James Holmes

An Age of Land-Based Sea Power?

“if indeed technology keeps extending the reach of UCAVs and other forms of long-range fire support.”

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.