even if you filled every single one with Tomahawks or LRASM-ERs, that’s still only around half of the PGMs we used to fight a broken, sanctioned-riddled Iraq during OIF. Fighting China would require several orders of magnitude more.

    The author makes comparisons between TLAM and tactical fighters, but neglects to mention,

    1) Fighters can carry external fuel and be air refueled to extend their range. TLAM can’t. Need to hit a target 1000nm away? Sorry, TLAM can’t do it.
    2) Fighters can carry a huge variety of ordinance, including ordinance that hasn’t been built yet. TLAM has one of handful of options installed at the factory. Want a different warhead? Sorry.
    3) Fighters can find their own targets. TLAM can’t.
    4) Fighters can engage in the full spectrum of tactical airpower missions. TLAM can only hit fixed targets with a limited set of effects (and some basic retargeting).
    5) Fighters can make use of the “infinite magazine” of the carrier and CLF fleet to replenish ordinance used in combat. TLAM-armed ships have to return to port to rearm. (See you next month)

    If you want to fight China, 5) is especially critical. We need a way to hit hundreds of thousands of aimpoints over the course of a war. VLS launched cruise missiles just can’t do that.

    The author bemoans the state of UAV technology to rectify shortfalls in the carrier air wing but should recognize that UCLASS has always been a second-class citizen to manned aircraft. Eight per air wing? That’s little more than paying lip-service to the unmanned revolution.

    Plus, UCLASS was sold as an all-singing, all-dancing, stealthy bomber, ISR aircraft. How bout make a UCAV with the modest goal of carrying a single bomb to a target and returning? In other words, little more than a reusable cruise missile. It doesn’t need to be big, just long ranged and somewhat stealthy. AAR would be nice. Pack the deck with them. Should be able to fit several in the deck spot of fighter. KISS.

  • RobM1981

    Much ado about nothing.

    A carrier carries aircraft. That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

    Aircraft, or so the theory goes, can carry deadly and effective munitions further out than other means. See “Coral Sea, Battle Of,” or about 5,000 other engagements where aircraft proved to be able to deliver ordnance further than any other method.

    This has virtually zero to do with the deck that those aircraft are launched from, other than “it exists, and is capable of handling them effectively.” The CV(N) did not supplant the BB as “queen of the waves” for any intrinsic advantage – it was all about the aircraft. This is agonizingly obvious.

    Aircraft *must* be able to deliver ordnance further than the A2/AD weapons that counter them. If not, then we have the wrong aircraft. Not that the F-35 isn’t a magnificent investment, of which we are all proud, but perhaps we have backed the wrong horse?

    If aircraft are obsolete, then the CV is obsolete. If aircraft can still be developed that can out-range and out-fight the weapons that oppose them, then the CV is necessary.

    If this wasn’t thought of while we were retiring the A-6, F-14, and other such workhorses, the question isn’t one of Naval Warfare Theory, it’s of Naval Leadership.

    Where are the tools to get the job done?

    The Ford won’t fix this. No hull will.

    • R’ Yitzchak M

      100% on the mark.. The huge difference in the naval combat was exactly in leadership and ability of US industry that was able to provide US Navy with the flexibility and necessary adaptability to the EVOLVING realities of the modern battlefield to which they were able to adapt in TIME. That was due to FLEXIBILITY due to the COMPETITION that was at hand. Today all major players were thrown into one single provider under MUST HAVE thingies’.. It looks today “leadership” is more Like that of Charles Christie than that of real leadership of Admiral Ralph Lockwood, Nimitz. Having the Industry at its heart instead of the lives of the sailors under his command. He was pushing for “his” torpedo Mark 14 and Mark 6 “exploder” which was quite capable in sinking its own submarines as opposed to the enemies.. He made it a “crime” if soldiers complained or made the suggestions he was a MOTIVATED “leader” as we have MOTIVATED “leaders” today that are pushing for the F-35

  • TransformerSWO

    It seems much of the argument is to have cruise missile shooters carry the day, but he imagines this is a CRUDES role. If your plan is to bring the cruise missiles into the A2AD zone, I’d rather bring the best stealthy platform for this – the SSGN.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Ben Ho Wan Beng makes some compelling points about why the Navy needs to abandon it’s 70-year carrier-centric viewpoint of global naval operations. He correctly describes the history of this strategy going back to WW-II under Admiral Chester Nimitz’s able guidance, and Bull Halsey’s and others tactics, against a far-off Pacific enemy.

    But the idea of avoiding a belligerent’s defenses by placing our USN’s assets further and further from that foreign coastline makes no sense to me. Eventually, those land based weapons causing concern will be upgraded to range further and further away from home. “Give me a distant ship, for I intend to keep out of harm’s way.” — JPJ

    The battleships eventually lost their relevance to the realities of the Pacific war, but still had significant roles to play as that played out. So, too, our fleet of modern nuclear super carriers with their non-nuclear escorts will be around at least a generation, IMO. For one thing, they not only serve as floating air bases with some pretty incredible Marine and Naval aviation threats, but those human-guided tools of war have the added strength of making split second decisions regarding targeting, providing fleet defense, being instantly recalled, etc. — something a guided missile cannot do.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m sure many USN think tanks have wrestled with the issue for some time now. I do know that to abandon one platform (i.e. battleships) for another (i.e. carriers) needs to be done while both are still in relatively good shape. Our fossil-fueled guided missile ships are ill equipped to be very far from a friendly port without oilers and other logistics support. A nuclear carrier and a nuclear sub is not.

  • @USS_Fallujah

    I don’t see this as an either/or battle, the LACMs have taken the role once held by the long range strike platforms like the A-6 (and would now be virtual suicide missions against modern air defenses). Both Air/Ship launched cruise missiles are an integral part of any operational concept.
    Also of interest is the implication that at some point the CBG had the capability to approach a peer nation’s shore and bomb at will. This is non-sense, could a CBG have approached Murmask in the opening days of the US-USSR conflict circa 1985? Of course not. Degrading an enemies’ defenses has always been an integral part of naval strategy. Also overlooked is the entire point of power projection from the sea, getting through once isn’t enough, the USN must maintain enough combat power to actually alter the course of a conflict on land (either by direct attack or indirectly through blockade or interdiction), you won’t accomplish that with LACMs, only repeated airstrikes from close by, after defeating or degrading the A2/AD umbrella enough to gain an acceptable risk environment, will allow the USN to win the conflict.

  • R’ Yitzchak M

    Just as the tank does not go “obsolete” because there are the guns that can reach this tank from 30-40km distance.. a bit a distance from the tank’s range? Philosophy is a philosophy.. a poetry of opinions that could be even entertaining at the times.. even the movies were made of it? But there is a quite difference from the practical domain of REALITY and the philosophy. It is quite interesting that the best MINDS and the best LEADERS in the US NAVY are the ex-submariners. Why? Because the only one place where the leader is always due to the close quarters and ongoing interaction provide the direct scrutiny of his leadership from the rest of the TEAM.. HE EARNS HIS RESPECT by the highly trained professionals every one is as vital organ of that functional body.. FEEDBACK is a critical ability of the intelligent man to process information without “emotional luggage” the COMANDER willing to hear and to learn from every man on his watch.. why because everything in the sub has the purpose critical to overall existential of the rest of the COMPANY.. So commander’s ego is set aside and utility of the common sense and the critical feedback of every PARTNER in that company for a common success.. Those commanders are humble enough to develop the learning capability and foremost to utilize hundred capable brains to come with the best solution for the company.
    Dreamers, philosophers are married to their IDEA.. and there is no greater FOLLY to be found but in academia.. because everyone wants to justify their “findings” for the “glory” to their ego’s.. those guys are useful but if they were followed because YOU like their idea you are equally DANGEROUS. Idea’s MUST come from the bottom up PROFESSIONALS, commanders like Admiral Lockwood and the Nimitz made the DIFFERENCE because they were open to listen folks that actually really MATER boys that just come from combat.. experienced combat, new situation awareness, technological challenges, and the suggestions how to overcome those challenges.. Today there is a almost RELIGIOUS dogma that all decisions have to come from the top.. Political (target selection or “rules” of engagement.. just to make the few COMBAT IMPOSSIBILITIES as opposed WWII “HUNTING” as well planning for VICTORY and not for the “political containment”
    Now let me be a bit of a “dreamer” ok! China went on a “shopping spree”.. collecting this island, that island thousand miles of property “rights” thousand miles there five thousand there look everything is FREE so why not? If let say we have some grown-ups and start to measure what the consequences of that kind of “deal” will have on the EVOLVING global reality.. First China recognizes that their close to 690 Ships navy actually DOES.. It is by far the best investment China made she gained all resources and the NATIONS that should never even under the “most aggressive” wet dream China could of dreamed about. We just ENABLED THEM to focus on ARMING even more so..
    If there were consequences to their action and preventing them to form tens of thousands square miles with the hundreds of islands capable of being monitoring and combat ready anti Aircraft and anti Shipping missile emplacements by let say LIFTING THE EXISTING ARMS and ECCONOMICAL EMBARGO on TAIWAN and forging the ALLIANCE with the Taiwan as with the NATO. Place there ABMS, early warning postings, listening postings and the major Air bases, from there start forging the other “trip wires” in the region just “gently” suggesting that in the 21st century things must be resolved in the INTERNATIONAL COURTS and not by the common thievery that will inevitably lead to the International conflagration.
    So Air Carriers especially flat decks.. are critical for any NAVY rest of the crowd is playing “NAVY” with the Coast Guard solutions. F-35 is a part of the Labor Party “solution” in the 1970’s by scrapping the Ark Royal and providing the “must” solution with the ONLY “Harriers” (A-8 US version) as the “solution” naming the “cost-cutting solution” as the excuse.. That decision is directly responsible for almost demise of the British entire fleet during the Falkland War.. that FAILURE was inexcusable. According to the DECLASIFIED NATO assessment the main reason why the British actually won the war was.. The technicians were setting the fuses to arm the iron bombs on the 300m majority of you know the dumb bombs have a little propeller that is set for so many evolutions in order to avoid accidental fusing or to close explosion to the departing craft.. (generally 300m was a standard training altitude for the fusing). Unfortunate for the Argentinians.. they did not communicate well with their staff (perhaps because many of them went with only “one way ticket.. ” End sum explanation of that official analysis. Was that if those bombs went off there would be no one ship left on the surface.. WHY? They did not have E-2’s with 500km advanced WARNING, with the necessary vectoring and the BATTLE MANAGEMENT capabilities.. No REAL fighter planes i.e. F-14 or EVEN F-4’s with the considerably longer loitering time
    As well any refueling capabilities that ONLY the flat deck have.. the “Blue Waters Navy” MUST have those capabilities not what little “Bobbe” is selling instead a “make it believe” “fighter plane”, A make believe reconnaissance craft for example a British Sea Kings with the dinggie hanging down.. a bizarre joke at the best for the FLEET BATLE MANAGEMENT RECCE PLATFORM? As opposed to the E-2’s? The China is MOOVING toward the flat-decks so do Russians.. It is also interesting they started with the “jumping-platforms” but they figured things or two.. Also everyone is copping F-22 and those “idiots” do not know better the “real answer” MUST BE a “jumping Harrier” wannabe.. “Idiots” eh we scraped our platform that actually works F-22 for the “jumping” idiots paradise?
    So instead of the PROFFESIONAL MILITARY LEADERSHIP we are entertained by the LAWYERS – political “leadership” and political facilitators LAWYERS in the MILITARY to package and facilitate political driven top-down ORDERS which is expected to be just accepted the way it is or as Admiral Ralph Christie did reprimanded soldiers for complaining for being sunk by his ingenious torpedoes.. today we have the same frame of mind set.. Thanks G-d we are not in a major war.. yet.

    • Curtis Conway

      I love the submariners. However, sometimes they forget that the skimmers and targets simply must abide by the rules when operating in a 2-dimensional environment. Speed is not life for surface ships like it is for submarines and aircraft.

      • R’ Yitzchak M

        ACTF is 3d and subs are in the 3d the both of environmental dynamics are fairly rapid time of execution is in a matter of the seconds Russians are trying to bring that time to the literally a matter of seconds.. we are rapidly approaching the domain of the ARTIFICIAL INTELIGENCE ONLY one corporation that was able to foresee that rapidly evolving challenge is Northrop Grumman with the YF-23 the most INTELIGENT FORWARD LOOKING platform EVER. It labored extremely successfully on the WAFER SUPER COMPUTING that is made for the computer SCIENTISTS not the technicians.. the only real problem it faced IS the luck of the EDUCATION and overabundance of the ARROGANCE and the of course corruption. The difference in the PRIETORY driven solutions is a limitation to the limited availability of the trained personnel. People do not like to be trained in the program that have no application elsewhere so sophistipication to the line of programing is LIMITED. Wirth the SUPER COMPUTERS it is not so.. Today our military is generally using LYNOX (open architecture.. and the great program based on UNIX and the SKY IS THE LIMIT. To have the personnel that make the difference you do not promot him to the “rank” of master sergeant or the captain you “promote” him to the 2.5 million dollars a year utilize the EXTREME imagination, creativity and the MOUTH SHUT.. If you have the PLATFORM THAT WILL DELIVER THAT you will make the DIFFERENCE. And the thousand of your friends WILL depend on it. It is now a rapidly evolving environment .
        THE main reason I put submarine experienced admirals into the foray IS that those guys have that into their veins.. they listen and they KNOW WHY THEY DO LISTEN it is EXELLENT CHARACTER builder that is really making the difference NAVY MUST BE HEARD they are the ONLY force that is really mastering the INFORMATION into the tool of survival others do they have the luxury to “experiment” with the philosophy US Navy so far never did except with the perfect platform YF-23 it is to this day my ultimate enigma.. but given POLITICALLY driven “retirement security plan” makes the navy of Ralph Aldo Christy’s navy instead of Charles Lockwood, Chester Nimitz NAVY.. it is interesting Charles Lockwood was a sailors SAILOR a natural leader made from the sharing the best of a man and recognizing the best in HIS MAN it is a BIG THING a really big thing in a NATURAL LEADERSHIP being there for HIS MAN. Chester Nimitz by far was the humblest and the best admiral from the any navy ‘s standpoint and believe the most intelligent man ever wearing proudly his uniform and the RESPONSIBILITY for every man under his command he utilized he extreme’s of the intelligence gamesmanship (encryption, penetration and the UTILITY of the Japanese codes..) he was a literally centuries ahead in the way of thinking, I wish some of those guys HAVE TO BE CLONED.. or at least RECOGNISED EARLY and trained and then THROWN into the SUB for the few years and let HIM collect his crew and train them as well into the LEADERSHIP. THE GREATNESS OF THE OFFICER is the greatness of his/HER PERONELL it is OF COURSE A two way street.. train them and never leave the sight from their growth they are the very living tissue of the SUB’s (your first real command) and the people responsible for your educational as well of being a MENSH and the OFFICER.. to those guys technology is a TOOL and not the toy of the someone motivated with his retirement plan but boys that will do everything to make YOU.. sleep at ease RETARDING their tools in order to fulfill some company’s profit projection while securing the RETIREMENT FEES to the CROOCK endangering thousand of the real SERVICEMAN which seem to lost their VOICES under the current setup. NAVY has to EDUCATE American PEOPLE to demand a leadership and not the “political” poetry-DRAMA. President has to LISTEN and stop talking while LEARNING NAVY is the most sophisticated and the FIRS and the LAST LINE OF EXISTENTIAL DEFENCE to the every man/woman in the free world.

        By the way I really enjoyed your reply. And you ARE absolutely right Air Force is like the navy on “speed”.. but the NAVY today is EXPONENTIALLY more complex and with the EXTREEME EVOLVING potentials that have to be yet UTILIZED. YF-23 would bring the NAVY into the FIRM FOOTING into the 21 century.. no one on the planet would be able MACH with the ANYTHING the YF-23 integration what the NAVY intelligence, sensory, and the weapons utilization in a “TIMELLY MANNER”. RESOURCES of the navy especially FLAT DECK task forces with the Ticonderoga, Zumwalt and the Ohio class subs (Sea Wolfs..)etc. This character is locked on the “Cruise missiles” it is the hyper sonic missiles that are the problem conventional “cruise missiles” are generally speaking still subsonic and as such could be easily defeated by the current technology.. Russians are promising the ultra fast hyper sonic “cruising missiles” as such the surface alone if over 2,500km/hr. Metal will melt except perhaps Titanium made projectiles.. which I have to doubt at the moment.. Intercept of the super heated projectile is also currently addressed with the new generation of the advanced IR detectors.. US navy is the MIRACLE of the common sense.

  • R’ Yitzchak M

    The US navy is a MIRACLE of the COMMON SENSE Idiots do not believe into it and they want to sell their “dreams” instead.. The US navy is the best educational tool how FUNCTIONAL society is POSIBLE as for the example where the opposite is amongst the PRIESTS of the “wishful thinking” to the makings of the “LALA LAND” so to save in order to build the “Lala land” they want to destroy things that actually WORK. The only reason we are still at peace is ONLY duoe not to the “nice (irresponsible make it believe speeches with the overabundance of the hot air that goes with it) the US NAVY speaks volumes “just” with its PRESENCE.. Politician’s “presence”.. NOT SO MUCH? If our politicians are SMART and humble enough they will GO AND VISIT AND WILL HAVE TO LISTEN to the PROFESIONALS and the crewman in order TO LEARN Navy is there to TEACH and to defend the American CITIZENS.. From the enemies threat and OF COURSE THE MOST DANEGEROUS of all is the malignant political OPPORTUNISM which utilizes the hysteria, to completely change the common sense into the party driven dogmas.. Like “we do not need weapons BUT THE ONLY THING that WE MUST HAVE.. IS need for a “love” if we just give them (our) jobs they would be no longer “angry people” but the “happy people..” instead.. What do you think are they are doing today? “our” Idiots of course?? And all those “experimental” trips into the INSANITY is enabled by the curtesy of the tax-payer monies and of course with the ongoing poetry and the drama which is still kept giving by the curtesy of . ?? Of COURSE.. the IDIOTS.. F|-35 is the poster boy of everything wrong the politics or better yet the corruption.

  • Franken

    Let’s carry this same conversation forward as the nation looks to spend a cool half-a-trillion dollars on a new bomber fleet. Why wouldn’t we load cruise missiles in economy seating of a 769 ER and be done with PR, the fighter threat, CASEVAC, AA defenses, goofy basing/hangering demands, and identifiable signatures? Sensibility is needed.

  • John B. Morgen

    The real question is what size of the aircraft carriers that the Fleet really needs because ever since the USS Forrestal class and the near sisters were being added to the Fleet, the CVB classification was dropped; thus, no more CV class aircraft carriers would be built. The Navy decided to do away with the [standard] size carriers from the building shipyards. As I stated before, we really need to return to the [standard] aircraft carrier design, which we would be able to build a lot of them than if we continue with the existing path of building very few but expensive CVBNs. The existing naval carrier aircraft can still operate from the [standard] size carriers, and French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle which is a good illustration, which easily can operate American aircraft because already the French are operating E-2 Hawkeyes from the Charles de Gaulle. Aircraft carriers are still relevant, but with tighter naval budgets the large CVBNs are irrelevant….

    • sferrin

      The Nimitzs and Fords ARE the “standard sized carrier”. They’re designed for the same size airwing the Forrestals were but with the ability to support that wing better and for a longer amount of time. A slightly larger number of much less capable carriers is NOT the way to go. Anybody who spent 5 seconds researching the development of the Ford design would know they already looked at this.

      • John B. Morgen

        The USS Oriskany (CV-34) was the last [standard] aircraft carrier (CV) that was built for the United States Navy. On 1 October 1952 the Navy made arbitrary and unilateral decision to drop the [CV] design of classification, and made the CVB type aircraft carriers become the so-called [standard] aircraft carriers. This action took place after the USS Forrestal CVB-59 keel was laid down. Soon afterwards and for many decades the Navy has engaged in a [sweet tooth] love affair with large aircraft carriers ever since, and has blocked any attempts to change this paradigm. However, President Jimmy Carter tried to restart a standard aircraft carrier program, but was met with Navy and Congressional opposition for such a program, which he failed to achieved the ideal results.

        A good illustration of a standard CV could be found with the French Charles de Gaulle, and would fit quite well by filling in the aircraft carrier gaps. Right now, the Navy has the same number of aircraft carriers the equals that the same of number of battleships that were apart of Pacific Fleet, before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. The Navy is going to need about 20 carriers, and the standard carriers would take less time to build and deploy. A standard carrier is [not] less capable than large aircraft carrier, but better manageable than the latter. Furthermore, I seriously doubt the Navy even took alook at the [standard] carrier concept after blocking President Carter’s attempts of bring back the [CV]

        My apologies for this belated response.

  • Sam Pensive

    ‘…the lack of a carrier-based deep-strike aircraft …’

    what the carriers lack is an inventory of long range strike missiles
    no reason every sortie has to have a pilot on it or every
    air asset has to be a plane.
    i can envision carriers mostly packed with long range missiles
    cruising around the oceans. darn carriers would have quite a few
    wouldn’t they?

  • Ed L

    since there is no more Fleet Defense Fighters or Deep strike penetration. Smaller Countries can buy super sonic and sub sonic missiles by the hundreds, Mount them on mobile launch transporters and Volley Launch them at Aircraft Carriers.

  • Ed L

    Our Carriers have very little in the way of self defense weapons. A couple of CIWS, RAM, a couple of Sea Sparrow launcher. I bet they could add a half dozen remote 20 or 30MM or even a couple of the 57mm mounts. Maybe even 2 or three 127mm guns. plus say 2 dozen VLS, with SM-6’s. The Nimitz class Aircraft carrier was designed to hold 85 to 90 aircraft and the load out now is around 60? Remember the Forrestal had 8 127mm guns when she was launched.

  • Shhh

    Its possible to design energy burst that acts as flash photography of 19th century. The flash is massive burst of high energy photons. Because the carrier being large reflector of such energy pulse ,it can be quickly located.