Here’s a statement I came across that will have most of us shaking our heads in disbelief.
“The Navy will not be able to fight its way into denied environments and maintain open sea lines of communication without the Surface Force being able to take the fight to the enemy in environments where air assets are not available or are unable to effectively or persistently operate.” (1)
Think about that statement. It’s saying that the Navy cannot do its job unless it can fight without the protection of air assets. This runs counter to the entire basis of Navy operational and doctrinal thinking. The assumption of air support and, indeed, air supremacy, is central to naval doctrine, tactics, planning, and procurement. The Navy takes, as a given, uncontested control of the air and unlimited aviation support for its surface forces. Yet, now, someone dares to come along and suggest otherwise? What treasonous and militarily ignorant person said this and why? Let’s form a lynch mob and put this idiot to death. I’ve got pitchforks and torches for everyone. C’mon!
We’ll blow this idiot out of the water with logic. Let’s start by examining the relevant historical background.
Our carrier force is unsurpassed. Yes, we’ve seen the number of carriers steadily decline from the 20’s to the current 10 (9 active) and there is no reason to believe that number will ever increase. Sure, we’ve seen the size of carrier air wings drop from around 90 aircraft to the current 60’s. Of course, even that is misleading in that several Hornets in each wing cannot be used as combat aircraft since they are needed to fill the tanker role. True, the Navy has stated that when the F-35 enters service, squadrons will be reduced by a further 2-4 aircraft each. Granted, the Air Force is undergoing similar reductions. Admittedly, our basing options in the Pacific are limited and far from any relevant operational area and even our basing options in the
MidEast are suspect. Depending on the parameters of the conflict we may or may not be granted permission to use those bases in a combat role. Combine that with potential overflight restrictions and MidEast basing is problematic, at best.
Ah, … Maybe we better set those pitchforks and torches down for a moment. We may have to dig a bit deeper than I thought to discredit this idiot.
OK, so we may not have as many air assets and aviation basing support as we once did but at least what we have will be uncontested and unbeatable, right? I mean, it’s not like our enemies are developing their own stealth aircraft. Well, I guess
and China are and they’ll undoubtedly be exporting their aircraft aggressively. Still, their existing aircraft are, well … actually they’re pretty good – at least on par with ours or maybe better in some cases. Russia
Alright, so we may have a problem with the whole aviation presence and supremacy thing but, heck, our enemies will have the same basing issues we do. I mean it’s not like
will have hundreds of airbases in range of the likely areas of conflict and … we, ah … we … Oh, crap. China , China , and Iran N. Korea do have hundreds of bases within range of the likely areas of conflict! They’ll be able to generate much higher sortie rates than us with much greater numbers of aircraft to call on. Of course, the RAND report demonstrated that numbers alone don’t matter so, ah … wait a minute, my bad. I got that backwards. The RAND report actually demonstrated that numbers do matter, even more than quality.
I guess now that I think about it, trying to operate in, say, the Chinese A2/AD zone will severely limit our air support given our decreasing numbers of carriers, shrinking air wings, dwindling Air Force, limited bases, huge distances that must be traveled to reach the areas of interest, increasing enemy numbers, prevalent enemy surface to air missiles, and extensive enemy airborne and land based radar surveillance.
Clearly, the Navy will be fighting with less and less air support as time goes on. Could this idiot’s statement be right? I hate to say it but it would seem so.
Who is this guy? Let me check the source reference … Ah, it’s VAdm. Thomas Copeman. Well, that explains it. You’ll recall that ComNavOps has praised Copeman several times in the past as one of the few (only?) clear thinkers in the ranks of Navy leadership. It seems VAdm. Copeman has done it again. He has identified the trends and pointed out the logical conclusion: if the Navy wants to operate in enemy zones, it must be prepared to operate without the assurance of aerial supremacy or even support. I guess instead of lynching him we should be gathering to praise him.
So, if he’s right, what does this mean for naval ship design and construction? It means that we need to be designing and building ships for independent operations (independent from carrier or Air Force aviation support). Such a ship will need certain characteristics that differ from today’s designs. For instance,
Stealth – This becomes mandatory. If we don’t control the skies then we’d better be as hard to find and hard to lock on to as possible. We covered this in a previous post.
Armor – If we don’t control the skies we will take hits. Armor is mandatory to mitigate damage and allow us to continue to fight. Cheap kills cannot be accepted. We covered this in a previous post.
Soft Kill – As we’ve previously documented and discussed, the Navy needs to place much greater emphasis on soft kill AAW measures. We need a soft kill CEC as we just recently posted.
Close-In – We need many more close-in weapon systems per ship than we currently have. Without control of the skies, the enemy can just continue to hammer our defenses and missiles and aircraft will get through at much greater rates than we imagine.
UAV – With limited aviation support, our ships will have to generate their own surveillance and targeting. Extensive use of UAVs will be required to “replace” the Hawkeye/AWACS function. A couple of UAVs per ship won’t cut it. We need the ability to hangar and operate dozens at a time and continue doing so in the face of significant attrition. Remember, we need local situational awareness, not oceanic awareness. We need small UAVs as opposed to BAMS size. The UAVs must be reasonably stealthy, as well.
AAW – If you want to operate inside someone’s A2/AD zone and don’t have air superiority, you’ll have to fight to stay there. A robust AAW capability is mandatory. In addition to Aegis/AMDR type systems, we’ll need more VLS cells for sustained engagements, more illuminators for redundancy, better separation of illuminators for survivability, a robust backup radar system that is physically separated and isolated from the primary to the maximum extent possible, effective EO backup systems, much greater close-in defenses, and greatly enhanced soft kill systems.
It’s clear from the preceding characteristics that such a ship will be quite large and quite expensive.
Contemplation of the above leads to two supporting conclusions.
If we’re going to operate without aerial support we ought to be giving serious thought to increasing our submarine forces. A submarine bypasses many of the problems associated with the lack of aerial support.
We need to re-evaluate our current trend of declining carriers and shrinking airwings. In addition, we need to re-evaluate the type of aircraft we’re procuring. In an A2/AD scenario, the carrier is going to be acting as the escort for the strike units (Tomahawk) rather than being the strike unit as has historically been the case. Thus, there is a need for a much longer range air superiority fighter.
The carrier has been both the Navy’s crutch and addiction for too long. While incredibly powerful and useful, the carrier has limited Navy operational and doctrinal thinking. We need to give serious thought to future operations in the absence of significant air support. Simply saying we won’t operate without air support may be constraining ourselves to the point of defeat.
For those of you who think that ten carrier task forces are more than sufficient to deal with any enemy, even
, you might want to remember that Cold War carrier doctrine called for carriers to operate in pairs and that was when the airwings were much larger than now. Single carriers were not considered survivable and effective. Thus, we actually can only muster a maximum of five carrier task forces. Indeed, the reality of combat may dictate that carriers with reduced airwings need to operate in groups of three or more against modern militaries. Throw in the inevitable combat losses and we may find ourselves hard-pressed to assemble two or three carrier groups after only a brief period of combat. China
The point is that unless we’re simply going to refuse to act without carriers we may find ourselves forced to fight without air support at some point. Adm. Copeman clearly believes that to be the case. If he’s correct, we need to develop doctrine and ship designs to support that doctrine.
(1) http://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/Documents/2026Vision.pdf, “Vision for the 2026 Surface Fleet, VAdm. Thomas Copeman III, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, Jan 2014, p.5