CSBA’s Clark on Future of Aircraft Carriers in Contested Environments


Bryan Clark, naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, discusses the future of aircraft carriers in contested operational environments with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian.

Bryan Clark

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

December 2018

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments to talk to Bryan Clark, the man who oversees all things naval here who was part of a great panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation. It was you, Bryan, Bryan McGrath, Jerry Hendrix now of Telemus Group, formerly of Center for New American Security, and Tom Callendar oversaw the conversation, was the moderator for the discussion.  The essential focus of the discussion was the carrier.  Whether it’s a liability, you know, is it a strategic advantage or an expensive potential target, I think was in the headline of that.

I know Jerry Hendrix has written a lot about that, that we went to big deck aircraft carriers for big airplanes and strategic reach.  I know this is something that you worked on.  I know that you worked for Chief of Naval Operations Greenert at a time when Jon Greenert was trying to stretch the legs of the aircraft carrier as well.

Talk to us, as the honest broker in this conversation, what were some of the key take-aways for you but also for the audience and sort of the views they heard this morning?

Bryan Clark:  Thanks, Vago, for having me on.  I appreciate it.

The discussion this morning centered on how do you make the aircraft carrier relevant in an era of great power competition.  Which may not be exactly the right answer, because the question first of all is, do you need an aircraft carrier to deal with the kinds of conflict and competition you have now with great powers?  And then secondarily, is it relevant to that set of operations?

I think too much of the time the discussion about the aircraft carrier is sort of the how do I make the carrier relevant to future operations as opposed to saying do future operations require me to have an aircraft carrier?  Would I pursue this if I didn’t already have it?

I think the discussion revealed that there are reasons we would have aircraft carriers in the future, even if we hadn’t already bought them.  They’re useful for providing a sizeable amount of power projection in environments where I don’t necessarily have land basing available.  They can operate at the periphery of great power conflict and do operations into an area where we’re actively having a conflict with an adversary like a China or even a Russia.

So it gives you options that you wouldn’t have with land bases.  It’s better defended than your average land base.  It’s also more mobile than of course a land base.  So there are lots of reasons why you might want to have a mobile sea-based way of projecting power.

Then the question becomes how do I make it relevant?  How do I protect it?  How do I make it survivable?  We had a lot of discussion this morning about that.  About how do I make the carrier survivable against a country like China that has a large number of precision weapons they can launch within a thousand miles of their coast?  I think a lot of the advancements the Navy is making in terms of surface ship air defense are going to help with that because your carrier strike group would have a number of surface combatants that would provide that air defense capacity.

Also the Navy’s doing a lot of work on counter-ISR.  How do I break the kill chain?  How do I make it harder for an adversary to attack the carrier?

But then fundamentally what has to happen is the carrier’s got to be able to do something, which gets to the carrier air wing.  So the carrier air wing has to evolve in order for it to have the kind of reach so that if it does move out to this thousand-mile point where it’s able to defend itself adequately, can it do operations that reach into an area of conflict and actually drop enough weapons and then conduct enough operations to be able to be useful in a conflict with a great power.  A lot of our discussion today centered around also the carrier air wing and its future configuration, the need for it to get longer range, the need for it to be better able to do specialized operations like anti-submarine warfare, and the need for it to be able to have a higher endurance or a greater persistence than it does today.  So it can do offensive operations as well as protect itself.

Mr. Muradian:  There was another event today which was Applied Physics Lab — Bob Work, Jim Miller, Richard Danzig, Admiral [Haynes] put their report out sort of saying it’s time for the United States to challenge certain of its historic assumptions in terms of its power in this great power dynamic.  Right?  That in our mental model we’re still a leader in technology.  We’re still the world’s economic super power.  We were 50 percent of the world’s total GDP in 1945, now we’re 25 percent, and in a couple of years when China may have significantly bigger GDP, you know, Richard Danzig made a great point that said every adversary we’ve ever fought combined had a smaller GDP than we did.  For example, Nazi Germany, 30-40 percent; Soviet Union, 30-40 percent; whereas China will be actually manifest, you know, multiple times or significantly larger in GDP in a few years.  So that idea was about testing assumptions.

In terms of the testing assumptions as far as carriers are concerned, is the Navy thinking the right way about the challenge?  There are folks who look at the MQ-25 for example, the notion of putting the unmanned tanker on the carrier deck, as being sort of insufficient.  It’s sort of a tanker to extend modestly the legs of short-range fighters as opposed to sort of strategically changing the game which is what Jon Greenert wanted to do, which was hey, let’s have a 5,000-mile platform that can carry 5,000 pounds of either ISR or strike payloads.  There were some other thinkers who were even more creative and they said hey, make the airplane a one-way airplane, that I don’t even have to bring back if I don’t need to.

Is the Navy having this discussion the way it needs to, given what the future holds?

Mr. Clark:  No, it’s not.  I think it goes back to that question of is a carrier a useful warfighting capability in an era of great power competition?  And we think it is because it does give you those better defended, more mobile air base.

Then the question is, well the areas where a carrier can operate effectively, what kind of air wing do I need to have to enable that?  Not how do I take the air wing of today and make it more relevant for the future which is kind of what the Navy’s approach has been.  So I’m going to add a tanker to it to extend the reach of its already short-ranged aircraft.  They need to rethink the air wing and instead of approaching it from the perspective of what I have today and make it more relevant for the future, go out to the future and say what do I need to have in the future to be able to conduct the operations that I need the carrier to perform?  How do I evolve the air wing to get to that point?

And it gets to what you’re saying.  They’re going to need to dramatically change the air wing so that it’s got a much longer range, longer endurance which is probably going to drive you to an unmanned solution for the predominant part of your attack aircraft on the air wing.  So instead of having 44 manned strike fighters that have short range, we’re envisioning a future air wing that’s got 24 to 30 unmanned aircraft that have a range of 2000-3000 miles and are able to operate for a very long period of time and carry a useful payload that distance and for that kind of endurance.  Then you’ve got a small manned component that might do some of the close air support or command and control operations.  You need a man in the loop, maybe, in the future even.

That requires you to kind of shift your, like Bob Work and Richard Danzig are saying, you’ve got to shift your focus from instead of thinking of how have I done it in the past? How do I do it today?  How do I adapt that for a future environment?  And instead say what does the future environment demand without any of my assumptions being carried over?

So to the point they made about GDP and the U.S. position in the world.  If we are not the predominant player in the world, by GDP or military power or any of these other measures, then we need to think of ourselves as more of a spoiler, if you will, perhaps a nation able to pursue its interests or our allies’ interests, but do it by thwarting the efforts of an adversary rather than advancing our own efforts perhaps.

So the carrier might be a component of that effort to deny or thwart the attempts of an adversary at aggression.  And that gets to what the NDS talks about in terms of a denial strategy based on a new posture model.  I think a carrier could be a very significant part of that new posture model as part of the contact and blunt force.  But it requires you to rethink what the carrier air wing looks like because you’re going to use it for a different set of operations than we have over the last 20 years.

Mr. Muradian:  That is truly strategic and doesn’t fit in the mental mindset that the carrier force has which is, you know, what’s the first thing the President says?  Where’s the carrier?  Even if that may no longer be as relevant a question, really, at the end of the day.

What’s it going to take, though?  You’re CNO. You know, talk to Gary Roughead, talk to Jon Greenert privately.  Admiral Roughead, Admiral Greenert.  I think if you cornered Admiral Richardson and asked him the same question, there would be enormous frustration at the difficulty of getting the naval aviation community and the carrier community in particular to sort of systemically try to address some of these shortcomings.

There was enormous resistance to stealth.  It’s finally eked its way onto a carrier deck in the form of the F-35.  But the Navy even in making the case for the F-35 has a tendency of sort of not making the case for the F-35.  It likes F-18s.

What has to happen to get the Navy to fundamentally accept we need to use the ships differently, we need to think differently about what the operations look like, and we need to think differently about what that carrier air wing of the future looks like, which may not have guys who wear gold wings and gals who wear gold wings on their chest?

Mr. Clark:  I think a couple of drivers.  One could be just leadership stepping up and driving these kinds of thoughts into the staff. Right now I think within the N9 staff there’s a good effort going on to look at the carrier air wing of the future, and they are looking at some of these ideas.  They are actually taking a very kind of open-minded approach to say what is the future demand of us not, how can I evolve what I have today to be able to be more relevant in the future?  I think that’s the right approach.

I see some of that on the part of the leadership driving that discussion.

I think the other part of it’s going to be financial, frankly.  Right now the Navy’s talking about do I buy two carriers at once to get some economic order quantity?  I think the Navy, if it’s going to continue buying aircraft carriers has to seriously rethink whether it wants to spend the money on aircraft carriers unless it’s going to adapt its air wing.  If it doesn’t change the air wing, the carriers are going to be increasingly irrelevant to the future environment and therefore the Navy should be thinking about where do they put those dollars?

You might be better off slowing down carrier construction if that means you’re able to fund improvements to the carrier air wing that makes those carriers actually relevant to future warfights.

The money may not be there to do both, so I think you’re going to have to evaluate on the Navy’s side, this financial pressure may be enough to cause them to rethink the carrier air wing because an unmanned air wing, or an air wing with a larger unmanned component could be a lot cheaper than the one that we have today because you would buy fewer aircraft overall.

Mr. Muradian:  The panel was an interesting panel because you had, you’re a former submariner, both enlisted and officer.  Bryan McGrath, a highly distinguished surface warrior.  Jerry Hendrix, P-3 aviator.  Then Tom’s background is?

Mr. Clark:  He’s a submariner.

Mr. Muradian:  He’s a submariner as well.  That’s right.

So how does the Navy — I know you worked on the Fleet Architecture Study in your own right, but every single one of these panel discussions that we have talks about tradeoffs. Almost all of them focus on the importance of much more sustained investment in long-range strategic air power as well as the undersea force.  In fact Jim Miller raised, look, I know this is hard for the surface community to hear, but we don’t have enough submarines to do the kinds of things that we need to do.  That’s sort of an asymmetric U.S. advantage.

Where do you see the state of the debate in looking and reconsidering what — we’re looking at a 355 ship-building plan, but that 355 ship-building plan is very much driven to okay, the amphibious guys have to get so many ships otherwise the Marine Corps won’t be happy.  We’ve got to do this two-carrier thing because at the end of the day carriers are a measure of the battle force.  Right? They’re the ships of the line, so that’s what we’re judged against.  Let’s do that.  Okay, we have to do the frigate as well.  Then we have to do the LC — as opposed to saying hang on a second.  No matter what we do, and even if we extend the cores of those seven Los Angeles Class submarines which as Admiral John Tammen told us is, you know, why seven?  Because that’s how many cores there are in order to do that.  But that extends the life that gives the force, but you still look at a bathtub.

Does the Navy have to make some more strategic ships, especially, it may be lucky if it gets 750 and it’s not going to get the trillion dollars or high 900s that people suggest is what the Navy is going to need.

Mr. Clark:  The Navy’s going to have to rethink sort of what their platform mix should be in the future based on what the environment is going to present them. What I’m saying there is, we’ve had a lot of emphasis on long-range strike and undersea as being two major components of future military force structure.

Undersea maybe doesn’t mean submarines only in the future.  I think we’ve given the Russians and the Chinese plenty of indications that submarines are our ace in the hole and we’re going to rely on them to do a lot of early operations in a warfight with either adversary, but mostly China.

So if you’re the Chinese, you’re going to start to develop ways to deal with that.  Just like they’ve dealt with threats above the water.  So you’re likely to see them pursue a lot of anti-submarine warfare capabilities that are designed to suppress the operation of submarines, keep our submarines from being effective, and start to take away that asymmetric advantage that we have.

So we may need to rethink how much emphasis do I want to place on submarines being my undersea part of the force versus a combination of submarines and unmanned vehicles and unmanned systems that maybe go on the sea floor.

So thinking about the undersea differently is probably a component of this which his going to be a way of maybe driving down the future cost of the fleet as well.

I think there’s a combination of operational need that drives us to a different fleet architecture as well as a financial imperative that’s going to probably require that we think differently about what constitutes the force structure of the future.

Mr. Muradian:  Are we thinking the right way, this would be the last question, in terms of how we train, how we prepare?  You know, you do a lot of innovative, out of the box thinking in terms of wargaming and how to prepare for the future.  You’ve been a thoughtful critic of the Navy about what it does right, even in the course of this conversation.

When you talk to folks out there, whether in the surface community.  Submariners are much more sort of game on because of the environment they’ve always operated in.  There’s always been a sense that well, we never really stopped doing it, but the last couple of years we’re really stepping up.  You’re seeing this more in the surface force, starting to go like wow, we’re going into a very different ball game.

Are you seeing the organism, the service to which you devoted so much of your life beginning to sort of see like wow, different ball game, and is it percolating?  How is it manifesting itself, whether in deployments, whether in exercises, whether in how the whole ecosystem is preparing for this future?

Mr. Clark:  I definitely see a shift and an improvement in how much they’re focusing on kind of the threat of great power conflict, and how do you prepare for that higher-end competitor.  I think that where they’ve kind of fallen short, though, is in translating that clear desire and urgency into realistic training for their operators.  My case there would be, I guess, particularly in the electromagnetic spectrum is where I think a lot of this competition is going to occur, especially if it is short of an all-out war.  You’re going to be having a lot of hider/finder competitions between you and the Chinese or you and the Russians.  So a lot of that’s going to happen in the EM spectrum, and I think we have not developed the tools to be able to train at that level because we’re reticent to do it in the open air where somebody might be able to monitor it with their satellites.  Or just because we don’t have the capabilities to operate in that way at all.

So building the live virtual constructive kind of training environment is going to be essential to be able to master that electromagnetic spectrum competition which I think is a key element of being able to prepare for a fight with a high-end competitor.

Mr. Muradian:  And I would be remiss if I didn’t follow up on one thing because you mentioned it twice and I didn’t follow up with you and I want to follow up with you. Twice you’ve suggested there may be better ways to spend money than, for example, on aircraft carriers.  It is iconic, it’s symbolic, there’s a big debate ongoing about whether to start buying them two at a time, which is what we did very successfully.  I think Mike Petters, full disclosure, sponsored us at Navy League and is going to sponsor our coverage again at Surface Navy Association, has talked very thoughtfully about hey, we did this during the Cold War and we managed to get a good discount on the ships.  And he’s always been very clear, and his team, we will build whatever the Navy wants at the end of the day.

But you’ve twice suggested that if you were king for a day you might spend the money differently. If you’re not going to build the carrier, what would you be investing that money on differently?  Right?  Because you’ve raised that twice already.

Mr. Clark:  I would continue to invest in the carriers.  Our analysis, and we have a study coming out on the carrier air wing next week which is part of the reason that we’re doing this discussion over at Heritage.  But we found that there is a need for the carrier as an element of the joint warfight, and we found that its ability to project power and provide fires over a sustained period of time was really important because in a lot of cases your land bases are unavailable.

So yeah, you need carriers in the future.  I would continue to buy those.

My point would be, though, that if you’re going to buy carriers, but then not change the carrier air wing, you might as well not buy the carrier because you’re making it able to provide that relevant combat capability.

So I would say if you’re faced with a choice in terms of where to spend the money, you might want to slow down carrier production if that means being able to fund the air wing. But if you had sufficient funds to do both, then I would do both if I were king for a day.

I wouldn’t advocate necessarily this idea of eliminating carriers or slowing down the production of carriers to buy more surface combatants necessarily.  I think we have a pretty robust surface combatant program. We’re building a lot of surface combatants.  I think what they compose in terms of a missile-based force is really useful in the early stages of a conflict, but they quickly run out of weapons, they have to go reload, and so what’s going to be the thing that follows up after they’ve depleted their stores?  Well, it’s going to be the aircraft carrier and the carrier air wing.

So you’ve got to have that ability to step from missile base forces that are your contact force to the carrier air wing that’s on your carrier strike group as part of your blunt force.  You have to have both in order to really deter conflict with a country like a China.

So I’d say you need to invest in the carrier and the air wing, but if you can’t do them both you’ve got to make sure you’re balancing that investment.

Mr. Muradian:  And the last question.  HMS Queen Elizabeth, British super carrier, 72,000 tons, $4 billion, enormous number of tradeoffs to get a deck that’s almost the same size as a Nimitz Class. Obviously tailored for the short take-off vertical landing F-35, but the ship could easily have been modified to be a catapult and arrestive gear ship.  And also at 28 knots, has proven to be faster than what she was initially envisioned to do. Ten-thousand-mile unrefueled range at 20 knots, which is not bad legs.

There are those who are beginning to suggest that wait a minute, given the kind of future we’re going into, does a heavily armored nuclear-powered ship, but fewer number of those, make less sense perhaps than many more ships that have similar kind of capabilities, may not be nuclear, but equipped with 1500 people.

The ship made some survivability tradeoffs.  It’s not as compartmentalized.  But in part, that was because a lot of the engineers were like look, in the highest intensity environment, dead is dead.  You end up at the bottom of the ocean anyway, and so we tried to make tradeoffs on the likelihood of conflict, survivability of the ship, taken over 20 years of time, cost of production.

Do you think that those sorts of — is the approach that we’re taking the right approach which is to build these extraordinary ships that are hardened to a degree that no other warship in the world — we saw the Norwegian ship sink.  If you look at it, our ships are built differently and so would be far more resistant to that kind of a casualty.  Or do we need to rethink that in terms that we may be able to make certain tradeoffs.  Instead of the Nth degree of survivability on 10, 15 ships that we have something less but be able to build more for that high intensity engagement?  Or have we got the recipe about right?

Mr. Clark:  I guess I’d say having a larger number of smaller carriers in our analysis did not yield as much of a benefit as the smaller number of large carriers. The reason being that a large carrier can carry a big enough air wing and generate enough sorties that you’re able to deliver combat power over a sustained period of time and you can defend it because it’s in a relatively small footprint.

Whereas if you start getting to a more distributed carrier force then you’re not going to be able to defend it as well, and therefore it’s going to be more vulnerable, it will be probably more likely to have to drive around and avoid being attacked. Therefore its sortie generation ends up going down compared to the larger carrier that’s better protected and is able to sort of stand and fight a little bit.

So we found that there wasn’t that big of a benefit to having this more distributed carrier force that might result from having a cheaper carrier.

Also shifting from nuclear to conventionally powered was a huge problem from a carrier air wing perspective because that means a lot of your fuel storage now has shifted to fuel for the carrier as opposed to fuel for the airplanes.  That has an impact on your ability to sustain sorties over time.

So the larger carrier ends up having these sorts of secondary and third order effects that improve your ability to deliver firepower over time.  And because we don’t envision, I mean we don’t see the carrier as a replacement for land bases.  And if you get to a smaller carrier that you have in a more distributed manner.  That’s kind of the same as what you might do if you’re going to put a bunch of forward operating bases, or arming and refueling points out there, which you could do on the ground for a lot cheaper than building aircraft carriers.

So you probably want to have your carrier be more like an emulation of a larger base than it is an emulation of a smaller outpost.

Mr. Muradian:  I was sort of more focused on the survivability tradeoff.  Because if you get the rough sort of flight deck, but you answered it with the nuclear component of it.  And effectively, if you get a high run rate of the carrier you’re building now, the cost of it ultimately comes down.

Mr. Clark:  Right.  And I agree. On survivability you might want to, that would be an area where — and we talked about that this morning on the panel, the idea of can I drive down the cost of the carrier that we have.  So don’t start a new carrier program with all of its associated non-recurring engineering costs.  Instead, look at the carrier we have, the Ford Class, and see how can we continue to reduce cost by maybe accepting some survivability tradeoffs. Because we don’t necessarily intend to drive it into the teeth of a conflict and expect it to fight its way out of a highly contested —

Mr. Muradian:  You’re saying a rain storm of the F-26s would be problematic for a future carrier?

Mr. Clark:  That’s right, exactly.  So you may want to make it so that we take into account the defensive capacity that the carrier strike group provides and say within that defensive capacity I should be able to accept a certain number of hits before I’m faced with the probability of losing the ship.

So we could probably do some survivability tradeoffs that would reduce the cost of the ship and would, if nothing else, save money that we might use to put towards the carrier air wing.

Mr. Muradian:  And you don’t think that at that cost, the problem with any icon, it is an iconic weapon system.  And to paraphrase one of your former colleagues, Tom Earhart.  When icons fall, entire edifices collapse which is the problem with it.  Is there a danger of having so few, such common ships that cost so much and have so many people on it that your adversary knows if sunk or greatly damaged would be problematic to the very image of American power projection and capability and military superiority?

Mr. Clark:  It certainly incentivizes an adversary to go after it so you’d want to make it so that it’s not your only way of delivering firepower.  So it’s obviously a complement to what could be done from land bases, both traditional main operating bases and smaller forward operating bases.

So the carrier clearly is an icon.  It’s always going to be an icon no matter whether you make it a little bit smaller or it’s the same size as it is now.  So I don’t think it changes that strategic discussion, that communication discussion like that.  But in terms of its warfighting capability and the loss of that capability that might result from it being successfully engaged, that’s probably an area where you need to look at that in the context of the joint fight and say if I lost a carrier how would I make up for that loss of sorties, that loss of ability to control seas around that area, and how would that impact be born by the joint force?

Mr. Muradian:  Bryan Clark here at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, thanks very, very much.


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