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The utility of CVNs and Pacific strategy

May 17, 2011

I’m late to the conversation, but Proceedings, Thomas Barnett and Bryan McGrath all had some great commentary up about the potential obsolescence of CVNs, particularly in light of Chinese anti-access strategies to make deploying a carrier within China’s neighborhood too risky to contemplate. I won’t retread over areas that really are not my expertise, but I have a few thoughts to add in.

If China is increasing its anti-access strategies, I do not see the cost-efficient, strategically best option to be to try and adopt our fleet to working closer in. Chinese anti-access weapons capable of destroying a CVN are going to be capable of destroying a LHA or light carrier of the future, whether it is carrying UCAVs, JSFs, or some other kind of combat aircraft. If the idea is that an unmanned carrier air wing would be better at overcoming the sensors, submarines, and other components of a Chinese anti-access strategy relative to the current CVN carrier air wing, that really is a problem with air wing choices rather than with CVNs themselves, as Bryan McGrath recognized.

If the critical vulnerability of CVBGs is the ability of Chinese anti-access systems, based presumably on ability to deploy massive amounts of ASCMs, along with ASBMs and submarines of various types, then smaller ships are not really much more “survivable” unless they achieve extremely large benefits in low-signature capability. This calls into question the extreme cost penalty anti-access imposes on sea-based aircraft, since the expensive parts of CVNs are systems, not steel. In other words, I am not convinced that a bunch of LHAs or light carriers operating within the first island chain will be significantly more survivable than planned future CVBGs.

The easiest way to deal with the Chinese anti-access strategy may be the ability to keep critical infrastructure and weapons of out range. The idea that LHAs operating in Chinese waters are going to deliver the kind of air superiority necessary to defeat the PLAAF in an actual conflict without being as vulnerable to CVNs to Chinese submarines, aircraft, and missiles, is a mostly illusory one. Even assuming unmanned aircraft are the future, big-deck aircraft carriers would be just as able, if not better able to field the deep-strike aircraft, ASW systems, and AEW systems that would be necessary to defeat the Chinese in a major conflict.

The inability of the US to develop weapons systems suitable for the geographic distances involved in WESTPAC is an air wing problem and a basing problem as well as a CVN problem. While I can certainly appreciate the argument that an increased amount of LHAs would give the US additional flexibility in dealing with other situations besides full-out air-sea warfare against a peer competitor, I do not see the LHA as an obvious solution to the China problem. If the aircraft in question are still operating close to China’s mainland where the PLAAF will have overwhelming numerical superiority, the LHA is not going to address a lot of natural advantages China has in excluding access from its own immediate neighborhood.

Ultimately, it seems increasing the range and capabilities of the air wing will be far more important to dealing with China’s anti-access strategy than getting rid of CVNs. The limited range of land-based combat aircraft is also a major issue, too, since Kadena AFB and other US airbases face a distance-vulnerability problem as well. Anti-access is anti-access, not anti-carrier – the ability of China to project massive amounts of firepower within its immediate environs is a geostrategic fact, and there is no technological fix that will make it easy or safe to operate within range of its armaments.

I like the authors’ idea for taking advantage of LHAs and light carriers, with new unmanned systems, to make power projection cheaper. Certainly, I would prefer it if conflicts such as Libya or other humanitarian interventions did not tie up CVBGs, allowing CVBGs to operate where they were actually needed. All that said, CVBGs still have utility in situations across the globe, and are no more vulnerable to a strong anti-access strategy than LHAs or light carriers. A DF-21D is going to inflict mission critical damage on an America if it can do the same to a Gerald Ford, and the means for countering the systems which support a DF-21D do not obviously merit the first vessel over the latter.

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