The Navy’s striking power has steadily changed throughout history.
Guns - Initially, sailing ships carried their cannon right up alongside the enemy and then proceeded to pound away until the enemy submitted (sinkings were relatively rare). With the passing of the age of sail and the advent of steam and armor, the only thing that changed was the range of the guns and the speed and maneuverability of the ships. The objective was still the same – to batter the enemy until they sank (submitting was no longer an option).
Aircraft - With WWII, the primary striking power of the fleet began to shift from naval guns to aircraft and the aircraft carrier emerged as the new strike force. This continued through Vietnam and the Cold War. So called ‘alpha’ strikes were the primary striking power of the fleet. The battleship was retired without replacement and the largest gun in the fleet was the 5” and most ships have only one of those.
Missiles – More recently, missiles have begun to replace the aircraft. Modern anti-air systems have grown too deadly for manned aircraft, even stealth aircraft, to be considered the primary striking force. Not only does the Navy not have any survivable strike aircraft but even the limited buy of F-35Cs does not appear to be intended as strike aircraft but, instead, as surveillance and targeting nodes in the Navy’s fantasy network of sensors and missile shooters. Thus, the Navy appears to envision the F-35C as a missile enabler/supporter rather than a strike asset.
Just as importantly – and perhaps more so – defender’s anti-ship missiles have forced the carrier to stand off to such ranges as to nearly invalidate the use of strike aircraft. Without a doubt, the new striking power of the fleet is missiles: cruise, ballistic, hypersonic.
This, then, is the state of affairs, currently. We are in the final stages of transforming from a carrier strike navy to a missile strike navy. We already see more than ample proof of this in the form of Tomahawk missiles which have become the main strike weapon of the Navy. Even the remnants of carrier aviation are geared not at delivering bombs but at launching missiles such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and the developing hypersonic missiles. As ComNavOps has repeatedly stated, the new role of the carrier is not strike but, rather, escort and protection of the true striking force of the Navy which is the Tomahawk (hopefully, soon to be LRASM) armed Burkes. SSGNs, until they are retired, also constitute a significant portion of our naval strike power. While we are not replacing the SSGNs with dedicated replacements, we are expanding the missile carrying capacity of new Virginia class subs so as to provide a replacement in the aggregate. One can question the wisdom of this but the trend towards missiles as the strike power of the fleet is clear enough. Just slightly further in the future, one can readily see the movement towards hypersonic missiles on ships and aircraft.
While this ends the discussion of the development of naval striking power from its beginnings until now, I offer the next, predictable, future step in strike development for your consideration.
AI/Robotics – Though not available in any useful form, yet, one can easily imagine the next step in striking power to be artificial intelligence (AI) enhanced robotics. Mere missiles will be rendered ineffective by AI-enhanced defenses and lasers which will require AI-enhanced strike weapons to overcome the defenses. Such strike weapons will run the gamut from individual, small ground robots to AI-enhanced cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles. The logical extension of this would be AI-enhanced swarms of missiles acting as a single striking entity but with the intelligence to actively and intelligently modify their attack in response to the defenses and targets encountered.
Before we discuss what all this means, let’s list the lessons from the preceding discussion:
- Aircraft have been replaced by missiles as the striking power of the fleet and Tomahawk cruise missiles have become the standard strike weapon of the fleet.
- The Navy has no stealthy (survivable) strike aircraft.
- The role of the carrier has changed from strike to escort. Carrier aircraft now exist to defend the Burke strikers.
- Carrier aircraft cannot perform naval strike even with long range anti-ship missiles like LRASM due to the targeting problem.
- Burkes, and SSGNs until they’re retired, are the new striking power of the fleet.
Now, what do those lessons mean for the future of the Navy? What are the implications for force structure and operating doctrine? Here are the issues and implications:
We should be adapting the carrier and the air wing to the new role of escort for the real missile shooters, the Burkes/SSGNs. This means emphasizing long range, air superiority fighters which means that the current F-18 and F-35 are ill-suited and have no place in the future air wing and should no longer be procured. We’ve already discussed how to obtain a new aircraft in just five years so ceasing procurement will not result in aircraft shortfalls (see, “How to Build a Better Aircraft”).
Even trying to use aircraft as LRASM shooters is only marginally effective due to numbers. For example, a strike aircraft can only carry two missiles for any appreciable distance. Thus, it would require huge numbers of aircraft to mass enough missiles to create an effective strike. We’ve noted that it required nearly a hundred Tomahawks to partially destroy a single, undefended Syrian airbase in the recent past. A full strike against a peer defended target would require 300 missiles or more. That would require 150 aircraft or the entire combat air wing of four carrier air wings (and that would leave nothing for tanking or carrier defense!). By comparison, a single SSGN can launch 150+ missiles and two SSGNs meet the requirements for our illustrative strike of 300 missiles. This is why retiring the SSGNs without replacement is such a mistake.
Air wings need to be mainly fighter aircraft with a single shorter range strike squadron that can be swapped out, as needed, to further increase the fighter complement. The strike aircraft should be a new, simple, low end design conceptually similar to the A-4 or A-7.
We need a new, very long range, very long endurance, air superiority fighter. Conceptually, this would be akin to the F-14 and would encompass a combination of the best features of both the F-14 and F-22.
We desperately need a new cruise missile to replace the obsolete Tomahawk. Presumably, this would be the LRASM which is being developed for aircraft launch and we should be working, right now, on a vertical launch, shipboard version (VL-LRASM), as well. The Navy has discussed a desire for a VL-LRASM and done some preliminary work but development seems to have ground to a halt. Further, we should be starting development of the LRASM replacement which should be an AI-enhanced, very long range missile. The LRASM should be viewed as just a stopgap measure.
New missiles need to be self-targeting. They need to be capable of being fired in a general direction and actively implementing their own search and targeting without the need for traditional surveillance and contact tracking and targeting. This is a research effort that needs to begin immediately. Pieces of the concept are already under development but a focused, integrated research effort is needed.
We need very long range, stealthy, survivable sensor assets to complement the very long range missiles that we currently have. Million mile missiles are useless when paired with 20 mile sensors! Our current UAVs, P-8s, helos, and whatnot that we are depending on for surveillance and targeting are not survivable over a peer battlefield.
We need large caliber naval guns. Are guns obsolete? Of course not! Naval gunfire is overwhelming and superior in every way to aircraft delivered munitions except in range. There will still be circumstances where close range, overwhelming firepower is needed and large caliber naval guns are still be best solution for those scenarios.
Understanding the evolution of naval striking power enables us to see the current and future realities. This allows us to properly design our force structure and assess which assets we currently have that will prove useful in combat and which won’t.
For far too long, our force structure design has been based on technology rather than strategy. We’ve procured whatever new technology we could get without regard to its usefulness – hence, the useless LCS, Zumwalt, Ford, etc. We need to return to combat needs-based asset design backed by a clear understanding of how naval combat and striking power is evolving.
We need to develop a force structure that will actually be useful in the war with China. Our previous follies have already given us an LCS that has no use, whatsoever, in high end war along with Fords, Zumwalts, JHSVs, etc. that have little relevance or use. Let’s not keep repeating that same mistake.