National Security & Defense

The Navy Must Adapt

F/A-18 Hornets on the flight deck of USS George H.W. Bush (Photo: U.S. Navy)
A response to Cropsey and McGrath on aircraft carriers

I welcome the spirited reply from my esteemed colleagues, Messrs. Cropsey and McGrath, despite their overt questioning of my logic, my understanding of modern war and history, and my ability to observe cause and effect within the natural world. That aside, it is an honor to have a strategic thought rebutted by individuals of their caliber. It is necessary in this moment of strategic uncertainty and fiscal constraint that everyone, and perhaps most importantly conservatives, check their premises and logic chains, for it is clear that we as a nation have reached a true strategic turning point wherein everything that brought us this far in our history will not be enough to take us forward as a leading power.

It is odd that Mr. McGrath would take umbrage at my characterization of American naval strategy in the face of the rise of anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) technologies as one of slow transition from power projection to sea control, given his support of the new concept of distributed lethality as a means of spreading out the fleet, interdicting maritime shipping, and attriting the enemy’s naval force in order to slowly compress the A2AD zone. This strategic method rightly harkens directly back to destroyer-squadron and cruiser-division actions of World War II to interdict shipping and clear waters of enemy warships in order to introduce larger high-value platforms to support island-assault operations. This was the scenario and comparison presented by three active flag officers within the Navy’s surface-warfare community in the January 2015 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, stating explicitly that A2AD technologies had “driven a need to shift to an offensive imperative to control the seas.” Not “power projection,” which had dominated the Navy’s strategy for the past 70 years, but a return to a need to “control the seas.”

With regard to my understanding of the historical meaning of World War II, Messrs. Cropsey and McGrath attempt to rehash a dead debate on which military service won or would have won World War II in the Pacific. Suffice it to say that each service did its part. The Navy did its best to interdict all shipping going into Japan to economically starve the islands, the Army and the Marine Corps were ready to execute a full-scale invasion, and the Army Air Forces were highly successful in bombing Japan, first with conventional weapons and then with atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each of these actions was supported by the island-hopping campaign, which first established air dominance and attacked enemy bases, then established sea control, then conducted amphibious assaults to capture islands, and then built runways to launch airplanes to begin the cycle anew. Slowly, methodically, over months and years, the plan progressed until Japan itself was brought within range of U.S. power projection. In the aftermath of the war, such leaders as Curtis LeMay of the Air Force and Marc Mitscher and Arleigh Burke of the Navy laid down plans to develop weapons systems that could project power at great range in order to avoid long, economically exhausting sea-control campaigns and dramatically shorten wars. This was the military of the Cold War, a military from which we have since evolved away.

This leads to the last point, wherein Messrs. Cropsey and McGrath and I do in fact find agreement: that the deficiencies associated with the aircraft carrier could be corrected by developing a new air wing that would have sufficient range and bomb-carrying capacity to project power from outside of the A2AD environment. The Navy did just this in the 1950s, when it developed the super-carrier to support an airwing composed of larger and heavier aircraft that had an​ average range of 1,200 nautical miles, but all evidence today points to a dogmatic adherence to short-ranged (500 nautical miles), high-sortie air-wing operations. Even when presented with an opportunity to buy back range within the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Aerial Surveillance and Strike program, naval aviation has chosen to emphasize surveillance within its platform design rather than pursue a strike emphasis.

Yesterday the Navy successfully completed an unmanned refueling test wherein the X-47B test vehicle took 4,000 pounds of fuel from a tanker. This achievement, worthy of a second Collier Trophy for the X-47B team, was marked by a terse message from the Navy announcing the end of a test program for a vehicle that could easily evolve to address critical emerging A2AD threats and assure the aircraft carrier’s relevance far into the future. Instead, the Navy has made clear its intention​ to accelerate the development of a manned FA-XX platform, despite the fact that its current program of record, the F-35, has not been fully fielded. If the Navy continues to ignore strategic reality, then it is the Navy that is consigning the carrier to irrelevance. Given the $14 billion (that’s a Congressional Budget Office number) invested in each new Ford-class carrier, our nation cannot afford such extravagant irrelevance.

It should be apparent to the readers of National Review that my comparison of the costs of carriers with the cost of a public school is an echo of the argument first advanced by conservative president (and General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower. The money spent on our military, which admittedly does safeguard our nation, comes with an opportunity cost to the nation. A dollar can be spent only once, and we are spending far more than we are bringing in. Modern conservatives cannot simply choose to deficit-spend on programs of their own liking while criticizing progressives for deficit-spending on their priorities. We all lose in that fight. Instead, we should perhaps look more closely to individuals like Eisenhower, who encouraged growth and prosperity while investing in such then-new leap-ahead technologies as nuclear power, submarines, satellites, and missiles. Eras of fiscal constraint often support such innovation because, after all, when you run out of money, you have to start thinking.

I deeply appreciate the thoughtful input of such leading navalists as Seth Cropsey and Bryan McGrath and hold both them and their ideas in the highest esteem. They have chosen, however, to place their faith in a system that seems unable to adapt to a new security environment. In many ways, I hope they are right and I am wrong and that the carrier might emerge once again as a platform with relevance. However, at this time I must leave the progressive idealism to them and cling to my conservative, realistic pessimism in this regard.

– Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the director of its Defense Strategies and Assessments Program.



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