Why It's Time for the Carrier Battle Group

Why It's Time for the Carrier Battle Group

Rebranding and reconfiguring U.S. naval forces would constitute a modest measure that announces to many audiences that the sea services are getting in phase with competitive times.

Let’s do away with the “ carrier strike group .” Mind you, I don’t mean scrap the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and logistics ships—the elements that comprise a carrier strike group. Heaven forfend! We need more hulls, airframes and gadgetry of all types to face down the Chinas and Russias of the world. What the service should jettison is the carrier strike group as an organizing concept. The navy leadership should replace it with the “ carrier battle group ” of old—a formation outfitted generously with warplanes, surface combatants and logistics ships to punish seaborne foes while warding off attack.

Why? Because the strike group is a concept designed for safe seas, where U.S. Navy forces can venture close to land with little fear of encountering opposition. Such hospitable surroundings prevailed for ten, maybe fifteen years after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. No more. The world’s oceans and seas are less and less hospitable by the day, as “peer competitors” build up imposing navies and back them with shore-based missiles and aircraft. As its moniker implies, the battle group is a concept fitting for the embattled age now taking form. And martial sages—the Niccolò Machiavellis and John Boyds of the world—remind us how crucial it is to keep pace with changing times.

Fail to keep up, and you court defeat and disaster.

Think about what a carrier strike group is, and does. Relative to brawny Cold War battle groups, it’s a lean, lightly defended force that operates from waterways where antagonists pose a nuisance at best. Fewer escorts accompany it. The carrier air wing, or aircraft complement, falls far short of the flattop’s carrying capacity. Nowadays the air wing numbers about sixty warplanes, while the ship’s flight and hangar decks, maintenance shops and other infrastructure can accommodate over eighty. Fewer warbirds and escort ships, less firepower. Less firepower, less capacity to duel a peer fleet for mastery of the waves.

A navy sheltered by a “ long calm lee ”—an interlude free of combat against peer navies—might get away with such an austere arrangement. A strike group’s commanders can afford to soft-pedal battle readiness because they assume the chance of battle is farfetched. There’s no one to defeat before moving in close. Thus commanders fix their gaze on hostile shores, devoting effort and resources to projecting power inland from the offshore haven that is the sea. According to Pentagon joint doctrine, strike warfare is mainly about employing “ballistic or cruise missiles, aircraft, naval surface fires, Marines and special operations forces to attack targets ashore.” This is a land-centric vision for seagoing folk.

Sea-service chieftains set the navy on this pathway in 1992 when they issued ...From the Sea , their first effort at strategy making for the post–Cold War era. The directive instructed the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to reinvent themselves as a “fundamentally different naval force.” With no Soviet Navy left to fight, declared the document’s framers, the services could downplay preparations for high-end warfighting. The U.S. Navy could use the sea with impunity. There was no one to fight for control of it. That’s when the fleet started letting hardware, weaponry and combat skills for surface warfare and antisubmarine warfare decay. Why invest finite budgets, time and effort girding for contingencies your superiors proclaim will never transpire?

Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark hastened and consolidated this reconfiguration in 2003, when he issued his annual CNO Guidance to the fleet. It’s a gimmicky document. Everything bears the prefix “Sea”—Sea Shield, Sea Basing, Sea Trial and, yes, Sea Strike. (Sea Battle is conspicuous in its absence.) Admiral Clark’s guidance ushered in the carrier strike group, directing the navy to transform its battle groups in keeping with the new construct. Clark thus oversaw the remaking of U.S. Navy surface forces for an epoch when the sea was a sanctuary—not an expanse that had to be conquered before it could be used.

Formulated for tranquil times, the carrier strike group has outlived its usefulness. The world has changed around the American sea services since 2003. The U.S. Navy now faces serious challenges, manifest in resurgent Chinese and Russian navies. Hence the imperative to revert to battle groups. Gimlet-eyed battle-group commanders concern themselves with events at sea, and in particular on readying their forces to vanquish prospective foes. Only after the battle group emerges from combat the victor do commanders redirect their attention to strike missions ashore. In a contested setting, there is no strike warfare without victorious battle at sea.

The carrier battle group, though, acts as a messaging and branding device as much as an organizational construct. Properly conceived, naval diplomacy addresses multiple audiences. First, there’s the audience internal to the U.S. Navy. It takes time and leadership to undo a cultural revolution like the one instituted by ...From the Sea and the 2003 CNO Guidance. Simply changing the name from strike group to battle group—and setting forth a convincing rationale for the change—would notify mariners that combat constitutes their immediate purpose. Strike warfare is something they do after prevailing in combat. This is a banner under which a cultural counterrevolution can march.