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.