Why America's Nuclear Aircraft Carriers Need a Mission Adjustment

Why America's Nuclear Aircraft Carriers Need a Mission Adjustment

Has the U.S. Navy allowed itself to be lulled into a false sense of security by all these years of dealing with second or third-rate naval threats?

Against the sea-based ASM threat, the only weapon in the current naval inventory with the necessary range advantage is a properly cued, ASM-equipped aircraft. Thus, the first and most important change has to be the emphasis of the carrier’s mission. The current focus on strike warfare needs to be adjusted in favor of an emphasis on gaining sea control and dealing with the burgeoning ASUW (ASM) threat. In short, the carrier needs to go back to its historic “Eyes of the Fleet” role. Its primary mission should be that of finding the enemy vessels and dealing with them at long range, just as it was when the large fleet carrier concept was originally conceived in the 1930s. The difference today however is that this will likely involve both anti-surface and anti-submarine measures, but the carrier is eminently qualified on both fronts. The key will be in the ability of naval aircraft to overcome the S-400-level air defenses. There is no “silver bullet” here either; success will come from an informed use of stealth technology, ESM and cyber as well as more proactive SEAD measures.

Organizationally speaking, the “modest measures” that Holmes outlines in his argument to return to the “Carrier Battlegroup” level of organization, need to be implemented. As he explains, the air wings need to be gradually brought back up to their earlier strength and more escorts need to be attached to the carrier for longer than is currently common practice. In addition though, the overall level of surface warfare knowledge resident in the carrier- and air-wing staffs needs to be dramatically improved. For far too long the finer details of strike and air group management have received undue prominence at the expense of traditional naval warfighting skills and this trend needs to be reversed. The Carrier Air Group Commander (CAG) is the appropriate source of air warfare management information, but this need not necessarily extend into other areas of the upper leadership. In other words there is no reason why, in this era of joint education, a modern carrier could not be commanded by a Surface Warfare specialist officer (SWO). He would still have access to the most up-to-date air warfare knowledge through his CAG and the Squadron CO’s, but his deeper understanding of the surface warfare modus operandi of the carrier and her escorts would give a much needed boost to the on-board credibility of the ASUW mission. Carrier staffs should also have additional billets for SWO-qualified officers so as to bring enhanced ASUW expertise to the battle-staff watch-keepers.

The key ultimately will be in the cultural and institutional change that can be engineered over the longer term. As Holmes explains, there needs to be “messaging and branding,” both internally and externally. Changing the group’s title will be for naught if this is not followed up by a concerted effort from within the service to emphasize the primacy of “Sea Control” as an overall prerequisite in naval warfare. Everything the Navy works and trains for should have this as the ultimate goal. Above all, the SWO community needs to embrace, internalize, practice and teach the contribution that the carrier group can make to the sea control mission. Well-managed “War at Sea” exercises need to be reinstituted at every CSG meeting. However, the vital first step is to change the way the institution thinks.

Repurposing the carriers to meet the challenge of surface ship-based ASMs will only take place if the Service itself believes in—and is prepared to advocate for—such a shift. This is because the all-important human dimension needs to be energized and mobilized to address the many problems that will undoubtedly arise, and this will only happen if they collectively share the necessary incentive to succeed. Developing and advocating for the appropriate doctrinal shifts is a vital precursor to this acceptance, as it will begin the process of debate and experimentation that will ultimately fuel the necessary innovation. With national attention slowly turning towards fleet recapitalization, there is not a moment to lose.

Angus Ross is a Professor of Joint Military Operations at the Naval War College and something of an amateur historian, while Andrew Savchenko writes on political risk in the post-Soviet space and teaches Economy and Society at RISD. The views expressed here are theirs alone.

Image: Reuters.