Naval carriers must adapt or face irrelevancy, new report says

Naval carriers must adapt or face irrelevancy, new report says

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A new analysis warns that air carriers as armed and used today would be vulnerable in a war with Russia or China (CSBA screen shot)

WASHINGTON — The Navy’s aircraft carriers — considered the gem of the U.S. fleet — lack the ability to carry out operations critical to defeating Russia and China and will have increased vulnerability to survive, a study released Thursday said.

“If the Navy is unable to transform its carrier air wings, Navy leaders should reconsider whether to continue investing in carrier aviation or shift the fleet’s resources to more relevant capabilities,” a study released by the Center for Strategic And Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) concluded.

“During the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, carrier aviation emphasized cost-effectiveness and versatility because the United States did not face a peer adversary,” the study said. “Today’s carrier aircraft, however, lack the range, endurance, survivability, and specialization to carry out the operational concepts needed to defeat great power militaries.”

The report comes just as the Pentagon is finalizing its proposal for the fiscal year 2020 budget. The Navy has been pushing for funds for additional carriers as well as a range of other vessels.

The Navy had no immediate comment on the report. However, on Wednesday Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said carriers are “the most survivable airfield within the field of fire.

“The carrier is going to be a viable force element for the foreseeable future,” Richardson said in remarks to The Atlantic Council.

The Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies Russia and China as the greatest potential threats to the U.S. It said the military needs to move from its emphasis on counter-terrorism to steps to prevent it from falling behind as a “peer competitor” to Moscow and Beijing.

A key change is that now the Pentagon seeks to frame a new approach to deterring aggression, which emphasizes delaying, denying, or defeating an adversary’s attacks when they occur in large part because of geography and proximity of attacks.

To thwart that, the Navy would be required to have forward-deployed forces working with U.S. and allied ground and air forces. “This approach will place a premium on survivability in contested environments” which the CSBA analysts were skeptical now exists.

CSBA analysts suggest that the aircraft carrier as configured today may join the battleship as a onetime unstoppable naval force that lost its relevance in the face of technological and military advances.

“The visibility, effectiveness, and cost of aircraft carriers has incentivized adversaries to develop tactics and capabilities that undermine their utility as an instrument of deterrence and reassurance in peacetime and destroy or marginalize them in wartime,” the report said.

“Today these challenges threaten to make the carrier irrelevant to the most pressing U.S. security concerns,” the report said. “The Navy will need to decide whether to change what its carriers deploy and how they operate or begin divesting itself of carrier aviation in favor of other capabilities that are better able to address the future operational environment.”

To offset the vulnerability, the CSBA report underscores the need for air and missile defense provided by long-range and long endurance aircraft that could prevail in contested environments. It also calls for an increase in unmanned aircraft as one of several ways to make carriers for effective, among other things.

The changes needed may cost more in the budget between now and 2040 “but the Navy may have no choice but to incur these additional costs or decide to relegate carrier aviation to a niche capability dedicated to permissive operations against less stressing threats,” the report said.

“Without a clear plan to improve the Navy’s (carriers)s, the United States may not be able to implement its strategies and would need to reduce its commitments and engagements overseas,” the report said.

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