by Michael W. Wynne
21st Secretary of the USAF
Under Secretary Work focused on TACAIR options for the USN and USMC. Work focused on “warfighter capability and affordability trades, and costs and potential cost savings of different TACAIR force structure combinations.”
Perhaps a better question would be to ask: what strike capabilities do you want with regard to the large deck carrier?
The concept of 4.5 Acres of sovereign airfield associated with the large deck carrier was a great advertisement. The fact as presented was the freedom of movement across the 60 percent of the globe that is water.
The concept of re-norming defense is about rethinking the original purpose of the invented and available platforms given the modern invented technologies; and applying these in favor of doing more with less.
In the case of the carrier platform; we must thank the inventor of the Doolittle raid that took the concept of ‘4.5 Acres’ and changed the dynamic of a nation. And look no further than the Tsunami relief to find an inventive admiral who thought about the functional capabilities of the carrier and repurposed it as a floating power plant, water purification system, helicopter pad and hospital.
This “re-purposement” was fraught with risk; with the Doolittle Carrier now carrying the nations hope for a better outcome; and the Tsunami relief done against a backdrop of an uncertain world and concern for ‘taking one of the nations premier systems off line for a mission beneath its optimal.
Now, in his memo, Under Secretary Work is looking to a committee to dream up repurposing for a part of the total Aircraft Carrier System, namely Aviation. From a systems perspective; one should consider all of the system, not focus just on tac air.
Let us return to the 1920’s when the concept of ship borne aviation was introduced and look to how to re-create this original purpose but with an eye to modern and maybe future technologies to enhance the original desired capabilities.
From a perspective of a air and sea space that was considered benign at the time, the purpose seemed simple enough. How to bring airborne firepower forward to wreak havoc on the ports and nearby airfields, essentially moving sovereign borders close to an enemies, via the open water.
This concept was a complex extension of the large man of war gunships that pummeled with big guns the shore batteries and ports, until driven off by counter fire or enemy fleets.
The rest of the platform design came about by mission demands for protection from enemy air, from enemy sea and to best use the ‘Big’ Ocean for longevity of an operating mission. The Navy began to introduce the concept of last on first off for its aviation units by allowing the aviation unit to come aboard after they had some sea time to shake off any refit problems; and allowing them to depart early so they could dedicate the remaining voyage to cataloguing repairs; and supplies.
This simple act of smart logistics can easily be extended by asking the question of why the aircraft are ever on the carrier except to prep for a mission?
Asking this question is the essence of re-norming. One needs to start from the bare deck and ask: what else is needed to achieve the mission?
The carrier platform began to swell to the carrier battle group. And as it did so the purpose changed. There is tremendous military evidence that protection of the Carrier Platform began to consume the entirety of the mission status for all of the surrounding ships and submarines, and many of the on board aircraft. Such a focus left essentially 8-12 strikes capable A-6 aircraft to accomplish the original mission, of bringing havoc to the enemy.
The upgrade to the F-4 was the F-14; a very capable; though maintenance unfriendly strike fighter. Better still; the upgrade to the carrier protection air system was the swing fighter, the F-18; which had sufficient speed and agility to be a carrier protector; as well as strike inland targets; sometimes deep with support of the Air Force Tankers scattered around the air space.
Unfortunately; this led the Navy to the ill-fated A-12; the first stealthy try to replace the A-6, the last of which was stood down by maintenance in the late 2000 decade. Without this replacement but able to fly from protected Air and Sea Space provided by the USAF, the F-18 performed all of the mission required; and is convincing the Navy that it is invincible.
But we note that the emergence of Exocet missiles, arrayed in unfriendly territory have placed the carrier far enough off shore that to stay in the Afghan conflict, a refueling with a tanker is a requirement. Some of the F-18 carrier aircraft operationally flew from Bagram Airfield to help with Northern strikes. This is an adaptive Navy that is placing risk in the operational plan.
Unfortunately; the Strategic Navy; by dedicating significant resources to purchase the 1950’s designed F-18 airframe is trying its best to convince itself that the modern F-18 can carry out all assigned missions. In contrast, the planning Navy sees trouble ahead for any Navy Airmen sent into an Air Space defended with Integrated Air Defenses, and puts the Carriers further out to sea.
This creates a true conundrum; but all of the selected electronic games that young men play have already taken technology into account; and these young game players see that the senior officials clinging to F-18s are in a losing strategy.
So what to do?
First return to the original mission and try to maximize the opportunity to effect it.
Second; minimize the deck space required to protect the ship by turning to modern technology, as the Navy has with the counter missile Phalanx System; and can as well with AUVS systems to accomplish submarine hunting, and counter torpedo technologies;
For Air use high Flying Air to Air missile armed Remotely piloted vehicles; with the pilots flying remotely; or on-board.
Further; this would allow multi mission, outlying picket ships with AEGIS systems to be far removed from the Carrier, actually performing other missions yet able to fire from a distance in support of the carrier.
And the F-35s could well glue together the Aegis with the RPVs and creating a significant bubble around the carrier and at the same time carrying a strike package forward simultaneously
Using the High Flying RPV’s for Nodal connection the carrier can increase by an order of magnitude it’s communication capability for over the horizon command and control; connecting other command and control nodes for back up and fire support.
With this kind of “pre-Work” accomplished, the system would be more ready to respond to Under Secretary Work’s memo; and now it can consider maximizing the Strike Mission for which the platform was first invented.
This requires one more leap into the future. How could one best use the remaining deck space in accomplishing the mission when the mission is uncertain? Is there a better and future strategy for actually rewarding fleet operators for minimizing aircraft deck crowding until the bell goes off? This type of thinking should underscore Navy thinking as it moves into an uncertain but constrained budget season.