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.
When shaping the fleet, a battle-minded navy would prize sensors, armaments and tactics for surface and antisubmarine warfare. Reconverting strike groups to battle groups would demand simple measures—albeit measures that are hard to implement amid stringent budgets. Carrier air wings should be fully stocked with aircraft, equipping the battle group to win the sea and air battle as well as pummel shore targets. Additional guided-missile cruisers and destroyers should join the group, thickening its layered defenses against air, surface and subsurface assault. And logistics support should be abundant. The U.S. Navy’s fleet of tankers and stores ships has gotten shockingly lean in numbers since the Cold War—imperiling carrier groups’ staying power in contested waters.
Correcting these material shortfalls would make for well-rounded forces, but it is not enough. There’s also the human dimension. A battle-minded navy would tinker tirelessly with creative methods to deploy fleets for action. The U.S. Navy could revisit its Cold War past for inspiration. The 1980s navy experimented tirelessly in an effort to amass strategic advantage over Soviet-bloc fleets. For instance, commanders made allies of terrain and weather alongside weaponry and sensors. Aircraft carriers operated from Norwegian fjords, barricading themselves in relatively safe waters where they were hard to detect or target. Flattops transited the Atlantic Ocean under heavy cloud cover. And on and on. Reinfusing that inventive spirit into seafarers while focusing it on sea rather than shore would boost the navy’s prospects in a hard-bitten world.
Second, there’s the larger society. One of my illustrious predecessors at the Naval War College, Adm. J. C. Wylie, points out that Congress makes strategic decisions through the budgetary process all the time. This has consequences. Lawmakers might fund the wrong things, or skimp on defense spending altogether—leaving the armed forces out of sync with the times. Wylie, accordingly, might counsel today’s naval leadership to think of Congress as another audience for outreach. If the sea services confront a combative future, it behooves service potentates to remind lawmakers of emerging realities, over and over again.
Here again, rebranding carrier forces as battle groups could deliver outsized gains for naval diplomacy. Sea-service emissaries must explain why modifying the vocabulary is significant.
Third, there’s the American electorate. Debates in Congress seep into popular opinion, but the navy leadership must also undertake direct public outreach. Pundit Walter Lippmann once maintained that U.S. foreign policy commands durable public support when ends and means are in balance. Voters, that is, will back a foreign policy they understand, and that they believe can be executed with the diplomatic, economic and military means on hand. If Washington undertakes expansive commitments overseas, concludes Lippmann, political leaders must field expansive means to fulfill them.
Otherwise the populace may lose heart when the going gets tough. If the times have changed, naval emissaries must explain how that happened, why it matters, what the U.S. Navy intends to do about it and what support the navy needs from the people and their elected representatives to fulfill strategic ends. Realigning the popular discourse about sea power will help buoy public support for a larger, more muscular U.S. Navy. Explaining that battle readiness is once again the navy’s central purpose is crucial to this effort—and relabeling carrier forces as battle groups could help. It furnishes a simple, honest, effective slogan.
And lastly, there are the foreign audiences for naval diplomacy. Rebranding and bulking up U.S. carrier forces would put friends and potential foes on notice that the U.S. Navy takes the prospect of battle seriously and is determined to prevail in any encounter that takes place. Making them believers in America’s capacity and resolve to fight and win would hearten allies while disheartening opponents—and thereby improve America’s chances of prevailing without a fight. Telegraphing that U.S. forces are battle-ready thus bolsters the U.S. Navy’s ability to reassure, deter, or coerce in peacetime, as well as win in wartime.
In short, the carrier strike group was a concept befitting that brief, ahistorical interlude after the Cold War when no one could contest American command of the sea or saw much interest in doing so. That historical interlude has passed, and more normal—if more trying—times have returned. These days calling a carrier-centric formation a carrier strike group broadcasts a false message to key audiences about the state of seaborne competition. Worse, it bespeaks hubris, a cardinal sin for any naval commander. It suggests the U.S. Navy still owns the sea, and can venture where it will without opposition.
Would resurrecting the carrier battle group represent a cure-all for all that ails U.S. maritime strategy? Of course not. But 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. And Machiavelli and Boyd would smile.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (second edition forthcoming 2018). The views voiced here are his alone.
Image: Flickr / U.S. Navy.