A recent report has argued for the use of amphibious forces to circumvent China’s ominous anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) edifice in the western Pacific during a high-intensity conflict. One of the key points of Exploiting Amphibious Operations to Counter China’s A2/AD Capabilities, published by the Center for a New American Century (CNAS), is that Chinese islands within the First Island Chain could be captured via amphibious assault. Friendly A2/AD forces would thereafter be established on these lodgements, hence turning the access-denial concept on the People’s Republic itself.
On a related note, Robert Farley wrote for The Diplomat earlier this month expressing qualms over the survivability of U.S. Navy (USN) amphibious forces in the face of burgeoning Chinese A2/AD systems if the former were to be utilized as per the CNAS article. That said, the key question is how could the vulnerability of American amphibs be reduced if they were to be deployed in a major theater war against China? The airborne early warning (AEW) version of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft could provide a solution to that problem. This variant of the part-airplane, part-helicopter platform is currently only on the drawing board, but the U.S. defense establishment would do well to bring it on board the Gator Navy, as doing so would mitigate the critical AEW gap the amphibian-centric Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs) are facing.
The littoral combat environment
Amphibious operations invariably involve operating one’s ships near the adversary’s shore; in other words, in the littorals. Such operations are likely to be highly complex affairs. As esteemed naval analyst Geoffrey Till writes: “The littoral is a congested place, full of neutral and allied shipping, oil-rigs, buoys, coastline clutter, islands, reefs and shallows, and complicated underwater profiles.” Hence, one main reason behind the labyrinthine nature of littoral warfare is that it involves clutter not only at sea, but also on land and in the air. Especially troublesome is the presence of numerous ships in the littorals. To illustrate, almost 78,000 ships transited the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways, in 2013. Exacerbating matters, threats to friendly forces can emanate from three dimensions – air, sea, underwater – and the adversary can exploit the clutter endemic to the littoral milieu to mask his attack or hide his forces.
Such a complex operating milieu would place a premium on the importance of battlespace awareness, which can make or break a campaign. As fabled ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu asserted: “With advance information, costly mistakes can be avoided, destruction averted, and the way to lasting victory made clear.” This statement was made over 2,000 years ago and is still as relevant today, especially when considered against the intricacies of littoral combat that hinder sensor usage.
Indeed, shipborne radar performance during littoral operations can be significantly degraded by land clutter. For instance, the Falklands War manifested the problems sea-based sensors have in detecting and identifying low-flying aircraft with land clutter in the background. Campaigning in congested coastal waters would also necessitate the detection and identification of hostile units in the midst of numerous other platforms, which is by no means an easy task. Things are not helped by the fact that shipborne sensors are range-limited by Earth’s curvature, and the adversary can exploit this by employing low-flying aircraft and/or sea-skimming missiles against the friendly naval force.
Having an airborne sensor would go a long way towards resolving the abovementioned issues, which are commonplace in littoral warfare. For one, an AEW platform can provide multi-spectral disambiguation of threat contacts from friendly/neutral ones and land clutter, yielding enhanced situational awareness to the task force commander. In addition, by having an “eye in the sky,” the limitations placed by Earth’s curvature on shipborne radar are reduced, enabling the task force to “see” not only farther but also better. In fact, being able to “see” from altitude allows one to attain the naval equivalent of “high ground,” that key advantage so prized by ground forces. Such is the centrality of the AEW aircraft in naval operations that a writer with the highly acclaimed Information Dissemination maritime blog contends that the platform is “a keystone of sea control.” In the same vein, another commentator writes that having it is “a necessity in (naval) warfare.”
The Gator Navy’s AEW lacuna
All that being said, America’s aviation-capable amphibious assault ships (LHAs/LHDs), which function as light aircraft carriers, have often been criticized for their lack of an organic airborne and early warning capability. If the U.S. large-deck carrier is vulnerable to A2/AD threats, then the amphibious assault ship is even more so, partly because of this deficiency. Indeed, the Gator Navy does not even have helicopters functioning in this role a la the Royal Navy (RN) previously and when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth-class flat-tops come into active service. As a matter of fact, none of the U.S. Navy’s or Marine Corps’ shipborne helicopters are AEW-capable and there are no plans for them to be so.
This capability gap could, however, be ameliorated if Washington pushes through with the EV-22 – the AEW variant of the Osprey that is currently only on the drawing board. First, it can operate off American LHAs/LHDs. Second, based on the performance of other Osprey variants, the EV-22 is likely to score respectably in key AEW attributes such as endurance and service ceiling. With an endurance of five hours and a service ceiling of 24,700 feet, the Osprey is a more capable machine compared to AEW helicopters, say the RN’s AW101 Merlin, whose corresponding figures are under five hours and 15,000 ft respectively. In stark contrast, the carrier-based E-2 Hawkeye has an endurance of six hours and a service ceiling of 34,700 ft. To be sure, the EV-22 simply cannot match up to fixed-wing aircraft like the Hawkeye in terms of performance. However, having the Osprey deployed with the U.S. Navy’s Wasp– and America-class vessels would still mark a profound improvement in the ESG’s battlespace awareness. After all, the entity’s AEW capability is currently zilch and the EV-22 would fill in this shortfall with capabilities just short of that of a fixed-wing AEW aircraft.
In essence, adding the EV-22 to the U.S. amphibious force’s order of battle would enable it to have a clearer tactical picture, and this translates into improved survivability by virtue of the greater cognizance of emerging threats that they offer to surface platforms. Moreover, having the EV-22 means that the ESG would be in a superior position to help dish out punishment on the adversary via not only the upcoming F-35B Lightning II strike fighter, but also other naval assets and even ground forces. This point is well covered in an article on the esteemed Foxtrot Alpha defense blog.
One can argue that the ESG need not have an AEW capability as that can be provided by the E-2 Hawkeyes of a U.S. Carrier Strike Group (CSG) or the dedicated surveillance aircraft of American and allied air forces like the E-3 Sentry. However, this argument is based on the premise that fixed-wing AEW assets are readily on hand to support ESG operations, and this is not something that can be assured, especially in a high-intensity conflict with a near-peer adversary. As a matter of fact, air force AEW planes need to have land bases to operate from and domestic politics might preclude this from happening.
And while the CSG can carry out highly capable AEW, there are not many of them to go around in the first place considering the relatively strapped American carrier fleet. The U.S. amphibious force must therefore prepare for contingencies where land- or carrier-based AEW aircraft are not readily available, and that is where the EV-22 would come in very handy. Furthermore, as per the new Distributed Lethality concept, non-carrier entities such as Expeditionary Strike Groups and Surface Action Groups are likely to be deployed in operations independent of flat-tops. In such circumstances, there would be a premium placed on the AEW capability of the EV-22 Osprey.
All in all, the lack of AEW coverage for the Expeditionary Strike Group is merely one of the several qualitative gaps the U.S. Navy is currently facing. These shortfalls include a lack of an organic sub-hunter for its supercarriers and a deficiency in long-range anti-ship missiles. To make matters worse, there is purportedly also a quantitative deficiency whereby the Navy is operating fewer ships than it should be in order to meet the country’s strategic requirements. Unsurprisingly, many defense commentators have criticized this state of affairs, arguing that the various gaps would come to the fore in any future high-intensity conflict with near-peer competitors like China and Russia
Nevertheless, in the past several months, the U.S. military establishment has ostensibly becoming more cognizant of the challenges posed by the rising access-denial capabilities of strategic rivals. Witness U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s infamous December 2015 memo to the USN, or the emphasis on high-end warfighting in the 2017 defense budget. In the U.S. Navy scheme of things, while recent attention has been largely placed on the viability of the large-deck carrier, perhaps it is time to rethink the concept of operations for the amphibious assault ship in a non-permissive milieu. To that end, the development of an airborne and early warning platform for service with the LHA/LHD must be seriously considered, and that is where the EV-22 Osprey fits the bill.
Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and he holds a master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. Naval warfare/operations is Ben’s main research interest, and he has published in this area with the likes of the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, The Diplomat, USNI News, and The National Interest.