Best Defense

Toward a new American naval strategy: Learning to play a strategic shell game

No American aircraft carriers were at sea in the first weeks of the New Year.

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By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense office of Mahanian thought

No American aircraft carriers were at sea in the first weeks of the New Year. Some people say that like it is a bad thing. I beg to differ. I am not anti-aircraft carrier, but the reality is that the naval strategic picture has changed in the past decade.

Submariners are fond of saying that there are only two types of ships, submarines and targets. In this age of omnipresent satellites and high endurance drones, carriers are hard to hide; anything that can be seen can be targeted in an environment of hypersonic precision weaponry.

This does not imply that aircraft carriers have lost their utility, but it does mean that their strategic role is changing. American aircraft carriers are a sign of our continued presence in those areas of the world that we consider vital. Carriers are a visible signal to friends and enemies of our nation’s commitment to the region; that is why we have maintained a carrier presence in European, Middle Eastern, and Western Pacific waters for decades. Along with amphibious ships, carriers are great platforms for supporting the occasional disaster relief missions in regions where help from other sources is not readily available. Our nation’s use of naval assets as a quick response to humanitarian emergencies is often underrated in making friends in places not previously well-disposed to American presence.

Carriers remain excellent political-military signal senders. For example, the deployment of the Russian Carrier General Kutuzov to the water around Syria sent a signal that the Russians were serious about propping up the Assad regime; its withdrawal was a Russian signal that they believed they had accomplished the mission.

Similarly, the recent deployment of China’s first aircraft carrier to the South China Sea was a clear signal of its new assertiveness in the region. However, in a general war with the United States, neither of those ships would likely have survived the first day of conflict.

That doesn’t mean U.S. carriers are invulnerable. In a 2002 war game call Millennium Challenge, surging massive air and surface attacks by the Red (Iranian) Team eliminated American carrier assets in the Persian Gulf in the first hours.

None of the above is meant to imply that aircraft carriers are obsolete, but it does signify a necessary shift in naval tactics and strategy. The good news about the lack of carriers at sea in the world in the first part of this year is that the United States was forced to spread its forward deployed air power to a number of land bases where the aircrafts are much more dispersed and harder to destroy on the ground than they would be on a single ship.

Of necessity, the Marines have been forced to do much the same thing with their forward deployed air and ground forces. The Marines would prefer to keep such assets on amphibious ships, but lack of amphibious shipping in the post-Benghazi era has forced them to land base Marine Corps ground combat units and their supporting aviation assets in strategic locations where they can quickly reinforce embassies or conduct evacuation operations of American citizens with only a few hours of notice.

This dispersion of naval assets may have been forced on us by necessity, but it suggests the beginnings of a new naval strategy that would be useful to us should one of our potential adversaries (we are talking about the Chinese, Iranians, Russians, and/or North Koreans) launch a preemptive strike against our forward deployed naval and aviation forces. Having our combat power as dispersed as possible is a good idea.

Senator John McCain, who is a former carrier pilot, has sensibly suggested buying a larger number of small aircraft carriers to further disperse airpower, but even those platforms should keep at least half of their air wings dispersed to expeditionary land air bases when they are forward deployed.

When aircraft carrier battle groups or amphibious ready groups deploy forward for a six or seven month cruise, they should immediately disperse their aircraft and marines as widely as possible in expeditionary airfields and training camps. Rotating these units frequently in a shell game would make a sneak attack problematic for a potential foe. We might lose a carrier or two in such an attack, but the majority of our striking capability would not be lost. Our submarines are still on station, and we will retain the ability to quickly regain sea supremacy, even in the face of an enemy’s preemptive strike.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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