We all grew up looking at pictures of carrier groups with a dozen or so ships spread over miles of ocean. Quite impressive! Are you curious what a modern strike group consists of? Well, here is the most recent composition of the Bush strike group:
- George H.W. Bush, CVN-77
- Truxtun, DDG-103
Roosevelt, DDG-80 Philippine Sea, CG-58
That's it - three ships and the carrier with an air wing of around 39-40 effective Hornets. Not exactly a mighty armada! Not exactly what we grew up looking at.
Sure the group may be small but we’re not at war. The group is big enough for peacetime activities and if war comes we’ll simply add more ships. What’s the big deal? Why is ComNavOps getting worked about this?
Let me ask you a question. What should the Navy be doing during peacetime? Come on, you know the answer. Neglecting all the show-the-flag, enforce fishing regulations (yes, a carrier group actually did that), presence, and other garbage jobs, the Navy’s peacetime task is to prepare for war. Peacetime is the time to study your enemies, develop tactics, ensure proper maintenance, and train, train, train for war.
Let’s set aside the fact that our non-deployed air wings are barely getting enough flight hours to stay flight certified let alone practicing tactical flying and honing combat skills. Let’s set aside the fact that individual ship deployments and even group deployments have been cancelled. Let’s set aside the fact that we’re down to two deployed carriers at a time with the rest sitting pierside. Let’s set aside that we’re down to two amphibious groups deployed at a time. Let’s set aside the fact that … well, you get the idea. I don’t need to continue with an endless list.
Let’s set all that aside and look specifically at the carriers and how they’ll be used in war.
Many commentators tend to look at the nine available carriers (nine is how many air wings we have so that’s the maximum number of carriers than can deploy – by the way, we’ll have 11 carriers when Ford joins the fleet and only 9 air wings – does that give you an idea about early retirement of another carrier?) and envision nine carrier groups rampaging through the Chinese A2/AD zone or wreaking havoc off N. Korea or Iran.
Consider, though, the reality of today’s carrier combat power. A carrier has 44 Hornets of which 39-40 are combat-available, at most. You’ll recall that the air wing has no organic tanking and, therefore, several Hornets are always in use as tankers which removes them from combat availability. With that in mind, what can a single carrier accomplish?
|Now Is The Time To Practice|
The carrier would never be left undefended so half the Hornets would always remain with the carrier. That leaves a max of around 19-20 for strike missions. Now, unless you believe that a Hornet with two Sidewinders constitutes a self-escort capability (and if you do, match that up against fully air-to-air loaded Flankers, MiGs, or their Chinese counterparts), a serious strike against a defended target will need a dozen or so air-to-air (A2A) Hornets for escort. That leaves 7-8 Hornets for strike. Of course, the accompanying high value assets like Growlers and Hawkeyes need their own escort so subtract 4 more Hornets for that duty and now we’re down to 3-4 Hornets actually available for strike. Of course, that assumes that every Hornet in the air wing is available in terms of maintenance and that’s never the case. So, subtract another couple aircraft. You see where this is going?
A modern carrier with an air wing of 44 Hornets is quite limited. So, let’s consider how carriers would be tactically and operationally employed in war.
WWII saw carriers operated in pairs or more. Cold War doctrine called for operating carriers in pairs. In very simplistic, conceptual terms, one carrier could strike while the other defended. Pairs allowed for useful massing of aircraft numbers (Are we saying numbers matter?! Whoa, there’s an interesting concept for those F-35 fanboys who want to claim that a single aircraft can be a strike, fighter, recon, tanking, ASW, whatever, all in one aircraft) and allowed for compensation of combat attrition without having to immediately withdraw due to a few losses.
Consider the defenses inherent in the Chinese A2/AD scenario: anti-ship ballistic missiles, supersonic cruise missiles, long range bombers, scores of fighters, submarines, surface ships, carrier aviation (sooner than we think!), mines, etc. A single carrier with 39-40 Hornets isn’t going to be able to cope with that and conduct offensive operations. Remember, it’s not enough for the carrier to just be able to defend itself – it has to be able to conduct offensive operations. With that in mind, it’s instantly obvious that carriers will have to operate in pairs – or more. In fact, given today’s small sized air wings I would suggest that carriers will have to operate in threes in order to amass sufficient numbers of aircraft to simultaneously defend and productively attack (Whoa! There’s that numbers issue again. Are we saying that a single aircraft can’t simultaneously stay at home to defend the group and go out and conduct strikes??? That a single aircraft can’t be in two places at once?? That’s got to give some modern aircraft apologists heartburn!).
All right, if we operate carriers in threes, how many carrier strike groups can we assemble? Well, the math is pretty simple. We have 9 available carriers which means we can assemble 3 carrier strike groups. That’s not a lot. Of course, that also assumes that all 9 carriers are available. The reality is that half the carriers will always be in port for repairs and replenishment, even during war. That means we’d be lucky to operate a single carrier strike group at any given moment and two groups would be a realistic maximum effort.
Now, let’s briefly check the carrier group size. Does anyone think three escorts are going to be sufficient to deal with the multitude of threats we just listed? A carrier group is going to need a dozen or more escorts spread over a vast area. Of course, one instantly asks where all these additional escorts are going to come from given that the combat fleet is shrinking quickly and being replaced by LCS’s and JHSV’s and MLP’s but that’s a topic for another post.
Now, let’s consider carrier group tactics.
- How far apart should the carriers be to be mutually supporting yet not so tightly grouped as to simplify enemy targeting and strike efforts?
- When conducting simultaneous offensive and defensive operations, how should the aircraft be allocated (all strike from a single carrier or strike elements from each?)?
- What is the best defensive formation against incoming missiles? Against submarines? Against surface ships? Against simultaneous threats?
- What is the optimum emissions state to balance stealth against situational awareness?
- Where should Hawkeyes and Growlers be placed to maximize situational awareness across three carriers? How many are needed to accomplish that?
- How many escorts are needed? What types? Arranged how?
- And a hundred other tactical questions …
Let’s recall two points of information from earlier: first, peacetime is the time to develop and practice tactics and operating doctrine and, second, current carrier groups consist of a single carrier and very few escorts. Do you see a disconnect, there?
If a wartime carrier strike group consists of three carriers and dozens of escorts but our peacetime carrier groups consist of a single carrier and three escorts, how are we developing and practicing our wartime carrier doctrine and tactics? When war comes, where will we get the Admirals and Captains who are well versed in multi-carrier operations and tactics? Are we developing the answers to the previous tactical questions and practicing them so that every ship and sailor knows what to do? Sadly, the answer is no.
Have you read a single article about tactical and doctrinal operation of carriers in the A2/AD scenario? Have you ever heard of a single multi-carrier tactical exercise? Carriers are one of our major asymmetric advantages over our enemies and we’re failing to take advantage of them by developing and practicing the necessary doctrine and tactics.
Peacetime is our golden opportunity to prepare for war and we’re squandering it.