Hendrix vs. McGrath: A heavyweight bout on the future of the aircraft carrier

Hendrix vs. McGrath:  A heavyweight bout on the future of the aircraft carrier

By John T. Kuehn

Best Defense boxing correspondent

Last Friday night in the very appropriate Mahan Hall on the grounds of the frigid US Naval Academy two “think-tankers”—retired Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix of the Center for New American Security and retired Commander Bryan McGrath of the Hudson Center for American Seapower—went mano a mano over the issue of the “future of aircraft carriers.” Perhaps it is best to let Best Defense readers first know the precise nature of the resolution being debated:

Resolved: The big deck aircraft carrier with its air wing is the most cost effective and efficient platform to project power in the maritime and littoral realm and support US national security interest in current and future security environments.

Ironically, Bryan McGrath, a surface warfare officer, supported the resolution and Hendrix, a naval flight officer (NFO) with much experience flying E-2C Hawkeyes from aircraft carriers, took the opposing position. So the surface guy—or “shoe” as we call them in the Navy—was ‘for,’ and the aviator ‘against.’   Familiarity breeds contempt, perhaps? As an E-2 NFO with hundreds of hours of putting together a fused real-time picture around the carriers, primarily to defend it, it seemed to me Hendrix’s career provided him the more valuable perspective as to the efficacy of the aircraft carrier. However, the bulk of the debate came down to cost, although it did offer one very interesting and even entertaining sidebar, at which we soon will arrive.

But first. As to cost, the entire issue revolved around what Hendrix labeled “the math.” Given the acquisition of the current George H.W. Bush class of aircraft carriers, the issue of life cycle costs and value underpinned his major argument. The Bush class constitute a huge sunk cost for the nation of $7.6 billion, before including include life-cycle and operating expenses. The even newer CVNX will be twice that much–and constitute 85% of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. These CVNX carriers are required to remain effective for another 150 years. History does not suggest that weapons systems remain so efficacious, the modern dreadnought battleship, for example, only lasted from 1906 to 1941 (although they did good service in secondary roles to 1990). Powers that stand still suffer defeat, up and comers figure out how to negate advantage.

Oh yeah. What about the air wings that fly off these ships? They cost money, too, although both McGrath and Hendrix agreed that hybrid manned-unmanned air wings are foreseeable in the near future.

McGrath’s fundamental argument revolved around how adaptable the bigger, nuclear powered ships are for an uncertain future. The criticism of their vulnerability to the so-called anti-access and area denial (A2AD) threats are overstated and that carriers during the Cold War had proven they could use things like emission control (EMCON) and counter-targeting (CTTG) to ameliorate the A2AD problem.

McGrath did admit, somewhat grudgingly, that the current air wing is too short range in its ability to deliver a punch, but added that it has generally been carrier air that has delivered the punch against ISIS in the current air campaign in Northern Iraq and Syria.   He addressed Hendrix’s cost arguments by emphasizing that only one half of one percent of defense spending is devoted to aircraft carriers. But he constantly returned to how lethal, adaptable, and flexible they are. I found myself thinking, “okay they are so superior, why do we need so many?” However, Hendrix did not take this tack. He responded to McGrath’s pooh-poohing of the threat by claiming carriers are suited more for the low density operations in relatively benign environments (like the North Arabian Sea or the Eastern Mediterranean), but not suited for winning a war when someone is seriously shooting back at us. He suggested that a 150 year investment will probably overlap with such a serious war—the “mother loving naval war” of the type Kirk Douglas seemed to welcome in the hoary old film of WW II, In Harm’s Way (1965).

During the question and answer period the issue of alternatives that can project power similar to an aircraft carrier came up. At this point the very interesting idea of using nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines (SSGN) for the “shooting war” power projection mission in the contested waters of any serious future war with a credible threat to the big nuclear carrier. He used the example of the vignette of the most dangerous animal that one sees in the forest—the solitary baby grizzly bear. Then, to laughs, he emphasized that it was so because it meant that no one knew where the mother was—the real threat was un-located. This exchange led to a very funny posting after the debate about the new B3AR5 craft, but I found the metaphor quite useful.   McGrath countered that the subs do not give presence the way a carrier does. Hendrix countered this riposte by saying smaller surface ships, which are less risky to employ than carriers, can provide the presence, the port visits, the hosting. Meanwhile, the mother grizzly-bear can prowl the deeps.

So what should be the way ahead? In this observer’s opinion the middle road is the best; the balanced fleet approach is the best approach for uncertainty. Build carriers but do not sink too much cost into them. Maintain the industrial base for them, however, see if we can deploy other, albeit probably less capable, but maybe more survivable, alternatives like the SSGN. Also, develop the un-manned technologies. The US Navy did not begin to learn seriously about aircraft carrier operations until it deployed its first purpose-built aircraft carriers in the 1930s.   We need to look at carriers purpose built for manned-unmanned mixes. All in all it was a refreshing debate, but resting on the laurels of the beloved aircraft carrier is perhaps unwise, time to quit napping and start thinking.

Retired Navy commander John T. Kuehn is the Major General William Stofft Research Chair at the US Army Command and General Staff College.   He is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008), A Military History of Japan (2014), co-author of Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008), and numerous articles and editorials. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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