Aircraft Carriers: Still Indispensable (2024)

Aircraft carriers are indispensable combat platforms. With their air wings, these mighty, mobile, maritime air bases offer a unique combination of versatility and force, enabling the nation to project air power across the globe without the constraints of basing rights and geopolitical borders. Naval aviation and aircraft carriers are critical capabilities within a system of joint, combined, all-domain warfighting. They can generate high sortie rates for strike warfare and air superiority. They have tremendous value in campaigning and crisis response. While they are inherently defensible because of their mobility, there is a strategic necessity to continue to invest in countertargeting capabilities and layered defenses to protect them. Most of all, there is an imperative for today’s naval aviation community to continue to innovate—just as our forebears have done since Eugene Ely first launched from and landed on a ship more than 110 years ago.

Start With The Why

Fires is the king of battle—and an aircraft carrier is the king of kings in capacity and range. Gerald R. Ford and Nimitz-class carriers (CVNs) can generate up to 125 strike sorties per day at surge rates and engage up to six precision aimpoints per sortie. Compare that with the fires generation rate of any platform—air-, land-, or sea-based, fixed or mobile. Rates will vary according to the combat environment, but the CVN’s unique at-sea reloadability via the combat logistics force, coupled with the immense weapons capacity in its magazines, make it an efficient platform to launch a high number of strike, air superiority, and antisubmarine warfare sorties.1 This high volume of sorties is crucial in modern warfare, in which air dominance and the capacity to strike at the heart of enemy operations can decisively influence the outcome of conflict.

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Aircraft carriers can be positioned anywhere in international waters, enabling them to respond swiftly to various threats or operational requirements, without the need for host nation support. The mobility of aircraft carriers provides inherent defensibility.

Unlike fixed airfields, which are always vulnerable to attack and require significant effort to defend, aircraft carriers can maneuver across the oceans, making them a challenging target. Mobility allows carriers to operate in areas where they can maximize their effectiveness while minimizing their vulnerability to attack.

Mobility is not a carrier’s only defense, but its ability to reposition rapidly complicates adversaries’ attack planning and execution. Potential adversaries, most notably the People’s Liberation Army, must work hard at finding carriers—and they are working hard and investing heavily in advanced missile systems designed to target ships at long ranges and in submarines and aircraft equipped with antiship weapons. The threat landscape is continuously evolving. But the targeting solution for fixed points on land was complete the night the earth cooled. The reason U.S. adversaries are working so hard to find the carriers is because of their incredible capability to maneuver and inflict damage.

This targeting and countertargeting dynamic demands a perpetual cycle of innovation and adaptation. Carrier strike groups (CSGs) work continually to enhance their defenses and operational tactics to counter emerging threats, while adversaries seek new methods to challenge this dominance. Though the specifics are classified, methods for CSGs to project power and protect themselves include countertargeting, exoatmospheric ballistic-missile defense, and medium- and short-range air and missile defense. Through the combination of countertargeting, mobility, deception, electronic warfare, directed energy, and kinetic kill, a layered approach can provide defense-in-depth against and across enemy kill chains.

Some critics point to the new warfighting concepts of other services as negating the need for carriers. The Marine Corps’ expeditionary advanced base operations and Marine littoral regiments, the Army’s multidomain operations/multidomain task forces, and the Air Force’s agile combat employment concepts are important, laudable contributions to joint, distributed, high-end warfare, but they cannot replace the contributions of the Navy’s aircraft carriers. As Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, I am a zealous advocate of these dynamic and innovative joint concepts and capabilities. But I am also the nation’s most ardent advocate of defending and sustaining the capabilities CSGs provide. It is not an either/or choice—it is a matter of yes, and.

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The joint and combined force is a latticework of dynamic capabilities that maneuver in the physical and spectral spaces and deliver fires and effects in all domains, to present dilemmas at faster cycles than our potential enemies and along wide and disorienting geography and dimensions. An aircraft carrier’s ability to maneuver dynamically, conduct strike warfare, and provide air superiority and sea control to defend and sustain joint stand-in forces render it indispensable. The former commander, U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie Jr., bluntly describes the impact of not having a CSG in theater in 2019 when Iran was planning a series of escalatory attacks:

“We also knew that the Iranians had been emboldened by a series of recent decisions to greatly reduce U.S. force presence. . . . Most significantly, we no longer had the continuous presence of an aircraft carrier and its accompanying ships. Aircraft carriers are unique icons, powerful symbols of U.S. commitment and power, and the Iranians carefully noted when they were and were not in the theater.”2

Campaigning And Crisis Response

Carrier strike groups also play a crucial role in reassuring allies and partners. A CSG’s presence in a region sends a strong message of commitment and support to U.S. allies and partners. It provides a visible, tangible demonstration of military capability and readiness. It not only reassures allies of U.S. commitment to their security, but also signals and deters potential adversaries. In addition, the diplomatic impact of a visiting carrier, with its 5,000 emissaries of good will—its sailors and Marines—has immeasurable value in cementing people-to-people ties.

Mobile C2

A CSG’s mobile command center allows a flag-level headquarters to command task forces and, under some circ*mstances, even numbered fleets—the naval equivalent to divisions and corps. The ability to host commanders and staffs, enabling them to build a tactical picture and command battlespace, and support a full battle rhythm across seven joint functions represents unique versatility. Carriers do all this without ever requiring the assent of a host nation, while always moving.

Humanitarian Assistance And Disaster Relief

While amphibious ready groups and their embarked Marine expeditionary units often get the first call to respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises—and they do excellent work—the speed and capacity of carriers means they can be immensely helpful in crisis response, too. A carrier’s aircraft can conduct search-and-rescue missions, provide medical care, deliver supplies and resources, and support evacuation efforts. In December 2004, when a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Indonesia and other nations in the Indian Ocean, the Abraham Lincoln CSG was the first force on scene to render assistance.3 Six years later, in 2011, another massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed part of Japan and caused a nuclear disaster at the f*ckushima nuclear power plant. The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) served as an afloat staging base for relief supplies and refueled Japan Self-Defense Force helicopters for weeks.4

Platforms For Innovation

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Sortie generation from aircraft carriers is not just about the quantity but also the quality and versatility of missions. From precision strikes against high-value targets to providing periodic to sustained air superiority, carrier-based aircraft provide a flexible range of capabilities. This versatility is further enhanced by the continuous evolution of naval aviation technology, including the development of more capable and versatile aircraft, which ensures that CSGs remain at the forefront of military operational capability. Consider the USS Enterprise (CVN-65). In her 51 years of service, the aircraft that flew from her deck spanned propeller-driven AD-1 Skyraiders and S-2F trackers to F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

The carrier air wing’s evolution reflects a military reality: We are always in contests of overmatch with adversaries. China’s fourth- and fifth-generation fighters and long-range weapons profoundly challenge U.S. capability. We must continue to overcome with ingenuity and creativity for the order of battle ahead. The Navy cannot afford to lose time on the next generation of systems for these missions. Fully adopting fifth-generation aircraft by getting the Ford class certified for F-35C operations and expediting development of Next Generation Air Dominance are imperatives.

The Enterprise also exemplifies the carrier as an enduring platform for the spiral development of information-age capabilities. Unmanned, autonomous, and hypersonic systems, additive manufacturing, directed energy, and nanotechnology are the future avenues of innovation in warfare. The carrier’s space, weight-carrying capacity, and the power of its two nuclear reactors provide capability unlike that of any other platform. There are obstacles that must be overcome to bring this about, but the ongoing air defense operations in the Red Sea demonstrate the need for directed-energy weapons.5 3D printers and materials should provide the capability to manufacture and launch hundreds, if not thousands, of attritable UAVs and weapons, around the clock. The space, weight, and power capacity of CVNs make both scenarios possible.

Necessary Tools In A Dangerous World

This year’s Hook Symposium theme is “Be Ready”—an appropriate dictum to the entire joint force. We face an increasingly chaotic and disordered world. It is not what Francis f*ckuyama predicted in The End of History and the Last Man—a peaceful post–Cold War world in which all nations would evolve toward liberal democracy. Rather, the behaviors exhibited today by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and violent extremists more resemble Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The United States would be wise to remember Huntington’s May 1954 Proceedings article, “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.” In that article, he wrote, “[The Navy’s] purpose now is not to acquire command of the sea but rather to utilize its command of the sea to achieve supremacy on the land. More specifically, it is to apply naval power to that decisive strip of littoral encircling the Eurasian continent.” He continued, “The basic weapons of the new Navy are those which make it possible to project naval power far inland. These . . . take primarily three forms . . . [the first of which is] carrier based naval air power.”6

Seventy years after Huntington wrote those words, naval aviation and aircraft carriers remain indispensable elements of the 21st-century military. The United States’ would-be enemies are working hard to target them because they fear them. We must not oblige those adversaries by quitting on or reducing this capability. As the global strategic landscape continues to evolve, the role of naval aviation and aircraft carriers will remain at the forefront of U.S. military power projection and maritime power—essential and integral to the joint and combined force. But for the nation to retain these unique capabilities, we must pace our adversaries’ ability to thwart them.

The challenges are manifest. We must build a robust countertargeting capability to dazzle, deceive, and destroy the enemy’s ability to see, understand, and act. The main battery of the carrier—the air wing and the weapons in its magazines—must pace the information age with increasing range, speed, accuracy, and lethality. We must quicken the pace with which we adopt and field unmanned systems. And we must take advantage of the space, weight, and power inherent in the CVN to bring directed-energy weapons and additive manufacturing to the battlespace. We have the talent and the energy to face these challenges. Speed. Angels. Fight’s On.

Aircraft Carriers: Still Indispensable (2024)


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