Key point: Anti-carrier technology keeps advancing and the Pentagon must keep up.
Since World War II, aircraft carriers have dominated naval warfare based on a simple principle: their onboard air wings could assail targets far beyond the reach of the guns and torpedoes of opposing warships and coastal batteries.
However, that dynamic has not remained constant. Already, China and Russia have developed numerous of long-range anti-ship missiles deployable by air, sea and land with ranges approaching or exceeding that of today’s carrier-based jets.
A new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) argues that the U.S. Navy must increase the range of its carrier air wings, or give up on carriers as the centerpiece of its naval strategy altogether.
This is hardly a new argument in defense circles, but the CSBA report develops its conclusion in a clear and concise manner while doing the complicated math of calculating various range/payload regimes and missile interception rates. Furthermore, the report’s recommendations to fix the air wing don’t involve pie-in-the-sky super-fighters and major spending hikes.
The New Long-Range Threat
In conflicts since World War II, U.S. carriers have been able to park relatively close off targeted coastlines and launch dozens of sorties for sustained aerial bombardments, a job for the which their FA-18E/Fs and F-35Cs, with ranges of 500-700 nautical miles, are well suited. Against limited regional adversaries, such an approach will likely continue to work.
In a great power conflict, U.S. carriers would face greater threats and likely adopt World War II-style tactics: pairing together for mutual defense; darting into range of enemy fleets and shore installations to launch devastating strikes before withdrawing to avoid counterattack; and performing more sustained operations asserting control of waters on the periphery of access-denied areas.
Modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) can already reach a 500 nautical mile range. The CSBA calculate that in coming decades, China and Russia will be able to oversaturate carrier defenses using guided cruise and ballistic missiles from 800-1000 nautical miles away—and even launch more limited attacks from 1,200 miles away using weapons like the DF-26B anti-ship ballistic missile.
Some analysts question whether China and Russia have the proficiency and support assets to execute such a technically demanding attacks, which beyond missiles, also require advanced maritime- and satellite-reconnaissance capabilities to acquire targets from hundreds of miles away. But while it’s true that inexperienced militaries often underperform despite technically advanced systems, episodes like the Pearl Harbor attack conversely show how costly it can be to assume the incompetence of emerging adversaries.
The U.S. warships already dedicate a large share of their firepower solely to defending against current anti-ship missiles using sophisticated weapons like the SM-3 and SM-6. But missile interceptors are often more expensive than the systems they are designed to defend against, and the sheer number required already significantly curtails offensive capabilities.
Thus, carriers will need to operate further than 800 miles away from defended shorelines to have acceptable odds of surviving mass attacks—and even then, they must not only be capable of dispatching strikes from that range, but also deploy Combat Air Patrols and anti-submarine patrols up to 800 miles away along likely avenues of attack to thin out incoming aircraft and missiles.
Unfortunately, the Navy’s current strike wings simply can’t fly far enough. While some Super Hornets can be assigned to refuel other jets for extended range, they are an inefficient, limited-capacity solution at best.
The Drone-Based Air Wing
Fortunately, carrier air wings have, in the past, been tailored with different mixes of defensive, offensive and support aircraft to reflect evolving threats and operational requirements.
So, the simplest solution to getting around the short-legs of the F-18 and F-35? Drones.
In 2013 the U.S. Navy successfully catapult-launched and landed a large X-47B flying-wing stealth drone prototype on a carrier deck. This had a range of 2,100 miles and could carry 4,500 pounds in internal weapons bays.
Incredibly, the Navy then canceled plans for a carrier-based Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV), though it does plan to procure a non-stealthy MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone.
The Stingrays will help alleviate the range problem, and eventually could be modified into “multi-mission drone” capable of performing secondary reconnaissance, electronic warfare and strike missions using externally-mounted stores. However, because the MQ-25 has only limited stealth characteristics, it remains unsuited for penetrating heavily defended airspace.
Therefore, the CSBA report argues that as the Navy’s Super Hornets begin exceeding their 9,000-hour airframe life, they should be replaced with a stealthy UCAV with a range of 3,000 miles. The UCAVs would be survivable due to their stealthy blended-wing-body airframes, infrared signature-masking, and possibly laser-based active protection systems, while hauling comparable weapons payloads to current strike planes. Because the X-47 already exists as a testbed, the report’s authors estimate (arguably over-optimistically) such a UCAV could be developed by the mid-2020s. Eventually, this UCAVs could also be developed into a stealthier, higher-capacity tankers and electronic attacks platforms.
The subsonic UCAVs would still be ill-suited for counter-air missions, so the report’s authors also support the FA-XX program seeking to develop a faster, longer-range carrier-based sixth-generation stealth fighter called the FA-XX. However, they argue that speed is less important than range, weapons-load and sensors, and recommend developing new variants of existing Super Hornets or F-35s for the job instead of a clean-sheet design.
Stealthy air-independent propulsion submarines are also a proliferating threat. Carriers currently operate MH-60R helicopters which, though effective, have a roughly 200-mile patrol radius. Land-based P-8 patrol planes have longer legs but could prove vulnerable to enemy fighters. Therefore, high-endurance helicopter drones like the TERN developed by Marines could screen for approaching submarines much further away—formerly done by versatile S-3 Viking jets.
By 2040, a drone-based carrier air wing would include eighteen UCAV drones in three squadrons, one squadron of ten long-range FA-XX fighters, and one short-range squadron of ten F-35Cs—half the number currently planned.
Twelve multi-mission MQ-25 or UCAV drones would provide refueling and other forms of support, and six electronic attack stealth drones would replace EA-18G Growlers in the role of suppressing enemy air defense systems. Thirteen helicopters and helicopter drones would scour the seas for enemy subs and perform search and rescue ops, while six E-2D Hawkeyes would provide long-range air-defense radar coverage.
The study also evaluates alternative all-plane and mixed plane/drone air wings. When compared, the drone-heavy air wings can deliver up to 200 weapons up to 1300 nautical miles away, while the plane-based wing could only do so at 700 miles. The drones would also be cheaper to operate, as pilots can be trained inexpensively using flight simulators.
If funding is lacking, reducing the carrier force from ten to eight carriers could free up to $5 billion in annual costs. Without reform, however, the report warns that carriers could be reduced to playing an overpriced niche-role in U.S. national security.
Realistically, the CSBA’s clear-eyed analysis of contemporary carrier survivability versus near-future threats runs athwart the Navy’s current aversions to substituting short-ranged strike planes with unmanned aircraft. Militaries are social institutions after all, prone to investment in certain ways of doing things such as using cool jet fighters, or before, majestic battleships. But when the old means cease to perform in the face of evolving requirements, they must either be retired or reformed.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared earlier in 2019.