Monday, March 21, 2016

Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carriers: The Nation’s Number One Asymmetric Military Advantage

By Daniel Gouré, Ph.D.

March 16, 2016 - There has been a lot of talk lately by senior Pentagon officials that the U.S. military is losing its long-held advantages in high-end warfighting capabilities. If one accepted uncritically statements by the Secretary of Defense, Deputy Secretary and Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics about how well our prospective adversaries are inventing and deploying new capabilities that undermine areas of U.S. military advantage, it is possible to conclude, as some in the media and the think tank class have, that the United States is in decline as a military power.
One can understand the efforts by the Department of Defense’s (DoD) leadership to paint a fairly dire picture of how the global military balance is in danger of changing against this country. If uninformed about the growing danger, the American people and their representatives in Congress would be rightly reluctant to spend more on national defense. The Pentagon would like to see sequestration ended and more money made available for defense. Moreover, DoD wants support for its various plans to re-establish its erstwhile military-technical superiority, including by investing in a host of gee whiz capabilities, the so-called Third Offset Strategy, relying more on Silicon Valley and other non-traditional suppliers of advanced technologies and doing more experimentation and prototyping.
Without question, the militaries of our prospective adversaries, most notably Russia and China, are getting better. It should not be surprising that after the U.S. demonstrated the wonders of stealth, precision weapons, unmanned aerial systems and advanced networks some 25 years ago that other countries would make similar investments. Nor that these same countries would focus their efforts, in particular, at arranging these new capabilities in ways to counter erstwhile U.S. capability advantages, for example by creating anti-access/area denial forces and investing in domains such as cyber, electronic warfare and space that the U.S. neglected.
This does not mean that the situation is hopeless or that the U.S. military does not have a host of capabilities on which it can rely, perhaps with deliberate and phased upgrades, to restore a position of advantage. Indeed, the U.S. military is starting its military-technical renaissance with a very strong base of highly capable platforms and systems.
One of the most significant of these are the 11 U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carriers, or CVNs. With their ability to move globally, project power against the land from a sovereign base at sea, act as the centerpiece for the organization of naval forces to exert sea control and to deploy a wide and changing array of aerial platforms, the CVN force may be this nation’s number one asymmetric military advantage. Our prospective adversaries have acknowledged as much by their extensive and expensive efforts to place the CVN at risk.
A new class of CVNs, the Ford, multiplies the advantage provided by the older ships. Its electromagnetic launch system, advanced arresting gear, the placement of the tower, state-of-the art power generation system and new radar will allow the Ford to generate some 25 percent more sorties than its older brethren. Its defensive system and stealth features will provide improved protection against a range of threats. Investments in Information Technology and automation will enable Ford-class CVNs to operate more effectively and efficiently with a smaller crew.
Since its inception, the CVN force has been able to reinvent itself, its roles and missions, operating concepts and even tactics as new aircraft and aerial systems became available. It is no different for the emergent Ford-class and its older brethren. The addition of the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, the E2-D Advanced Hawkeye, and carrier-based unmanned aerial systems promises a significant, potentially even revolutionary, improvement in the performance of the air wing. The replacement of the C-2 Greyhound aircraft with a variant of the V-22 Osprey for the carrier onboard delivery mission will enhance carrier battlegroup operations. When capabilities such as the Next Generation Jammer for the EA-18 Growler and longer-range, more sophisticated air-delivered weapons are included, the CVNs will be able to challenge efforts by prospective adversaries to deny the U.S. Navy the ability to operate at and from the sea.
The CVNs have proven themselves among the most operationally responsive, tactically flexible and technologically advanced platforms in the U.S. arsenal. From the start, they have played a central role in the global war on terror. At the same time, they have held resident in their design and functions the ability to respond to changes in potential conflict scenarios. Across the conflict spectrum, CVNs have and will continue to make a unique and potentially decisive contribution to U.S. military superiority.

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