The Political Context of Striking a Carrier

20 April 2010


Ships are vulnerable: post strike image of a destroyer target hit by an AGM-84A Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile during trials. The Harpoon, with a larger warhead, is more lethal than the Exocet.

Earlier in Speedboat Diplomacy and Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept I discussed the possibility of asymmetrical attacks against a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and especially the possibility of a swarming attack by small boats. That carriers are vulnerable due to their size and in spite of their elaborate defenses I take to be proved by the ability of both Japanese and American forces being able to disable carriers in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War.

Having thought about this, I think I can formulate my point more concisely: if one rejects the proof of concept of the vulnerability of a carrier, one must show that there have been revolutionary, game-changing developments since the sinking of carriers during WWII and the sinking of the Sheffield during the Falkland’s War. It could be argued that automated and computerized “smart” weapons constitute a revolutionary development. The next question is this: If automation technology constitutes a revolutionary development in weaponry, does it favor the attack or the defense? Does it favor conventional forces or unconventional forces? Does it favor symmetrical or asymmetrical warfare? The machine gun and barbed wire favored the defense; tanks favored the attack. The answer is different for different technological developments. However, I’m not going to go any further into these intrinsically interesting questions at the present moment.

In previous posts I’ve cited Craig Hooper’s Next Navy blog and Mike Burleson’s New Wars blog, both of which have covered the topic. More recently I noticed a short piece on Thomas Barnett’s blog, The long and the short of the U.S.-Iran naval showdown. Barnett writes:

“…anybody who sends a US carrier to the bottom has a bigger problem than the resulting bragging rights…”


“…if we admit, there’s [sic] plenty of realistic ways, for somebody who’s really committed, to sink a US carrier. But again, that ain’t the problem. The problem is what America would do next.”


“ANYBODY can sucker punch us at any time. It’s what comes next that matters.”

A comment by Joe K. on Mike Burleson’s Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2 made a similar point:

“There’s so much focus on the attack and not enough on the context… We have boots on the ground East and West of them, a naval force in and near the Persian Gulf, significant airpower, and several allies in the region (some of which we have been arming, i.e. Saudi Arabia) with aircraft that can fly transcontinental. Not to mention the local populace is not so keen on their own government.”

As these observations highlight, we must situate the sinking or disabling of a carrier, or the disruption of a CSG, in military and political context. What is the relevant political context of an asymmetrical strike against US naval forces? This depends upon the theater of operations, and the moment of the attack, of course. It also depends on the character of the asymmetrical attack. If we define an asymmetrical threat as anything other than a conventional engagement between conventional forces, like battles between carrier task forces in the Pacific theater of WWII, then anything that happens is going to be asymmetrical because there are no symmetrical matches to US naval power in the world today. Thus “asymmetrical” describes a spectrum of threats, each of which might be significantly different in weapons and tactics than any other. Nevertheless, some general observations can be made.

To discuss the military, political, and diplomatic context of a strike against US forces is essentially to discuss rules of engagement (ROE) and escalation. US forces on patrol will be under particular rules of engagement that will govern immediate response to an attack. The 1999 Marine Corps Close Combat Manual defines ROE as a “Continuum of Force” which is broken down into five (5) levels from “compliant” to “assaultive.” The nature of the individual naval mission will determine specific ROE, and this will be based on certain expectations. Ultimately, given that the US chain of command ends at a civilian Commander-in-Chief, the ROE will reflect diplomatic and political concerns as much as military concerns. The very fact that US forces are on patrol already points to the fact that political leaders have determined that a US show of force in the region in question might achieve certain political ends. As we know from the famous Clausewitz aphorism, the military and the political cannot be separated: each is an extension of the other.

Thus I take it that the military-political continuum of interests that governs ROE is a further and concrete extension of the idea of escalation, so ultimately we must focus on escalation in a political and diplomatic context. This is a large task, and a complete treatment of it would need to be based on a review of history and a consideration of game theory. I won’t attempt any of that here. I will simply focus on the obvious responses to Thomas Barnett’s question: “What will America do next?”

The spectrum of ROE and the spectrum of military-political-diplomatic continua mirror the possible spectrum of asymmetrical attacks. Any attackers would have many options, and the US would have many options of retaliation and escalation. When Al Qaeda, sheltered by Afghanistan, sponsored the September 11 attacks, the US simply eliminated the government of Afghanistan. This is a robust response, but also a problematic one because eliminating one regime means installing another in its place, and this means a political commitment that might have to be measured in decades. The stakes must be high in order to mount such a first step on the escalation ladder when other options are available.

The response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.

Since we’ve already discussed the possibility of Iranian swarm attacks by small boats in the Persian Gulf, let’s continue this theme with a quote from Worst Enemy, by John Arquilla (a book brought to my attention by Mike Burleson’s New Wars):

“The Iranians, who have clearly concentrated on building a substantial body of light coastal forces, appear to have rejected tele-operated vessels in favor of creating a swarm of manned craft, whose one- or two-person crews would simply sacrifice themselves in kamikaze attacks.” (p. 79)

Some of the comments on the New Wars blog also returned to the idea of a suicide swarm scenario, but a swarm need not be a suicide swarm. In fact, this observation is the ground of a distinction between suicide swarms and non-suicide swarms. We cannot assume that a swarm will focus on suicide attacks, though we must reckon with the possibility. Similarly, the goal need not be sinking a carrier. In some cases, simply harassing a CSG so that it is somewhat tied down and unable to devote its resources to other matters might be sufficient to the military-political ends of those ordering such a swarming diversion. In a diversion, there would be less motivation for suicide attacks, and one would suppose the that attacker would wish to preserve the lives of his trained and skilled forces.

With this in mind, imagine a scenario like this: a CSG is attacked by a swarming mass of small boats under cover of radar-confusing chaff. Their mobility and maneuverability, in addition to the cover from CIWS, would limit their losses. Such a swarm could come and go, harassing a CSG at will. A mothership or motherships at a relatively safe distance could increase the range of the power projection of such a swarm.

How might a nation-state such as Iran employ such a swarm, and how might the Navy and the US respond to it? Would a harassing swarm attack rise to the threat level that would justify substantial escalation? I think not. Certainly during an engagement US forces would do as much damage as they could to the swarm, but they would be as unlikely to eliminate it as an individual is unlikely to eliminate a swarm of mosquitoes by slapping those that land on one’s skin and insert their proboscis. Such a weapon might be used repeatedly. Its repeated use would allow swarming crews to gain valuable experience, and would allow military thinkers to formulate an effective doctrine for their employment.

Would the US want to send in a second or third CSG if one CSG has been attacked or harassed by a swarm? Would this show of force intimidate the enemy, or would the world media spin it so that more and more US forces were being “tied down” by a few small boats? As I noted before, this can become a David and Goliath moment. There might also be the perception that one CSG couldn’t defend itself and needed help. This could be potentially damaging to prestige.

Such a weapons system need not exclusively target other military forces. One of the concerns with Iran is that it might close down the Strait of Hormuz. But thinking in terms of closing the Strait of Hormuz is like thinking in terms of sinking a carrier. We need not take the enemy’s flag in order to change the enemy’s behavior, or even to win the battle of popular opinion in the media. A swarming weapons system with an appropriately formulated doctrine could temporarily halt transit of the Strait of Hormuz, or slow down transit of the Strait for extended periods of time. It would take very little restriction or slow down in order to dramatically affect oil prices and worldwide economic performance in the short term. Such actions could plausibly trigger a recession, and a recession could trigger a political change. I am sure that no one has forgotten the lesson of March 11 in Spain and the consequent fall of the Aznar government.

Escalation can be like the proverbial frog in a pan of water slowly brought to a boil: the transition is so gradual that the frog doesn’t jump out. Escalation is a political calculation, and political calculations can be successful, or they can go terribly wrong. At present, “going terribly wrong” could mean losing a carrier or losing one’s swarm. In the longer term, “terribly wrong” could mean something much worse.

Since the initial use of nuclear weapons against Japan, the actual use, especially the tactical use, of nuclear devices became unthinkable, and nuclear weapons have been thought of exclusively as strategic weapons. A clear distinction was made between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare, and, moreover, every effort was made to avoid any crisis escalating to a nuclear exchange due to mutually assured destruction (MAD). In the long term, it is inevitable that the rungs on the ladder of escalation will be more gradual and the black-and-white distinction between conventional and nuclear war will become gray through both the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially small devices, and the continuing improvement of conventional weapons. I have already mentioned the Russian so-called “Father of all bombs,” a thermobaric conventional device based on nano-technology that can have a yield equivalent to small nuclear devices. Such weaponry is not yet widespread, but our calculation of escalation in the future will have to take account of such developments. All weapons systems eventually proliferate.

I suggested previously that a thermobaric warhead on a supersonic torpedo or missile would make a good weapon for disabling a carrier. Suppose this technology develops to the point that a relatively small package or delivery system (something that could be mounted on a speedboat, for instance) could deliver the equivalent of a kiloton on target (keep in mind that the original Moskit P-270 was configured for a nuclear warhead, so we see once again a smooth gradation from the conventional to the nuclear). There is much yet to be expected from nano-technology, and I don’t think this is an over-optimistic suggestion. In fact, it is possible today, though not widely available. The sight of a mushroom cloud rising over a carrier would almost certainly galvanize the US public for a robust, regime-changing response. But the gradual transition to such a catastrophic scenario will be much more subtle and problematic. A range of responses will be required for a range of threats and actions.

The lesson to remember at all times is that there are options available to both attack and defense, and for this reason one cannot become overly-wedded to a single scenario. The enemy gets a vote, and each side is the enemy of the other.

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Note added Wednesday 25 February 2015: Today in a provocative military exercise called ‘Payambar-e Azam 9′ (The Great Prophet 9), the IRGC blew up a model of a US carrier. While I was not able to find images of this on the IRNA site, there are pictures on the TIME website in Iran Blows Up Replica U.S. Warship During Defense Drill (this item was brought to my attention by the new CSIS evening newsletter edited by H. Andrew Schwartz).

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Russian made 'Sunburn' supersonic anti-ship missile.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “The Political Context of Striking a Carrier”

  1. Mike Burleson said

    Just fascinating commentary J.N. Well done. I’m reviewing this tomorrow in my weekly carrier alternative post.

  2. […] on our recent series of posts “Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier?” Pt 1 & Pt 2, J. N. Nielsen points out you don’t have to destroy the carrier to defeat it: We cannot assume that a swarm […]

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