Originally published in the Washington Times on April 23, 2001, this article was a response to the growing discourse that seemed to believe that the age of the aircraft carrier had ended. Pushed largely by an Air Force hungry to divert resources away from the Navy, defeating this canard was like playing a game of whack-a-mole– as quickly as the arguments were diffused, the media’s short memory would allow them to emerge again.
There is an old saying that in war, truth is the first casualty. It appears that this saying has asserted itself into the current debate over defense transformation as well.
In the course of any political debate, its vital that both sides start out with a clear understanding of the facts upon which decisions will be based. Good people can disagree on conclusions that are dependent upon matters of opinion, but if you can’t agree on the facts, then the creditability of the entire decision tree that follows will be indicted.
As a military officer, I’m bothered by the fact that certain armchair warriors in the transformation debate have begun to describe military capabilities in ways that are misleading or factually incorrect. In doing so, it appears that some advocates within this debate have begun to transform the truth into something I no longer recognize, by proclaiming that in the “transformed” military, smaller weapon platforms are the big winners, and the carrier Navy is the big loser.
While most defense experts generally admit there is no better intimidation force than a carrier battle group sitting off an enemy’s coastline, other advocates press their own personal agendas by suggesting that, in the future, carriers will become increasingly prone to various forms of attack and are therefore so vulnerable that the time has come for our nation to terminate our ability to construct them .In doing so, money would be freed up to fund the pet programs fostered by these advocates, but this benefit would (of course) merely be serendipitous.
As a submariner who has never served on a carrier and has no ingrained affinity for them, I’m happy to go where the data take me regarding their future relevance. So, for the moment, let’s accept the hypothesis that carriers are vulnerable, and carry this train of thought forward to its logical conclusion.
First, recall that carriers can operate hundreds of miles offshore and still employ their tactical aircraft. Now let’s assume that some future enemy will develop the technology necessary to find, penetrate defenses, and then attack these ships at these great distances, In fact none of our potential enemies are anywhere near developing this capability, but for the sake of argument let’s just accept that it will happen. In military parlance, this enemy would be employing an “anti-access” strategy, since he’s banking on being able to prevent the U.S. from gaining access to his combat zones.
Now consider this: If the enemy develops technologies that are effective against a carrier battle group that brings with it a robust missile and submarine defense capability, these same technologies would be able to devastate the merchant ships that carry 90 percent of Army and Air Force weaponry to the fight. If our Navy can’t defend itself, then how will we be able to defend the ships that transport Army and Air Force equipment and weapons? The merchant ships would be sitting ducks, so the other services would only be able to bring in what they fly in.
Or how would an in-theater Air Force base fare in such an environment, like Kadena in Okinawa? Carriers may not move very fast, but they sure move faster than land bases do.
But would they even be able to fly in? Would an enemy who intended to challenge the United States and who studied American tactics used in the Gulf war and the Balkans invest his scarce resources in anti-ship technology, or would he invest in anti-air technology? If this theoretical enemy were able to develop long-range anti-ship technology, it’s probable that his air defense capability which would undoubtedly be a higher priority for any potential foe would be even better than his sea defenses. And if his anti-air capability is better than his anti-ship capability, how will our land force bring in even the small percentage of its weaponry that moves in by air?
In fact, if the enemy were to develop these new capabilities, its clear this theater of operations would become an increasingly naval theater, since the weaponry intended to defeat American. access into the region would always be much more effective at defeating land-based access than it will naval forces. Hence, any transformation initiative that weakens our naval posture is likely to be counterproductive in the face of an anti-access strategy.
Of course, this says nothing about the probability of anyone actually developing an anti-access capability, for which I find no compelling evidence. The problem with sinking a ship is first you have to find it no small matter when you have millions of square miles of ocean to search.
Transformation gurus suggest that in the future an enemy will use satellites to search for our ships, but satellites suffer from two problems: first we know when they’re going to pass overhead so we can do things to mask our presence, and second they can easily be spoofed. Similarly, surveillance airplanes can be shot down, submarines tracked, and ships attacked. These inconvenient facts turn out to be logical dead ends for the anti-carrier crowd, who respond by simply waving them away by making leaps of faith-assumptions of future enemy capability. It turns out that one can justify any military goal by inventing the proper enemy.
What does the transformation crowd suggest is the solution to the Navy’s access problem? Small, fast ships so–called “street fighters” that may indeed present a smaller detection target but would also provide a ludicrously small punch. To do away with our carriers and instead relegate the U.S. Navy to the “street fighter” concept is tantamount to converting us into a corvette force we would be right up there with the navies of Italy, Greece and Singapore. Belay that we would
be outgunned by Italy. They have a carrier.
The truth is that our carriers are defended better than any shore base or ground force in our arsenal, better than even our nation itself. If our carriers are vulnerable, then our nation is vulnerable.
Students of history will recall that all these claims regarding carrier obsolescence were made once before, in the years following World War 11w, hen the atom bomb was supposed to relegate the carrier to the dustbin of history. That argument was advanced by a pro-Air Force cabal that had gained authority within the office of the defense secretary, leading to a famous standoff referred to as the “revolt of the admirals.” Happily, common sense prevailed in the end, and the “revolt of the admirals” rescued the nation from the fate of transforming its military into an unthinkable, all-atomic force that would have turned out to be useless in the low-tech battles we found ourselves engaged in over the decades that followed.
Like it or not, with our allies increasingly reluctant to allow the United States to establish anything but a defensive presence, I see no credible alternative to a carrier battlegroup in many scenarios we are likely to face. Long-range bombers are great, so long as you have 30 hours warning and are willing to go to war only at night.
The leaders of this modern military transformation cabal, some of whom have been advancing the same ideas for the better part of a generation with little success, would lead us to believe history is no longer relevant, that we should pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, that we should press the “I believe” button and accept as fact that struggling nations will suddenly develop technologies that have so far eluded Russia, China and some of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth.
Rodin once said that carving a sculpture was easy, all you had to do was take a block of stone and remove everything that wasn’t the statue.
Transforming our military will be just as easy. All we have to do is stop looking for Lenin and start looking for Rodin.