08 September 2009

It Takes A Carrier: Naval Aviation and the Hybrid Fight

Rear Adm. Terry B. Kraft, U.S. Navy, It Takes A Carrier: Naval Aviation and the Hybrid Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Vol. 135, No. 9 (September 2009).

Carriers still provide capability unmatched by any other weapon system in the U.S. arsenal.

One need only open a newspaper to see the incredible challenges facing our military today. An unprecedented “high-low” mix of overseas operations, rising regional superpowers, and transnational trends such as piracy and radical Islam all contribute to a complex range of scenarios for military planners and defense analysts. In this budget season, there are widely divergent views regarding the shape of our current and future military and how to remain responsive to an ever-increasing list of contingencies.

Much of this discussion has centered on the need for continued construction and support of our nation’s aircraft carrier force. Large investments must be justified, and carriers, air wings, and support ships come at significant cost. This interest in carrier strike groups is nothing new; since 1976, more than ten different studies have examined size and configuration issues for aircraft carriers. Smaller ships, more vertical take off and landing (VTOL), and other power projection methods have been examined. After much time and taxpayer money is spent on these studies, the results have always been nearly the same: to project enough force ashore to make a difference, you need about 4.5 acres of flight deck carrying around 50 strike-fighters and support aircraft. The key comparative issue centers around keeping a sufficient number of aircraft airborne and on station for extended periods of time. Repeatedly, studies show that a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier provides anywhere from 2.5 to 5 times as many ground support aircraft when compared to a smaller carrier, despite carrying only twice as many aircraft.

Current and future operations require aircraft to be there, on station, and responsive to asymmetric threats while being ready to attack moving ground targets. Ground forces, particularly troops in contact, need flexible, multi-role air power to respond immediately. At longer ranges, the challenge to support these requirements becomes even greater. A look back at the beginning phases of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) is instructive here. In 2001, despite strong international support and invocation of NATO Article V, there were no practical basing options for tactical aircraft at the start of hostilities. Not surprisingly, aircraft carriers were the only viable solution for tactical air support and in fact provided 75 percent of OEF strike sorties through December of that year. Hornet air crews became accustomed to six- to eight-hour strike sorties while simultaneously providing flexible, armed overwatch of troop movements. EA-6B Prowlers began missions that continue to this day, denying the electromagnetic spectrum to the enemy.

Today, one aircraft carrier provides 49 percent of OEF fixed-wing sorties immediately after reporting on station. On a recent deployment, Carrier Air Wing Eight operating from the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) flew more than 3,000 OEF sorties supporting troops-in-contact nearly 500 times. They spent over five months of their deployment off the coast of Pakistan. Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) has been similar. During my time in the Persian Gulf on board the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), every type of air wing aircraft directly supported ground operations on a daily basis, including E-2 airborne early warning aircraft flying 4.5 hour missions in-country. In looking at this and other combat operations from Bosnia to Iraq, carriers have proven indispensable, particularly in the key early stages of a conflict. …