What about the in between times? Did every ship, on both sides, always and only operate under total friendly air cover? Well, no. For example, the entire Guadalcanal naval campaign was fought under uncontrolled skies where, at any given moment, either side might have localized and immediate control of the air. Despite this aerial uncertainty, both sides continued to operate naval forces. Yes, they made allowances and adjustments, such as operating at night to avoid aerial detection and attack but the point is that they routinely operated without assured aerial supremacy and did so with varying degrees of success.
We should probably ask ourselves why neither side was able to obtain aerial supremacy? The answer is simple – at that point in the war, it was still an even match. In other words, it was a peer war (before it evolved into a completely one-sided, lop-sided affair) and both sides were evenly matched. Neither could gain a permanent advantage.
Adding to the inability to obtain aerial supremacy was the long ranges involved. Both sides had to fly long distances in order to engage which made ‘time on station’ short. Yes, Henderson Field on Guadalcanal was on scene but, until the end, there were never enough aircraft available at the field to establish uncontested control of the air. Replacement aircraft for the US had to come from thousands of miles away. Japanese aircraft were largely based at Rabaul which was around 500 miles from Guadalcanal – a very long flight in those days.
There are lessons to be learned from this which are applicable today to a peer war with China.
In a peer war, aerial control of a given operational area will, by definition, be sporadic and will flip back and forth at a moment’s notice as groups of aircraft arrive, or depart, the immediate area. There may well be times when there are no aircraft in the area, at all. The reality is that if we want to accomplish anything we’ll need to figure out how to operate our naval forces without the absolute control of the air that we’ve become accustomed to, and dependent on.
The Tyranny of Distance
Simply having aircraft available at bases near the operational area isn’t enough. Aircraft on the ground are useless. They have to be in the air in the operational area to matter. For the US, even our nearby bases are going to be hundreds to thousands of miles from likely operational areas. Aircraft from Guam, for example, will have to fly several hours just to get to an operational area and will then only have brief moments of loiter time. This is the Tyranny of Distance. Distance will render even the aircraft we have in theatre only marginally available and useful.
Both sides will begin the war with large inventories of aircraft. The challenge will be to get the aircraft to the operational area. In the Guadalcanal example, both sides were operating at the end of enormously long supply trains. In a conflict with China the US will, again, have to supply aircraft at the end of an enormously long supply train. This resupply challenge will be exacerbated by the very long time it takes to build modern aircraft as opposed to, say, a WWII Hellcat which could be built in a matter of days. To some extent, manufacturing time will also be a problem for China although the delivery distance will, of course, not be a factor.
The distance challenge is complicated by dispersion. In the Guadalcanal example, both sides were attempting to spread supplies (aircraft, in this case) across many operational areas over the entire Asian and Pacific regions. For the US, it was even worse as we were having to provide aircraft to operations spanning the entire world!
We see that all of the above factors can be combined into one broad issue:
- placing aircraft, in the air, in the operational area.
This supply challenge will remain an issue in a modern war with China. The US will, again, have to supply aircraft at the end of an enormous supply train while maintaining ready aircraft around the world to cover all our other commitments (an argument for weaning Europe off our support?). China will be fighting at the short end of the supply train and will have an inherent advantage in that it can focus all its military might on the immediate fight since it has no worldwide military commitments.
Unless the US pulls back and refuses to engage (a win for China), it is quite likely that we will have to operate under skies that we do not control. How do we do that? Isn’t it now conventional wisdom that ships that operate without air cover are doomed? How can we operate under skies we do not control?
At this point we have to recognize the boundaries of the problem. When we ask how we can operate under skies we do not control, that is not the same as asking how we can operate under skies the enemy owns. Operating in areas where the enemy has established aerial supremacy is, indeed, foolish and suicidal. What we are really asking is how can we operate under skies that neither side owns?
Let’s make sure we understand what ‘neither side owns’ means. It means what it says. Neither side will have continuous control of the air but either side may, at any given moment, have momentary control. The key characteristics of such contested control are:
Limited numbers – neither side will have enough aircraft to establish continuous control so even the momentary control will be established by limited numbers. This means we won’t have to fight off a thousand aircraft but, instead, maybe just a flight or two of aircraft at a time. Perhaps the enemy will manage to fight an attack group of half a dozen to a couple of dozen aircraft into the area. This is a radically different situation than having to fight off never-ending waves of saturation attacks as so many people seem to argue when attempting to make their points.
Limited time – given the distances and the need to fight their way into the operating area, neither side will have a great deal of loiter time in the area. Thus, attacks from aircraft will be brief. Chinese aircraft will, of course, have a longer loiter time.
Our concept of operating under skies we do not control is beginning to take shape, isn’t it? We see that we’re talking about contested skies that will feature fairly small groups of enemy aircraft that come and go. This is a completely doable concept. Aegis, for example, was designed to handle much more than this. Several Aegis ships should be able to survive and operate in such a scenario. Thus, we can operate under skies we don’t own.
I’ve already addressed it but it’s necessary to repeat it: China and the US will be contesting many operational areas simultaneously. That’s what war is – it’s combat along a broad front with many, many points of contention. Both sides will be splitting their resources and assets many times over. Too many people want to look at utterly ridiculous situations in isolation. I know that despite this paragraph someone is still going to comment that our ships can’t fight off the thousands of aircraft that the Chinese have. Well, those thousands of aircraft are going to split across a hundred operational areas plus they’ll be fighting their own battles for survival as we attack their bases with cruise missiles, bombers, etc.
So, recognizing the need to operate under skies we don’t control, is there anything we can do to enhance our ability to do so? Yes, there is.
Building more carriers is the obvious answer. A mobile air base provides the ability to tip the aerial balance of power in a localized operational area. What we have to do, however, is stop building $20B Fords that we won’t risk in combat, can’t afford to lose, and can’t build enough of and start building smaller, simpler Midway/Forrestal size carriers in large numbers with larger air wings.
Purpose Built Ships
We need to design a class(es) of ship that is intended to fight under uncontrolled skies. We need an independent operations cruiser that is optimized for the kind of combat we’ve just described. I’ve described one such class of ship, the independent cruiser (see, “Independent Cruiser”)
We need to adjust our thinking about how we will conduct naval missions. Too many people have the idiotic notion that we’ll conduct a war just like peace – that we’ll deploy ships to the area for months at a time and that they’ll cruise around the area, back and forth, fighting continuously. This is absurd. We’ll need to conduct quick missions, as navies have always done: in and out without lingering. This is actually the standard for wartime naval operations, anyway. We’ve just forgotten that’s how naval missions are conducted. We need to remember and start training for such missions. It’s been so long since we’ve had actual missions that we’ve forgotten what a mission is and how to conduct one. A mission has a specific goal, the forces are assembled, the group makes a high speed run to the operational area, executes the mission, and retires at high speed. We need to start training Admirals and Captains to conduct such missions. Today’s Admirals and Captains are just glorified cruise directors shepherding around a bunch of tourist/sailors for several months at a time.
One of the main benefits of aerial control is the situational awareness (surveillance) that the aircraft provide. Without aerial control our situational awareness will be severely limited. Therefore, we need large numbers of shorter range, cheap, expendable UAVs to provide area situational awareness. I’ve suggested that all ships should carry large numbers of such aircraft (in place of helos, if necessary) and that we should build small UAV carriers.
Ships conducting missions under uncontrolled skies are at greater risk of damage. We need to stop building one-hit ships and start building tough ships that can take damage, conduct repairs at sea, and keep fighting until the mission is over. Armor is a good start towards building tougher ships along with greater redundancy and separation of key systems and equipment. We can’t build Burkes that have two of their three illuminators located within about ten feet of each other. A single hit can eliminate two-thirds of a Burke’s AAW capability!
Increased manpower is another vital aspect of toughness and independent operations. Ships need to be able to absorb casualties and keep functioning and the only way to do that is with larger crews. Larger crews are also absolutely vital to damage control efforts and are generally considered to be the single most important aspect of damage control.
It is clear that we will need to conduct naval operations under skies we do not control and it is also clear that doing so is quite viable. We will, however, have to begin designing and building ships intended for those conditions and we have to begin developing doctrine and tactics for such missions. As I’ve said so many times, peacetime is the precious time to prepare for war and we’re squandering it on idiotic concepts like distributed lethality, distractions like gender sensitivity training, and worthless deployments and humanitarian missions.
We need to figure out what future war will look like (hey, Navy, I’m telling you what it will look like, since you haven’t got a clue and can’t seem to figure it out for yourself – you’re welcome!) and begin preparing for it. Everything we buy, build, or do must run through the filter of combat. How will [fill in the blank] enhance our combat capability? If the answer is it won’t, we shouldn’t do it. That, alone, would eliminate all the sensitivity sessions, green energy initiatives, new uniform of the year programs, humanitarian missions, etc.
Accept that we won’t control the skies. Embrace the concept and begin preparing for it.
We need to focus. Combat, combat, combat. Nothing else matters.