The May issue of Proceedings has an interesting article about using an Arsenal Ship as a means of breaching an A2/AD zone (1). The author’s contention is that an Arsenal Ship represents a survivable concentration of firepower which is necessary to breach an A2/AD zone. One of the author’s underlying premises is the need to,
“… provide a precise, persistent, and continuous volume of fire directed at the enemy’s command-and-control (C2), communications nodes, and long- and mid-range weapon systems.”
This is a reasonable requirement and ties in with other, related philosophies such as the best defense is a good offense (attack the launch sites and weapons rather than defend against the launched weapons), attack the supporting bases, etc. The key in any of these related concepts is the need for very long range, survivable weapons or, conversely, the means to deliver shorter range weapons in a survivable manner.
Setting aside actual strategies and operational plans, let’s look a bit closer at the Navy’s ability to deliver weapons through or across a sizable A2/AD zone (a thousand miles or so).
Currently, the Tomahawk missile is the only Navy weapon with sufficient range for A2/AD penetration.
The Navy surface force has the ability to launch Tomahawk missiles with thousand mile range from surface ships. Burke and Ticonderoga class vessels can carry around 100 vertical launch missiles (VLS cells). That’s potentially a lot of strike power. Given the Navy’s current practice of three Burke/Tico escorts per carrier strike group, that equates to 300 missiles. However, the Navy’s top priority will always be defense of the carrier so the escort ships will be heavily weighted towards AAW missiles rather than strike. For sake of discussion, let’s speculate that an escort ship would contain 80% AAW and 20% strike. That means that the 300 missiles carried by the escorts would be 240 AAW and 60 strike. While not an insignificant amount, 60 missiles from an entire carrier group is not much of an impact against the entire mainland “target” of an enemy with a sizable A2/AD zone (oh come on, we’re talking about China, right?). Attacking China with 60 missiles won’t make much of a dent in their defenses.
Surface ship strikes are also problematic in that they carry a higher degree of risk to the launching vessel and the launch locations are reasonably predictable.
The subsurface force also has Tomahawk launch capability. Virginia class SSNs carry 12 or 40 Tomahawk vertical launch missiles, depending on version. In addition, the legacy SSGNs carry 154 Tomahawks and the later Los Angeles class SSNs carry 12.
Submarine launched missiles offer the greatest degree of stealth. Subs are very difficult to detect even after having announced their presence via the “flaming data point” of launch. Unless the sub launches in the close vicinity of ASW forces, by the time appropriate forces can arrive at the launch location the sub will be sufficiently far away to make detection an enormous challenge. Of course, the first island chain geography dictates somewhat predictable points of entry into the area and offers the possibility of sub traps and enemy SOSUS-like detection arrays. Still, subs are a very survivable means of delivering volumes of missiles.
The drawback to both surface and sub launched missiles is that, once expended, the ships must return to port to reload. Thus, a sizable pulse of firepower could be generated but a high volume sustained attack scenario would be extremely challenging or impossible.
Of course, we fight jointly and the Air Force can offer long range, deep penetrating strike capabilities on a regular and frequent basis though at great risk and attrition will likely render such a contribution ineffective in fairly short order. A force of 19 or 20 B-2 bombers simply cannot operate for long. Combat attrition combined with simple mechanical failure would render the force too small to be operationally effective in a fairly short period. The 100 B-1 bombers offer a more robust capability numerically but their ability to conduct and survive deep penetration A2/AD missions is questionable.
We see then that the Navy’s ability to apply large volume firepower across a sizable A2/AD zone is marginal. This leads to several conclusions. The most obvious conclusion is that the Navy needs more, and preferably longer ranged, missiles. In addition, the Navy needs to examine its strategy and operational planning for A2/AD combat. If we can’t effectively generate much more than a single pulse of firepower then we need to ensure that we have plans to take maximum advantage of that pulse. Finally, we need to closely examine the potential for complementary actions between the Air Force and Navy. We’ve covered this in previous posts. It may be that the best use of the carrier strike group is to establish corridors of local aerial superiority for the Air Force bombers to use. This, in turn, dictates the development of a certain type of naval fighter – one not exemplified by the F-35, unfortunately.
Returning to the article, the author advocates the development and use of the Arsenal Ship as a means of increasing the long range firepower of the Navy. That's certainly an option and I leave it to the reader to check out the article and evaluate the author's proposal.
In summary, it is clear that we currently lack the required weapons and platforms to counter a sizable and effective A2/AD zone and operate within it. The Navy needs to look much closer at how to attack an A2/AD zone, develop operational plans, acquire more and longer ranged weapons, and begin developing and training the required tactics (multi-carrier strike groups, for instance).
(1)USNI Proceedings, “Breaking the Anti-Access Wall”, Capt. Sam Tangredi, USN(Ret.), May 2015