Can China and Russia Make U.S. Aircraft Carriers Obsolete?
Richardson also said that the carrier would remain relevant into the foreseeable future. Richardson pointed out that USS Enterprise was on its first deployment during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but since that time, the ship remained relevant over the years as its systems and its air wing were switched out even as the international security order changed around it. Even on the day she was finally pulled from active duty in December 2012, Enterprise remained as relevant as a warship as the day she first put to sea on her first deployment. The same will be true of the Ford-class. “That’s our vision,” Richardson said. “They’ll certainly be making a big contribution.”
The United States Navy is absolutely confident in the ability of its aircraft carriers and carrier air wings to fly and fight within zones defended by so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons. Both Russia and China—and to a lesser extent Iran—have been developing layered anti-ship and anti-aircraft defenses that would make it more difficult for the U.S. Navy to operate closer to their shores.
In the view of the U.S. Navy leadership, A2/AD—as it is now called—has existed since the dawn of warfare when primitive man was fighting with rocks and spears. Overtime, A2/AD techniques have evolved as technology has improved with ever-greater range and lethality. Rocks and spears eventually gave way to bows and arrows, muskets and cannons. Thus, the advent of long-range anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles is simply another technological evolution of A2/AD.
“This is the next play in that,” Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, told The National Interest on Aug. 25 during an interview in his office in the Pentagon. “This A2/AD, well, it’s certainly a goal for some of our competitors, but achieving that goal is much different and much more complicated.”
Indeed, as many U.S. Navy commanders including Richardson and Rear Adm. (Upper Half) DeWolfe Miller, the service’s director of air warfare, have pointed out, anti-access bubbles defended by Chinese DF-21D or DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile systems or Russian Bastion-P supersonic anti-ship missile systems are not impenetrable ‘Iron Domes.’ Nor do formidable Russian and Chinese air defense systems such as the S-400 or HQ-9 necessarily render the airspace they protect into no-go zones for the carrier air wing.
Asked directly if he was confident in the ability of the aircraft carrier and its air wing to fight inside an A2/AD zone protected by anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles as well as advanced air defenses, Richardson was unequivocal in his answer. “Yes,” Richardson said—but he would not say how exactly how due to the need for operational security. “It’s really a suite of capabilities, but I actually think we’re talking too much in the open about some of the things we’re doing, so I want to be thoughtful about how we talk about things so we don’t give any of our competitors an advantage.”
Meanwhile, Miller—who spoke to The National Interest on Aug. 23—directly addressed one of the major criticisms of the current air wing—which is that naval aviation has lost much of its reach since the retirement of the Grumman A-6 Intruder and its KA-6 tanker counterpart. “I don’t think we’ve lost reach at all,” Miller said. “I think the range or the reach of the carrier strike group is actually greater than it was back in the day. And if you look at the precision of how we strike compared to what I started with—A-7s and A-6s—we’ve become quite a bit more precise air wing as well.”
Miller attributes the improved performance of the air wing to the development of new technologies such as improved targeting pods, new long-range stand-off weapons and the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network. Essentially, the NIFC-CA construct—the first iterations of which are already being fielded—allows any component of the strike group to act as a sensor or shooter for another component of the unit. Thus a Boeing EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack aircraft could pass on targeting data concerning a threat to a Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet—which could then launch a weapon to destroy the target.