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Is the US Navy Planning Big Changes to America's Future Aircraft Carriers?

Is the US Navy Planning Big Changes to America's Future Aircraft Carriers?

Threats from carrier-killer missiles and other weapons of war could force some big changes. 

The Navy may change the size, shape, technological configuration and mission characteristics of its aircraft carriers in the future after careful study of the emerging global threat environment, senior service officials said.

Senior Navy officials are now assessing and finalizing the initial results of coordinated, long-term analysis on the future of aircraft carriers designed, among other things, to explore whether alternative configurations, engineering models, shapes, sizes and technologies were needed to address anticipated future threats to the platforms.

A senior official did not specify the results of the study but did say they would be available soon. 

"We are getting ready to brief Congress on our findings," a senior Navy official told Scout Warrior. 

Many by now are familiar with ongoing debates about whether aircraft carriers themselves could soon become obsolete with the advent of longer-range, precision-guided anti-ship missiles and next-generation hypersonic attack weapons. 

The Navy may consider alternative aircraft carrier configurations in coming years as it prepares for its new high-tech, next-generation carrier to become operational later this year, service officials have said.

Configurations and acquisition plans for the next three Ford-class carriers - the USS Ford, USS Kennedy and USS Enterprise are not expected to change – however the study could impact longer-term Navy plans for carrier designs and platforms beyond those three, service officials have said.

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.)

Although no particular plans have been solidified or announced, it seems possible that these future carriers could be engineered with greater high-tech sensors and ship defenses, greater speed and maneuverability to avoid enemy fire and configurations which allow for more drones to launch from the deck of the ship. They could be smaller and more manueverable with drones and longer-range precision weapons, analysts have speculated.

 

At the same time, it is possible that the Ford-Class carrier could be adjusted to evolve as technologies mature, in order to accommodate some of the concerns about emerging enemy threats. Navy engineers have designed the Ford-Class platform with this ability to adapt in mind. As a result of the unfolding trajectory of carrier technologies and other defensive weapons, many senior leaders have been clear that future carriers will indeed be able to operate in extremely high-threat environments. 

In particular, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, recently told The National Interest that Russian and Chinese weapons will not keep carriers at bay.

 

Also, given evolving ship defense technologies such as radar, lasers, fire-control improvements, aerial sensors, electronic warfare and other systems, the study may recommend that the existing configuration of the Ford Class carriers remain fundamentally unchanged. Carriers also travel in "carrier groups" with nearby well-armed cruisers and destroyers designed, at least in part, to defend carriers from enemy attack. 

The USS Gerald R. Ford is the first is a series of new Ford-class carriers designed with a host of emerging technologies to address anticipated future threats and bring the power-projecting platform into the next century.

Once its delivered, the new carrier will go through “shock trials” wherein its stability is tested in a variety of maritime conditions such as its ability to withstand nearby explosions; the ship will also go through a pre-deployment process known as “post-shakedown availability” designed to further prepare the ship for deployment.

Configurations and acquisition plans for the next three Ford-class carriers - the USS Ford, USS Kennedy and USS Enterprise are not expected to change – however the study could impact longer-term Navy plans for carrier designs and platforms beyond those three, service officials have said.

Although no particular plans have been solidified or announced, it seems possible that these future carriers could be engineered with greater high-tech sensors and ship defenses, greater speed and manueverability to avoid enemy fire and configurations which allow for more drones to launch from the deck of the ship. They could be smaller and more manueverable with drones and longer-range precision weapons, analysts have speculated. At the same time, it is possible that the Ford-Class carrier could be adjusted to evolve as technologies mature, in order to accommodate some of the concerns about emerging enemy threats. Navy engineers have designed the Ford-Class platform with this ability to adapt in mind. 

Future Carriers: 

The Navy plans to build Ford-class carriers for at least 50-years as a way to replace the existing Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis. This schedule will bring the Ford carriers service-life well into the next century and serve all the way until at least 2110, Navy leaders have said. 

Regarding the potential evaluation of alternatives to carriers, some analysts have raised the question of whether emerging technologies and weapons systems able to attack carriers at increasingly longer distances make the platforms more vulnerable and therefore less significant in a potential future combat environment. Some have raised the prospect of having faster, more agile smaller carriers better able to maneuver away from enemy fire and potentially launch more drones; equipping carriers with additional ship defensive technologies or missile interceptors is also an option being discussed. 

Some have even raised the question about whether carrier might become obsolete in the future, a view not shared by most analysts and Navy leaders. The power-projection ability of a carrier and its air-wing provides a decisive advantage for U.S. forces around the world.

For example, a think tank study from the Center for New American Security says the future threat environment will most likely substantially challenge the primacy or superiority of U.S. Navy carriers.

“While the U.S. Navy has long enjoyed freedom of action throughout the world’s oceans, the days of its unchallenged primacy may be coming to a close. In recent years, a number of countries, including China, Russia, and Iran, have accelerated investments in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities such as advanced air defense systems, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines, and aircraft carriers. These capabilities are likely to proliferate in the coming years, placing greater constraints on U.S. carrier operations than ever before,” the study writes.

In addition, the study maintains that the “United States will be faced with a choice: operate its carriers at ever-increasing ranges – likely beyond the unrefueled combat radii of their tactical aircraft – or assume high levels of risk in both blood and treasure,” the CNAS study explains.

Navy officials told Scout Warrior that many of the issues and concerns highlighted in this report are things already being carefully considered by the Navy.

With this in mind, some of the weapons and emerging threats cited in the report are also things already receiving significant attention from Navy and Pentagon analysts.

 Emerging Threats:

The Chinese military is developing a precision-guided long-range anti-ship cruise missile, the DF-21D, a weapon said by analysts to have ranges up to 900 nautical miles. While there is some speculation as to whether it could succeed in striking moving targets such as aircraft carriers, analysts have said the weapon is in part designed to keep carriers from operating closer to the coastline.

A principle element of this strategy includes backing carrier off to a range that carrier-launched fighter aircraft cannot reach. 

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional panel of experts, published a detailed report in 2014 on the state of Chinese military modernization. The report cites the DF-21D along with numerous other Chinese technologies and weapons. The DF-21D is a weapon referred to as a "carrier killer." The Chinese are also reported to be working on a more lethal follow-on precision-guided anti-ship missile, The National Interest reports. 

However, as reported in "The National Interest" by Dave Majumdar, senior Navy leaders are developing additional defensive strategies aimed at countering the DF-21D threat. Furthermore, they maintain that credible long-range threats posed by the Chinese missile assumes that China can successfully integrate the requisite ISR and targeting technologies sufficient to strike carriers on-the-move. 

Majumdar's report also cites senior Navy officials explaining that carrier will increasingly have improved electromagnetic, cyber and ISR defenses designed to jam enemy fire or throw approaching anti-ship missile off course 

The commission points out various Chinese tests of hypersonic missiles as well. Hypersonic missiles, if developed and fielded, would have the ability to travel at five times the speed of sound – and change the threat equation regarding how to defend carriers from shore-based, air or sea attacks.

An April 27th report in the Washington Free Beach earlier this year cited Pentagon officials stating that China successfully tested a new high-speed maneuvering warhead.

“The test of the developmental DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle was monitored after launch Friday atop a ballistic missile fired from the Wuzhai missile launch center in central China, said officials familiar with reports of the test,” the report from the Washington Free Beacon said. “The maneuvering glider, traveling at several thousand miles per hour, was tracked by satellites as it flew west along the edge of the atmosphere to an impact area in the western part of the country.”

The Air Force Chief Scientist recently told Scout Warrior that the US expects to have operational hypersonic missiles by the 2020s.

While China presents a particular threat in the Asia Pacific theater, they are by no means the only potential threat in today's fast-changing global environment. A wide array of potential future adversaries are increasingly likey to acquire next-generation weapons, sensors and technologies.