Written by USN Capt. Henry (Jerry) Hendrix, a professional friend, along with a retired Marine LCOL in this month's US Naval Institute Proceedings. See reference below for link.
Hendrix currently works for Andy Marshall at Office of Net Assessment, which is a great match.
Much to quote:
We can’t know for sure in what ways future adversaries will challenge our Fleet, but we can assess with some certainty how technology is affecting their principal capabilities. Judging from the evidence at hand, future Fleet actions will place a premium on early sensing, precision targeting, and long-range ballistic- and cruise-missile munitions. Increasingly sophisticated over-the-horizon and space-based sensors, in particular, will focus on signature control and signature deception. Thus, we must ask ourselves how best to win this battle of signatures and long-range strike.
This is a sideways reference to the rising capabilities of the Chinese navy and their efforts to keep us - and our carriers - as far from their shores as possible.
Given very clear technology trends toward precision long-range strike and increasingly sophisticated anti-access and area-denial capabilities, high-signature, limited-range combatants like the current aircraft carrier will not meet the requirements of tomorrow’s Fleet. In short, the march of technology is bringing the supercarrier era to an end, just as the new long-range strike capabilities of carrier aviation brought on the demise of the battleship era in the 1940s.
The Chinese are targeting our carriers. We can either see the future in defending them as is, or get new carriers. You don't just ditch what you got because it's vulnerable. But if it's becoming vulnerable and the agents of that vulnerability suggest a new era is dawning, then you pay attention.
Factors both internal and external are hastening the carrier’s curtain call. Competitors abroad have focused their attention on the United States’ ability to go anywhere on the global maritime commons and strike targets ashore with pinpoint accuracy. That focus has resulted in the development of a series of sensors and weapons that combine range and strike profiles to deny carrier strike groups the access necessary to launch squadrons of aircraft against shore installations . . .
Accompanying this range deficiency has been the dramatic increase in the cost of the carrier and her air wing. The price tag for the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) was $950 million, or 4.5 percent of the Navy’s $21 billion budget in 1976. The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), lead ship of a new class of supercarriers, is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $12.5 billion . . . The Gerald R. Ford is just the first of her class. She should also be the last.
I couldn't agree more. This is Norm Augustine's nightmare come true - the military that becomes so expensive you can only afford one of everything.
The Chinese are emphasizing sea control over power projection. Given this Chinese “vote” and the challenges we continue to face in the Middle East and Northeast Asia, we must rebalance our Fleet to meet new sea-control missions while maintaining reasonable power-projection capabilities for the range of global threats we will encounter. These new challenges mean that the Fleet architecture must evolve rapidly to meet the new mission requirements of our time. We need to recognize this now and avoid a 21st-century Pearl Harbor.
The old paradigm is untenable. Time to move on.
In such a new strategic environment, unmanned systems diminish the utility of the supercarrier, because her sea-control and power-projection missions can be performed more efficiently and effectively by other means. When the carrier superseded the battleship, the latter still retained great utility for naval surface fire support. Similarly, today’s carrier will be replaced by a network of unmanned platforms, while still retaining utility as an as-needed strike platform. Ultimately, the decision to kill the battleships was not because they lacked utility, but because they were too expensive to man and operate. Future budgetary constraints could lead to a similar outcome for the carrier, recognizing that even if we purchased no new supercarriers, we would still have operational carriers in the Fleet for more than 50 years.
So we're not exactly abandoning our current capability.
In the meantime, the America-class big-deck amphibious ship has the potential to be a new generation of light aircraft carrier. At 45,000 tons’ displacement, she will slide into the water larger than her World War II predecessors, and larger even than the modern French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. Designed without an amphibious well-deck, she will put to sea with a Marine Air Combat Element and key elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit.
However, to view this purely as an amphibious-assault ship would be to miss her potential as a strike platform. Stripped of her rotorcraft, the America class could comfortably hold two squadrons of F-35B short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL) stealth fighter/attack aircraft. Such an arrangement would allow the naval services to dramatically increase presence and strike potential throughout the maritime domain. In addition, if the requirements were instituted in the near term, the new unmanned carrier-launched airborne-surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft could be designed to operate from America-class decks with greater potential utility and distribution than what could be expected when operating from super carriers.
I've liked this argument for many years now. End the big decks and go with the "small" deck amphibs as a cheaper and more flexible package.
The new combatants would actually be “carriers,” but rather than carrying aircraft, they would carry an array of unmanned systems. A balanced Fleet would have a mix of small, medium, and large unmanned carrier combatants to cover the range of Fleet functions. One near-term option would be to truncate production of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and replace both the LCS and the Dock Landing Ship (LSD) with a common hull displacing around 10,000 tons.
Thus you start experimenting - relatively cheaply - with mother ships while running out the lengthy lifespan string of the big decks. To me, this is THE obvious way to go.
Continuing to invest in platforms such as the supercarrier—which are expensive to build, cost-prohibitive to operate, and increasingly vulnerable in anti-access/area denied environments—is to repeat the mistakes of the battleship admirals who failed to recognize air power’s potential in the 1930s.
No less authority than Pacific Commander Admiral Robert Willard has stated that China’s DF-21D antiship ballistic missile has reached initial operational capability. We must recognize the new environments in which we will be operating, as well as the profound impact unmanned systems will have on future operations, and adjust our Fleet accordingly if we are to avoid a Pearl Harbor of our own making. We must reallocate science-and-technology, research-and-development, and acquisition resources toward this new Fleet paradigm . . .
Moving away from highly expensive and vulnerable supercarriers toward smaller, light carriers would bring the additional benefit of increasing our nation’s engagement potential. This type of force structure would allow the United States to increase its forward presence, upholding its interests with a light engagement force while maintaining, at least for the next 50 years, a heavy surge force of supercarriers. Geopolitics and technology are rapidly evolving the future security environment, and we must make decisions today to adapt the Fleet away from its current course to a new design for a new era.
This is how a superpower, suffering relative economic decline, keeps up its global power projection at a reasonable cost.
Excellent piece. Worth reading in entirety for details, if interested.