Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact. The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.
In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
At the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier emerged as the apex of naval prestige and power projection.
Unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers in themselves are relatively benign actors, relying heavily on their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
Nevertheless, the advent of advanced, integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, including the 'introduction' of hypersonic weapons systems, has resulted in many within the Western strategic policy community, including many Australian commentators like Hugh White, to declare the end of the surface combatant.
There is just one problem, someone forgot to tell China – in the last decade, Chinese shipbuilders have built more than 100 warships, a building rate that outstrips the US and its allies. Raising concerns is the increasing number of advanced, highly capable surface combatants and submarines that now make up the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
This has also seen American-aligned nations both South Korea and Japan kicking-off their own modernisation programs supporting the development of fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities with modifications to their respective navy's fleets of large-deck amphibious warfare ships to develop their own aircraft carriers.
Not to be outdone, the US Navy, the world's largest single operator of advanced aircraft carriers remains committed to the symbols of industrial might, national prestige and uncompromising tactical and strategic dominance – the US Navy's newest addition, the second of the Gerald R Ford Class of nuclear powered supercarriers, the USS John F Kennedy is preparing to join the fleet.
The next-generation of American naval power
Like it's namesake, the USS John F Kennedy is billed as the next-generation of leadership, with the 100,000-ton behemoth powered by two advanced, A1B nuclear reactors supporting a top speed in excess of 30 knots – ensuring that whenever and wherever called upon the Kennedy will be ready to project American military presence and dominance.
The Kennedy reflects the US Navy's insistence on maintaining a fleet of large, advanced, nuclear-powered vessels as the centrepiece of the US Navy, incorporating next-generation technologies ranging from unmanned aerial platforms, through to advanced sensor suites, the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter and the yet to be determined Next Generation Air Dominance fighter to replace the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.
This deterrence focused role is something clearly articulated by former US Navy carrier pilot and senator, the late John McCain, who was a strong proponent of the carrier force, in his white paper Restoring American Power: "Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat near-peer competitors."
Centre piece of strategic presence
Kennedy will not travel alone – as the centrepiece of a carrier strike group, 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.
The threat of advanced Soviet designed bomber, ship and submarine launched anti-ship cruise missiles, particularly during the 1980s prompted the shift towards the development and introduction of the Aegis combat system, the SPY-1 radar, with advances in anti-ship weapons systems driven largely by China and Russia giving rise to the Raytheon-designed and manufactured SPY-6 Air and Missile Defence Radar (AMDR) system.
These developments also supported the development of the second largest air force in the world, the US Navy, which sets the standard for the carrier air wing (CVW).
The CVW is 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.
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 fulfil the long-range vertical replenishment role.
Kennedy and its sister-ships, which will replace the venerable Nimitz Class vessels, will continue to serve as the backbone of the US Navy, operating in conjunction with similar allied platforms including the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth Class, South Korea's modernised Dokdo and follow on class of large carriers, Japan's evolved Izumo Class vessels, which will follow the established precedent of the US Navy and its carrier strike groups.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
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."
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for both South Korea and Australia – these similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Recognising this changing regional environment – what carrier options are available to Australia should the nation's leaders elect to pursue a return to fixed-wing naval aviation for the Royal Australian Navy?