US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, has responded to the doom and gloom about the survivability of the US Navy’s carrier fleet, seeing a long future for the flat tops, while also calling for greater effort to develop a flexible doctrine to respond to China’s own fleet of carriers and its advanced A2AD network.
Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past.
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.
Despite claims by strategic policy think tanks and individual academics, 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.
While the US enjoys a substantial quantitative and qualitative lead over the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), with a fleet of 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers and two currently under construction, China's strategic planners know that they don't need to exercise global maritime hegemony in the way the US does.
Seeking to minimise this advantage China has hedged its bets, investing heavily in a potent, integrated network of advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile systems and its own growing fleet of aircraft carriers with which to project its presence throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
This combination of capability developments has prompted many within Australian, American and broader allied strategic policy circles to claim the end of the aircraft carrier – despite this, US Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Michael Gilday, believes the approach is "too simplistic" and requires greater nuance.
Rethinking carrier tactics
The US Navy's aircraft carriers have served as a major tactical and strategic force multiplier proving influential in allied operations in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East and southern Europe.
A potent example of this, involving both China and the US, is the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995, which prompted China's pursuit of its A2AD network and sped up the nation's aircraft carrier program.
However, the advent of these factors has prompted what ADM Gilday believes is a simple response, with the focus needing to be more pragmatic.
ADM Gilday explained, "Let’s look at this like a physics problem. [People will say]: ‘Hypersonics go really fast and they travel at long ranges. Carriers can only travel [‘X’ distance], so carriers are going to have to go away.’ That’s a very simplistic way to look at the problem.
"I’ve been in two big war games since I’ve been [CNO], and I absolutely believe that we have to wring more out of what we have today in terms of how we are going to fight with it."
In response, ADM Gilday is seeking to shift the US Navy's approach to fleet operations and tactics in a contested environment, particularly when facing a peer or near-peer competitor as China is rapidly shaping itself into.
ADM Gilday's focus has echoes of the distributed lethality concept employed by the broader US Armed Forces as they transition towards fifth-generation operations – this transition will see a shift towards the US Navy and its fleet acting as a distributed force as opposed to the forces clustered tightly around an aircraft carrier.
Recently the US Navy has moved to enhance the offensive capability of the Independence Class littoral combat ships (LCS), designed by Australian company Austal, by incorporating the joint Raytheon-Kongsberg-designed Naval Strike Missile (NSM) to provide an enhanced, long-range naval strike capability.
The launch of an NSM from the LCS USS Gabrielle Giffords at the decommissioned frigate USS Ford off the coast of Guam marked the first time the NSM has been tested in a live-fire scenario in the Pacific.
This test firing was not a solely Navy dominated affair, with the US Navy working with the B-52s from the US Air Force's Expeditionary 69th Bomb Squadron and other multi-national forces to demonstrate the power of an integrated yet distributed, multi-domain kill-chain incorporating a disparate web of platforms and systems into a cohesive battlespace sensor/shooter solution.
"There are alternative concepts of operations that we must develop and we have to test, and we’re not going to do it during the certification phase of a carrier strike group for a combat deployment. We have to do that in large-scale exercises, that’s where we are going to experiment with unmanned. That’s where we are going to experiment with new capabilities," ADM Gilday recently told the US Naval Institute Defense Forum in Washington.
Despite the outward push, combining operations on sea, air, land, space and cyber space is the central concept of the Army-Air Force concept of Multi-Domain Operations, which the Navy and Marines aren’t yet fully on board with.
Too few ships and too few weapons to win the fight
While discussion about the size of the US Navy has been a contentious issue for some time – recent efforts to get the force to 355 ships has seen growing support, particularly as China continues to exert its own influence and presence throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Despite concerns about a small number of increasingly expensive platforms – think the troubled Zumwalt and Ford classes, respectively – ADM Gilday remains optimistic about the US Navy's capacity to adapt and win the fight.
"Our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big. And that needs to change over time. [But] we have made significant investments in aircraft carriers and we’re going to have those for a long time," ADM Gilday stated.
"Look, people don’t give us enough credit for the gray matter between our ears, and there are some very smart people we have thinking about how we fight better. The fleet that we have today, 75 per cent of it, will be the fleet we have in 2030. So, we have to think about how we get more out of it."
This push is something that the acting US Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, has reinforced the President's push for a 355 ship force, stating: "It was also the President’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?"
Building on this acting Secretary Modly raised the important question around next-generation weapons systems including hypersonics, unmanned and autonomous systems and new operational concepts to support the objectives of the US Navy.
"How many more hypersonics are we going to need? Where are we going to put them? These are long-term investments that we will have to make, but we have to get our story straight first. So, I’m going to focus a lot on that this year," he said.
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.
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?
Fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities are one of the key force multipliers reshaping the Indo-Pacific. The growing prevalence of fixed-wing naval aviation forces in particular serves to alter the strategic calculus and balance of power.