In several posts (Sinking a Carrier: Precisification of Concept among them) I have characterized the aircraft carrier (in its material and doctrinal context) as the preeminent instrument of force projection in the world today. Why is the aircraft carrier dominant in force projection today? Because it can carry almost a hundred fighter jets to any place in the world with a coastline, fly them, maintain them, maintain their pilots, and fulfill all the roles of combat support for these fighters. The power that an aircraft carrier is projecting is the air arm that it carries. This is important. An aircraft carrier is not important because it mounts enormous naval guns like the Dreadnought class battleships of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An aircraft carrier doesn’t mount any big guns at all. An aircraft carrier is a force to reckoned with because it brings aircraft to the theater of operations in an age in which command of the air is crucial to all combat operations.

Sitting ducks? “Flat tops” can be larger than the pier they tie up to, and therefore constitute a large and tempting target.

At one time, the big guns of a battleship were important weapons. Battleships could carry enormous guns that could fire on shore batteries and on positions several miles inland, not to mention firing on other capital ships. This was a formidable military capacity. The technologies that began to emerge from our first industrialized war, World War I, and which were systematically implemented during the inter-war period, decisively changed the maritime combat equation. Submarines with torpedoes, airplanes with torpedoes, and airplanes configured as dive bombers rendered the battleship as vulnerable as a medieval knight in armor was vulnerable to a peasant with a firearm. The vulnerability of capital ships was not taken for granted. The early advocates of air power not only had to engage in extended polemics in order to make their point, but Billy Mitchell organized a famous demonstration in 1921 in which aircraft carrying bombs were used to disable German and US battleships from the First World War. This demonstration helped to overcome institutionalized resistance to change, but resistance there was, and the institutions were slow to change.

Ex-German battleship Ostfriesland takes a gigantic blow from a 2,000 lb. aerial bomb burst far enough below the surface that fountains of water erupt high above both sides of the ship. Minutes later, the target ship sank by the stern. This was the finale of Billy Mitchell's anti-ship bombing demonstration in July 1921. (from Wikipedia)

Not only were battleships vulnerable to new weapons systems, as Mitchell demonstrated, but they were also entering a death spiral of increased size, cost, and complexity. Mitchell’s concerns were the same concerns we have today: that money invested in outdated weapons systems will take money from the new weapons systems that will be vital in future conflicts. Moreover, the older weapons systems, as they mature, tend to grow disproportionately large and expensive. The Bismarck and the Tirpitz, the Yamato and the Musashi, consumed enormous resources, were extremely expensive to build, and were crewed by thousands. They were also vulnerable to smaller, cheaper, less manpower-intensive counter-measures. The Tirpitz, fully outfitted, cost 181.6 million Rm (the Bismarck cost more) and had a crew complement of 2,608; a type VII C U-boat cost 4.8 million Rm and had a crew complement of 52. For the price of one Tirpitz, you can have many U-boats, and this is exactly what Karl Dönitz did when he took charge. Perhaps if he had had the opportunity to act earlier on cheaper counter-measures, the Battle of the Atlantic might have had a different outcome.

Dreadnought class battleships were not only formidable weapons systems in their time, but also potent symbols of national prestige.

It is not that the fundamental (and perennial) calculus of maritime strategy has changed, but that the means to the end of this perennial calculus has changed:

“Two decades after the passing of the Grand and High Seas fleets, the age-old principle of maritime strategy was unchanged. The control of the seas remained the final objective, for the purpose of providing and denying the free movement of trade and military needs. But the means of exercising this control was vested as well, and within its ever-increasing range and power, in the aircraft, from shore or carrier.”

Richard Hough, Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship, 1965, p. 223

Whereas the very idea of an aircraft carrier once needed to be defended against vested interests who preferred to spend budgetary funds on battleships, now it is the turn of the carrier to be the large, complex, and expensive weapons system nearing the end of the its lifespan. And there is nothing new in the observation. I have written a couple of posts on this (Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept and The Political Context of Sinking a Carrier). When Mike Burleson was writing his New Wars blog he would publish a “Carrier Alternative Weekly” almost every week, examining alternatives to large and expensive carriers. Mike Burleson also wrote a lot of posts on the vulnerability of carriers to counter-measures. It is worthwhile to read through the archives of New Wars to review these.

The Nimitz class carrier is the backbone of the US carrier fleet.

Because there is nothing new in the idea of the terminal obsolescence of carriers, what I want to try to do today is to place this obsolescence in a larger context — historical context, technological context, intellectual context, tactical context, and strategic context. A few days ago in Technological Succession I argued for a distinction between perennial technologies and mature technologies. Because of the phenomenon of technological succession — a new technology taking over where an old technology leaves off — once a technology matures it invites rival technologies not yet matured to overtake its future incremental progress by the leapfrogging progress of a technology still capable of significant improvements.

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN78) is the future of the US carrier fleet, often called a supercarrier.

It would be over-simplifying matters to say that every technology has a limited lifespan, aircraft carriers included. This is painting with too broad a brush. Some technologies — perennial technologies — are limited by no lifespan and will always be present in response to perennial needs. Apart from perennial technologies, most technologies develop and succeed one another in a process that I call technological succession (by analogy with ecological succession).

Maritime technology generally speaking, and not tied to any particular maritime platform, is a perennial technology. There will always be ships. But the aircraft carrier is a particular instantiation of maritime technology, and the technology that it represents is a mature technology. As a mature technology, it is subject to technological succession when an alternative technology with advantages becomes available that serves the in same capacity as the established technology.

The aircraft carriers of today are not remarkably different from the aircraft carriers of the Second World War. Progress with this mature weapons system has been, and will continue to be, incremental, i.e., evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Thus an aircraft carrier is the paradigm case of a mature technology, not a perennial technology. What it does, it does very well, and incremental improvements can be expected to continue indefinitely, but as I argued in Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept the development of the aircraft carrier from the Second World War to today is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and this is the kind of change that is to be expected in the future: further evolutionary change, rather than revolutionary change, and at a slower rate of change because the technologies concerned have largely plateaued.

Innovations in SCRAM jet technology may provide reliable hypersonic flight in the not too distant future, and this will constitute a revolutionary advance that will outpace mature weapons systems that are advancing at an evolutionary pace, having already experienced their exponential growth and now leveled off to a plateau.

The mature technology of the aircraft carrier is in the process of being overtaken by newer technologies that will not be aircraft carriers, but will replace the role that is now filled by aircraft carriers. The weapons systems that will replace the role now filled by the aircraft carrier will be precision guided munitions, precision guided missiles, and both of the former launched from UCAVs and from supersonic and hypersonic manned aircraft from airbases, not from carriers. Improving hypersonic jet technology (such as SCRAM jets) will make is possible for a jet to be launched from an airbase on one side of the world, fly to the other side of the world within an hour’s time, hit targets, and return to base as quickly, for maintenance, fueling, and aircrew rest. The US defense establishment has already formulated this goal in what is called the Prompt Global Strike Initiative (PGS). I tried to give a sense of the possibilities of such a weapons system in A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat.

Many options are available for prompt global strike.

While PSG is not intended to replace carrier-based aviation, the long-term phenomenon of technological succession should be obvious. Once the technology is available, it will be cheaper and more effective to maintain aircraft at an airbase deep within secure territory as compared to doing so on an aircraft carrier. It will take many decades, and perhaps a war, to make the transition, but that the transition is coming should be obvious to all.

The role of a CVBG in power projection is inseparable from the air arm that it carries. When that air arm can be made available in-theater by other means, the justification for a CVBG disappears. There are some air assets that must be supplied and maintained close to the theater of operations, but these assets are not necessarily the air superiority fighters that are currently the focus of carrier aviation.

The fate of the aircraft carrier is inseparable from the fate of the air arm that it carries. If the equivalent of that air arm can be made available at any place or time that a carrier can make an equivalent force available, and it can be done cheaper or more effectively or efficiently, or at less risk to personnel and other assets, then that alternative will be pursued. Any peer competitor who fails to respond appropriately to this inevitable calculus will find themselves on the losing side of a battle of attrition.

However, the air arm carried by a contemporary CVBG is not the only air arm that needs to be made available in theater. The air arm of fixed wing aircraft with the capability of fifth generation fighters will, in the not distant future, be available from air bases within secure territory, but there is another transition that is coming, that is as inevitable as the obsolescence of carriers.

An Italian-made Agusta A129 Mangusta (Mongoose) helicopter gunship firing its chin mounted 20-mm M197 cannon.

Just as I have written that the aircraft carrier is the preeminent instrument of force projection in the world today, so the helicopter gunship is the preeminent weapons system of mobile fire in the world today. Helicopter technology was not available during the Second World War. During the Korean War and the Viet Nam War helicopters primarily played a support role in the insertion and removal of infantry. The development of the helicopter gunship is still quite recent, and it has mostly seen engagement in small wars like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or Russian operations in Chechnya. The helicopter gunship is capable of much more than this; there remains much untapped potential here.

A38 Eurocopter Tiger: the helicopter gunship is the preeminent form of mobile fire in the world today.

Mechanized armor is mobile, and far more mobile than infantry or cavalry, which were the only alternatives when mechanized armor was initially developed. Helicopter gunships are more mobile than mechanized armor. The logic of maneuver warfare that ultimately converged upon massed mechanized armor with close air support and infantry to exploit a breakthrough will, eventually, converge upon massed armored air assets — which means the helicopter gunship and fixed wing aircraft like the AC-130 gunship — with close ground support, and mechanized armor and infantry to exploit a breakthrough. The emphasis will shift from breakthrough on the ground to breakthrough in the air. (A tactical doctrine adequate to the helicopter gunship also suggests an interesting question: can a helicopter sink a carrier? If, as I have argued, flying boat swarms present a danger, certainly helicopter swarms also present a danger.)

AH-64 Apache attack helicopter: the helicopter gunship is the armored asset of the future.

Before this projected convergence is completed there will be a period of transition during which the armed forces that first employ this tactical doctrine for helicopter gunships — a tactical doctrine adequate to the potential of this technology of mobile fire — will have a disproportionate advantage in the battlespace, driving all before it in an aerial equivalent of Guderian’s Panzers or Liddell-Hart’s expanding torrent.

Russia's KA-52 attack helicopter: Western forces have no monopoly on innovative helicopter technology. The Russian KA-52 employs a contra-rotating co-axial rotor system.

The platform for the projection of this weapons system of mobile fire in theater will be the helicopter carrier. While fixed wing aircraft will be able to travel from secure air bases to the theater of operations within a timeframe appropriate to the exigencies of combat, helicopter gunships will not be able to do so. Therefore, as the age of the aircraft carrier draws to the close, the age of the helicopter carrier is only just dawning. And helicopter carriers can be much smaller and more mobile than a contemporary aircraft carrier, meaning that they are a more difficult target to hit, and therefore less vulnerable to cheap counter-measures.

HMS Ocean: the helicopter carrier will be the future platform for in-theater projection of massed armored air assets in the form of helicopter gunships.

Those armed forces that wish to dominate the battlespace of the mid- to late- twenty-first century should build helicopter carriers, and helicopter gunships to fill them, rather than building aircraft carriers.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Beyond Proof of Concept…

There are several versions of the DF-21. This photograph has been identified as a DF-21D, but not enough is known about this most recent iteration to identify it for sure.

New Horizons in Naval Viability and Vulnerability

The Aircraft Carrier, taken in the material and doctrinal context of its Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), is today the preeminent instrument of force projection in the world. There are a mere nine (9) nation-states in the world at this time who possess one or more operational aircraft carriers. The carrier has done the state some service, and they know it. Enough of that.

Nation-states in blue above have operational aircraft carriers.

In several previous posts I have discussed the vulnerability of aircraft carriers, focusing on the unlikely possibility of an aircraft carrier being sunk by a torpedo from a speedboat. The posts concerned were Speedboat Diplomacy, The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, and Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept. Mike Burleson’s New Wars blog (sadly now no longer active; I hope Mr. Burleson returns) also addressed the same question in Can a speedboat sink a carrier? Part 1 and Can a speedboat sink a carrier? Part 2. Mike Burleson quoted my Speedboat Diplomacy piece in the second installment.

While the CVBG is a formidable weapons system, in Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept I argued that the fact that carriers were sunk during the naval engagements in the Pacific theater during World War Two proved that carriers can be sunk, and that developments in naval technology since that time have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, meaning that change since that time has been a matter of degree rather than a matter of kind, meaning in turn that carriers today remain vulnerable despite their improved capabilities over the past sixty years. Proof of concept of sinking a carrier simply means this: it would be difficult, but also possible.

After proof of concept of carrier vulnerability, which I take be proved during World War Two, comes precisification of concept, that is to say, the making precise of the concept initially proved. The precisification of the concept of sinking (or simply striking) a carrier has no doubt been raised to the level of a highly refined science (or art, if you prefer) by those nation-states that see themselves in a potentially adversarial role in regard to the operators of carriers. We know, for example, that the Soviets developed hypersonic torpedoes (the VA-111 Shkval) and missiles (the P-270 Moskit) to counter NATO naval assets (the US, the UK, France, Italy, and Spain, all NATO member states, are among the nine nation-states operating carriers today). Torpedoes and missiles are cheap compared to carriers, and comparatively easy to field in large numbers. In so far as the missile/carrier confrontation is a mere numbers game, this remains a viable strategic counter to the CVBG today.

At the present time, the CVBG threat of greatest public concern is not the surface-skimming “Sunburn” (P270 Moskit, NATO reporting name SS-N-22, now superseded by the higher performance Yakhont P-800 Oniks, NATO reporting name SS-N-26) but the new and repeatedly heralded Chinese Dong Feng ballistic missile, specifically the DF21-D. Last week the DF21-D made headlines on several newspapers, since the US Navy made the announcement that the DF21-D was operational. The DF21-D takes the precisification of striking a carrier to a new level: it is, or is intended to be, a precision weapons system, and as such must be counted as part of a family of recently developed precision weapons systems. If the DF21-D is operational as claimed, and if it operates according to presumed specifications, then China has the capacity to sink capital ships (or other similarly large targets) within 2,000 km of their borders (though it is to be expected that the accuracy is inversely proportional to range).

While there are definite advantages to a supersonic torpedo or a surface-skimming missile, one of the most interesting things about the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is that its warhead comes almost straight down on its target. For this reason, among others, the DF21-D has been called a “game-changer” (On the Verge of a Game-Changer), and many of the superlatives once lavished on the Russian missiles, such as claims that the US Navy is “obsolete,” are now being applied to the DF21-D. A carrier has few defenses against an attack from a warhead coming straight down at supersonic (if not hypersonic) speeds, in comparison to the counter-measures it can bring to bear against incoming threats expected from other surface ships or aircraft. There are, to be sure, counter-measures, but not the kind of robust counter-measures that are available for other attack vectors.

Placing the potential of the DF21-D attack in historical perspective, it is interesting to note that during the Battle of Midway that none of the US torpedo bombers had any success against the Japanese carriers. It was the SBD Dauntless dive bombers that scored the hits that disabled the Japanese carriers. The ballistic missile warheads will come in many times faster than a bomb dropped by a dive bomber, and from much greater height, and existing counter-measures will of course be faster and more devastating than AAA, but the principle of vulnerability remains unchanged by improved technology. A carrier is by no means a sitting duck, but it is more vulnerable by some attack vectors than others, and it would be ridiculous not to expect an adversary to attempt to exploit what little vulnerability there remains.

The experience of a single battle is not decisive except in so far as its yields a proof of concept of some weapons system; the failure of a weapons system in a single battle must be taken in inductive context, which does not prove its inefficacy, though it certainly counts against it. Inductive evidence is always cumulative, and is not disproved by a single counter-example. For further historical background, it is interesting to note that it was an old biplane (a Fairey Swordfish) carrying a single torpedo, launched from the aging British carrier HMS Ark Royal (91), that disabled the rudder of the Bismark, thereby making it possible for the Bismark to be destroyed by the Royal Navy: the most hardened, high technology battleship of its day was disabled by an aging weapons system. Another engagement, another result. The torpedo bomber played an important role during the Second World War, but that role was not at Midway.

The Chinese DF21-D weapons system — and we must think of the DF21-D as a weapons system that integrates many elements into the system, which must operate as a whole or it cannot operate at all — has been in the news again because the Chinese are now believed to have a sufficient number of Beidou satellites (COMPASS-G2) in orbit to make precision tracking and targeting possible. While I noted just above that counter-measures for the weapons system are available, and more counter-measures will certainly be made available over time, these are not the robust counter-measures that one would like to see. However, since I have also pointed out that the weapons system must operate as a whole or not operate at all, it is most vulnerable to counter-measures that would not be based at the target. In other words, the weakest point of the weapons system is not the business end. A little hiccup in the software that allows communications between satellites, ground control, and the missile itself would be sufficient to spoil its aim, and if this hiccup could be supplied by a computer virus, a teenager with a laptop might be the most robust counter-measure available.

More than a year ago, back in December 2009, Craig Hooper of the Next Navy blog wrote about the Chinese ASBM threat in “With a conventional Trident within reach, why fear China’s anti-ship ballistic missile?” Dr. Hooper primarily made the point that US Trident missiles with a conventional warhead could quickly and stealthily complete a nuclear decapitation strike: “…while China’s ASBM-boosters might hope to target an aircraft carrier or two, we’ll have a stealthy conventional means to eliminate China’s tiny strategic nuclear strike capability.” Thus it would be China rather than the US that would be faced with a fait accompli of catastrophic strategic failure. Dr. Hooper writes that, “…the U.S. can convert Trident II D5′s into conventional missiles -– within two years. Maybe less.”

While China’s handful of missile boats might prove a little more difficult to eliminate than the rest of China’s “tiny strategic nuclear strike capability,” one suspects that the Chinese aren’t nearly at the level of submarine operations of the Soviet missile boat fleet during the Cold War, against which US submarines tested themselves, and were tested by, for almost fifty years. This points to one of the interesting characteristics of China’s ASBM program: it is almost a “pure physics” weapons system — in this regard, perhaps only nuclear weapons themselves are comparable. Physicists and technocrats can hand over “turn key” weapons systems like nuclear warheads or ASBM systems to the defense community, whose role is then reduced to target selection — if this latter function has not already been co-opted by civilian political authorities. Compared to the training, experience, and expertise that come with carrier operations or submarine operations or commando raids, turn key weapons systems require little or no training, and if they fail to perform, it is largely the fault of engineers and designers, not soldiers.

That China is able to create pure physics weapons systems is a credit to its educational system and the efforts of a few extraordinary men. Chinese primary education is a rigorous affair and involves drilling students in basic science. The Chinese educational system was devastated by the Cultural Revolution, during which the universities were closed, but the closure of the universities had a counter-intuitive, unintended consequence: when they were re-opened, competition for university enrollment was intense, and they had a population of about a billion from which to select the best and brightest. The first few classes that went through Chinese universities after they re-opened following the Cultural Revolution are still legendary. Furthermore, two Chinese physicists who received the Nobel Prize in 1957, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, returned to China in the 1980s and toured the country giving speeches and attempting to put Chinese physics research on a world-class footing. These personal efforts by Nobel Prize winning physicists inspired a generation of China’s best and brightest — already a select group for the aforementioned reasons — to go into physics research. One consequence of these historical accidents is China’s recent rapid progress in physics, hence China’s ability to build pure physics weapons systems at a time when the PLA, PLAN, and PLAAF don’t have the kind of depth of experience in conventional weapons systems possessed by active Cold War belligerents.

So, back to the DF21-D. More than six months ago, when the issue was being discovered by the popular press, Nerve Agent of the Dreams of Empire blog posted “What are we going to do about those Dong Feng’ed missiles?” Nerve Agent has since updated his analysis just a few days ago with “Dong Feng’ing in the new year.” I urge the reader to peruse these posts, as well as the Next Navy post cited above. Both Nerve Agent and Dr. Hooper are at one in calling for a deescalation of the hype and hyperbole surrounding the possible operational status of the DF21-D.

Because the Chinese ASBM is a strategic weapons system, the interesting questions about its deployment and usefulness are mostly political questions. I find it interesting to note in this connection that while my post Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept is one of my most accessed pieces, the companion piece to this, The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, is almost unread. Yet to intelligently discuss the Chinese ASBM we need to discuss it in the full context of social, political, economic, and diplomatic circumstances that surround both the weapons system and its presumed targets.

Let us suppose that the Chinese ASBM system is operational, and that it has a reasonably good chance of taking out a carrier — for example, lets say that if they fire twenty missiles, one of them will hit their target. There are a lot of technical questions that immediately come up: How many missiles can be produced in what kind of time frame? How quickly can their crews be trained to a reliable degree of expertise? Where will the mobile units be stationed? How quickly can they be in position to fire? Would the Chinese let fly with a barrage of fifty or a hundred missiles to make sure that the target is taken out? How quickly could the Chinese replace a hundred DF21-Ds? What next?

That last question is the big question, and is only matched by one other question: what would trigger such a barrage? These are strategic, diplomatic, and political questions. Would China ever fire at a US or other NATO aircraft carrier with the intent to destroy it? What could prompt such a desperate action? If China took out a carrier in the Taiwan Strait in an escalating confrontation over Taiwan, what would it do next? The US and its allies have other carriers. Would China attempt to sink all US carriers all over the world? Would China attempt to sink all NATO carriers? Would China sink a carrier in drydock (if its future missiles have the range to do this)? Is there a naval decapitation strike in our future?

What kind of retaliation would China expect from such a strike? This could be a conventional strike, and Dr. Hooper (quoted above) has suggested that the US could without great difficulty eliminate China’s nuclear arsenal with a conventional counter-strike, demoting China from the “nuclear club” in one fell swoop. Would the US, in the wake of a Chinese carrier strike, choose instead to take out China’s limited naval assets, or some other military asset? Could the US eliminate the PLA-Navy in one fell swoop? One response seems utterly obvious: in an escalating confrontation over Taiwan that resulted in the sinking of a US carrier, the US would surge all available military assets into the theater. Whatever retaliation was taken, what would China do in response to the surged assets brought into the Taiwan Strait? Would not a predictable US surge in the region defeat any Chinese hopes in regard to Taiwan that it might seek to accomplish by sinking a carrier? And would this not prove sufficient deterrence to an initial strike?

These questions do not have right or wrong, true or false answers. Any attempted answers are made (to borrow a Rawlsian phrase) behind a veil of ignorance: we do not know the enemies plans, or indeed the enemy’s exact capabilities, and the enemy does not know our plans and capabilities. The only true test is a battle, and even battles can be inconclusive. However, battles can also be decisive. This seems to me to be the most interesting strategic question posed by the DF21-D: in a short, sharp engagement, would the result be decisive or indecisive? My guess is that, at present, such an engagement would be decisively settled against the DF21-D and in favor of the carriers. However, as the technology improves (and time always passes more quickly than we realize), accuracy and range of the DF21-D or successor weapons systems can probably eventually be improved to the point that an engagement would prove indecisive, and simply to approach the neutralization of the world’s premier platform of power projection would be a notable accomplishment. The answer to a strategic question today will not necessarily be the same answer to the same question tomorrow.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Consequences of the 1993 bombing masterminded by Ramzi Yousef.

Some time ago (probably on PBS’s Frontline, but I can’t find the reference now) I saw an interview with a law enforcement official who was escorting Ramzi Yousef, responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to a legal proceeding. They were in a helicopter in New York City in view of the World Trade Center. The official pointed to the twin towers and said, “They’re still standing.” Yousef replied that they wouldn’t be standing if he had had more money.

I found another version of this story at CNN, recounted by CNN correspondent Brian Todd:

In the book, The Looming Tower, author Lawrence Wright says: “When Yousef was captured in the mid-’90s, brought to New York and flown in a helicopter by the World Trade Center, one agent said, “You see, it’s still standing.” And Yousef replied, “It wouldn’t be if we had more money.”

From what I have read about Yousef, he wanted to be remembered as being the man who brought down the World Trade Center Towers. He tried and failed, and the title ultimately went to others. The point here is that, quite apart from the ideological views that may inspire the chosen target, men can take personal pride in a difficult accomplishment, can indeed aspire to such an accomplishment, however incomprehensible it may seem to others. The aspiration and the accomplishment become disconnected from the the ideological superstructure that inspired the task, and takes on a life of its own.

On the New Wars blog, Mike Burleson has written a three part series, Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? In the second of these installments, Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2, Burleson quoted a couple of paragraphs from my Speedboat Diplomacy and developed the theme.

Harry S. Truman Strike Group 10

Unparalleled and perhaps unprecedented (it could be argued that the 19th century British Navy was in a similar position of mastery) US mastery of the seas has created a World Trade Center-like center of gravity surrounding the Carrier Strike Group (CSG). Such symbolic displays of force constitute an irresistible target and exercises a particular attraction (if not fascination) for the kind of people who want to be remembered for a famous (or notorious) exploits. We could call them evil geniuses or criminal masterminds, but it is not the evil or the criminality that is the motivation; these are, at most, “collateral.” What matters is the desire for honor and glory, and anyone who could engineer the sinking of a carrier would certainly accrue accolades in many quarters of the world, however much they would be cursed elsewhere. The more difficult the challenge, the greater the glory for having succeeded.

The Bismarck was an irresistible target; sinking it wasn't chance, it was inevitable.

Irresistible targets are not new. Germany’s Bismarck and Tirpitz and Japan’s Yamato and Musashi were built to be the biggest battleships ever. Enormous resources were invested in their construction and operation. Their mere existence was seen as a threat, and considerable resources were invested in destroying them. These ships took enormous punishment. The Musashi was hit by 10-19 torpedoes and 17 bombs. Martin J. Dougherty in his The World’s Worst Weapons calls these ships “a waste of resources” that were obsolete by the time they were built. This is at least arguable, but if it is arguable it is at least as likely to be true as false.

Any discussion of sinking a carrier must refer to the great carrier engagements of the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. Although technology and weapons systems have changed, the verities that come into play in the circumstances of carrier battles, and the naval doctrine that expresses these verities, is not likely to have changed dramatically. I don’t say that it hasn’t changed at all, but that the changes are not likely to have been large or to address essentials. Changes in naval warfare involving carriers since the Second World War have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, contingent rather than essential.

Then, as now, carriers were deployed with several support vessels. During WWII, this was called a Carrier Task Force (CTF); today it is called a Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), or, more recently, a Carrier Strike Group (CSG). These CTFs were as bristling with weaponry as the contemporary CSG, only less advanced than what we have today, and with many specialized functions represented today by Guided Missile Cruisers, Anti Aircraft Warships, and Anti Submarine Destroyers. The carrier, then as now, surrounded by its support vessels, was on watch for attack from below, beside, or above.

Japanese carrier Akagi

Some of the carriers of the great Pacific Theater engagements, like the battleships mentioned above, took enormous damage and still stayed afloat. Of the four Japanese carriers lost at the Battle of Midway — Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, and Hiryū — all were ultimately scuttled by Japanese torpedoes. However, the Akagi was disabled by a single 1,000 lb bomb from an SBD Dauntless, and all were rendered inoperable by enemy fire. Thus it is somewhat deceptive to speak of sinking a carrier. It would be better to focus on rendering a carrier incapable of fulfilling its designated role.

Japanese carrier Akagi

In recent discussions of sinking carriers, such as the three part series by Mike Burleson mentioned above, it is assumed that the US CSGs will maintain unquestioned air superiority, so that the only opportunity for another power is with ships, with the particular concern being a swarm of smaller ships coming at a CSG simultaneously from all points of the compass. These seem to me to be valid assumptions, though the possibility of cruise missiles launched from shore or ballistic missiles launched from further inland also need to be taken into account. The US Navy, of course, is well aware of this threat and has even conducted SWARMEX exercises to assess the threat and develop means of countering it.

Deck of the Yorktown, view taken forward after torpedo attack, US Navy (Bill Roy The story of the USS Yorktown (CV-5) is one of the most extraordinary of the Pacific Theater, from being disabled during the Battle of the Coral Sea to ultimately being lost at Midway, though very nearly saved.

These recent discussions and exercises seem to diverge over the very possibility of anything getting through that could sink (or disable) a contemporary carrier. The reader-generated discussion of Mike Burleson’s second piece, commenting on my Speedboat Diplomacy (Can a Speedboat Sink a Carrier? Pt 2), was particularly revealing in this respect. This begs a central question: what would count as proof of concept of sinking a contemporary carrier? Since carriers don’t act in a vacuum, but are part of both a structural context of a CSG as well as being part of a doctrinal context of established procedures of naval warfare, one can’t reasonably reduce the discussion to a single weapon or a single tactic. The operations of a CSG have become so complex that nothing short of a full battle would settle the question, and then the question would be settled only if a carrier was destroyed. If a carrier was not destroyed in an engagement, this would not prove that it wasn’t possible, only that it is difficult to do. Successive engagements, like successive scientific experiments by independent teams of researchers, would serve to increase the inductive knowledge we have of the situation but would not yield certainty.

Carriers can be and have been sunk: the USS Yorktown (CV-5) at the bottom, more than three miles down — deeper than the wrecks of the Titanic or Bismarck. Discovered in May 1998 by underwater explorer Robert Ballard.

Since I asserted above that nothing essential has changed since the CTFs of the Second World War engaged each other on a large scale, but rather that changes since then have been evolutionary in nature, I take it as proof of concept that a carrier can be sunk that carriers were in fact sunk at this time. Obviously, many were sunk (or fatally disabled) by the action of dive bombers, and there are no more specialized dive bombers. Also, there were no helicopters at that time, and no radar-guided Phalanx CIWS Gatling guns. This list can be extended almost indefinitely. And I have no doubt whatsoever that the world’s navies have learned the lessons of bombs and fueled aircraft on the flight deck and below decks burning and exploding, as happened so often with WWII carriers. But in the confusion of battle and the fog of war, with these enormous armed platforms surrounded by combat air patrols and destroyers and submarines, something still managed to get through.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, rationalist philosopher and big hair afficianado, understood that all sublunary things suffer from metaphysical evil, even apparently invulnerable military hardware. Indeed, the very fact of their armor is proof of the degree of their vulnerability.

Aircraft carriers, the CSGs of which they are part, and the doctrine by which they are employed, suffer from what Leibniz called metaphysical evil. In one of the few books he published in his lifetime, the Theodicy, Leibniz wrote, “Metaphysical evil consists in imperfections, physical evil in suffering and other like troubles, and moral evil in sin.” (I discussed metaphysical evil yesterday in Metaphysical Responsibility. It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to inquire into what sense moral and physical evil might apply to non-sentient objects, but I will save this for another time.) Like everything else in this world, aircraft carriers necessarily suffer from limitations and imperfections. In so far as they are limited and imperfect, they are vulnerable. In so far as they are vulnerable, they invite attack. We cannot wish this away.

The HMS Sheffield burning after being hit by a French-made exocet missile.

Given that most carriers lost in the Second World War were disabled by fires, and that the HMS Sheffield lost in the Falkland’s War was also lost to fire (the British claim that the warhead didn’t even explode), one obvious approach to targeting ships and carriers is to exploit this vulnerability to fire with modern technology. Much recent research on thermobaric weaponry has focused on bunker buster bombs and caves, but the interior of a ship’s hull is in some respects not unlike a cave. The Russians have built an enormous thermobaric bomb based on nanotechnology — the Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP) — with a yield in the range of small nuclear weapons. This has obvious implications.

Late Soviet military technology: the VA-111 Shkval supersonic torpedo, still a formidable counter-measure to large, expensive ships.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that a single supersonic cavitating torpedo with an armor-piercing head and a thermobaric charge could take a carrier out of action with a disabling fire below-decks. Throw a hundred of these in the water, and assuming that your counter-measures are 99 percent effective, only one will get through — but, as with the Akagi, sometimes one is enough. If it becomes a mere numbers game, like playing a single number on the roulette wheel, eventually your number comes up. This then ceases to be chance and becomes inevitable. Once we understand that it can be done, it becomes a question of how it is done and who does it. Enter creativity, ingenuity, and personal pride in accomplishment.

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I have written more, and in more detail, about aircraft carriers in The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier and The Political Context of Striking a Carrier.

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Note added Friday 06 March 2015: Recently 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). While this Iranian exercise was widely dismissed as a stunt, carrier vulnerability has been underlined by a recent exercise involving an updated and refitted carrier, as reported in French Submarine ‘Sinks’ Entire US Aircraft Carrier Group During Wargames. The article credits the French submarine with, “sneaking deep into the defensive screen of the Strike Group, avoiding detection by the American anti-submarine warfare assets, and, on the last day of the drill, ‘sinking’ the Roosevelt and most of its escort.”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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