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Warrior Video Above: USS Zumwalt Commander Capt. Carlson Describes Riding the Stealthy Ship in Stormy Seas

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are said to be extremely vulnerable to modern missile attacks, be huge floating targets less agile and mobile in high threat circumstances and some have gone so far as to wonder if recently emerging long range anti-ship missiles may have rendered carriers obsolete.

Simply not true, according to many prominent Navy leaders, weapons developers, futurists and influential members of Congress, who clearly explain that America’s signature emblem of maritime power is going nowhere.

“The aircraft carrier is still the most powerful platform for power projection, and the concept is still extraordinarily vital. If it was not the Chinese wouldn't be building aircraft carriers. So they are looking to catch up because they understand you’ve got to deploy power away from your shores,” Rep. Rob Whitman -(R) Va., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told The National Interest in an interview.

While there of course will be adaptations along with strategic and tactical adjustments in many cases, such as greater use of amphibs for airpower and much broader use of unmanned systems, the fundamental premise of carrier operations and emerging Ford-class ships, appears here to stay. Alongside advancing a clear sense that existing aircraft carrier power projection is something which should both remain and simultaneously adapt to emerging threats, Wittman was also enthusiastic about the additional mobility and multifunctional advantages of amphibious assault ships, now increasingly capable of projecting long-range air power with the arrival of the F-35B.

As has been the case for years, the Navy will continue to study questions about future carrier configurations with a close eye upon new threats, weapons and potential enemy tactics, yet many believe the emerging consensus may be that, if properly defended and fortified by range-extending platforms such as carrier launched drone refuelers, carriers like the Ford class are likely to endure throughout this century.

The reasons for this may simply be too numerous, interwoven and complex to specify, yet several do immediately come to mind. Emerging layered ship defenses are now enabled by laser interceptors, EW applications able to jam missile targeting systems and new generations of longer-range precision interceptor missiles increasingly able to change course in flight to destroy incoming attacks.

At the same time Wittman, the Navy and other members of Congress seem open to continued analysis and debate regarding whether future carriers should be built in a different configuration. To the extent that the Navy’s recently released 30-year shipbuilding plan offers a glimpse into current thinking about future Naval warfare, it is clear that the question will continue to receive very significant attention. The text of the plan states that, moving through the next five years and beyond, the Navy plans to analyze “carrier evolution,” by writing that the service “continues to meet full funding requirements for CVN 80/81 and advanced procurement for a CVN in 2026. The department also recognizes the need for continued exploration of carrier evolution and expects to conduct an analysis of alternatives within the FYDP (Five Year Defense Spending Plan) to inform potential requirements.”"

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CVN 80 and 81, the third and fourth Ford-class carriers, are already well underway following the successful construction of the first-in-class USS Ford which is now nearing deployment.

The question regarding the future has been studied extensively in recent years through a number of formal Navy studies, and many weapons developers continue to ponder a range of potential contingencies. Some of these include a greater use of F-35B armed amphibious assault ships for carrier-like power projection missions. Certainly, having 5th Gen attack capability extends the tactical and operational envelope for amphibs, and newer amphibs are being engineered with new abilities to command and control large fleets of surface, air and even undersea drones. Would amphibs be less vulnerable targets sufficiently capable of sustaining a high-op tempo sortie rate for maritime attack?

Other major factors include the large-scale incorporation of surface, air and undersea drones, meaning carriers could operate at safer standoff distances when enabled by new platforms such as the MQ-25 Stingray, a first of its kind drone able to nearly double the strike range of carrier-launched fighter jets such as F-35s and F/A-18s. Then there is the question of evolving ship defenses, meaning newer kinds of layered defense weapons to include EW, lasers, aerial sensor nodes, advanced radar and faster computer processing for fire control all continue to massively improve carriers’ ability to operate safely in high-threat environments such as waters within striking range of China’s heavily touted carrier-killer DF-26 and DF-21D anti-ship missiles. Fast-evolving ship defense technologies are likely one reason why senior Navy leaders continue to emphasize that U.S. carriers are going nowhere soon and can operate wherever they need to, whenever they need to when called upon. While the mission to project massive attack power from the sea is by any estimation here to stay, its particular size, shape and technological configuration certainly may evolve.

Drone evolution may be the hidden key to all of this in several respects. Certainly the Navy’s MQ-25 will not be the only carrier-launched drone to emerge, as others will likely follow, and how about the idea of large unmanned carrier-like platforms launching unmanned strike assets? All while command and control operations are performed by human sailors at safer standoff ranges? That would certainly change the equation when it comes to operating in high-risk areas more vulnerable to enemy fire. As part of this equation, it would seem important to point out that the Navy is already well on the way to engineering new large unmanned ships such as the Medium and Large Unmanned Surface Vessel programs. Large drone boats could perform anti-submarine warfare, conduct reconnaissance operations and even coordinate strikes for aircraft from strategically vital vantage points enabling maritime forces to project power from wherever needed.

All of this bears upon the almost “all too often discussed” threat equation presented in the Pacific by Chinese DF-26 and DF-21D carrier killer anti-ship missiles which can reportedly hit carriers at ranges of 2,000 and 1,000 miles respectively. The weapons are regularly test fired and cited in Chinese newspapers as being highly effective and able to deny access to vital strike ranges from which carriers might need to operate.

The rhetoric about these missiles, however, often overlooks several key variables of great significance to the tactical equation, such as the extent to which the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-launched refueler drone might actually double the strike range of carrier launched aircraft. With this in mind, for several years now the Navy has been working on a carrier-based drone command and control center to accommodate the expected influx of more carrier-launched drones. Many expect carriers to increasing launch more unmanned systems, and if an F-35C or F-18 can be refueled in flight by a carrier-operated drone refueler, they will not only have more dwell time over targets but also reach target areas and project power from carriers operating at safer standoff ranges. Also, is is perhaps with this in mind that Wittman argues for extensive testing and performance assessments of emerging drone technologies.

“We have lots of great concepts about unmanned platforms, but we really haven't put them to the true test. You want to take real platforms, and put them in the hands of our sailors and Marines. They will know what works, probably better than the folks up the chain at the Pentagon," Wittman said.

Also, there is likely a reason why so many Navy leaders regularly say the service can operate carriers anywhere it needs to, meaning the breakthrough levels of ship defenses, coupled with the added protections from ships in a Carrier Strike Group, enable carriers to operate in high threat areas to a much larger extent than may be realized.

“I think that the aircraft carrier will continue to be a viable option, mainly because, you know, our effort is to keep any sort of conflict away from conus. And the only way to do that is to protect power. So nobody has come up with a substitute for that in today's world,” Wittman said. “We can probably dock our ships in allied ports and stage many operations from friendly countries, however the 20th century concept of basing in foreign nations is something that's not going to happen in the future.”

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.