Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sobering thoughts about the US Navy's carrier strategy

A retired US Navy captain has produced an impressive - and thought-provoking - report on some implications of its carrier-centric strategy.  Yahoo News reports:

Retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix ... makes the case that aircraft carriers have steadily lost their utility over the past two decades.

At fault for this are twin mistakes of the US Navy: a steady introduction of aircraft with decreasing flight ranges in addition to a failure to foresee rising military capabilities from countries like China that could target carriers.

"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 to include the carrier-killing 1,000 nautical mile (nm) range Dong Feng-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, now threatens to push the Navy back beyond the range of its carrier air wings," Hendrix notes.

Essentially, any carrier that operates within 1,000 nautical miles of Chinese military placements could be open to a strike from an antiship ballistic missile. This would not be a problem, except that the average unrefueled combat range of US carrier air wings operates at half that distance.

And even that average combat range is a decrease from the height of the Cold War.

In 1956, for example, air wings had an average range of 1,210 nautical miles on internal fuel alone. This range was achieved even though the US Navy was using an older class of aircraft carriers that could support less aircraft than today's modern carriers.

The move to shrink the flight range of carrier air wings occurred following the fall of the Soviet Union and the Navy's decision to shift the strategic purpose of carriers away from long-range missions toward acting as platforms for faster and shorter-range sortie missions.

. . .

This lack of range, unless the Navy changes course, will continue to mean that the Navy will have little choice but to continue to operate in waters off potential enemy coasts.

And this means that carriers, for all their cost and high-tech capabilities, would either hypothetically fall within range of Chinese antiship ballistic missiles or would be forced to operate beyond the unrefueled range of their air wings.

There's more at the link.  The complete report can be found here.

I think Captain Hendrix makes some very good points:  but I'm surprised to see one that I consider even more important is not addressed at all.  That's the advent of directed energy (i.e. beam) weapons, initially laser beams, but in due course extending to charged particle beams as well.

Such beams move at light speed.  If you can see the target, you can hit it.  No deflection whatsoever is necessary, because the target won't have time to move before the beam arrives at its position.  An aircraft-carrier or other ship equipped with defensive beam weapons and sufficient generating capacity can conceivably blast out of the sky any number of missiles (cruise, ballistic or any other type).  In the same way, an aircraft with a beam weapon can destroy any other aircraft, or surface ship, or other target that it gets in its sights.  The destruction will be instantaneous, with no time needed for a weapon to cover the distance between attacker and target.

I think that's going to be the big game-changer over the next few decades, completely outweighing questions of aircraft range, etc.  Such weapons are already in development, and have been successfully tested as anti-artillery and anti-missile devices.  The USAF is sponsoring research to integrate laser turrets on combat aircraft, and the US Navy is developing beam weapons for its ships.  When they become operational, will manned and unmanned aircraft be capable of functioning in the same roles they have today?  Won't the latter be at risk of being destroyed before they even see their target, much less get close enough to attack it?

Interesting times . . .



shugyosha said...

Are you aware of a site called "Information Dissemination"? It tends to touch naval matters and the future of the US Navy. LCS, CVN...

Capt. Hendrix has been explaining his side for a while, and that site's covered it from time to time.

Take care.

Ferran, BCN

AuricTech said...

Regarding the potential for directed-energy weapons to be a game-changer, keep in mind that the Ford-class carriers use a new reactor design that will, according to The Font of All Knowledge, produce "approximately three times the electrical power of the Nimitz-class A4W reactor plant."

Kell said...

Directed energy weapons in a point defense role probably won't be anything to write home about for a long, long time. I'll be the first to admit the technology is in it's infancy, and I think there's great potential there, but a lot of what you're saying was said about the SM-1 and SM-2 and a variety of slug-throwing point defense systems. I know the prototypes have been good at shooting down missiles, but anyone with half a brain is going to shoot more than one or two at an American carrier battlegroup. The real question is going to be whether or not the lasers can cycle fast enough to engage 20 or 30 wildly evading targets before they go into terminal attack mode.

My own concern for years has been the nature of military and civilian leadership to budget and plan for the last war. I'm no longer certain that the capabilities of first tier military powers factor into threat assessments, and the incredible red tape in the R&D and procurement process means that getting and staying ahead is harder and harder, even without the cyberwar.

The next time the US has to fight a war against a major world power we're probably going to get bloodied pretty badly at the start. Hubris has a price.

Anonymous said...

The problem with any anti- something is the ability to over come a mass attack. Dog and pony shows may demonstrate the ability to hit six target flying on designated routes. The real attack will be something quite different.

Hitting 20 or 30 threats surrounded by jamming or decoys is another thing all together.

How quickly the threat is recognized and systems spool up is another factor.


Rusty Gunner said...

The beam may require as close to zero time as makes no odds to travel to its target, but how long must it hold on the target to destroy it, assuming reflective or ablative materials in the missile body? How long to detect the next target, classify it as a threat, and mechanically slew to engage? Rinse and repeat for every missile...and missiles may be pricy, but nothing compared to a carrier.

Of course, preparing the coastline for a strike by knocking out missile launchers with SSGN-launched Tomahawks can reduce the risk.

Praetorious said...

Rheinmetall's laser point defense operates by superimposing multiple beams on the same target, allowing for power power delivered. Then you've got two tactics, either ablate away the structure, or, in the case of optical guidance, dazzle the sensors. One can use standard revolver cannons as backup for the things which 'leak' through the defense. So a mixed system for defense is certainly capable of handling a number of cruise missiles.

As far as ship to ship weapons, lasers fire in a straight line, projectiles arc. It would therefore be possible, provided one has a powerful enough cannon (railgun comes to mind), to use the curvature of the Earth to protect your ship from lasers, and still sling projectiles at the enemy.

A.B. Prosper said...

The Chinese are amazingly good at making laser diodes and from and have lasers that can reach orbit . Its perfectly plausible that other powers will have equal or superior technology and a big 'ol carrier is easy to keep a laser beam on compared to a hypersonic evasive missile swarm.

Heck I suspect China which sells (not for us in the "free" US though) multi-watt lasers that are near weapons grade and probably has even better ones at the military level.

Blue-green lasers can be made to propagate underwater and small plastic automated submersibles with hyperbaric torpedoes and maybe said lasers are a deadly threat and more importantly much cheaper than manned submersibles.

No life support, no crew and you can deploy hundreds to kill a carrier.

Also re: coastal strikes. If ballistic missiles propagate as I seem to see them doing and cruise missiles get as good as the Russian ones, we are vulnerable here in CONUS to retaliatory strikes and as brittle as the US is, a minor power with well targeted attacks could cripple our shipbuilding and aircraft capacity. Back in WW2 we had hundreds of small shops that could be refitted, now we have a few concentrated ones

That's assuming they don't just hit food distribution or use an EMP warhead and let the inevitable race war and famine do their work for them

If we get stuck on the old paradigm and think the ocean makes us invincible we are going to lose and if we are going to fight we will need pretty massive perpetration for civil defense, air defense , space and coastal defense.

We can't do the basics very well and real defense would basically require so much effort and money that we are far better off with non intervention.

Old NFO said...

Kell is right... Just sayin... and Lasers are still in their infancy... AB raises the bigger questions, and those are the ones that, combined with the sequestration and limitations on the military are having the bigger impacts.

Larry said...

One thing that directed energy weapons will not address is the the submarine threat. I still find it mind-boggling that our carrier battle groups have NO long-range ASW capability. There is simply no way for short-ranged helicopters to adequately search ahead of the task force. Land-based ASW has been left to decline, though the P-8s are finally coming on line. A salvo of 65-cm wake homing torpedoes, and/or supersonic SS-N-19 Shipwreck missiles will totally ruin any carrier battle group's day. And it's not like we've got a dozen more in construction. If we lose 2-3, we're in deep kim-shi because it will be years before they're replaced. Do we even have the capability to build more than 1 or 2 at a time anymore?

And where's our surface ASW assets anymore? We've been turning ASW destroyers and frigates into artificial reefs or razor blades at an alarming rate. I think they are close to gone, if they aren't already. I have strong whiffs of, if not outright treason, then 1939-1940 French-like levels of sheer idiocy, and apparently driven as much by personal greed of those in charge as anything else. Which is not the Constitutional definition of treason, but really is some sort of treason.

We're going to pay in blood, I fear, and maybe a lot more than that. It's been centuries since English-speaking peoples have lost a naval war, but I think we're close to throwing that legacy away. Britain is closer, but then you have to actually have a Navy to lose a naval war, don't you?

Bob said...

Old NFO said:

".... and Lasers are still in their infancy..."

Lasers were "in their infancy" when I worked at WSMR back in the 60's and even then we could punch a 12" hole into a old obsolete Patton tank turret almost instantly. Only problem then was the laser was not portable or slewable, it took three tractor trailer vans to house it and several hours to set up and point.

If you think we are still in that sort of primitive condition with lasers you are not paying attention. What is - and has been - publicly released about lasers and their true capabilities is laughable.

Don't for a second think the general public been told what our capabilities really are.

Cargosquid said...

Larry is absolutely right.
After the USSR imploded, it seemed that the US decided that meant that all that hardware and knowledge disappeared. No need to "waste" money on unglamorous ASW and Anti-mine warfare. We rule the seas!


ZERO strategic thinking. All of the powers that be direct development according to short term thinking.

I mean, really.... The LCS?

Leatherneck said...

Hard kills by DEW are not instantaneous. Dwell time is necessary, requiring incredible technologies, including stabilization, atmospherical compensation/correction, and great power. Not at all the same as a kill by bullet or frag. Point-of
-aim, of course, is an advantage.


Will said...


I suspect that the Navy is using a sub for ASW coverage for each of the carrier groups. The question is how well can they cover 360*, and at what distance can they detect/counter such a threat. It makes one hell of an expensive tin can, though.

I would think the focus on DEW's would be a pulse beam type. Use a CIW laser for target acquisition/alignment, and when you get a return, the pulse beam triggers. This eliminates the problems of the target maneuvering out of beam contact, or having to hold on one spot to achieve burn-through.

When Lexan type cockpit canopies/windows start looking very different, or disappear entirely from military aircraft, you will have confirmation that these sorts of weapons have come on line. The cockpit should be the most vulnerable spot to DEW's, currently.

Anonymous said...

Strange during the Gulf War we couldn't hit Iraqi mobile missile launchers yet we are told the PRC can hit a carrier from 1,300 miles away. Wanna bet?