An Age of Land-Based Sea Power?
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An Age of Land-Based Sea Power?


This week the Naval Diplomat is taking part in a U.S. Naval Institute symposium on the memorandum from Vice Admiral Tom Copeman that calls the future of various high-profile platforms — the latest version of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the Littoral Combat Ship — into question. The editor asked me to stand into shoal water with a column on the viability and longevity of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The punchline: the big-deck flattop may no longer be a capital ship in any strict sense. Scope it out over at USNI on Wednesday to see how I arrive at that counterintuitive finding.

Here's a teaser, and a coda. Many carrier proponents call for replacing short-legged tactical aircraft such as the F/A-18 Hornet and its successor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) sporting far greater ranges. The experimental X-47 UCAV, for instance, has a combat radius advertised at 2,000 nautical miles or thereabouts, well exceeding that of land-based anti-access weaponry. Embracing such airframes would confer a host of benefits, not least letting the carrier stand off out of harm's way while still getting close enough to adversary shores for the airwing to do its work.

Let's run a thought experiment. Technology is augmenting the range not just of unmanned aircraft like the X-47 but of precision weaponry of all types. Two observations, one technical and the other theoretical. First, if future combat aircraft boast ranges measured in thousands of miles, it's worth asking at what point navies can dispense with mobile airfields altogether. UCAVs could operate from strategically placed islands or landmasses abutting important theaters — in effect converting land into an unsinkable aircraft carrier. Persuading allies to host air bases that might expose them to attack could prove tricky. Still, it's worth asking what a world without carriers would look like.

Second, we may be entering an age of land-based sea power, if indeed technology keeps extending the reach of UCAVs and other forms of long-range fire support. If so, maritime strategists should consult not just the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett — the North Star for offensively minded, bluewater seafaring states — but also the ideas put forward by continental theorists of sea power. Thinkers from the 19th-century jeune ecole, for instance, meditated on how land powers like France could accomplish limited goals at sea in the face of globe-spanning sea powers like Great Britain. A France or Germany could deploy lesser fleets armed with niche technologies like mines and torpedoes. Such measures could hold stronger enemy navies at bay.

As technology augments the capacity of shore-based aircraft and missiles, the latter-day equivalents to the torpedo, the writings of continental theorists could find new relevance. Maybe their works belong on the shelf next to those of Mahan and Corbett.

March 28, 2013 at 10:56

The LHD is hardly "nimbler" than a CVN.  It is in fact slower than a CVN and its axial flight deck is obsolete insofar as CATOBAR aircraft e.g. a UCAV are concerned.  If a CVN is too vulnerable to enter the DF-21D's range, as CAPT Hendrix posits, it would be absolutely lethal for a slower LHD equipped with the shortest ranged version of the F-35, i.e. the F-35B, as he advocates.  Outside of launching LCACs or carrying ground vehicles there is no aviation mission that an LHD is better at than a CVN.    

March 28, 2013 at 01:32

Excellent comment. I like to add that land based UCAV are great but they are subsonic and will takes hours to reach their target.Today, battles will be decided in a matter of minutes and seconds. A carrier, a hundred miles, from shore will strike its target in minutes.The concept of static "land based carrier" is really an idea dead on arrival. The carriers are not going away any time soon. R & D is need to defeat the so called carrier killer missiles and I suspect the answer is laser cannons.

The Incredible Shrinking US
March 27, 2013 at 19:16

1. The US is losing its potency as a military power through the advent of A2AD spread through the world in response and in defense against the US's threat, bullying and psoturing.

2. Aircraft carriers will still be relevant but will become smaller and carry more drones than manned aircraft. To compensate there will be more destroyers and frigates an submarines with ship to surface and ship to air missiles, not to mention ship to ship missiles.

3. Having experienced the bullying, threats and hostility of the US, the new generation of rulers of all countries on this planet will strive to arm themselves with effective defensive weapons against the US's military, while forming regional unions for defensive, political and economic purposes.

4. Like electronics, size no longer matters.  The US's big stick will look increasingly stone-aged.  More countries will be able to afford and capable of building missiles.

5. Whatever the US do, the Chinese can re-tool and re-train to match the US.

John Survein
March 27, 2013 at 01:45

The coming obsolescence of big-deck carriers and the imperative of investing more heavily in unmanned platforms are dealt with in somewhat greater detail in this report, from a career naval flight officer who has worked throughout DOD and the Navy's planning and policy shops, and who currently works in OPNAV:

The US should absolutely be acquiring for the wars of 2030, which means greater investment in C4ISR and all the attendant technologies (space, counterspace, offensive and defensive cyber), while mitigating the A2AD capabilities of potential adversaries, which will only increase. The greater range of UCAVs and the maneuverability of nimbler amphibious carriers, not to mention global precision strike, will allow the US to ensure its naval forces continue to play the deterrent role that has allowed the entire region to prosper through secure SLOCs and freedom of the commons.

March 26, 2013 at 17:03

to be honest, even in the age of drones, i think that manned strike or warfare platforms, such as carriers and manned fighters will still remain relevant. The reason for this is demonstrated by what happened to that drone in Iran last year; it is the height of hubris to assume that one's fleet of drones will never be hacked, and their control turned over to some foreign entity, or–perhaps worse–that in warfare the satellites that provide the vital link will be destroyed, rendering them useless. To think that these risks do not exist or can be marginalized is the height of folly; imagine, if you will, an entire U.S drone formation being hacked and turned upon the base/fleet that served it. So long as such risks exist, i cannot vouch for drones as the future of warfare, to say nothing of what they do to the mentality of those who control them.

March 26, 2013 at 11:19

The idea of unsinkable island aircraft carriers is hardly new; it was key piece of Japan’s WWII naval strategy.  In that case, carrier mobility proved superior.  The UK’s Royal Air Force made a bid for “land based sea power” in the 1960s when the UK was debating maintaining its carrier capability.  In that instance the RAF successfully scuttled the RN on the premise that bombers/strike aircraft could do everything a carrier could.  Today, the UK is not generally considered capable of establishing control of the seas, at least not on the scale of the USN, nor is it capable of any truly long range strikes absent its former basing network and the retirement of the Vulcan bomber.


With respect to the thought experiment, many of the analyses that presage the aircraft carrier’s imminent irrelevance do so by only forecasting advances in the anti-access, anti-ship missile realm.  Defensive technologies are not sitting still despite the lack of discussion.  Returning to the mobility issue, unsinkable islands still require bases, and they do not move.  Immobile targets are good ones for the ballistic missiles, better than moving aircraft carriers.  Additionally, the brave new world of UCAVs and anti-ship ballistic missiles seems highly dependent on satellite navigation/communication.  In a peer-to-peer conflict where carriers are targets, it is hard to imagine that satellites will be allowed to operated unfettered.


A final note on the topic of sovereignty.  There is a good deal of truth in advertising when the Navy points out that a CVN does not need permission from anyone but the president to launch.  Choosing to rely on the steadfastness of allies today for a contingency tomorrow is debatable wisdom.  The Libyan air strikes in 1986 being one example.

March 26, 2013 at 10:26

This is a no-brainer

The Age of the Aircraft carrier is DEAD.

Long Range, Unmanned, Persistent, Precise Strike (LRUPPS)  is where it is at. Spending money anywhere else is just vanity.

March 26, 2013 at 09:01

I've been reading about mechnized future war fair and what is currently being developed by the US and its allies.

The future of warfare is one word…..DRONES. Definately cheaper, hassel free and of course the absnece of a human being on the front line with this war machine. The only current and present issues is that the drones have to be refueled, rearmed and need maintenance. Which brings me to my point, currently in development are drones to be nuclear powered so they will be able to fly around for much longer in the air and come down for only rearm and maintenance.

This nuclear drone as long as many other aircraft, land and sea vechicles will head this path. It is also rumored that the A.I is to be developed on drones so it will require no or minimal human control. The A.I will be able to track, pinpoint accurately the target and make a "decision" on the best option to take out the target or course the military has to define is machine or man will make the "decision" process. You can see where the problems arise with this scenario and not just only on the battlefield to this may apply to. Scary world but also so facinating in the team developing this technology. Amazing!

March 25, 2013 at 23:44

interestingly, that formed the basis of policy for the United Kingdom post war.  Carriers were scrapped and air force basis remained on islands such as Malta, Cyprus, Aden etc. A considerably cheaper strategy.

However, a drone might have range, but surely it is easier to shoot down than a F-35.

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