The US carrier task force slid silently through the calm night waters as the Admiral on the flag bridge of the carrier looked out into the darkness. He could just make out the distant silhouette of one of the three other carriers in the group. The carriers were spread out in a box formation with around five miles separation between them. The task force – the first thing the Admiral had done upon assuming command was to jettison the modern terminology and return to WWII descriptions, like ‘task force’, feeling that it conveyed a more no-nonsense, combat focus – had an immense escort group of 8 Ticonderoga class cruisers, 18 Burke class destroyers, and 6 of the new frigates. This was, the Admiral reflected, a group worthy of being called a task force. The Navy was finally getting serious about this war but it had required the abject failure of the Virginia submarine attack on Hainan to shake the Navy out of its delusional comfort zone.
The Admiral had been briefed on the results of the Virginia missile attack – the Navy’s first combat operation of the war - and it hadn’t been pretty. Hainan had been a priority target both to relieve pressure on the Taiwan operations and to open up the southern approach to China that Hainan guarded. The Navy had confidently assigned seven Virginia class submarines with a combined load of 280 Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack Hainan from the south at a standoff range of several hundred miles. The 280 missiles were deemed sufficient to destroy the facilities at Hainan even with some expected attrition of the missiles. After all, Tomahawks were relatively slow and non-stealthy so some were bound to be shot down.
What hadn’t been expected was that the Chinese would present a layered defense that decimated the Tomahawk missile stream. The missiles had been detected at almost their firing points – Navy communications and centralized computer planning were nowhere near as secure as believed - and the Chinese had immediately begun cycling fighter aircraft loaded with air-to-air missiles to start reducing the incoming stream of Tomahawks. With about 800 miles to work with, the Chinese were able to cycle a constant stream of fighters against the Tomahawks for the duration of the 1.5 hour flight time of the missiles.
The 130 or so defending aircraft, launched from Hainan and various bases scattered around the South China Sea and carrying around 10 air-to-air missiles each, were able to bring 1300 missiles against the Tomahawks. As it turned out, the Tomahawks were nothing more than drone targets for the Chinese fighters; the cruise missiles couldn’t maneuver or evade and had no countermeasures that mattered to the Chinese aircraft. It was like sharks feeding on a school of fish.
Once the sharks were done feeding and the remaining missiles neared Hainan, the ground SAM defenses had taken over. Again, the slow, non-stealthy Tomahawks had fared poorly against China’s modern SAM systems. Of the original 280 Tomahawks, the Navy estimated that only around 50 had reached the Hainan area and, of those 50, 2/3 had been shot down by SAMs. Only around 16 missiles had actually struck a target and the damage inflicted was minimal and quickly repaired.
All in all, it had been a colossal wasted effort. The only good to come of the attack was that the Navy had learned lessons and was now serious about conducting the war. This task force was going to apply those lessons and finish the job the first attack had failed at.
The task force was sprinting towards the initial launch position – not the launch position of missiles but, rather, the launch position of its aircraft. The task force’s mission was to fly escort for the Tomahawk missiles which would be launched from four SSGNs.
One of the lessons the Navy had learned was that overwhelming force was needed to penetrate modern defenses. Thus, the Navy would use 600 Tomahawks in this attack.
The other lesson the Navy had learned was that Tomahawks were obsolete and non-survivable on the modern battlefield. The carrier task force’s mission was to provide fighter escort for the cruise missiles during their long flight to the target. The carrier’s fighters would engage the Chinese interceptors and attempt to keep them from engaging the missiles.
As the task force reached its launch point, the group’s 160 F-18 and F-35 aircraft began a leisurely launch process. Just as the Chinese would cycle aircraft to attack the cruise missile stream, as they had done before, so too would the carriers cycle escort aircraft to meet them. The idea was to maintain a constant rotation of new aircraft timed to arrive at the ever moving engagement point so that fresh, fully armed aircraft would be continually arriving to engage the fresh, fully armed Chinese interceptors.
As the task force continued its leisurely launch cycle of several aircraft every few minutes, the ships continued on a course which followed the path of the missile stream. This shortened the travel time for the aircraft, facilitated aircraft recovery, and allowed the task force’s E-2 Hawkeyes to maintain some degree of awareness of the moving battle.
As the Chinese fighters arrived and met the defending Hornets and F-35s some 30 miles in front of the leading edge of the trailing missile stream, both sides began to launch missiles at beyond visual range. The handful of stealth fighters on both sides were immune to target locks at that range but the Hornets and Chinese Flanker/MiG copies were not. Missiles crisscrossed the sky as fighters launched and then began their own evasive maneuvering. The initial exchange brought relatively little result as nimble fighters maneuvered violently and dumped chaff. A handful of fighters on both sides were downed but the majority pressed on and the fighters merged to visual range dogfighting.
It was then that the US Navy learned another lesson. The pre-war concept of F-35s loitering outside of the immediate battle and leisurely targeting enemy aircraft was quickly found to be unworkable. The F-35s were unable to distinguish friend from foe in the intertwined aerial mess and the F-35s that tried to launch into the tangle actually hit a few friendly aircraft as the AMRAAMs were immediately sidetracked by the chaff, flares, and multitude of targets that filled the sky and locked onto any signature that appeared. The F-35s had no choice but to join the giant dogfight. Unfortunately, eyeball dogfighting was not what the F-35 was designed to do and it proved to be a mediocre performer – able to hold its own but nothing more.
The combat slightly favored the Chinese with the F-18 being slightly outperformed by the Flanker/MiGs. While the F-18/35s failed to sweep the skies, they were able to force the Chinese fighters to honor the threat and use up their air-to-air missiles which kept them from attacking the cruise missiles.
As the initial wave of aircraft emptied their loads of air-to-air missiles and began to retire, the next group of escort fighters showed up and the process repeated itself. For the next hour, the cycle continued. Occasional individual Chinese fighters broke through and attacked the cruise missiles but the attrition was minimal.
When the missile stream approached the Hainan SAM defenses, the Chinese fighters broke off to clear the way for the SAMs. At the same time, the final, larger wave of escort fighters appeared. In addition to fighters, this wave also included EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft and Hornets loaded for radar suppression. Their job was to blind the SAM radars long enough for the cruise missiles to penetrate the layered SAM defense and strike home.
Being at the extreme of their range, the escort aircraft could not linger. The Navy had failed to develop the extreme long range fighter that this war demanded. This degraded the radar suppression effort with the result that the SAMs were more successful than they should have been but still far less successful than in the first SSN missile attack. Of the 600 attacking missiles, a bit over 500 survived to strike their targets. The targets were not runways, which could be quickly repaired, but, instead, were fuel storage, hangars, maintenance facilities, weapons storage, command facilities, etc. These were the elements vital to a functioning air base and their destruction could not be quickly repaired and replaced. Similarly, the naval facilities were also targeted with dry docks, piers, submarine tunnel entrances, etc. being heavily targeted. By the time the strike was over, Hainan had ceased to exist as a viable air and naval base and would remain non-functional for many months to come. The road to the South China Sea had been opened for the operations to come.
Lessons and Considerations From the Story:
Real war operations will involve quantities of ships, aircraft, and missiles that we, today, cannot imagine and have not been seen since WWII. That being the case, why are we training in ones and twos instead of tens and hundreds?
The primary purpose of the carrier should be to escort Tomahawk shooters, missiles, and Air Force bombers as well as provide local air superiority.
Carriers must operate in groups of four to mass sufficient aircraft. The steady shrinking of the air wings is a profound mistake as is the loss of WWII and Cold War carrier operating doctrine. The further reduction in aircraft squadron size from 12 to 10 when the F-35 reaches service will only exacerbate this misguided trend.
The Navy desperately needs a very long range air superiority fighter. Strike aircraft are a distant, secondary need, if even that, and have no role in a modern peer war.
The Navy desperately needs a modern, supersonic, very long range cruise missile. The new cruise missile should include variants dedicated to penetration aids, anti-radiation, and electronic warfare.
Disclaimer: As always, this is not a realistic combat simulation. It is simply a more entertaining way to illustrate the various concepts and how those concepts might link together.