The most powerful naval force is a carrier task force. Unfortunately, the Navy has completely forgotten what a carrier task force is, how it’s structured, and, most importantly, how to use it operationally and tactically.
A WWII carrier task force consisted of multiple carriers and lots of escorts. Wikipedia describes Adm. Marc Mitscher’s vision of the ideal carrier group,
“Said Mitscher: "The ideal composition of a fast-carrier task force is four carriers, six to eight support vessels and not less than 18 destroyers, preferably 24. More than four carriers in a task group cannot be advantageously used due to the amount of air room required. Less than four carriers requires an uneconomical use of support ships and screening vessels." (1)
Compare that to current Navy practice, if not theory, concerning carrier groups. Today’s carriers seldom combine for operations and never train for multi-carrier operations and tactics. The rare occasions when multiple carriers operate together are, invariably, in zero-threat scenarios where they conduct simultaneous or alternating strikes against low-threat land targets. The Navy simply does not train to operate multi-carrier groups. The Navy has abandoned Mitscher’s combat-proven vision in favor of an operationally and tactically unwise, unproven, and unsound one.
Consider what a WWII carrier group represented. Each carrier had an air wing of close to 100 aircraft. A group of four fleet carriers could muster around 400 aircraft! Today’s carrier “group” of one carrier contains 38-40 Hornets, depending on how many are being used as aerial tankers. A WWII group could send 300 aircraft on strikes and sweeps and still have 100 aircraft for defense of the group! Today, if we want to retain a viable defense, we can’t spare any aircraft for strikes or sweeps – there simply aren’t enough aircraft on a single carrier.
Speaking of carrier group defense,
“Mitscher determined that the best defense for a carrier was its own air groups, and that carriers were more easily defended if they operated together in groups …” (1)
Multiple carriers can pool and concentrate their aircraft and their escorts. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? Not to today’s Navy.
It’s also interesting to consider the carrier group’s escort composition. A typical WWII carrier group escort force consisted of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. As an example, Global Security website cites the following carrier group composition.
“Ideally each task group would have four carriers (three CVs and one CVL), two fast battleships or battle cruisers, four heavy or light cruisers and sixteen destroyers.” (2)
Ticonderoga would be a loose (and poor) equivalent to a
battleship and Burkes would be a loose equivalent to cruisers. Today’s Navy doesn’t have anything equivalent
to WWII destroyers. We desperately need
a destroyer to perform ASW and add layers to the defense.
Once upon a time we knew how to operate multi-carrier groups. We knew how to space and arrange the carriers to maximize their mutual support. We lost that knowledge and are making no attempt to regain it. It’s quite likely that the spacing, arrangement, and, possibly, even the ideal number of carriers has changed as jets have taken over and as air wings have shrunk. If we don’t exercise and rediscover these things, we’ll be lost when war comes.
Today’s carrier group sails with a typical escort of one
Ticonderoga and two or three Burkes. That’s a pretty weak escort by historical
norms. We would expect that if war came
the escort force would be increased by adding a second Ticonderoga and a couple of Burkes. Of course, that assumes the Navy hasn’t
eliminated the Ticonderogas as they’ve been doggedly trying to do.
That brings us to the next point. If today’s carrier group escort would be increased in war, why aren’t we training for that right now? You train like you fight, right? Well, we’re training with a very small escort. No Navy officer today has any idea how to tactically utilize a larger escort because we don’t operate large escorts. Is this really the way to prepare for war?
Along the same line, no Navy officer today has any idea how to operate a multi-carrier group because we never practice it and yet, when war comes, we’ll attempt to operate multi-carrier groups and we’ll have to learn on the fly. That’s a surefire recipe for disaster. Unlike WWII, we won’t be able to build twenty or so new carriers in four years. Recall that we lost 4 of the 6 carriers we started the Pacific war with. It takes us five-plus years to build one carrier today. In a modern war, we won’t be getting replacement carriers. We can’t afford the losses that will come with relearning carrier tactics on the fly.
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There’s never been a better time to experiment with multi-carrier groups. We generally have 7 or so carriers tied up in home ports now due to budget constraints. This is an ideal time to take those carriers out for exercises and start developing some tactics. Here’s a few tactical questions that need answers.
- How many carriers should be in a group? Note: even three carriers can only muster 120 combat aircraft – barely more than a single WWII carrier worth of aircraft!
- How many escorts are needed?
- What kind of escort spacing is needed to provide effective defensive coverage?
- What kind of separation do carriers need to operate their air groups without impacting each other’s air space?
- How many aircraft are needed for an effective task force defense? This will also determine how many can be available for strikes. I suspect we’ll find that all the aircraft are needed for defense and that there won’t be any available for strikes. If that’s the case, one has to ask why we have carriers if the only task they can perform is self-defense.
- How do we co-ordinate the engagement ranges of aircraft, Standard missiles, and ESSM, all with significant overlaps, from two dozen ships and many dozens of aircraft without interfering with each other?
Set aside all the make-work, peacetime, garbage jobs and the Navy’s ultimate reason for existence is to fight a high end war. The Navy’s steadfast refusal to prepare for high end war is absolutely baffling.
(1)Wikipedia, “Fast Carrier Task Force”,
(2)Global Security website, “Carrier Task Force”,