In much the same way that the navy doesn’t need a carrier based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform because it already has the capability elsewhere in the force, it also doesn’t need an unmanned carrier based mission tanker. It did appear to need one a few years ago when concerns mounted that the mission tanking mission was placing undue strain on the wings of the U.S. Navy’s Super Hornet inventory. It was felt that this mission would cause those aircraft to expend their wing life well before their scheduled retirement date. However, the Department of Defense and the Congress have now agreed to reopen the Boeing Super Hornet production line and the navy will not face a Super Hornet crisis as long as it keeps building new aircraft—which it should.
It Really Should Be All About Penetrating Strike
In the late 1940s following the devastation of World War II and the losses of ships, aircraft and lives to Japanese Kamikaze attacks, naval aviation made a decision to build an aircraft carrier large enough to be able to launch and recover big planes that could fly long distances to attack the enemy. The Cold War carrier air wing strike range allowed the carrier to stand far outside the threat range of enemy aircraft while remaining capable of attacking its enemies with great lethality and effectiveness. The navy maintained this capability for forty years, but in the 1990s it began to retire its older aircraft and initiated a retreat from range and the dissolution of the penetrating strike mission. Whereas the carrier air wing of the Cold War could fly nearly 1,000 miles unrefueled, today’s air wing can only go approximately 500 miles. To counter current and future A2AD technologies and keep the carrier and its air wing relevant, the navy needs what it first asked for in 2006 as part of the UCAS-D project: a long range, all aspect stealth, penetrating bomber that can travel well in excess of 1,000 miles and deliver precision strike weapons well within A2AD weapons envelopes. Instead, the navy has walked down a meandering path from penetrating strike, to a strike and ISR platform, to a ISR only platform, to a robust tanker that can operate in a contested space to a very basic tanker that the navy no longer really needs. With requirements shifting so much, no wonder that someone in industry got nervous and pulled out of the competition.
Winston Churchill, considering the deliberations of the World War II Combined Chiefs of Staff, once mused, “you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum of their fears.” The navy needs to put distance between itself and its fears. Budgets, internal culture, complexity or “what we think we can get” should not drive acquisition strategies. The enemy gets a vote and helps determine the strategic environment and the United States must respond to changes. If the U.S. Navy wants its carrier force to remain relevant in a future war, it should make up its mind and renew its focus on A2AD challenges and how to overcome them. It should also drive audacity back into its acquisition program. Approached in a balanced way that places value both on capacity in the form of older mature platforms bought in large numbers and capabilities in the form of new war winning systems bought at a reasonable rate, the United States can sustain its position in the world and strengthen the Pax Americana that has provided so much peace for the past seven decades. Alternatively, the nation can take counsel from its fears, descend to the lowest common denominator, and risk losing it all.
Dr. Jerry Hendrix is a Senior Fellow and Program Director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. A retired Captain of the U.S. Navy, Hendrix previously served as the Director of Naval History and Military Assistant to the Director of the Office of Net Assessment.
Image: Department of Defense