For the second time within a six-month span, the U.S. Navy is conducting dual-carrier operations in the Pacific theater, as the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group coordinate war preparation and attack exercises together in the South China Sea.
Certainly, having a carrier presence in the Asian theater, and the South China Sea area in particular, is somewhat routine for the U.S. Navy as it continues to establish presence, project power and ensure what the service calls a “free and open” Pacific. Two carriers operating in tandem, however, introduces an interesting and complex series of advantages and challenges by massive expanding attack reach, sortie rates and coordinated operations.
Two carriers operating together, described as “dual-carrier” operations, not only increases the potential number of attacks possible at one time by multiplying the number of available airplanes but also brings long-range missile firepower with supporting destroyers in the form of Tomahawk missiles, SM-3 interceptors and other weapons fired from Vertical Launch Systems. The collection of firepower throughout both carrier strike groups, could be described as simply massive.
However, apart from the readily apparent advantage of increased reach and firepower, the prospect of dual-carrier attack introduces coordinated war maneuvers such as networked strikes multi-platform integrated warfare. For example, Tomahawk missiles could destroy fixed inland enemy land targets to prepare the warzone for a massive surge of carrier-launched fighter jet attacks. With advanced sensors, computing and data-sharing technologies, surface ships can exchange command and control information and targeting specifics with airplanes, drones and even small boats approaching enemy shores.
The arrival of the F-35C also impacts this dynamic, as larger numbers of networked fifth-generation carrier-launched stealth aircraft could blanket enemy areas for attack, disperse across otherwise unreachable swaths of ocean or enemy territory and operate as aerial “nodes” for warships such Aegis-Radar armed destroyers needing to find, track and intercept incoming enemy attacks at great distances beyond the horizon.
Dual carrier strike groups also introduce the crucial promise of improving ship-defense networks as, simply put, more nodes in the air naturally might enable surface ship commanders to receive the earliest possible warning of incoming or approaching attack. Clearly, anti-ship missiles and enemy attack jets would be expected to confront U.S. carriers in the event of war. Perhaps one carrier strike group might simply wish to share data regarding fast-approaching enemy missiles, fighter jets, bombers, land artillery or really anything that might best be detected more quickly and at longer ranges.
A carrier-launched surveillance plane could, for instance, locate an incoming enemy target such as an aircraft or a missile and radio flight trajectory or targeting coordinates back to a host ship or second carrier strike group. Such a development could without question save lives, not to mention add the prospect of giving ship-defending commanders a larger time frame through which to find and engage a fast-approaching enemy attack in need of being intercepted.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.