Over the last several months, the debate about the future of the United States’ nuclear-powered carrier (CVN) fleet has picked up speed again, with several major contributions coming from both sides of the aisle. Back in October, Seth Cropsey, Bryan McGrath, and Timothy Walton published their very detailed take on how to keep the carrier weapon system in the game. Not long after, well-known carrier critic Jerry Hendrix followed up on his earlier thinking on the subject in Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation. Most recently, Kelley Sayler contributed a study on the Growing Threat to U.S. Aircraft Carriers. The issue was also discussed at length in House Armed Services Committee hearings on February 11, 2016.
While the debate revolves around the viability of the carrier and its future roles (if any), it is inevitably bound up with current events in the Asia-Pacific, including China’s continuing militarization of the South China Sea. As People’s Liberation Army (PLA) anti-access and area denial capabilities continue to grow in density and sophistication, and as the underlying technologies spread to other actors, Sayler and other skeptics argue, they will “plac[e] greater constraints on U.S. carrier operations than ever before.” In the following I will argue that this amounts to a major distortion of the U.S. Navy’s historical experience, and of the evolution of the capital ship more generally – one that needs to be addressed if the U.S. is to make realistic choices about its future naval force structure in the coming years.
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The argument that operating in future high-threat areas would involve unprecedented levels of risk for U.S. carrier strike groups (CSGs) is, in fact, astonishingly ahistorical. Even where they mention past anti-access networks in passing, many carrier skeptics treat the PLA’s capabilities and concepts as if they were a radical new departure, and the ability of CSGs to operate “with impunity” as something other than a transient post-Cold War aberration. While there are a few exceptions to this state of collective amnesia (e.g., in the contributions of Sam Tangredi, Toshi Yoshihara, and James Holmes), most anti-access/area-denial commentary seems to take as its point of reference a parallel universe in which U.S. carrier task forces never had to claw their way through a Japanese defensive perimeter spanning half the Pacific Ocean (even after getting a lucky break at Midway, courtesy of Japanese operational-level incompetence). Even more surprising is the tendency to shrug off the Soviet anti-access threat, as if all those Echos, Charlies, and Oscars roaming the oceans and all those Tu-22M Backfires poised to unleash their anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) in multi-vector, regimental-size strikes were never considered a major threat by the Navy. Thus, Hendrix – whose report is historically dense but barely scratches the surface where Soviet capabilities are concerned – is correct in pointing out that the average combat radius of the carrier air wing was more than 900 nautical miles in 1986. But he fails to mention that the combat radius of the Backfire was 1,300 nautical miles – well in excess of the purported range of China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).
Capital ship vulnerability is, in fact, a very stale cup of coffee. The fear of “putting too many eggs into too few baskets” has weighed heavily on naval force planners’ minds ever since the escalating costs of the heavily armored, big-gun, turbine-driven “battlewagons” of the early 20th century rendered such concentration a fiscal inevitability. For half a century, the credible threat of a very small investment putting a very large investment on the ocean floor was embodied by the torpedo. For the next half century it was exemplified by the ASCM. The capital ship and its technological nemesis – the cheap and plentiful missile weapon – have evolved together, in a dynamic that is intimately familiar to any remotely historically minded analyst of military affairs. The ASBM is in its infancy, so are the U.S. Navy’s defenses against it. There is no reason to believe that it will evolve along a markedly different path than its predecessors.
As a result, the fundamental relationship of offense and defense at sea is unlikely to change very much. Battlegroup defenses have improved radically since the Battle of Midway, but the basic tactical lesson of that fateful June 4 remains in place: Anti-carrier strikes that are well below the saturation threshold or badly coordinated will be repelled with relative ease. If strikes are large enough, well-coordinated, and competently executed, some missiles are bound to get through eventually. In that case, a large carrier will be more likely to survive the damage than a small one. In other words, carrier strike groups will be as vulnerable as they have always been in the face of a capable adversary equipped with state-of-the-art technology.
The Face of Major War
Why, then, was the U.S. Navy of the 1980s able to contemplate forward, offensive operations in the Norwegian Sea, whereas the U.S. Navy of the 2010s will – according to many a seasoned analyst – soon be unable to contemplate any such thing in the Western Pacific? This is where we must leave the cold and seemingly “objective” assessment of relative capabilities behind and consider some of the less tangible factors at play here. Even more important than the dynamic interaction of military technologies and doctrines is the context within which they are employed. Many of the analysts engaged in the anti-access and carrier debates appear to assume that losing a CVN would in itself constitute an immediate, shattering defeat that would change the course of U.S. foreign policy. Leaving the beautifully constructed scenarios in which China somehow “gets away” with sinking a carrier – much like the Japanese got away with Pearl Harbor, presumably – aside for a moment, there is only one context in which the U.S. is likely to lose a flattop: a full-scale naval war, which either would have been underway for some time or would have come about as a result of a surprise conventional first strike.
In such a war, a service’s main weapon systems and those who man them are necessarily vulnerable and the question of carrier survivability cannot be reduced to a simple, abstract “yes” or “no.” What navies are prepared to risk in a high-intensity test of strength is a result of complex considerations including, above all, the strategic importance of the mission at hand. In its struggle with the Imperial Japanese Navy, the U.S. Navy lost four fleet carriers, a light fleet carrier, five escort carriers, two battleships, seven heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, sixty-six destroyers and fifty submarines. It suffered 31,157 naval personnel killed in action in the Pacific and Asiatic theaters. In any major war, a considerable risk of heavy losses comes with the terrain. To assume that the U.S. could fight a Second Pacific War within a frame of reference in which the loss of a carrier would constitute a catastrophic “outlier” event – i.e., on the cheap, with minimal losses of material and human lives – is to fundamentally misconstrue the nature of such a conflict. China in 2016 is not Iraq in 1991. The PLA has spent the last two and a half decades making sure of that.
Don’t Forget to Take Your Daily Dose of Realism
Making informed force structure decisions requires that planners, and those who influence them by way of the political process, start from a set of realistic premises. The most basic calculation that ought to underpin the ongoing CVN debate is this: If the real risk of losing one or more carriers is intolerable as such, the United States has no business getting involved in a serious military conflict with China. If, on the other hand, the stakes are so vital that great power war is an acceptable means of defending them, the U.S. will probably risk all the carriers it needs to risk until the issue has been settled, one way or the other. The best – maybe the only – way not to lose any of those precious flattops is to utterly demolish any illusions the PLA might harbor of keeping a U.S.-China war limited and of stealing a quick victory. If the cliff of deterrence is raised high enough, the prospect of taking the plunge will seem decidedly unattractive to all but the most risk-prone decision-makers.
There are, of course, different options available to achieve this. If the past 60 years of U.S. forward conventional (and theater nuclear) deterrence are any indication, all of them will involve a complex force mix that offers some redundancy in the ways and means of power projection. If flattops are to make an effective contribution to the closely related missions of assurance, deterrence and warfighting in the Asia-Pacific, building a 21st century air wing that allows them to get into battle while staying clear of areas that contain the high density of threats is certainly a good starting point. How to get there while being stuck in the double corset of fiscal downward pressure and F-35 sunk costs is a difficult debate worth having.
However, with or without an adapted air wing concept, waging an actual war against China would inevitably require power projection into the teeth of a capable defense, armed with more lethal weaponry than any Western power has encountered in battle on such a scale. Painful losses – in ships and aircraft, sailors and aviators – would have to be expected as a matter of course, and they would probably accumulate quickly, on both sides. The idea that the main weapons system of the U.S. Navy should somehow be immune to the brutal forces unleashed in high-technology combat, and otherwise must be eliminated from the force structure, has an air of unreality about it. Seventy-one years after the last American fleet carrier was sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, let us hope it does not take a naval engagement of such proportions to remind us of what modern war at sea really looks like.
Michael Carl Haas is a researcher in the Global Security team at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. He is currently writing a thesis on the U.S. Navy’s handing of anti-access challenges during the Cold War era.