Transforming the Navy’s Warfighting Capabilities

The post-Cold War Navy is relying too much on the carrier. It needs new strategies–and a very different kind of fleet.

On June 26, 1897, Great Britain’s Royal Navy conducted a review in honor of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The review represented the greatest concentration of naval power the world had ever seen. At the heart of that power were the Royal Navy’s battleships, row upon row of them.

In some respects, that review represented the high-water mark of the battleship. The advent of the airplane and the modern submarine would soon consign the battleship to the same fate as the wooden sailing ships of the line that preceded it. By the early days of World War II, the aircraft carrier displaced the battleship as the naval fleet’s capital ship.

Rapid advances in aviation technology had transformed the carrier from a ship that provided aircraft to scout the enemy fleet and provide gunfire adjustment for the battleships into a strike platform in its own right. Carriers could now launch strikes several hundred miles from their targets, while battleships could hurl their shells but a few miles. Although the so-called battlewagons managed to hang on for nearly 50 years after the war, following the Gulf War the battleships were decommissioned, apparently for good.

Today, advances in information technology, coupled with the diffusion of advanced military technology, threaten to make aircraft carriers–and their crews of thousands–increasingly vulnerable to attack. Nonetheless, the Navy plans to spend billions of dollars on a new super carrier and is testing expensive new missile systems to defend its carrier battle groups. To look to the future, the Navy should look to the past: The technological advances that are putting carriers at risk could pave the way for the resurrection, albeit in a more efficient, lethal, and different form, of the battleship.

A growing threat

In the wake of the Cold War, a growing number of would-be U.S. adversaries are developing or procuring military and intelligence capabilities that may soon permit them to mount a serious threat to U.S. aircraft carriers. A brief overview of these capabilities includes the following:

Long-range reconnaissance and strike capabilities. A number of countries have access to surveillance satellites and other intelligence collection capabilities that would allow them to observe a carrier battle group from space, perhaps days before the carrier comes close enough for its aircraft to strike their targets.

To be sure, carriers, despite their size, are not easy to find at sea. But this may not be necessary. Cold War-era operations emphasized using the carrier to maintain control over the high seas, thereby keeping sea lanes open. But with the Cold War over, concern over regional threats such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea has led the Navy to emphasize operations in coastal areas, to better support U.S. military operations ashore should aggression occur. As a result, Third World aggressors could have a much easier time finding their targets: They could focus their reconnaissance efforts exclusively on their littoral area, which the carrier would have to enter in order to launch air strikes against inland targets.

Third World states also are acquiring the means to strike targets at far greater distances and with greater precision than they could just a few years ago. More than 15 nations (including Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and Libya) have ballistic missiles. It is not clear whether these states could move targeting information quickly enough to conduct successful strikes against the carriers, or whether they would be able to penetrate U.S. fleet missile defenses. But the threat is serious enough that the Navy is expending considerable resources to protect the carriers from such attacks.

Antiship cruise missiles. More than 40 Third World militaries now possess antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), which can be launched from the shore, aircraft, ships, or submarines. Although they are not cheap, these missiles have been used to good–and sometimes devastating–effect in recent years. During the 1982 Falklands War, Argentine Exocet missiles inflicted substantial damage on the Royal Navy. In 1987, during the U.S. Navy’s escort of reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, another Exocet fired by Iraq severely damaged the USS Stark, killing 37 of her crew.

Iran has been particularly enamored of these missiles. Recently, the Iranian Navy test-fired an ASCM with a 60-mile range. The commander of U.S. naval forces in the region has expressed concern that, over time, Iran’s acquisition of an increasingly capable inventory of ASCMs, when combined with its attack submarines, ballistic missiles, and antiship mines, could make the fleet’s job “a lot tougher.”

Antiship mines. Mines have long posed a vexing challenge for the Navy. Of the 18 Navy ships seriously damaged in operations since 1950, 14 were hit by mines. During the Gulf War, the cruiser USS Princeton and a countermine task force flagship, the USS Tripoli, were both damaged by mines. After the Gulf War, General Schwartzkopf described the Navy’s minesweeping force as “old, slow, ineffective, and incapable of doing the job.”

Today there are 48 navies capable of laying mines. Thirty-one nations manufacture mines, nine more than in 1991. More than 20 nations now export mines. The former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jeremy Boorda, made improving the service’s capabilities in this area a high priority. Nonetheless, he admitted that there is no easy way to defend against mines. “Once they’re in the water,” he observed, “you’ve got a big problem.”

What does this mean for the carriers? If carriers are operating several hundred miles out at sea, it may mean little or nothing. On the other hand, the Navy operated carriers in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. To enter the gulf, the carriers had to transit the Strait of Hormuz, which can be mined. With the Navy focusing its operations on supporting the battle ashore, the carriers will increasingly find themselves operating close to the coast. The closer they come to shore, the greater the danger they face from mines.

Submarines. Conventional submarine sales are expected to double over the next decade, with a total of 50 to 60 submarines being bought by some 20 countries. It may be more difficult for the Navy to conduct effective antisubmarine warfare operations in littoral areas, where noise levels are considerably greater than in the open ocean. Moreover, by operating close to shore, carriers will make the submarines’ task easier by reducing their search area. These problems may be counterbalanced somewhat by the difficulty Third World navies are encountering as they attempt to become proficient in operating these complex pieces of military equipment.

Ultimately, it will likely be the cumulative effect of these threats, rather than any one of them, that significantly erodes the carrier’s utility. For example, a single mine explosion may not sink a carrier, but it may reduce the carrier’s speed, making it an easier target for missiles. Even if the carrier is not hit by mines, if it enters a mine field it may have to reduce its speed to avoid them. Operating close to shore, with attack warning times reduced, the carrier’s defenses may be stressed not by one type of missile but by a variety of them.

Gulf War 2010

Consider, for example, a Persian Gulf war in the year 2010. This time, assume that Iran is the aggressor. Perhaps Teheran’s objective is not to threaten the Kuwaiti and Saudi oil fields directly, as the Iraqis attempted to do in the Gulf War. Rather, Iran could choose to constrict the oil flow indirectly by closing the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

To this end, the Iranians seed the strait with advanced antiship mines that are guarded by submarine patrols. Along the coast, Iran positions batteries of Silkworm and Seersucker antiship missiles. It also disperses mobile launchers armed with long-range cruise and ballistic missiles and gathers intelligence provided by satellite reconnaissance photography, commercial communication services, and precise positioning systems. By investing modestly but prudently in advanced technology, Iran has presented the U.S. military with a dramatically different, and more dangerous, challenge than it faced in the Gulf War.

How would Navy commanders respond to such a challenge? Under present conditions, they have three basic options. One is to keep the carriers out at sea. This would reduce their vulnerability but also limit their ability to strike targets ashore. Another possibility is to bring them in closer to shore, subjecting the carriers–and their crews of 5,000 to 6,000 sailors–to increased risk. Third, they could offset the increased threat from missiles by creating ever-thicker anti-missile, antisubmarine and countermine defenses around the carrier–a large, unwieldy target. Of course, these options are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The U.S. Navy is, in fact, devoting considerable resources to developing more effective missile defenses for its carrier battle groups. One key element is the creation of the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) battle-management system. The CEC is designed to combine all the combat systems and major sensors on ships into a single, integrated architecture for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence). If successful, the CEC would give commanders a dramatically improved picture of the extended battle area and greatly enhance their ability to intercept missiles at extended ranges.

The combination of tight budgets and a strong attachment to tradition threatens to crowd out the Navy’s investment in innovation.

However, maintaining and beefing up the traditional carrier battle group represents a high-cost strategy for protecting the Navy’s carrier strike assets. It is not clear whether the Navy, which is experiencing budget shortfalls in other critical areas, such as surface ship recapitalization, countermine capabilities, and the procurement of precision munitions, can (or should) afford it–especially if more effective alternatives are available. Fortunately, such options exist.

The arsenal ship

Advances in missile and precision-guidance technology, combined with long-range reconnaissance and targeting technology, are giving ships the ability to out-range carrier aircraft in conducting strike operations. For a Navy concerned about tight budgets, it is likely that such ships can be procured and operated at substantially lower cost than the carriers, while placing far fewer sailors in harm’s way. The emerging offensive capabilities of these new “battleships” promise to transform the strategic role of the aircraft carrier.

Just as the information revolution has transformed the computer world from its focus on the mainframe computer to a distributed web of mainframes and personal computers, so can it transform the future Navy. Whereas existing fleets center on the carrier as the focus of naval strike capability and devote their resources to defending it, the fleet of the future could distribute its offensive capabilities among a variety of ships networked into a systems architecture, or “system of systems.” A constellation of strike platforms within a web of surveillance, reconnaissance, and battle management systems would comprise the new, distributed capital ship.

A key node in this system would be a new form of battleship. The Navy already has a name for it: the arsenal ship. The concept for the arsenal ship dates back at least to the late 1980s, when Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf challenged traditional surface combatant designs and laid out the basic characteristics of the “striker,” a stealthy, sturdy warship that could deliver a devastating amount of firepower at long range.

The arsenal ship does not have the imposing profile of traditional battleships or today’s super carriers. In fact, it looks more like a tanker. The ship would be highly automated, with a crew of fewer than 100. For enhanced protection, it would be semi-submersible with a very low profile, and its design would incorporate stealth technologies. It would also be equipped with active point defenses to protect against missile attacks and a double-hull design, offering good protection against mines or torpedoes.

The arsenal ship’s long, flat deck would incorporate a grid of 500 vertical launch systems, or missile tubes, capable of launching a wide variety of extended-range precision munitions such as the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile, the Army Tactical Missile System, and the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile. The tubes could launch antiballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted drones that gather and relay data, as well.

To its credit, the Navy plans to invest some $500 million, with support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, to construct a prototype arsenal ship. But it is unclear whether the initial design will be the optimal design. Indeed, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy had to experiment with several classes of carriers before settling on the carrier design that proved successful in World War II. According to the Navy’s own figures, for an extra few hundred million dollars, it could commission four or five concept studies for the arsenal ship and produce two prototypes. At present, the Navy has chosen not to do so.

The Navy also has the opportunity to convert four Trident ballistic missile submarines to stealthy, general purpose warships. Trident conversion is made possible, in part, because the Navy is removing four of the ships from Cold War era nuclear service. Options being considered include a stealthy strike Trident, with well over 100 missile tubes; a stealthy troop transport carrying 500 troops for short periods, or 144 troops for an indefinite period; or a stealthy multimission ship with about 100 missile tubes and 100 troops. The estimated costs of these options range from $450 million to $750 million per boat. The converted Tridents could launch long-range precision munitions, UAVs, and unmanned underwater vehicles.

In the newly configured fleet, the arsenal ship and the Tridents, along with carriers, submarines, and surface combatants such as cruisers and destroyers equipped with missile grids, could be linked into a web of reconnaissance systems, including satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, special operations reconnaissance teams, and remotely emplaced sensors. This could allow the fleet to employ its long-range precision strike systems more effectively. The Navy CEC program could be the first major step in providing this kind of comprehensive linkage.

The fleet in battle

How would such an architecture be employed? Let us return to the future Persian Gulf conflict. A U.S. fleet substantially different from today’s fleet would approach the Persian Gulf. It might comprise four carrier battle groups. The fleet also would include ships capable of providing both an “upper-tier” and a “lower-tier” defense to intercept missiles at high and low altitudes, respectively, and would include three arsenal ships and three Trident stealth battleships.

The fleet would be led by a screen of attack submarines, whose mission is twofold: to conduct antisubmarine warfare against Iranian subs and to begin clearing the Iranian minefields blocking the Strait of Hormuz. Behind the submarine screen are the stealth battleships, followed by the arsenal ships. Two stealth battleships are equipped with 162 precision-guided missiles and UAVs. The third stealth battleship is a multimission boat, equipped with a mix of 117 missiles and UAVs and carrying a dozen Navy SEAL and Army Special Forces reconnaissance teams.

Once the submarines have cleared a lane in the mine belts, the multipurpose Trident boat moves in behind them close to shore and begins to disgorge its special operations forces. Two days later and a few score miles out to sea, the stealth battleships and arsenal ships begin launching UAVs and missiles designed to deploy sensors. Within 18 hours, a U.S. reconnaissance architecture is in place and operating, composed of an upper tier of satellites, a UAV “grid,” remote sensors, and special operations forces.

Even before the architecture is in place, the battleships and arsenal ships, in combination with long-range Air Force bombers, begin an extended-range precision-strike campaign against key Iranian fixed targets. These strikes are quickly supplemented by similar (although less effective) attacks on critical mobile targets that can be identified and tracked by the U.S. reconnaissance deep-strike architecture.

The Iranians respond by launching a barrage of nearly 400 ballistic and cruise missiles. Thanks to U.S. information dominance, persistent attacks on Iranian missile units, and land- and sea-based ballistic missile defenses, the effects of the attack are mitigated considerably. Other Navy surface combatants with long-range precision-strike capabilities now add their fire support, launching long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles.

After several weeks, the long-range precision strike campaign has substantially weakened the Iranian long-range missile forces and, correspondingly, the threat to regional air bases. U.S. Air Force tactical aircraft are now deployed to bases in the Gulf. At this point, the Navy’s carriers are directed to move much closer to shore. The effect is to increase target coverage dramatically–at the cost of increased risk to the naval forces involved.

Soon the Iranian armed forces no longer possess the capability to deny U.S. naval forces freedom of movement in the Persian Gulf region. The Navy’s carriers, now operating relatively freely outside the mine belts, lend the full weight of their air wings to the Air Force tactical wings operating ashore and the Navy and Air Force long-range strike forces. With U.S. and allied ground forces deploying in large numbers to the region in preparation for a land assault on Iran, the government in Teheran requests a cease-fire through the United Nations.

The arsenal ship would play a key role in a future fleet in which offensive capabilities would be distributed among a variety of ships.

Whither the Navy?

Will the U.S. Navy exploit rapidly emerging technologies to build this very different–and potentially far more effective–fleet, or will it employ these technologies to improve existing capabilities at the margin? At present, the answer is unclear.

The U.S. Navy is far ahead of any other naval competitor in its thinking about the arsenal ship, the stealth battleship, and the integration of reconnaissance, battle management, strike, and missile defense systems. Yet to meet the demands of a U.S. strategy to wage regional conflicts in a way that leads to quick, decisive victories with minimal loss of American lives, it will have to exploit the potential of the distributed capital ship and the precision-strike systems architecture described above. Given its limited resources, this means that the Navy will have to make some tough choices.

The Navy already has a dozen supercarriers, yet it has requested more than $4 billion from Congress to build another. In addition, it is preparing to spend billions more to develop a new class of carriers. Meanwhile, it does not have a single arsenal ship or stealth battleship, which are each projected to cost about $700 million; the purchase of precision-guided munitions lags behind earlier plans; and the CEC program, which showed encouraging results in initial tests, still requires much additional development. The combination of tight budgets and strong attachments to tradition may crowd out the Navy’s investment in innovation.

The Navy is at a crossroads. It can follow the familiar path into the future, relying primarily on tried-and-true capabilities that have proven their worth over the last half century. Or it can place somewhat less reliance on traditional forces while exploiting rapidly emerging technologies to create a very different fleet to meet what will likely be very different future challenges. In short, if it is to leap into the future of a smaller, but very different kind of fleet, the Navy will likely find itself embracing a familiar symbol of its past–the battleship.

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Cite this Article

Jr., Andrew F. Krepinevich. “Transforming the Navy’s Warfighting Capabilities.” Issues in Science and Technology 13, no. 1 (Fall 1996).

Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall 1996