National Security

Why America Still Needs Aircraft Carriers

The critics are wrong: Flattops are the platform of the future, not the past.

When Adm. Jonathan Greenert assumed office in September 2011 as the 30th chief of U.S. naval operations (CNO), he issued "Sailing Directions" that included three tenets to guide how the U.S. Navy would organize, train, and equip its future force: "Warfighting First," "Operate Forward," and "Be Ready." Combined, they provide the lens through which we should view important operational and budgetary decisions facing our service in both the near and long term.

Since Day One of Greenert's tenure -- faced with the prospect of diminishing defense budgets -- the U.S. Navy has been grappling with the challenge of maintaining sufficient core warfighting capacity and capability, both of which ensure the Navy remains "forward" or capable of strategically influencing global events while maintaining its readiness to respond on demand.  For the aviation arm of the Navy, executing the "Operate Forward" tenet is central to who we are as a force and to supporting the defense strategic guidance outlined by the White House in 2012.

To sustain global leadership, we must have enough ships to maintain an enduring and capable naval presence in those areas of significant interest to the United States. To be effective, our capability must be credible -- and fully appreciated by any potential adversary. As we deal with declining budgets, there will be pressure to pursue a strategy suggested by some critics (who are mostly focused on near-term cost and perceived vulnerability) to eliminate some big-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs) and convert the "savings" into some quantity of smaller surface combatants and L-class amphibious ships. In theory, this strategy would increase the presence density of U.S. naval forces and meet the capacity demands outlined in current defense strategic guidance. But let's examine this emerging strategy a bit more closely.

Numbers alone do not guarantee attainment of the goals of naval presence, which include, as J.J. Widen has noted, assistance, cooperation, assurance, influence, persuasion, deterrence, compellence, and coercion. The Navy must, as Greenert's "Sailing Directions" states, provide "offshore options to deter, influence and win in an era of uncertainty." Devolving the qualitative value of naval presence afforded by a CVN and her embarked air wing into the quantitative value of a larger number of smaller surface combatants neglects the fundamental purpose of naval presence: deter, influence, and win in an uncertain environment.

There are a number of navies around the globe that can sustain a force consisting of smaller surface combatants, but none that can equal the global presence of the U.S. Navy. What clearly distinguishes the U.S. Navy from the rest of the world is its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and extremely effective (and becoming more so) embarked carrier air wing (CVW). But the strength of the U.S. Navy derives from more than just hardware. It derives from the adaptability and flexibility of this combat-proven team that throughout the past 70 years has evolved to overcome potential adversary capabilities. Time and again, the innovative and evolutionary character of naval aviation has proven its value to deter -- or substantively and decisively contribute -- to major conflicts around the globe, protect commerce and free trade, and ultimately contribute to the security of the United States.

Smaller fleets around the globe are relatively limited in what they can accomplish, both at sea and ashore. Naval gunfire is traditionally effective on shore and the revolution in precision strike weapons, such as the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), has increased the range, precision, and explosive yield of its kinetic effects. However, these are principally kinetic effects, limited to what we call the "right side of the kill chain." An aircraft carrier and its embarked air wing, meanwhile, have the capability to operate across the full spectrum of warfare, including the electromagnetic spectrum and the non-kinetic or "left side of the kill chain."

Additionally, an air wing operating from a nuclear-powered aircraft is capable of transcending the air-land boundary with high-end effects (precision strikes), mid-level effects (non-kinetic shows of force), and lower-end but strategically significant effects (security cooperation or humanitarian assistance/disaster relief). In the end, the CVN/CVW combination is the only maritime force anywhere in the world capable of delivering effects along the entire spectrum -- from assistance to coercion -- with the ability to rapidly transition into large-scale major combat operations if required. Emerging and re-emerging navies around the world understand this.  That's why countries aspiring to extend their influence are building aircraft carriers.

As the Department of Defense considers future force design, it must recognize that in many scenarios, the United States can deploy a CVN/CVW combination in place of a large onshore footprint, while taking full advantage of international air and sea space, without requiring over flight or basing rights. Affordability -- the central tenet in big-deck carrier critics' arguments -- fails to consider the cost-avoidance value of these marvels of power, efficiency, and adaptability.  Seen this way, the dollar cost of the carrier is a bargain and the political advantages are overwhelming, especially for a war-weary nation looking to avoid protracted commitments in foreign lands.

But the United States is also struggling to repair its fiscal house, and the aircraft carrier is expensive -- being arguably the most complicated and technologically advanced weapon system in the history of warfare. But if one views that investment through the lens of a 50-year service life (which, by the way, is how long our CVNs are designed to last) that includes warfighting upgrades, modernization, and upkeep, carriers promise a pretty good return. Consider the legendary 51-year history of the recently retired USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Designed in and for a different age, "Big E" was combat-ready and credible in her first deployment during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, just as she was combat-ready and credible during her final deployment in support of operations in Afghanistan in 2012.

Today, the U.S. Navy is building the Ford class of aircraft carriers. Many recent articles quote values ranging from $13-15 billion as the cost to build the first ship of the class, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). Those figures, however, include not only the cost of building the first of ship, but also all of the design and development costs for the entire Ford class -- a class of ship that will be in service for the next 94 years. Factoring the design and development cost of the entire class into the price of the first ship is like saying the first iPhone cost $150 million or the first Toyota Prius cost more than $1 billion. When the design and development costs are removed from the inflated "shock value" cost of the CVN 78, it is only 18 percent more expensive than the most recent ship built in our current Nimitz carrier class. Moreover, the design and development investment in the Ford class will deliver a product that is more capable and has lower life cycle costs ($4 billion less) than its predecessors, and which will continue paying dividends for nearly a century.

Even in light of that return-on-investment timeline, affordability remains a key consideration and the Navy is leveraging the learning on CVN 78 to further reduce costs on the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79). In real terms, CVN 79 will cost more than $1 billion less to build than CVN 78, and will require fewer man-hours to build than the last carrier in the current class. In the end, the Navy is building one Ford class carrier every 5 years, which represents about 0.4 percent of the defense budget during that time frame. If we take a long strategic view and keep the USS Enterprise in mind, that is pretty good return on investment.

Finally, some critics have questioned whether an aircraft carrier can remain relevant in tomorrow's threat environment. The answer to that question lies not only with the aircraft carrier, but also with her embarked air wing. The USS Midway (CV 41) was commissioned in 1945, with an air wing consisting of Corsairs and Avengers. During her final combat cruise in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, her air wing was comprised of Intruders, Hornets, Prowlers, and Hawkeyes. Likewise, the air wing complement on Ford class carriers at the end of their service life, we postulate, will be radically different than the air wing CVN 78 will carry at the time of her commissioning.

Unlike other classes of ships, the aircraft carrier does not need to be retired when its primary weapons system becomes obsolete. Similarly, defensive systems are more easily upgraded aboard an aircraft carrier than any other ship. The USS Midway's 1945 five-inch guns, for example, had been replaced by the Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile system as well as Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS) capable of defending the carrier against Anti Ship Missiles (ASM), aircraft, and littoral warfare threats by 1991. Likewise, by the time she retires in 2065, the Ford's Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Rolling Airframe Missile, and CIWS will likely be replaced by entirely new defensive systems that we can't even imagine today -- and her two nuclear reactors and unprecedented electrical power will provide plenty of "juice" to integrate the directed energy weapons of the future. Greenert has used the USS Enterprise as a prime example in his "Payloads Over Platforms" theme for the future design of our Navy, and it is a testament to the aircraft carrier's proven track record of strategic adaptability. This record of strategic adaptability is proof-positive that we ought never to cede battlespace to any potential adversary.

For more than 70 years, the unmatched range, speed, endurance, and flexibility of the U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier strike force has presented the United States with global freedom of action while operating -- even when contested -- in international waters and air domains. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings enable the United States to act as a key guarantor of peace and stability around the world. Having the ability to operate without a "permission slip" for basing and over-flight access, while generating the range of effects necessary to deter potential adversaries, is more than just a symbol of power. It is the essence of power.

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National Security

The Force of Tomorrow

The Army's top general on the future of war.

Over the past 11 years of continuous combat, the Army made great strides at the tactical and operational levels of war. We evolved our tactics, fielded new equipment, and modified our organizations, all while combating determined enemies. These changes were necessary, and they produced an Army without peer on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. However, they do not fully prepare us for the diverse array of challenges our nation faces in the coming years. Changes in the character of modern conflict demand that we continue to evolve as an institution, even as we remain focused on our primary task -- to fight and win our nation's wars.

Throughout the course of history, world events have always presented militaries with both complexity and unpredictability. Today's environment sustains this norm, but adds the unprecedented speed at which events unfold and information travels. The pace of change is accelerating. There are emerging factors at work in today's strategic environment that we cannot ignore. The sheer number of connections between people and societies has increased exponentially. An ever-present global media can instantly elevate local actions to matters of strategic import. Technology and weapons once reserved to states can now find their way into the hands of disaffected individuals and disruptive groups. International tolerance for civilian casualties and collateral damage from military operations has decreased while the capabilities to inflict such damage have spread to a growing number of illicit actors.

These factors call for an Army that is globally engaged and capable of rapidly employing scalable force packages from the smallest to the largest depending on the demands of the situation. We must be able to rapidly adjust our units and capabilities to meet the unique requirements of any situation, delivering precision results through the most capable, discriminate weapon system ever fielded -- the American soldier. At the same time, we must make thoughtful and forward-looking investments in our leaders and institutions to grow the Army from the operational force of today to a force of unparalleled tactical, operational, and strategic excellence -- the nation's premier strategic force of tomorrow.

Changes in the Strategic Environment

Since the early 1990s, there has been no global threat that compares to the former Soviet Union, no peer competitor that threatens our nation or our way of life. We no longer live under the specter of an imminent nuclear war. None of us seeks to return to those days, and our nation's strategic decisions will be strongly shaped in ways to help prevent the return of such a dangerous world.

Despite today's lack of superpower conflict, the world of the 21st century remains a dangerous place. The challenge of preserving a delicate balance between two superpowers has been replaced by the need to protect the nation from a myriad of less conventional, disparate global threats. Regional powers exert influence locally, relatively unconstrained by the actions of global powers. Loosely affiliated groups and movements, united often only by ideology, operate in ungoverned spaces, taking refuge in failed and failing states.

Technological advances have revolutionized the way people and governments interact. Access to global communications and the rise of social media connect more people in more ways across greater distances than ever before. Events that once went largely unnoticed are now viewed internationally, empowering local actors with potentially strategic effect. Simultaneously, the proliferation of advanced weaponry has resulted in the rise of a different sort of enemy. Combining unconventional tactics with advanced weapons, these emerging threats present a new and dangerous challenge. They do not diminish the more conventional threats posed by dangerous or unstable states such as North Korea or Iran, but they require our military to maintain a much broader range of capabilities to respond.

On the modern battlefield, enemies will intentionally mix with the civilian population, making discrimination between friend and foe extremely difficult. The moral expectations of our citizens and allies require that civilian casualties and collateral damage be limited to the greatest possible extent. Taken together, they impose a standard for discriminate lethality in the conduct of military operations that often cannot be achieved with precision strikes or purely technical solutions. Battlefields of today and tomorrow will be populated with a wide array of actors who are not directly involved in military operations. Non-governmental organizations, criminal groups, local citizens, and other regional powers may all exist and co-mingle in the same space as combat is unfolding. Each has their own goals, which may or may not align with our own. In either case, these actors frequently exploit opportunities presented to advance their respective causes. This diversity of actors must also be accounted for as we plan for and conduct operations of all types around the world.

The Changing Character of Conflict

Together, these factors change the character of conflict. A few advanced weapons and some cell phones in the hands of a dozen determined men can achieve effects that used to require months of preparation and a well-trained force. Local clashes can escalate rapidly, unconstrained by borders, treaties, or government policy. Once conflict erupts, the battlefield is increasingly lethal. Access to precision weapons and sophisticated countermeasures impose increasing threats to our own forces for which we must be prepared. Finally, all these actions occur in an atmosphere of opportunism, where any issue or opening will be turned to the advantage of the groups that perceive it.

Despite these changes in how modern wars are waged, the fundamental nature of warfare remains the same. Conflict by its very nature involves people, whether over resources, territory, or ideology. Technological advances may increase our reach, but the last 12 years of war have reinforced that lasting results hinge on understanding and effectively influencing populations. As it always has, conflict also imposes high costs on all involved, in both lives and national treasure. There is no such thing as a clean or simple war.

For all these reasons, preventing conflict is better than reacting to it, and to prevent it we must understand its causes. That understanding is only gained through human contact. Contact requires some form of presence. That presence can be small, and it need not be physical, but it must be within and among those societies where we aim to preserve stability and avoid conflict. Finally, it must always be backed by force. That force must be sufficient to deter our enemies, and overwhelming should they choose to act.

What the Army provides

Any discussion of where the Army is going must begin with a full accounting of what we provide the nation today. For good reason, our tendency is to focus on the higher end of the spectrum of military operations. Our first priority remains being ready to deploy rapidly and defeat any adversary on land in any corner of the globe. In the complex world of the next several decades, however, our national security increasingly depends on the broader range of missions and capabilities the Army also provides, often with much less fanfare.

Our national security requires an Army, as a member of the Joint Force, which can deploy, fight, and win our nation's wars. The Army contributes to global stability abroad and economic prosperity at home by deterring aggression, responding to crises as they occur, and influencing the actions of others in ways that reduce the inevitable tensions in the international system. It is a force invaluable for conflict prevention in peacetime and irreplaceable for decisive outcomes in times of war. America's economic strength requires a functioning global market and unhindered transit of the global commons. Its safety demands preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Its security requires dismantling terrorist networks with the intent and capability to do us harm, deterring the ambitions of potential enemies, and decisively defeating them in wartime.

The Army represents one of America's most credible deterrents against future hostility, offering potential adversaries pause for restraint, while standing ready to defeat any adversary who chooses conflict. No other nation can match our ability to rapidly deploy large numbers of troops over extended distances, sustain them for as long as needed, and deliver precise, discriminate results. The successful conclusion of operations in Iraq and our pending transition in Afghanistan give us an opportunity to reorient the Army towards conflict prevention -- working through engagement with partners and allies across the globe. However, the ability to win wars on land remains our reason for being. Potential adversaries must never question whether this nation has the ability to spoil aggressive aims or ultimately reverse illicit gains. We do not seek war, but others must never doubt our ability to win decisively when it occurs.

The Army's contributions to shaping regional environments to promote peace and prevent the outbreak of conflicts are vitally important in an era where low-level conflicts can rapidly morph into global crises. As the only service designed to provide long-term and persistent presence, Army forces today partner with allies and demonstrate American commitment in key regions around the globe. From the 66,000 plus soldiers stationed around the Pacific rim, to training missions in South America, to the delivery of medical supplies and expertise in Africa, our soldiers are uniformed ambassadors of the nation. Their efforts strengthen the capabilities of our partners, increase our understanding of local dynamics, and build lines of communication between militaries and nations increasingly necessary in a complex interconnected world. Soldiers standing side-by-side with foreign militaries provide the nation strategic access to places and societies that might be otherwise inaccessible.

In the modern era, it is difficult to envision a scenario where the United States would engage in military operations without allies. Forward-stationed Army units from Europe to the Pacific demonstrate our longstanding commitment to maintaining close ties with our partners. Beyond combat formations, Army units also provide enabling capabilities to our allies -- from command and control, to intelligence support, to logistics -- bolstering their effectiveness as well as our own. The efficiencies gained through these partnerships lead to greater stability in peacetime and greater effectiveness in war, all at costs far below what would be required for any one nation to attempt to operate alone. In an era where regional instability more and more carries global consequences, these activities and others like them are increasingly crucial contributions to the nation's security.

There is a final set of capabilities the Army provides to the nation that, though no less critical, is often overlooked. It is embodied in the support we provide to our sister services and across the entire range of government, enabling these other organizations to perform their core missions. Army units build and operate the communications networks connecting our own units, the joint community, governmental partners, and the entire range of actors with one another on the modern battlefield. Soldiers deliver the food, fuel, ammunition, and medical support necessary to conduct nearly any operation by any service, from combat to humanitarian relief. They collect and analyze the intelligence that informs our actions and measures our progress. They deliver vital supplies to communities at home and abroad impacted by natural disasters. The Army provides more than half the Special Operations forces of our nation's military, an integral contribution to national counterterrorism and security assistance efforts. In these and many other ways, the Army is the indispensible foundation of the joint force.

Put very simply, the Army exists to prevent conflict, shape the environment in the pursuit of peace and stability, and win the nation's wars when called upon. However, an objective assessment of what is required to fulfill our mission in a complex future environment against a constantly evolving range of threats demands that we continue to invest in the specific skills, equipment, and forces needed to do so effectively. This demands foresight and innovation, as well as a bottom-up engagement by our most valuable asset -- our soldiers and leaders. It also requires recognition that the Army, like our nation, must be good stewards of our resources in an era of increasing fiscal austerity.

Adapting for the Future

This vision of the future describes a strategic landscape that is complex, technologically interconnected, and politically fragmented. It presumes that maintaining stability will require a concerted, sustained effort. Our long-term strategic focus has shifted to the Pacific, but tensions in the Middle East require constant attention in the present. The temptation is to attempt to be prepared for everything, but fiscal realities demand greater strategic clarity. All our initiatives must contribute to maintaining a force that is prepared to deploy, fight, and win despite uncertainty about where, when, and against whom it may be deployed.

As our current commitments in Afghanistan are reduced, we must take the opportunity to refocus. This requires first reestablishing our core warfighting competencies in combined arms maneuver and wide area security. These skills serve as the foundation upon which our Army is built, underpinning our credibility as a deterrent and ensuring defeat of any enemy once engaged. We were right to focus on building counterinsurgency expertise given our mission over the past 12 years, and we will not walk away from that experience. However, irregular warfare represents one subset of the range of missions that the Army must be ready to perform. We must reinvest in those fundamental warfighting skills that underpin the majority of our directed strategic missions, from deterring and defeating aggression to power projection.

To posture the force for the complexities of the strategic environment, we must simultaneously reform our processes and training to generate forces scalable from squad to corps. We cannot afford to limit our planning to brigade combat teams. Our success going forward will be built on deploying the right soldiers, with the right training, in the right size units, at the right time. Small unit leadership will be at a premium in this potential environment of dispersed, decentralized operations. In some circumstances that may require small teams of soldiers engaged in partnership activities. Others may require the combined mass of brigades, divisions, or corps. This does not necessarily suggest a smaller force, but an Army capable of deploying tailored packages to the point of need, while retaining the ability to rapidly reassemble into larger combat formations as requirements change or small conflicts expand.

The complexity of this environment requires a deliberate investment in our leaders. The need to adapt to rapidly changing situations and identify underlying causes of conflict calls for mental agility and strategic vision. History has shown that no amount of planning or analysis can accurately predict where conflict may arise. However, our ability to respond effectively when it does hinges in large part on the quality of our soldiers and leaders.

Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly reinforce that lasting strategic results are achieved only by effectively influencing people. Conflict, in all its forms, remains a fundamentally human endeavor. Destroying infrastructure and weaponry can shape an adversary's decisions, but rarely delivers a decisive outcome. Success depends as much on understanding the social and political fabric of the surroundings as it does on the ability to physically dominate them. In an environment defined by the intermingling of friends, enemies, and neutral parties, understanding social and cultural networks becomes just as important as the weapons we employ. Only then can we isolate enemies, identify centers of gravity, and achieve lasting results.

We must also keep pace with technology. The cyber revolution has created new ways for people to connect. Information passes instantly over great distances, and entire virtual communities have been created through social media. Many of our adversaries lack the ability to confront our forces physically, choosing instead to employ virtual weapons with potentially devastating effect. We must take full advantage of these technologies, building our own capabilities to operate in cyberspace with the same level of skill and confidence we enjoy on the land. We will either adapt to this reality or risk ceding the advantage to future enemies.

The Strength of the Nation: Today and Tomorrow

A fast-moving combination of trends are shaping the world of today, and will continue to evolve in often unexpected ways to shape the world we will live in tomorrow. The role of the Army and decisions about its future must be made within the context of this reality. We remain the only nation with global reach, but our resources are not unlimited - and, in fact, are decreasing. In such a setting, the Army cannot fully prepare for every conceivable mission. Yet the Army must support national efforts aimed at preserving stability and promoting peace in an unstable and chaotic world, judiciously investing in those capabilities best suited to the task.

To be efficient, our forces must be responsive. As more of the force is based within the United States, we must preserve and invest in the ability to rapidly deliver units anywhere in the world. Army forces must be tailored to local requirements and rapidly deployable from the lowest to the highest levels. To be effective once deployed, they must be familiar with local cultures, personalities, and conditions where they are operating. We cannot afford to gain this knowledge under fire. Through the regional alignment of forces, we will meet these imperatives, ensuring that our Army remains globally responsive and regionally engaged.

This effort requires equipment that gives our squads, as the foundation of the force, capabilities that overwhelm any potential foe, enabled by vehicles that improve mobility and lethality while retaining survivability. It needs a network that connects all our assets across the joint force together in the most austere of environments to deliver decisive results in the shortest time possible. It demands leaders with the ability to think broadly and critically, aware of the cultural lenses through which their actions will be viewed and cognizant of the potential strategic ramifications of their decisions.

Finally, we must refocus on our core warfighting skills while improving our ability to distribute and reassemble our forces rapidly, building the mass necessary for our central mission: to fight and win the nation's wars. In pursuing these goals, we ensure that the Army delivers truly strategic landpower to the nation in a complex, uncertain world.

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