A provocative vision of a post-supercarrier US Navy

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May issue, USNI Proceedings

The notion of doing away with traditional big-deck carriers gets a high-profile boost this month in the latest (May) issue of Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute’s official rabble-rouser. It’s written by a friend and colleague, Capt. Henry (Jerry) Hendrix, along with a retired Marine Lt. Col., Noel Williams. Hendrix, a truly innovative thinker, currently works for the legendary Andy Marshall at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment – a great match. The piece notes the rising capabilities of the Chinese navy and its efforts to keep us – and our carriers – as far from their shores as possible.

Make no mistake: the Chinese are targeting our navy’s ability to project its power into East Asia with their new “carrier killing” missile (DF-21D).  We can either see the future in defending those platforms – as is, or move to new carriers that mitigate the challenge.  You don’t just ditch what you got because it’s becoming more vulnerable, especially since modern supercarriers have a lifespan of half a century.  But if it’s becoming more of a liability than an asset for the operation in question, and the agents of that growing vulnerability (e.g., missiles, drones) suggest a new era is dawning, then you pay attention. Otherwise you risk Norm Augustine’s nightmare coming true (“In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft.”):  the military that becomes so expensive you can only afford one of anything – like the newest supercarrier (Gerald R. Ford) that rings in at $13-15B when all the bells and whistles are accounted for.  It may be the only one the US Navy can ever afford to build, and a couple of DF-21Ds could send it to the bottom of the ocean – their many-and-cheap against our one-and-absurdly-expensive. The solution is obvious enough: match China’s move  down the many-and-cheap scale by taking advantage of emerging naval UAVs that are capable of landing on less-than-super-sized decks.

The crux of their argument-by-historical-analogy:

When the carrier superseded the battleship, the latter still retained great utility for naval surface fire support. Similarly, today’s carrier will be replaced by a network of unmanned platforms, while still retaining utility as an as-needed strike platform. Ultimately, the decision to kill the battleships was not because they lacked utility, but because they were too expensive to man and operate. Future budgetary constraints could lead to a similar outcome for the carrier, recognizing that even if we purchased no new supercarriers, we would still have operational carriers in the Fleet for more than 50 years.

As Hendrix and Williams conclude, it’s time to stop building the big-deck supercarriers and go with the “small” deck amphibs as a cheaper and more flexible package. So you start experimenting with the real future – mother ships featuring waves upon waves of cheaper drones, while running out the lifespan string of the big decks.  To me, this is THE obvious way to go: signaling to the Chinese that we will continue to match them on the major features of their catch-up strategy while likewise demonstrating that we’re moving on to the next generation of power projection – sort of a “I’ll call your new carrier and raise you my next-gen, drone-spewing mother ship!”

This is how a superpower, suffering relative economic decline, keeps up its global power projection at a reasonable cost.  Excellent piece by Hendrix and Williams.  Worth reading in entirety for details.