For background on the state of America’s carrier fleet and the threat environment it faces, see part 1.
Since the 1970s and the introduction of the USS Nimitz, the United States has relied heavily on carriers to protect its interests abroad and project American power globally. Carriers maintain a constant presence around the world and are the first on scene in nearly any military engagement. But before nuclear power became a staple of US aircraft carriers, another important evolution in carrier design occurred: the introduction of the “supercarrier.” Supercarriers took the lessons learned from World War II carrier operations and expanded on them. Classes of vessels such as the Kitty Hawk and Forrestal incorporated new concepts such as angled flight decks and massive cantilevered aircraft elevators.
Supercarriers provide an immense advantage over both the light carriers and the mid-sized carriers of our friends and adversaries in terms of both national power and operational utility. It is no coincidence that when a region of the world flares up or US interests are threatened, the president dispatches a carrier strike group anchored by a supercarrier. The massive ships serve as an incredibly imposing presence and a powerful deterrent. A destroyer or light carrier sailing into a hostile area of operations does not strike fear into the heart of the enemy. They does not dwarf enemy vessels or tower over an adversary’s most capable pieces of weaponry. They do not serve as a concrete example of the supremacy of the United States military, and they do not independently convey the strength and demands of the United States to another nation. When an adversary observes a US Navy supercarrier bearing down on its waters, it is forced to think twice about its intended actions. The United States, in one vessel, possesses the numbers and capabilities to both match and overpower an entire nation’s defenses. As one hundred thousand tons of American sovereignty and firepower transports itself across the world’s oceans, there is no doubt that the United States has arrived to win.
Deterrence is a viable strategy only when adversaries recognize and understand that a nation will both act and win. Supercarriers accomplish this significantly more effectively than light carriers through economies of scale. In addition to the quantitative and qualitative advantages of the aircraft that can be embarked on a supercarrier, the vessels are vastly more efficient than smaller ships. They can hold several times as much ammunition, which allows for greater logistical independence. A nation’s military is only as capable as the weakest link in its supply chain, and possessing the capability to significantly extend operational viability allows for additional time to neutralize threats to supply vessels, and the ability to operate at greater distances from logistical support.
Supercarriers can also launch many more missions in the same time-frame as a ship. This is a result of several factors. First, the angled flight deck allows for nearly simultaneous take-off and landing operations. Although some mid-sized carriers also possess the angled flight deck of American supercarriers, the larger flight-deck of the Nimitz and Ford Classes allows for additional space for aircraft operations. Additionally, ships in the Nimitz and Ford classes possess four catapults, which allows them to continue launching aircraft while resetting.
Similar to the logistics supply chain necessary to keep naval vessels functioning at sea, a small supply chain must be included in every carrier in order to keep armaments moving from storage locations in protected areas of the ship to the flight-deck. Supercarriers possess more weapons elevators and are capable of moving greater amounts of ammunition in shorter amounts of time than light carriers. Even today as the Ford class is preparing to enter operations, improvements are being made to further increase the sortie generation rate of supercarriers. The Ford class introduced electromagnetic catapults (EMALS) to replace the steam catapults of the Nimitz class. Rather than using the steam generated from nuclear reactors to launch aircraft, the Ford class will utilize electric currents and magnetic fields. This technology results in a faster reset speed than the Nimitz class and is less taxing on both the aircraft and the pilot due to a gentler acceleration. In addition, the Ford class makes improvements with regards to its internal supply chain by including ten weapons elevators that can haul twice as much weaponry as the Nimitz-class elevators in a third of the time. Operational tempo is of the utmost importance in military engagements, and supercarriers are much more capable at ensuring constant and uninterrupted air support.
History has shown that supercarriers are incredibly useful in a variety of situations. During the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, President Clinton ordered the USS Nimitz carrier battle group through the strait, forcing the Chinese to recognize their inability to impede the operation of US forces, even within one hundred miles of their own coastline. The imposition of US power in the crisis facilitated its conclusion, although it can also be argued that it precipitated China’s rapid development of its own blue-water navy and anti-ship capabilities. In 2001, immediately following the attacks of September 11, the USS Enterprise reported on station and began a three-week campaign of airstrikes against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, dropping nearly eight hundred thousand pounds of weaponry in almost seven hundred missions. In 2014, the first air operations against ISIS in Iraq were conducted from a supercarrier, the USS George H.W. Bush.
Although supercarriers have demonstrated their immense utility for decades, this has not prevented many in the defense community from questioning their viability in the 21st century. This is largely because of three factors. First is the cost of a supercarrier. Building the USS Gerald R. Ford will cost the United States over $13 billion from start to finish. This is inflated due to it being the first ship in its class and thereby absorbing a significant amount of the research and development expenditure, but the USS John F. Kennedy (the second ship in the class) is still slated to cost nearly $11 billion. Second, with the rapidly advancing offensive arsenal of nations around the globe, some question the wisdom of placing so much of our national defense capability and several thousand American sailors in just a few ships. Conversely, many argue that multi-billion-dollar carriers are no longer necessary in a time in which a growing percentage of our nation’s military activities are directed toward insurgencies with no advanced weaponry. Unfortunately, the truth is that China and Russia are racing to challenge the United States on the global stage both economically and militarily. The South China Sea, burgeoning blue-water navy fleets, and tensions in Syria and Eastern Europe are just three of many examples. The bottom line with regards to preparing for future wars is that counter-insurgencies like Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Enduring Freedom can be fought effectively with state-of-the-art weaponry designed for peer-on-peer conflict whereas high-end peer-on-peer conflict cannot be fought with weapons systems designed for counter-insurgencies.
Although critics have a right to object to the astronomical costs of the Ford-class carriers under construction, their objections fail to consider the mitigating factors. Supercarriers are an investment. The United States pours a significant sum of money into the construction of these carriers, but it does so with a long-term strategic vision. By the time the Nimitz class begins retirement, each vessel will have served for at least fifty years. Nimitz-class supercarriers are not sent to the scrapyard when their technology needs to be upgraded, they are overhauled. At its twenty-five-year anniversary, the USS Abraham Lincoln had its midlife refueling in which its nuclear fuel rods were replaced, its electronics were completely overhauled, and its entire flight deck stripped and redone. By the time the Lincoln completed its four-year facelift a few months ago, it had become the most advanced carrier in the fleet. It sat in the same hull, but in every other way it became a new vessel ready to serve for another twenty-five years. The same goes for the ships of the Ford class. They are not being constructed as short-term weapons systems with secondary national objectives. They are being built to serve for half a century as the anchor of the US naval fleet.
With regards to the ever-increasing array of threats facing down US carriers overseas, there is a legitimate concern. Most importantly, as weapons capable of threatening carriers proliferate, they push carriers’ operational safe zone further and further out to sea. The DF-21D and DF-26 ballistic missiles developed by China appear to legitimize those concerns. With a range of over one thousand miles, they threaten to eliminate carrier viability in Eastern Asia. However, this takes an overly cataclysmic view of Chinese military advances over the last decade. Although there is less doubt of China’s ability to target stationary US bases in Japan or Guam, there is still significant uncertainty regarding its ability to accurately track the movements of US carriers, and even more uncertainty regarding the capabilities of the DF-21D and DF-26 to actually hit a carrier moving randomly at thirty knots.
Such doubts notwithstanding, it is best to ensure one’s own capabilities and defenses are the best they can be rather than gambling on an adversary’s shortcomings. Fortunately, advances in defense technologies are likely to eliminate the threat of conventional ballistic and anti-ship missiles, and quite possibly hypersonic weapons as well. Several years ago, the USS Ponce deployed with the LaWS system, a laser designed to provide protection from both aerial threats and small surface vessels, onboard. This initial deployment was successful and the US military has been rapidly progressing in weaponizing powerful laser systems for deployment aboard ships and aircraft. The Ford class is being built with an increased power generation capability that will be able to support multiple laser defense systems, more than capable of intercepting missile threats. In addition, significant progress has been made in the realm of electronic warfare. I’ve argued that electronic warfare is the future of the air force fleet rather than stealth, and that projection applies to the navy as well. Electronic warfare will become increasingly important in countering high-end weaponry such as hypersonic missiles, which are incredibly difficult to intercept. EW technologies provide the ability to interfere with a weapon’s targeting systems and eliminate the need for any sort of physical intercept, either by kinetic or electromagnetic means. Fortunately, the military appears to have recognized this phenomenon, as indicated by the development of the Next Generation Jammer, which brings sophisticated electronic attack capabilities to missions.
Most important in the discussion pertaining to the future of the supercarrier is its operational range. As time has progressed and the makeup of the carrier air wing has evolved, its size has atrophied and the range of its embarked aircraft has consistently decreased. The Navy has arrived at the point where its only combat aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet and F-35C, do not outrange the anti-ship missiles and anti-access/area-denial technologies that they would be responsible for targeting in the opening wave of a major war. This is unacceptable and undermines the utility and viability of the aircraft carrier as a major component of the US Navy. Further concerning is that it appears the US Navy leadership has failed to recognize this. What is badly needed is a stealth and electronic warfare-equipped long-range strike aircraft that can clear a path through anti-access/area-denial weaponry for the carrier strike group to enter.
Two years ago, the Navy had its answer to the problem as it developed the UCLASS stealth drone. Capable of landing on carriers and possessing an impressive range, this advanced aircraft could have made significant progress towards rectifying the problem facing navy leadership. Instead, the Navy decided to convert the UCLASS drone into a refueling aircraft with the goal of escorting the carrier’s embarked fighters to the edge of their combat radius. Although this will assist in liberating some F/A-18 Super Hornets from their refueling role, it ignores a major problem. Although the stealth characteristics of the drone will protect the aircraft in flight, it will do absolutely nothing during the most vulnerable stage of its journey. There is no stealth advantage during refueling, as opened hatches enlarge the radar signatures of both aircraft significantly. Consequently, adversaries need not worry about targeting waves of F/A-18s or F-35s while in combat because they need only wait for the aircraft to refuel. In this vulnerable state with no stealth and no agility, the aircraft are sitting defenseless like fish in a barrel. Adversaries could also simply hunt for the refueling aircraft as the F/A-18s and F-35s fly beyond their combat radius and lack the fuel necessary to return to the carrier. The Navy must quickly work to develop a stealth, long-range strike aircraft equipped with advanced electronic warfare equipment and capable of carrying the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) internally. An aircraft such as this, either manned or unmanned (such as the UCLASS), would possess the capabilities necessary to neutralize anti-access/area-denial weapons in a first strike, and thereby clear a path for the carrier strike group and the rest of its embarked air wing to engage in the fight.
Simply put, there are legitimate concerns regarding the viability of not just supercarriers, but carriers in general, given the current threat environment. Without the ability to project power inland and outrange the weapons systems targeting carriers, they serve no useful purpose in a peer-on-peer engagement beyond as a target sponge. When considering the future of the supercarrier, consider this question. If a highly trained surgeon cannot perform a surgery because he or she lacks the necessary tools, do you blame the doctor and hire a cheaper, less skillful surgeon, or do you buy the tools? Equip the Ford class correctly and it will serve effectively for decades to come. It’s as simple as that.
Will Cohen and James Miller are writers for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.