Build More Carriers and Send Some to CENTCOM
we must undertake a massive naval building program ... beginning immediately
At a time when nations at the front line facing a rising People's Republic of China such as Japan and India (and the PRC herself) are expanding their aircraft carrier fleets as fasts as budgets and politicians will allow, in the United States the carrier debate continues in to another decade.
It is natural; aircraft carriers are very expensive - and they bring a lot of capability with that cost. They are vulnerable because they are a high-priority target specifically because of the threat they pose to any opponent. Both sides have a point, but the question is who has the better point given our place in time.
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In another chapter in the carrier debate, we're honored to have Bryan McGrath returning here with a response to a recent article in the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings by Lieutenant Commander Stephen Walsh, U.S. Navy at the link below.
Bryan, over to you.
There is little in the opinion-writing world more attractive to editors and readers than the thoughts of someone questioning closely held tenets of what would appear to be the affinity group of the author. So, when an aircraft carrier aviator pens a piece questioning the value of aircraft carriers in a major piece of U.S. geo-strategy, one is forced to take notice. That several members of the tight fraternity of un-listened-to and marginalized navalists to which I claim affinity cited the work with praise and hosana also caught my attention. Having now read and digested the work, I am considerably less impressed by the substance of the argument, and I set out here to address its shortcomings.
First though, I wish to congratulate LCDR Walsh on his effort. He is a fine writer and thinker, but most importantly, he has taken the time to submit his views to scrutiny. The world is full of opinions, but there are precious few (especially among naval officers) who are willing to address and/or stoke controversy publicly in such a lucid and well-documented fashion. That I will spend the remainder of my time here criticizing his argument should be taken as a sign of respect. Were his argument not worth addressing, I would not be writing this on a national holiday.
Readers are urged to digest Walsh’s argument in full. I will only summarize it here to frame my own thoughts, and I apologize for the shorthand approach. Here goes: aircraft carriers are valuable elements of the Navy’s contribution to Joint warfighting, and as there are a finite number of them, their application to U.S. grand and defense strategic objectives must be carefully considered. This consideration extends to both the effectiveness of that application, and the consequences to force readiness that flow therefrom. In applying carrier air power to the strategic objectives of CENTCOM commanders, Walsh believes that carriers have been misallocated, as other elements of the Joint Force have been more effectively employed. Walsh asserts that the misapplication of carrier air power to a theater of secondary strategic importance (behind Indo-PACOM and EUCOM in that order, presumably) has wasted carrier readiness that should either be held in reserve or applied more liberally in the other theaters (this much is not as clear). This is not an outlier’s view. It tracks closely with the warp and weft of the Trump National Defense Strategy which shifted emphasis to the Indo-Pacific at the explicit expense of CENTCOM (and EUCOM).
Whether one points to the Trump NDS or the current administration and its Interim National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, it is hard to conclude that the current bi-partisan fashion animating national security thinking is not “managing decline” (or re-arranging deck-chairs). No one in authority puts it this way, but it is the elephant in the room. At some point after the fall of the Soviet Union, maintaining our position as the world’s dominant power and leader of the free world lost currency. Now that this position is actively challenged, our efforts seem more geared toward efficient allocation of declining resources than in addressing the challenge head-on. Decline strategists would have one believe that what they are doing is making tough choices, which after all, is the zenith of strategy-making. The problem with this approach is that they have already made (or recognized the existence of) the decision NOT to be globally powerful. Their approach and logic is internally consistent and whole all the way from “B to Z”. The problem is that I am unaware of the consensus in American defense and national security thinking that codified the step from “A to B”—that we were (as a nation) comfortable with relative decline and that our approach henceforth would be to draw out that decline for as long as possible.
My argument is this: I am unafraid to draw Cold War parallels to the current strategic environment. We either tool up and build out for it, or we accept decline and the consequences of living in a world where we are not the dominant power. Where Walsh would have us believe that promiscuous employment of aircraft carriers to CENTCOM is leaving us ill-prepared for higher priority conflict elsewhere, I would argue that we do not have the number of aircraft carriers (or a properly sized Navy) we need to meet our legitimate security requirements. They are of course—different arguments. But if you buy into Walsh’s argument, you never get to mine.
Does the Carrier Deter?
Deterrence of any variety is difficult to prove without exquisite intelligence, as the problem of “proving the negative” confronts any claim made without it. Additionally, the fact that Iran appeared “undeterred”, carrying out aggressive global and regional terror attacks (in addition to direct military action) while aircraft carriers were present in theater, adds to the nagging question of carrier effectiveness as a deterrent.
Yet there are important questions to consider before concluding the ineffectiveness of the carrier as a deterrent. The very existence of the ground-breaking “Abraham Accords” points to the growing wariness of Iran in the Arab world and the discomfort felt there in U.S. overtures during the Obama Administration (re-started in the Biden Administration) toward Iran. The presence of a carrier may or may not have stopped Iranian adventurism, but was the carrier part of a regional approach to deterring a larger war between Iran and the Sunni-Arab world? I do not know the answer to this, but I suspect CENTCOM Commanders believe that it was. And the suggestion that CENTCOM Commanders might “pull punches” to preserve carrier readiness for use in another theater strikes me as misunderstanding what those officers are paid to do. We pay the Secretary of Defense to make punch pulling decisions.
Walsh points at this, as senior civilians in both parties responded positively to CENTCOM requests for aircraft carriers. Walsh would have those civilians be less open to these requests, relying on other parts of the Joint arsenal for deterrence and saving carrier readiness for other conflicts. But for whatever reason, those civilians and those CENTCOM Commanders believed that the theater needed BOTH carrier air power and land-based air. What if what was really happening was not shoddy and reflexive staff work by the combatant commander and his staff, validated by the Joint Staff and the Secretary of Defense, but the dirty business of everyday American national security? What if the CENTCOM Commander really was making a good case for these forces? What if—at the end of the day—the intelligence from both within DoD and the rest of the intelligence community indicated that overmatch was having an impact on Iranian behavior? Criticism of combatant commanders for insatiable appetites is the new national pastime. But I fear far more, a world of passive combatant commanders than I do the fear of sub-optimal carrier employment.
Troublingly, I read little in Walsh’s treatment of carrier employment in CENTCOM of the role of crisis response from forward deployed forces. While the work he and his co-workers were doing was somewhat mundane, that he and they were there ready to respond is not to be undervalued.
And then there is the whole business of counting bombs dropped in theater as a measure of effectiveness or utility. While this might be frustrating to the aviators participating in missions found less exciting than others, of all the metrics to apply to the effectiveness of a deterrent, this seems the least relevant. Carrier Air Wings throughout Indo-PACOM and EUCOM routinely return to homeport without having fired a shot in anger. Are we to assume their readiness was similarly wasted?
The Priority Theater Issue
Walsh begins his piece thusly: “The Department of Defense (DoD) has allocated aircraft carriers to U.S. Central Command (CentCom) for Iranian deterrence at the expense of strategic competition with China and Russia repeatedly over the past decade. DoD is locked in a cycle that regularly deprives Indo-Pacific Command (IndoPaCom) and European Command of the carriers necessary for strategic competition.” Forgive me if I impugn motives unfairly, but until late March of this year, most discussions of this sort were solely focused on Indo-PACOM, with both EUCOM and CENTCOM relegated to lesser positions. Then came a war and now EUCOM has the attention of naval force structure analysts. My point here is that the U.S. has enduring interests in all three AOR’s, and those interests drive the need for dominant naval power in each. Setting up this shell-game of priority theaters has a veneer of strategic thought, but the real-world gets a vote, and commitment of forces to lesser theaters is not always a sign of weakness in decision-makers. Sometimes it is the least bad decision.
The Stationary Carrier
In his second paragraph, Walsh writes “Iran can and must be deterred from aggression—but without continually holding an aircraft carrier in a stationary and strategically disadvantageous position.” I do not mean to be a noodge, but with routine operations in the North Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden, AND the Arabian Sea, aircraft carriers in more obvious deterrence postures vis-à-vis Iran cover a lot of ground. In fact, to buttress the claim that “It is equally difficult to argue that a carrier is necessary for CentCom’s maritime security”, Walsh points to the 1988 “Operation Praying Mantis” in which the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 65) “…remained outside the Strait of Hormuz, and her aircraft required assistance from an Air Force KC-10 to reach their targets.”
Clearly the ENTERPRISE was in this case, not a stationary carrier. More importantly though, how ENTERPRISE was employed is illustrative of how we would prudently employ the CVN in conflict. To wit, carrier operations ought not be conceived as singular charges of the maritime light brigade deep within the contested zone at the beginning of a battle (especially in confined waters), followed by the establishment of long-duration frontline sanctuaries for carrier operations. Rather, they should be conceived as sequential hit and run operations that gradually degrade an adversary’s ability to fight effectively in the contested zone’s outer reaches, which in turn creates the conditions that allow the process to be repeated closer to the adversary’s shores. Put another way, attempting to operate an aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Gulf in wartime is a far different undertaking than doing so in restive peace.
Walsh Sees a Demand Problem; McGrath Sees a Supply Problem
Again - Walsh is appropriately reacting to a set of facts that he is presented with. We have a finite number of carriers, and he believes they are being misused, which exacerbates their readiness challenges and renders the U.S. less well-prepared for higher priority uses. His prescription is to use them less. My prescription is to have more of them. I will concede that his view is the dominant one, the most likely to be followed, the most logical one given the political environment in which we live. But because it accepts decline, it raises a very uncomfortable question: if we are accepting decline and are in essence trying to run out the clock, is not every penny we spend in this pursuit wasted if the result is essentially pre-determined? Put another way, why not just accept decline, re-orient a goodly portion of the defense budget to other uses, and accept the resulting world order as the new status quo?
The Problem of Time
Where Walsh’s good sense and my howling at the moon are most opposed is in the question of time. For instance, if what Walsh is trying to say is that FOR NOW, we need to cut back on what he believes are wasteful applications of carrier air power to store up readiness for a “Davidson Window-like” conflict with China, his argument has some attraction (although it could hardly be differentiated from a decline management approach undertaken across the same period). My argument is that we must undertake a massive naval building program over the course of a generation beginning immediately, the tangible fruits of which are unlikely to manifest for several years. In the meantime, the force we have must be employed as consistently as possible to extend and deepen American security and prosperity, and we must fund the training, parts, and maintenance necessary to achieve that readiness. Announcing such a building program and then allocating the necessary resources will send a clear message of seriousness that has not yet been achieved.
We are engaged in a multi-generational security struggle and unlike when last we faced such a challenge, we are attempting to manage it rather than rise to it. LCDR Walsh has offered that because our interests in the CENTCOM AOR are not nearly as important as those in Indo-PACOM and EUCOM, and because in his view, those interests are not advanced by what carriers do when they are in the CENTCOM AOR, we ought not send them there anymore, or at least not as often. I am struck by the degree to which his advice has already been taken, its strategic flaws notwithstanding.
More importantly though, I am troubled by the resignation that I read in his essay. The sense of “because it is this way it will always be this way” is strong in it, and its acceptance of current circumstances places constraints on thinking about what is possible. At the very least, we could properly resource readiness across the fleet to address the deficits created by the capacity/need mismatch. More holistically though, we must consider a dramatic increase in spending on our Navy across the board, so that both current readiness and future capacity can be achieved.
Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC. His views and opinions are his own.