Rebuild Range or Face Irrelevance


Enemy Tech Pushing US Carriers Out of Fight

Over the past 20 years, US naval aviation has undergone a dramatic change in focus and capabilities, and not for the better.

Its historical and traditional focus on long-range capabilities and the deep-strike mission has been overtaken by a concentration on lower maintenance costs and higher aircraft sortie-generation rates. American power and permissive environments were assumed following the end of the Cold War, but the rise of new powers, including China and its pursuit of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies and capabilities, including the carrier-killing 1,000-nautical-mile-range Dong Feng-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, now threaten to push the Navy back beyond the range of its carrier air wings.

This push-back would limit the service’s ability to project power and thus undermine US credibility and the effectiveness of the global international system of governance that it, in conjunction with its allies and partners, has labored to build for 70 years.

That system was built upon the blood and sacrifices of an entire generation of Americans who won World War II. One of the chief lessons learned from that war was that the nation needed to be able to project massive power against enemy capitals across vast distances. The Pacific war had been conducted through a series of oceanic and island battles, slowly bringing the enemy decisionmakers within range of American power.

Kamikaze attackers, a brutal early form of A2/AD, inflicted massive blows against the American Navy, whose shorter-range aircraft forced it to operate in close proximity to enemy bases. Naval aviation commanders, in the face of these attacks and the loss of several carriers, decided during the war to pursue development of larger aircraft that could carry more bombs and fly longer distances. They then designed and developed larger aircraft carriers to carry these aircraft in numbers sufficient to mass decisively against enemy centers of gravity.

These aircraft and their carriers joined the fleet during the 1950s, providing the Navy with the capability to mass deep strike missions 1,800 nautical miles from its carrier bases.

Through the decades that followed, from Vietnam to Desert Storm, the Navy perfected its ability to go deep against enemy capitals, with the goal of bringing conflicts to a swift, decisive end. Large air wings of 80 or more aircraft characterized by long-range, high-payload capacities, and the ability to mass on targets, came to epitomize the American way of war.

Along the way, the characteristics of low observability and persistence were added to the repertoire of the carrier’s air wing to great effect. The US Navy, with its fleet of supercarriers and accompanying escort vessels, became the gold standard of modern seapower, but beginning in the 1990s the Navy suddenly drifted off course.

The end of the Cold War, followed by the decision to cancel the replacement aircraft for the A-6 Intruder, the A-12 Avenger II, began a precipitous retreat from range and the deep-strike mission that had long characterized the carrier air wing.

The rapid successive retirements of the A-6 Intruder, F-14 Tomcat and S-3 Viking that followed, and the decision to replace these aircraft with variants of the F/A-18 Hornet — originally designed as a replacement for the short-ranged fighters and light attack aircraft — shrank the average range of the carrier air wing from over 800 nautical miles in 1996 to less than 500 by 2006. This occurred just as competitor nations, led by China, began to field A2/AD systems with ranges of 1,000 miles or more.

Today the Navy faces a future in which its increasingly expensive carriers have been rendered ineffective by defensive systems being developed, fielded and exported by our competitors, but there are paths back to relevance if the Navy makes the right investments.

New capabilities in the areas of unmanned systems, stealth, directed energy and hypersonics could be combined to provide the range required to perform deep-strike missions. Experimentation, such as that seen with the X-47B demonstration unmanned combat aerial vehicle, as well as the lessons learned from operating unmanned platforms such as the MQ-9 Reaper over the past decade of conflict, provide an opportunity for the Navy and the nation to move forward with an innovative and revitalized approach to seapower and power projection.

Cost curves can be bent, and the combination of mass, range, payload capacity, low observability and persistence — capabilities that emerged as critical during decades of naval air operations — can once again characterize the carrier air wing of the future, ensuring the carrier’s relevance for decades to come.

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