We’ve had previous discussions about the future of the Navy’s supercarriers and their role in major combat operations. ComNavOps has opined that the role of the carrier has devolved to become that of an escort for the “shooters”, meaning the Burkes/Ticos with their load of Tomahawks, and an escort for the Air Force’s long range bombers, meaning that the carrier’s air wing will establish local air superiority to allow the AF bombers to carry out their penetration missions.
We’ve also discussed the migration of the Navy from an offensive force to a largely defensive one. A purely defensive force, of course, becomes the epitome of the self-licking ice cream cone – existing solely to protect itself. Unfortunately, that is pretty much what the Navy has become. The Burke class is a defensive platform. The carrier is largely defensive. Our focus is on ballistic missile defense for its own sake rather than as an adjunct to offensive operations. We have allowed our offensive mine warfare capability to atrophy. Our amphibious fleet is doctrine-less. And so on.
Tying these two thoughts together is this article from Breaking Defense website which touches on the origin of the supercarrier and suggests a future based on a return to the past (1). The article notes the A-3 Sky Warrior as the justification for the supercarrier and the offensive nature of carrier air power during that time.
“ ‘The A-3 came online in the early to mid 1950s, and for most of the next fifty years the Navy was able to do long-range deep strike,’ said retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix, who moderated today’s discussion with Rep. Forbes. Most of those old strike aircraft had an unrefueled range of 1,000 to 1,2000 miles, he told me after the event, but the A-3 itself ‘had a range of 1,800 nautical miles — unrefueled — and could carry a 12,000-pound atomic bomb.’
‘If you look at the A-3 Sky Warrior….that plane was the reason why we developed theForrestal-class, the first super-carrier, [in the first place],’ said Hendrix, who’s writing a study of carrier air wing evolution at the Center for a New American Security. The 1,000-foot flight deck of a modern carrier was originally designed to give large, long-ranged jet aircraft room to take off. Its massive maintenance spaces and ordnance storage were originally intended to support heavy bombers, not just strike fighters. As anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles get more threatening, it may be time to use the super-carrier for its original purpose again.”
The article suggests, correctly, that the carrier is, or should be, an offensive weapon. If not, its reason for existence becomes highly questionable. Today’s short range aircraft and shrinking air wings are severely limiting the offensive capability of our carriers. Sure, today’s carrier is still a formidable threat against a third rate opponent but so is a prop driven aircraft launched from a barge and at a fraction of the cost. The carrier justifies its price tag in combat against a peer and that’s where today’s air wing comes up short – literally, when you look at its combat range.
I stated that the role of the carrier is to escort the “shooters”. That statement is based on the current (Hornet) and near future (Hornet + F-35) air wing composition and the recognition that the air wing composition will not significantly change from that mix for the next few decades. However, if the Navy would acknowledge its offensive responsibilities, drop or severely curtail the F-35, and develop a truly long range, penetration strike aircraft, my opinion would change.
|A-3 Skywarrior - Offensive Threat|
Of course, hand in hand with a long range, penetrating strike aircraft must be a long range air superiority fighter. Modern surveillance has advanced too far for an unescorted, defenseless aircraft to have a hope of penetrating an enemy defense zone. The path of the multi-role strike/ECM/AEW/surveillance fighter is a false one. It produces a mediocre aircraft for any specific role. We need to return to optimized, single function aircraft (yes, a pure air superiority fighter can have a secondary role as a strike aircraft as long as it doesn’t detract from its primary role).
I’m not going to discuss the single versus multi-role aircraft debate any further. That’s not the point of this post. The point is the offensive nature of the carrier and how to restore it. If a multi-role aircraft can fill that requirement (it can’t) then I’m fine with it.
We must return to offensive carrier groups and an offensive Navy, in general. As we’ve discussed in the past couple of posts about A2/AD combat, the Navy desperately needs new, very long range strike missiles, IRBMs, very long range aircraft, long range tactical targeting, and other ships and weapons that recognize the reality of the vast distances of modern A2/AD zones. Of course, to play the broken record, we also need a viable strategy and operational concept for combatting an A2/AD zone. The strategy and operation concept will serve as the guide for the specific developments and acquisitions required.
We had all of this figured out, once upon a time, but have since wandered far afield in the name of transformation, cost efficiency, or whatever other misguided fad-ish notion ruled the day and led us astray. We need to look to the future with one eye firmly on the past and solid grip on history. The Gods of the Copybook Headings will allow no less.
(1)Breaking Defense, “From Sky Warrior To UCLASS: Back To The Future Of Carrier-Based Strike?”, Sydney Freedberg Jr., June 11, 2015,