Features

August 1, 2013  

Beyond carriers

Rapid technological change sinks the case for big, costly platforms

The aircraft carrier is under attack — if not literally, then at least by defense thinkers who believe the Navy needs to rethink its plans to spend more scores of billions of dollars on carriers, air wings and supporting systems.

Some of the arguments are purely fiscal: Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service notes that the current projected cost of the carrier Gerald R. Ford is $12.83 billion, up 23.3 percent since 2008 (in then-year dollars). But others proceed from the idea that technological change is undermining the arguments for carriers. Does it make sense to invest in a 60-year-old ship design and expect it to sail for another 90 years? Would we have expected Lord Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, launched in 1765, to have fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916? Do we believe that the rate of technological change has decreased?

Wicked Problems

As early as 2008, Frank Hoffman, then with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, suggested reducing the total number of carriers. More recently, this view has been reprised by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, the Center for New American Security, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (in its Strategic Choices Exercise). And the May issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine contains two such articles: one, by Capt. Henry “Jerry” Hendrix and J. Noel Williams, argues that supercarriers like the under-construction Ford class are too expensive and vulnerable for the United States to continue to build them; and a second, by Cmdr. Phil Pournelle, says carriers might stave off their inevitable twilight by bringing more autonomous systems aboard. All of these suggest the Navy ought to shrink its supercarrier force and put some of the money into ships and weapons better suited to future conflicts.

The Navy has not let such arguments pass unanswered. Vice Adm. David H. Buss, along with Rear Adms. William F. Moran and Thomas J. Moore, (the Navy’s air warfare chief, air warfare director and aircraft carrier program executive officer) responded in “Why America Still Needs Aircraft Carriers” (Foreign Policy, April 2013), arguing that these warships are still the weapons of the future and a bargain over the class’ projected 94-year lifespan. Moreover, they say, the carrier keeps with the “payloads over platforms” concept espoused by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. And finally, they note that the USS Midway rode various waves of technological advancement — replacing propeller aircraft with jets, swapping 5-inch guns for the Phalanx close-in weapon system and Sea Sparrow missiles — to remain relevant and effective for almost five full decades.

The disputes are not surprising. As with all wicked problems, respected experts disagree on both the problem set and potential solutions. Compounding the issue, the Navy faces a huge investment at a time of exceptional technological changes, many of which affect the effectiveness and survivability of carriers. The convergence of rapid changes in biology, robotics, information, nanotechnology and energy will fundamentally alter the technical, tactical and operational elements of war. At the same time, revolutions in materials and additive (3-D) manufacturing will change the cost, affordability and size of future weapons. Trying to envision where this convergence will lead is a daunting but essential task. Failure to do so could lead to enormous investments in the wrong platforms.

Remembering the history of another era of rapid, broad technological change might help Navy decision-makers put the problem in perspective. In the early 1900s, navies were making very rapid technological gains in metallurgy, ammunition, explosives, engines and communications. The 1906 launch of the HMS Dreadnought ushered in the battleship era, and within a decade, capital ships were powered by turbines, armed with 14-inch guns, equipped with rudimentary wireless sets, and protected by vastly improved armor. By the beginning of World War I, battleships were considered the decisive weapon for fleet engagements, and the size of the battleship fleet was seen as a reasonable proxy for a navy’s strength. The war’s single major fleet action, the Battle of Jutland, seemed to prove these ideas correct.

Accordingly, battleships received the lion’s share of naval investments during the interwar period. Displacement nearly doubled, from the 27,000 tons of the pre-World War I New York class to the 48,500 tons of the Iowa class. The main batteries were shifted to 16-inch guns, secondary batteries upgraded, radar installed, speed increased from 21 to 33 knots, cruising range more than doubled, and armor improved. Yet none of these advances changed the fundamental capabilities of the battleship. This is typical of mature technology: It costs much more to improve performance than it does for immature technology.

In contrast, naval aviation was in its infancy in 1914. Aircraft were slow, short-legged, lightly armed and primarily used for reconnaissance. Air combat was primitive; attempts to bring down opposing aircraft involved pistols, rifles and even a grappling hook. After the war, aviation remained an auxiliary and was funded accordingly. While the Navy built 18 new battleships during the interwar period, it built only eight carriers, a total that includes the conversion of a collier (USS Langley) and two cruisers. And yet by 1941, carrier aviation had developed to the point it would dominate the naval battles of World War II.

The Navy’s failure to understand where genuine technological advantage lay carried real opportunity costs. In the late 1930s, the Navy spent heavily on fast battleships, eventually commissioning 10 and starting construction on two more. These ships turned out to serve primarily as very expensive anti-aircraft escorts for the fleet carriers. (Most naval shore bombardment was done by older battleships that dated to the 1920s.) One has to wonder: If the Navy had dedicated even half of the battleship funds spent in the 1930s to naval aviation, would it have already fielded the Grumman F6F and Chance Vought F4U Corsair by 1939?

can carriers keep up?

Today’s navies are on the cusp of even greater technological change. As has been true throughout military history, new technology is eroding the advantage of existing systems.

Part of this phenomenon is the marriage of smaller, smarter computers with older technology. China is equipping old rockets with new sensors and control systems to create anti-ship ballistic missiles. Last July, the CNO suggested in Proceedings that Chinese radars can detect stealthy aircraft. Despite the enormous U.S. investment in its carriers and its F-35 air wing, both are becoming more, not less, vulnerable. This truly is what Andrew Krepinevich meant with his concept of the Pentagon’s “wasting assets.”

Other advances are more revolutionary. Weapons are getting smaller, smarter, longer in range and more destructive. Nanotechnology is increasing the power of explosives and fuel by an order of magnitude. Materials science is dramatically increasing strength while decreasing weight. The Navy just flew a drone for 48 hours; the British have flown one for 14 days. A hobbyist has flown a drone across the Atlantic.

These advances are mirrored by those in sensors and artificial intelligence. College students are building quadcopters that use facial recognition software to track people walking across campus. Other researchers have programmed the four-rotor drones to build rudimentary structures. Meanwhile, 3-D printers are decreasing the cost of development and fabrication, allowing drones to be printed in labs and dorm rooms.

The efficacy of autonomous systems is only going to increase. Pournelle notes that the Tomahawk land attack missile and the Joint Direct Attack Munition are effectively autonomous upon launch today. The key difference is the JDAM requires a carrier, escorts and air wing simply to get to the right altitude and airspeed for release. The technological arc suggests we may soon not need that carrier group to loft a JDAM-equivalent, nor will our enemies.

It is hardly peering too far into the future to imagine a small drone, more than 98 percent nonmetallic, bearing a very small heat signature and the equivalent of 20 pounds of high explosive. It uses optical recognition software to crash into an aircraft on the deck of a carrier, frag the radar array of a cruiser, or even, if given the form of a self-forging warhead, penetrate the armor of an M1A1 tank. Now think of a swarm of such weapons acting in concert and without human direction to overwhelm a defense.

Given the increasing reach of such weapons, is it wise to invest so much of the Navy’s budget in a few major platforms? Proponents of the carrier say it will remain relevant by accommodating evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the air wing. They suggest we view the aircraft as a “truck” that can be modified to deliver all kinds of payloads. But to really adhere to the CNO’s “think payloads, not platforms” guidance, the Navy needs to look past the aircraft. Various types of surface and even subsurface platforms can be the truck for a new generation of smaller, longer-range, more autonomous air, surface and subsurface weapons.

John Arquilla’s vision of swarms of cheap, smart, powerful weapons remains in the future, if barely. Until we actually have this new generation of autonomous weapons, we will need the carrier and its air wing. However, rather than investing huge amounts in incremental improvement of a mature weapon, the Navy should work to extend the service life of current carriers and invest the savings in the new technologies. It may well have to buy the Ford-class carriers currently under construction, but it should then cease investing in these systems. We need to learn from the Navy of the 1920s and 1930s. We have to invest in the future aircraft, not the future battleship. AFJ

T.X. Hammes is a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the university or the U.S. Defense Department.

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