Has the sun set on the carrier task force?


There are basically two types of naval operations. Sea Control, or Power Projection.

Sea Control is just that, controlling the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs, or basically the shipping lanes) and denying the enemy the ability to interdict them. The prime example is the US and RN convoy operations in the North Atlantic fending off the U-Boat attempts to sever the logistical lifeline.

Power Projection is sailing your fleet to the enemy’s shores to impose your will upon him. Examples of this from World War II abound, with the Fast Carrier Task Forces appearing at will to pound Japanese installations throughout the Central Pacific, and eventually even the Home Islands. The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor is another example of a fleet being used for power projection.

Not surprisingly, while some ship types serve admirably in both roles, the differences in missions has tended to produce very different types.  A fleet with a large number of small missile armed combatants would likely be considered a Sea Control fleet, attempting to deny an enemy the ability to close its shores.

And of course, the modern exemplar of the Power Projection fleet is the US Navy Carrier Strike Group centered upon a massive nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

While our Navy has, since 1940, always had a strong Sea Control element, it has mostly been constituted as a Power Projection force. After all, if you can project enough power to defeat your enemy in his home port, that also pretty much guarantees control of the sea lanes.

And so it comes to pass, that Thomas Ricks pens a piece for the Washington Post calling for the Navy to shed its carriers.  As usual, Ricks is FW, NiD.

Bryan McGrath, professional naval type (as opposed to Ricks, professional windbag) does an admirable job of rebutting Ricks claims of the carrier’s supposed vulnerabilities.

To be sure, there are arguments against McGrath’s piece. The carrier is certainly not invulnerable. James R. Foot over at The Diplomat makes this point.

Holmes piece notes that finding the carrier is the fulcrum upon which the issue is weighed. But he misses a key point in the chain from detection to kill. Yes, China and any number of other nations have radars that can detect a carrier at distances far beyond the strike range of a carrier.

That overlooks one thing. The waters in question are among some of the most heavily transited in the world.  It’s one thing to find a blip on a radar screen. But the kill chain is comprised of more steps than “detect” and “kill.” It is detect, localize, classify, attack, kill, and assess.  Ricks and Holmes argument ignores the classify step. While a carrier may well be an enormous radar target, it is hardly alone in this. Virtually every large cargo ship or tanker has a similarly large radar return

And it isn’t as though the US Navy doesn’t have ample experience in avoiding being found. Little known outside naval circles, NORPAC 82 managed to scare the crap out of the Soviet Union. Basically, the US Navy snuck two complete carrier battlegroups up into the Northern Pacific undetected, roamed around at will while the Soviets desperately searched for them, simulated strikes against the Soviet bases, and when the carriers finally deigned to be found, simulated shooting the heck out of the Soviet bombers sent to “sink” the carriers.

For every vulnerability that a modern carrier has, the alternatives suffer even more. Our options beside the Carrier Strike Group are essentially to abandon aviation in maritime areas (though how that is supposed to negate Chinese aviation, I don’t know) or shift to land based airpower. But land bases are even more vulnerable to counterattack than any carrier. After all, the Chinese already know where every available airfield is.

Carriers have tremendous mobility. They give a commander the ability to strike at a place and time of his choosing.

Much as the cavalry, the carrier can move fast, strike hard, and withdraw, to strike again elsewhere. Indeed, this mobility and ability to keep the enemy reacting to our actions is part and parcel with our agility, our ability to seize the initiative and hold it. It is a far more likely method of getting inside any enemy OODA loop than land based airpower.

So the sun has not set on the fast task force centered around the nuclear aircraft carrier. That’s not to say Naval Aviation hasn’t made poor choices, or that the Carrier Strike Group is invulnerable. The CSG can’t park off an enemy coast indefinitely to impose its will. But as part of a well conceived campaign, it gives the US far more ability to project power than any alternative that excludes the aircraft carrier.

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6 Comments

Filed under Around the web, China, Defense, navy, planes

6 responses to “Has the sun set on the carrier task force?

  1. Jeff Gauch

    It’s all well and good that we use China as our Standard Reference Enemy, even though open war with them is unlikely (and if it does occur will be very short), but we need to remember that these weapons will likely get used against far less capable adversaries.

    A Carrier Strike Group isn’t invulnerable. But it is useful against, say, Iran. It’s also useful when Mother Nature comes around after a night of drinking, and for injecting a couple of million dollars into a foreign economy.

  2. Mr. Gauch, I believe your comment regarding the PRC as being our “Standard Reference Enemy” is a bit misleading. It is only intelligent to orient your military in the direction of the current bully on the block, especially when it is being very aggressive. Did you not read yesterday that a PLAN tank landing ship shouldered the Cowpens?

    • Jeff Gauch

      I’m not saying that China isn’t an adversary, just that there isn’t going to be a shooting war between us. There will be a steady stream of bullying incidents like the one with the Cowpens (or, from the Chinese perspective, flying B-52′s through their ADIZ), but they aren’t going to rise to the level of shooting. Any shooting that does happen will be quickly, if probably quietly, denounced.

      Because any shooting war between nuclear powers, especially when one of those powers is a pride/shame culture, can logically end only one way: total nuclear exchange. In that case the logical response is to launch a nuclear strike against Beijing and all known ICBM launch sites the moment a US ship sinks.

    • NaCly Dog

      Jeff, we do not have leadership, gravatus and love of country in our NCA.
      Only if golf courses were preferentially targeted by terrorists would he respond, and then he could whip all TEA party individuals to FEMA camps.

    • NaCly Dog

      Well whip works, but is should be ship.

  3. Jeff, with respect to logic I am reminded of the old saying that a rational army would run away.