Shipping Out

Are aircraft carriers becoming obsolete?

For decades, aircraft carriers have been the tool-of-choice for crisis response. Policymakers in Washington and four-star commanders in the field invariably have turned to carriers when they needed to signal U.S. intentions, quickly reinforce military power, or provide decision-makers with options during a predicament. The Navy has responded to the enduring demands of these customers by making the aircraft carrier strike group the prime organizing feature of the Navy's surface and aviation forces, thereby drawing the biggest share of the service's manpower, budget, support, and training resources. And until recently, the Air Force seemed happy to cede this crisis-response role, because then it could focus on its own priorities.

However, new and disruptive weapons and technologies will soon upset long-standing assumptions and cozy inter-service arrangements. In particular, the spread of long-range anti-ship missiles threatens the ability of aircraft carriers to perform their traditional missions. What's more, these disruptions are occurring at the moment when U.S. policymakers are under pressure to find cheaper ways of performing essential military missions. And the Air Force could develop the technology and the long-range platforms to carry out many of the carrier's missions at less cost. All these factors could force planners to rethink air power from first principles, leading to stormy times for aircraft carriers and inter-service harmony.

The aircraft carrier's combat debut in the Pacific theater in 1941 instantly made the battleship obsolete. Aircraft carriers delivered more firepower, over longer ranges, with more speed and flexibility, over a wider variety of targets at sea and ashore. After World War II, the power of U.S. aircraft carriers forced adversaries to focus their naval spending on submarines rather than major surface ships, a trend still visible today. Without enemy surface ships to sink, the Navy's carrier pilots focused on projecting air power ashore, which they did against North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.

Over the past half-century, the Navy's carriers also became well-suited to crisis response. Carrier strike groups could typically arrive at trouble spots within days and without the need for tedious negotiations with host countries over permissions and basing rights. The Air Force was fine with this arrangement because, although its tactical fighter wings could theoretically perform a similar role, the service's doctrine called for large, well-established, and well-supplied bases from which it could reliably generate a high sortie rate. Such ponderous guidance could not deal well with fleeting contingencies, many of which occurred in austere locations.

But the proliferation of cheap but deadly long-range anti-ship missiles promises to upset these assumptions and arrangements. For example, China is putting anti-ship missiles on submarines, patrol boats, surface ships, aircraft, and trucks, giving it the ability to dominate its nearby seas. For the price of a single major warship, China can buy hundreds or even thousands of anti-ship missiles. And as it perfects its own reconnaissance drones, China will be able to thoroughly patrol neighborhood waters, identifying targets for these missiles.

The Navy's aircraft carriers will come under pressure to retreat from this missile zone. However, there is a limit to how far they can retreat while still remaining in the game. As large as U.S. aircraft carriers are, they can only launch relatively small short-range fighter-bomber aircraft. For example, the F-35C, the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, has a combat radius of just 615 miles. Mid-air refueling can extend this range. But refueling is not possible in hostile air space, and even with it, small fighters are constrained by the physiological limits of their single pilot.

The Air Force's long-range bombers, by contrast, with two pilots and room inside to stretch, have routinely flown intercontinental missions lasting over 30 hours. Recently, an Air Force B-1 bomber wing continuously maintained at least one of its big bombers over Afghanistan during a six-month deployment to a base in southwest Asia. While on station over Afghanistan, the B-1s responded to over 500 requests for close air support from troops in fire fights.

Ironically, just as the value and utility of its long-range bomber forces was increasing, the Air Force has spent the past decade focused on its F-22 and F-35 fighters, which, like the Navy's carrier aircraft, have to operate from vulnerable close-in bases and whose combat ranges are too short for the Asia-Pacific theater's vast expanses. But, after much bureaucratic resistance and delay, the Air Force is finally moving ahead with a new stealthy long-range bomber to supplement and eventually replace the legacy fleet that has withered over the past decade.

The arrival of the new bomber, when combined with the anti-ship missile threat and budget austerity, could force Pentagon planners to reassess the nature of air support, especially during crisis response in missile-contested war zones. That would be unhappy news to Navy and Air Force officials who have become comfortable with long-existing arrangements. If the missile threat in the western Pacific or the around the Persian Gulf becomes too great, policymakers and planners may conclude that too much prestige may be at risk with the deployment of a carrier strike group in response to a crisis. Diplomatic or tactical objections may similarly rule out an Air Force fighter deployment. That would leave long-range bombers as the only usable crisis-response tool and raise questions about the investments in more aircraft carriers and short-range fighters.

But beyond crisis response, Air Force bombers could redefine close air support as well. Until recently, supporting infantrymen in battle was assumed to be the job of small fighters. With precision-guided bombs, that is no longer true -- during their deployment in southwest Asia, the B-1s dropped bombs just 300 meters from friendly forces. By providing a continuous presence, troops on patrol always had air power overhead -- and very likely at a cheaper price than the cost of building, stocking, operating, and protecting air bases for fighters inside the combat zone.

There is another alternative. In a recent article in Proceedings, defense analyst Daniel Goure articulated a vision of aircraft carriers equipped with unmanned reconnaissance-strike drones, which, with mid-air refueling, could fly far longer and farther than jets with a human crew. Assuming the Navy could work out the considerable threats to their communications links (a problem the Air Force must also solve), drones could keep aircraft carriers in the fight even if they had been pushed back by anti-ship missiles. The Navy's carrier drone program is very active and well ahead of the Air Force's new bomber program. But even that success could backfire for carriers. If the Navy can perfect long-range drone missions, why not intercontinental drone missions? And if that's the case, a land base would work just fine. All of which could set up a new round of inter-service brawling inside the Pentagon.



Pretty Vacant

After three empty days in Tampa, the Republican Party seems out of ideas on how to run America's foreign policy.

TAMPA, Florida — Two-hundred-and-two words. That was the total length of the foreign-policy section of Mitt Romney's speech Thursday night in Tampa as he accepted the Republican nomination for U.S. president. If you blinked you would have missed it. Everyone knows (because it has been stated repeatedly) that this isn't going to be a foreign-policy election. But Aug. 30's speech by Romney was still remarkable -- a content-free discussion of the global challenges facing the United States and Romney's foreign-policy vision. While Republican vacuousness on foreign policy this cycle is not a new development, Romney's acceptance speech was the apogee of the party's apparent pursuit of national security nothingness.

The few scant morsels of content that Romney did offer on national security and foreign policy were either highly misleading or simply untrue. He once again accused President Barack Obama of conducting an "apology tour" after taking office -- a charge that has repeatedly been debunked. And he claimed that the United States is less secure today because of the failure "to slow Iran's nuclear threat" -- an assertion that is belied by revelations that the United States was involved in developing the Stuxnet computer virus, which set back the Iranian nuclear effort, by some estimates, 18 months to two years. Moreover, while criticizing the president for holding talks with Iran, Romney declined to mention that Obama has dramatically increased sanctions against Iran, contributing to Tehran's economic and diplomatic isolation. Romney once again accused the United States of throwing Israel "under the bus," which I suppose is all in the eye of the beholder, but to most regional observers -- including Israeli deputy prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak -- is simply inaccurate. He claimed once again that the United States has walked away from "our friends in Poland" and "our missile defense commitments" -- another charge that simply doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Earlier in his speech, Romney trotted out his claim that Obama's "trillion-dollar cuts to our military will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs and also put our security at greater risk." But since these cuts were initiated by House Republicans during last year's debt-limit debacle (and voted for by a congressman named Paul Ryan), Romney's criticism rang particularly hollow.

And that was basically it. Nothing on Afghanistan, where approximately 80,000 U.S. soldiers continue to fight a war against the Taliban -- a war that Romney supports. No mention of the troops in general. Nothing on Pakistan. Nothing on Iraq. Nothing on terrorism -- except to offer a rare bit of praise to Obama for ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Virtually nothing on China, which Romney has labeled a currency manipulator. Nothing on the rest of Asia. I suppose Europe can revel in the fact that Romney didn't take his familiar tack of using America's strongest set of allies as a punch line -- though, once again, the country that Romney has called America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, Russia, once again came in for attack.

As for a foreign-policy vision, this appeared to be the extent of it: "We will honor America's democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world. This is the bipartisan foreign-policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again."

For a candidate who complains regularly that Obama has weakened American leadership and created uncertainty about America's role in the world, and for a ticket with the least amount of foreign-policy experience since the Dewey-Warren ticket in 1948, it's very difficult to see how this speech provided much in the way of reassurance. If the United States has been so weakened internationally under Obama's presidency, one would think that Romney would have a bit more to say on the subject.

But all this is very much at pace with how Republicans treated national security throughout their entire truncated three-day convention. On Aug. 29, which was billed perhaps ironically as national security night, delegates were treated to the stylings of Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

McCain's remarks were indicative of pretty much all that we've heard from Republican politicos this campaign cycle: hoary paeans to American exceptionalism and purpose, calls to stand with those fighting for freedom, disingenuousness attacks on Obama for failing to lead, and protests against defense cuts that according to McCain would deal a "crippling blow to our military." Above all, however, what linked McCain's remarks to those of the party nominee was the lack of a plan for the future. McCain verbally assaulted the president for failing in 2009 to support the Green Movement in Iran and for declining to take a more aggressive position on Syria, but particularly on the latter issue offered zero sense of what a Republican president should do differently. Of course, on this, Romney said nothing.

Indeed, what is so particularly striking about McCain and Romney's rhetoric is not its differentiation from Obama, but rather its eerie reminiscence to that of the last Republican president. To listen to McCain and his assertions of American greatness, of incipient threats, and of the need for American resolve and leadership was to hear loud echoes of the rhetoric used by President George W. Bush. And if the connection wasn't clear enough for viewers, the Romney team also trotted out Condoleezza Rice.

Rice's presence -- and the slathering of praise for her anodyne remarks by the national press corps -- was indicative of the bizarre degree of amnesia about the Bush years that settled over the Republican National Convention. Rice was, aside from the eminently forgettable Rob Portman, the only figure from the Bush administration to make a prominent appearance at the convention. And Bush, unsurprisingly, only showed up in a video tribute -- his name virtually unmentioned in the week's proceedings. Rice's assertions that friends and foes alike do not know where America stands and that the United States must lead in the future (and not from behind) are all well and good and follow the Republican foreign-policy playbook, but from her speech you might never know that she was secretary of state and national security advisor for the most disastrous foreign-policy administration in American history.

At one point I tweeted that if Condi mentioned the word "Iraq," I would eat my computer. I'm pleased to note that my laptop remains blissfully unconsumed.

Rice's speech was, like McCain's, remarkably similar to the one Romney delivered Thursday night: a collection of foreign-policy platitudes about how America is the indispensable nation and the guarantor of a safe and secure world. Again, however, she offered no road map for how a Romney administration will ensure that the United States continues to adhere to this vision of global leadership. All three speeches, taken together, provide troubling evidence of how Republicans have run out of ideas on international affairs that aren't merely reiterations of how great a country America is -- especially when it "leads."

Once upon a time, Republicans owned the issue of national security. They radiated confidence, experience, and self-assuredness on how they would manage the responsibilities of America's unique global role. It's too soon to say those days are over, but the lack of focus on and attention to foreign-policy issues at this convention was stunning. The topic was treated as nothing more than an afterthought. Even in vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's acceptance speech on Wednesday night, he devoted no more than a few sentences to it.

Perhaps Republicans have concluded that they can't beat Obama on foreign policy, so why bother trying? And from a political perspective it makes sense -- stick with the issues on which you have an advantage. But when presidents are elected, they have no more awesome responsibility -- and direct influence -- than on foreign policy. It is on the global stage where they are able to operate with relatively broad discretion and minimal oversight from Congress. As a result, having a clearly defined foreign-policy vision is not just something you check off in a box in your acceptance speech, but something presidential candidates should take the time to think about, develop, and articulate. As the Bush presidency reminds us, there is a heavy price to be paid when candidates take office with such a lack of foreign-policy vision. Thursday night's speech showed that Mitt Romney isn't much interested in the issue -- and if the last three nights are any indication, he now leads a party that appears to feel the same way.