With the growing prominence of aircraft carriers as the core of regional navies, understanding the evolution and capabilities of these powerful power projection platforms and their supporting strike groups is key to formulating a credible response.
For many around the world, the sight of a supercarrier is a potent symbol of American power, presence and prestige. Equally important are the growing number of large deck, amphibious warfare ships, typically Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), like the Australian Canberra Class LHDs, which provide unique power projection capabilities in smaller, arguably more cost-effective packages.
The rise of the US and the introduction of power projection platforms like aircraft carriers, while eclipsing platforms like the battleship, served to establish an unrivalled global economic, political and strategic order – one Australian, and indeed global, prosperity became increasingly dependent upon.
Today, strategic sea-lines-of-communication support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea (SCS) and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication, are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
Aircraft carriers emerged from the Second World War as the pinnacle of maritime prestige and power projection. However, unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers are in themselves relatively benign actors, relying heavily a their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action and project power throughout their area of operations.
However, the rise of potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) networks and the advent of advanced air, land and sea launched anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles are serving to impact the tactical and strategic combat effectiveness of the aircraft carrier despite the increasing capability of supporting cruisers, destroyers and frigates.
Carrier air wings and long-range strike
As the second largest air force in the world, the US Navy sets the standard for the carrier air wing (CVW), a concept that has been perfected throughout the Cold War and into the new millennium to maximise the long-range strike, high-speed, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and integrated multi-domain command and control systems that have guaranteed US and allied maritime dominance since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While early concepts of the carrier air wing evolved throughout the pitched carrier battles that raged through the Pacific – the advent of Soviet nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines and advanced long-range, supersonic bombers armed with advanced, sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles resulted in a shake up in the structure of the carrier air wing.
Meanwhile, the shift towards asymmetric, counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria gave rise to long-range, strike and interdiction focused carrier air wings. As the world's pre-eminent carrier power, the US sets the standard for current carrier air wings, which are made up of a a range of potent naval aviation assets, including:
- Strike Fighter (VFA) Squadrons: Four squadrons with 12 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets each, or 10 F/A-18C Hornets (over 40 strike fighters in total). In two air wings one of the F/A-18C Hornet squadrons is an embarked US Marine Corps Fighter Attack (VMFA) Squadron – as the production of the 'C' variant of the fifth-generation F-35 gathers pace the older F/A-18C squadrons will be replaced by the F-35C.
- Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ): A single squadron made up of five EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft – an advanced variant of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet air frame.
- Carrier Airborne Early Warning (VAW) Squadron: A single squadron made up of four E-2C Hawkeye or five E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning, command and control aircraft to provide an integrated, carrier borne AWACS capability to co-ordinate the air interdiction, strike and power projection capability of the carrier air wing.
- Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron: A single squadron of eight MH-60S Seahawk helicopters providing a range of inter-fleet logistics support, anti-submarine and personnel transfer capabilities.
- Helicopter Maritime Strike (HSM) Squadron: A single squadron of 11 MH-60R Romeo Seahawk helicopters, three to five of which are typically based in detachments onboard the supporting screen ships in the carrier strike group to provide over-the-horizon maritime strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and anti-submarine capabilities.
- Fleet Logistics Support (VRC) Squadron Detachment: A specialised detachment of two C-2A Greyhounds providing long-range fleet logistics support – set to be replaced by a specialised variant of the Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to fulfill the long-range vertical replenishment role.
The advent of increasingly reliable autonomous systems has also given rise to the MQ-25 Stingray, an advanced, carrier-launched autonomous refuelling tanker system used to extend the range of carrier air wing aircraft to increase the stand-off and long-range strike capabilities of the carrier borne aircraft in response to the advanced Chinese A2/AD networks in the South China Sea.
Guarding the quarterback
Carriers are inherently vulnerable to surface and subsurface attack – relatively unarmed without the carrier air wing beyond defensive weapons systems, the behemoths depend on a flotilla of protective and logistics support warships that enable the vessels to intervene and project presence and power throughout the globe.
Modern carrier strike groups (CSG) combine a range of surface and submarine platforms brought together to protect the aircraft carrier and are composed of roughly 7,500 personnel across a range of vessels, including:
- Area-air defence guided missile cruiser/s: A US Navy CSG typically relies on one to two Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruisers (CG) supporting the Aegis combat system to direct long-range area-air defence, naval strike and long-range, land attack capabilities for the broader naval assets in the strike group.
- Destroyer Squadron (DESRON): Includes two-to-three Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyers (DDG) used primarily for anti-aircraft (AAW) and anti-submarine (ASW) warfare, but which also carries Tomahawk missiles for long-range strike capability.
- Attack Submarine/s: Responsible for providing convoy protection and to screen the strike group against hostile surface ships and submarines, but which also carry Tomahawk missiles for long-range strike capability.
- Afloat Logistics Support Ship: A combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship (AOE/AOR) providing logistics support – including fuel, dry stores and munitions support for the carrier and supporting CSG vessels.
As both the US and China continue to invest heavily in the potent power projection capabilities provided by aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious warfare ships, and regional powers like Japan and South Korea begin to respond in kind, it is time to begin the conversation about the effectiveness of a similar structure for the Royal Australian Navy.
These force structure concepts serve not only as powerful symbols of Australia's sovereignty and evolving responsibilities and role in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, they also serve as powerful 'hard power' examples of Australian diplomacy, furthering the nation's national interests and security agenda through a robust, self-sustaining and forward deployed maritime presence.
Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) raised the conversation with Defence Connect, saying, "Starting this conversation is part of a broader discussion ahead of the 2020-21 white paper. We have recognised that a) we can't have same white paper as 2016 and b) we need to start seriously responding to the changing strategic reality, which will require a wholesale review of the force structure and force posture and a renewed focus on long-range strike and power projection, both of which a carrier or similar vessel can fill."