CVN = Indispensable National Asset
Admiral James L. Holloway III, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Proceedings, September 2006
Sidebar: Misnaming Aircraft Carriers
U.S. NAVY (RONALD A. DALLATORRE)
Technology has advanced, not hindered, the big-deck aircraft carrier's capabilities. The carrier, which replaced the battleship as the strategic centerpiece of the U.S. Navy during the conquest of the Pacific in World War II, will remain the centerpiece of the U.S. Fleet into the future.
In the past five years there has been a remarkable upturn in the operational capabilities of the carrier force in the U.S. Navy. Contrary to the opinions expressed by Admiral Stansfield Turner in the July issue of Proceedings, I believe that the improvement in carrier warfare over these few years can only be described as revolutionary. Today, the U.S. carrier fleet is at a historic peak in its capabilities as the principal element of American sea power.
This spectacular growth in their fighting capacity is not a theoretical set of premises or calculations. It is here today, demonstrated by recent combat operations against a real enemy on a large scale under measurable and observed conditions. The significant gain in carrier warfare capabilities comes from the confluence of a number of factors, each of clear significance. When combined, they yield a capability that will provide national security planners with a virtually new set of military options for influencing foreign policy, or more versatile assets for effective warfighting on a worldwide basis.
Naval Aviation Revolution
These new or improved capabilities are mainly the result of the following factors:
Virtually unlimited immediate flexibility between offensive and defensive warfare in a carrier's air wing by the presence of four fighter/attack squadrons of F/A-18 Hornet aircraft. In the opening hours of a campaign, when it is essential to establish air superiority in the objective area, a single Nimitz (CVN-68)-class carrier has more than 50 F/A-18 fighters to defeat the hostile air opposition. When air supremacy is assured, that same carrier will have more than 50 attack planes to strike the enemy's infrastructure and provide air support for our troops. This conversion takes only long enough to load the air-to-ground precision munitions and throw a couple of cockpit switches.
True around-the-clock, all-weather capability of the carrier through the introduction of night-vision devices, and the use of precision-guided weapons.
A more than five-fold improvement in strike lethality with the use of precision-guided munitions, which improve weapon-to-target kill ratios from more than 6:1 to nearly 1:1.
The number of carriers that the Navy can keep constantly deployed overseas in potential trouble areas has improved from the previous ratio of 1 deployed for every 3 carriers in the active fleet, to 4 carriers deployed out of the force level of 11, with the ability to surge to 6 or 7 in 90 days or less.
The mobility of the large-deck nuclear-powered carrier force to immediately deploy or disperse at high speeds for unlimited distances without refueling, in support of emergent strategic requirements.
The significant increase in the number of combat-ready strike and fighter aircraft available for fully operational missions, up to 96 percent on a daily basis, because of the improved maintainability built into the F/A-18, and the commonality of support with one type of fighter and attack aircraft in a carrier's air wing.
An order of magnitude increase in the overall experience of carrier crews and carrier squadrons, as the result of reenlistment rates of 75 to 80 percent. The consequences are higher safety levels in air operations and the incremental improvement in operationally ready status of planes and equipment because of the more experienced repair, maintenance, and technical personnel.
These breakthroughs in carrier warfare have been recognized by the Department of Defense as major contributions to the country's overall maritime posture, and that has led to the strategies enunciated by the Defense Policy Guidance for 2002, which established the sea basing of all deployable military components—Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.
This year, the United States is at an epochal juncture in the nation's history. A fresh concept of transformation in our armed forces has been installed and a new strategy of preemptive war introduced, the advanced technology of precision-guided munitions is in our inventories, and a revolutionary defense policy guidance—From the Sea—has been adopted. The aircraft carrier is an essential component in each of these seminal developments in the continuation of its central role in our defense planning and military operations. More important, however, the modern aircraft carrier brings a unique and singular array of new military capabilities to add to our national security planning options across the span of future warfare—from nuclear war to the Global War on Terrorism.
The indispensable value of the aircraft carrier as a principal instrument of national power reached an epitome in the U.S. reaction to the 11 September 2001 al Qaeda attack on the American homeland. The swift and powerful military reaction to this act of terrorism was possible only because of the readiness and flexibility of the carriers, which were on station, routinely deployed to the Western Pacific and Indian oceans. The U.S. response to this surprise attack had to be immediate, forceful, and punitive to those responsible, with a minimum of collateral casualties. At stake was the United States' reputation as the world's superpower as well as the deterrence to future terrorist attacks on American soil.
It was only through the inherent quality of sea-based tactical air, combined with the new national strategy and enhanced by the expanded capabilities of the carrier force, that the President was able to respond to the 9/11 attacks by destroying al Qaeda training bases and, for an extended period, chasing the Taliban from Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. The operations concept required the use of tactical fighter planes to achieve air superiority over Afghanistan. Only U.S. Navy carriers could provide those aircraft in sufficient strength to achieve local air supremacy in the theater of operations.
To put conventional ground forces into Afghanistan to pursue and destroy the terrorists would require fully developed port facilities and a buildup of major staging bases. This would take much too long for a swift and incisive reprisal. The mission could only be met by an attack directly from bases at sea.
On 21 September 2001 the President approved Operation Enduring Freedom, a campaign that would use special operations forces on the ground, supported by air power. Those aviation assets had to be primarily carrier based. The rationale was clear. Fighters would be needed to gain control of the air space over the battlefield area. The first requirement of the campaign was to remove the threat from air defenses and Taliban aircraft. These had to be destroyed before vulnerable transport helicopters deploying special operations troops could be committed. The ground campaign would not proceed until air superiority had been achieved. No land bases in the theater were available to U.S. fighters; only Navy carrier-based F-14s and F/A-18s could be placed within reasonable range of the intended battlefields.
A pressing concern remained how to deliver the special operations forces with their helicopters and equipment into the theater. The normal procedure would have involved commercial sealift ships, which require modern port facilities. None had access to land-locked Afghanistan. So the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) was used as a transport and operating base for the forces. In 14 days, the special operations component—Task Force Sword—consisting of 20 helicopters, 600 troops, and 860,000 pounds of ammunition and equipment, was loaded on board, and the Kitty Hawk was under way at flank speed for the Arabian Sea.
After the first two days of combat, most of the fixed targets suitable for cruise missiles had been eliminated. The air operations center turned to Navy strike fighters backed by B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s. This was in addition to the F/A-18s' air-superiority mission. The ready availability of the Hornets and their ability to attack emergent targets assigned after arrival on station, made them particularly useful in the fluid ground situation. Six carriers and four Marine expeditionary groups formed the core of the Navy's contribution to Enduring Freedom. It was the Navy's carriers with their special capabilities that allowed the national command authority to employ the concept of operations that proved to be so successful in the operation.
Naval carrier aviators helped usher in a new era in tactical air warfare during Operation Iraqi Freedom on 21 March 2003. This was an increase in military capabilities ranking with the introduction of jet aircraft or stealth technology. Contributing to the shock and awe of the initial air strikes of the campaign deep into Iraq were five aircraft carriers operating in the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, launching air-wing-sized formations into the night to deliver their bombs and missiles against key military targets in the Arab capital with a precision and effectiveness never before achieved by tactical combat aircraft. This was history being made. It would be the first battle of a campaign in which precision-guided bombs and missiles would be used in vastly significant numbers. Fully 68 percent of the munitions were guided.
U.S. NAVY (RICARDO J. REYES)
The F/A-18 Hornet—this one belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 on board the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75)—was designed with maintenance in mind. That, in combination with the commonality of the four F/A-18 squadron air wing, helps maintain a 90 percent-plus combat-readiness state.
The second historic aspect of this air campaign was the use of carrier aircraft at night, in numbers, formations, and tactics that could have previously only been employed in daylight operations. The night had belonged to the unconventional forces, irregulars, guerrillas, and terrorists, when their small numbers and furtive tactics gave them the advantage. U.S. technology reversed this situation with night-vision goggles worn by the pilot or infantryman to turn night into day.
During the 1991 Gulf War, planners figured on flights of aircraft carrying multiple loads of unguided munitions to ensure the destruction of a single enemy target. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, one tactical fighter had the capacity to destroy multiple targets—one per guided bomb carried.
In the operation, when night-vision goggles were available to most of the troops on the ground and all tactical pilots in the air, a genuine breakthrough in close-air support was realized. Ground observers could not only detect the movement of personnel in their area, but were also able to identify them as fighters or civilians, and locate their presence with an accuracy that was usable for the guidance of airborne guided weapons.
Airborne guided munitions, combined with night-vision-equipped observers on the ground, have made the tactical fighter of the Navy carriers, Marines, and Air Force, along with Army and Marine helicopters, the weapons of choice in combating insurgents and terrorists. For instance, seldom is more than one JDAM—joint direct attack munition—with a 30-foot accuracy and 300-foot destructive radius, needed to eliminate a target.
To combat moving, as opposed to fixed, targets, only air-launched weapons are truly effective. During the hour it takes a cruise missile to arrive from a ship at sea, an enemy raiding force could have made its attack and dispersed. The aircraft-delivered bomb, however, arrives with no warning and yields minimal collateral damage.
U.S. Military Strategy
The current U.S. 1-4-2-1 military strategy (So called because the Department of Defense is to defend the homeland against external aggression as the number one priority; deter aggression and coercion in four critical regions: Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia; swiftly defeat the efforts of adversaries in two overlapping wars while preserving the President's option to call for a decisive victory in one of those conflicts, including the possibility of regime change or occupation; and conduct a limited number of lesser contingency operations) was outlined in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. The defense planning guidance issued in 2002 for the years 2005-09, introduced the concept of sea basing for the implementation of the 1-4-2-1 strategy.
In planning forces for this strategy, the guidance is based on three assumptions:
There will be no logistic sites or other forms of land bases in the combat theater. The Navy will establish a sea base.
Logistic support for all U.S. military forces committed ashore will be supplied and supported from the Navy sea base.
These sea bases are intended to give the United States an independent, sovereign, and sustaining capability overseas, and they must be able to perform this function 2,000 miles from the nearest land base under U.S. control.
U.S. NAVY (MARK J. REBILAS)
While night operations, such as this on board the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), are nothing new to carrier pilots, advances in night-vision technology have stripped the protective cloak of darkness from the enemy.
To fulfill the requirements of the defense policy guidance, the Navy's Global Concept of Operations was established. The Fleet's operating forces were reorganized into two main combatant forces: 11 carrier strike groups, each organized around a large deck carrier as its centerpiece, and eight expeditionary strike groups, each with a large amphibious helicopter carrier as the main component with embarked Marine infantry and their organic strike and transport aircraft.
The Navy additionally established the sea basing capability around a fleet of 38 modified commercial cargo ships in four prepositioned support squadrons, based at sea in international waters adjacent to the four sensitive areas of the 1-4-2-1 strategy.
On 7 February, the Secretary of Defense published the administration's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. It was issued as a philosophical perspective to illustrate DoD's view of the world situation and the relationship of that perspective to defense budget programs. The review also slightly modified the 2001 National Military Strategy. It established the Global War on Terrorism as the top priority of the strategic formula and eliminated the requirement to be able to end one of two overlapping wars rapidly. Otherwise the review largely reaffirmed the 2001 strategy and the 2002 guidance. In fact, it specifically called for enlarging the fleet and maintaining the carrier force level at 11 large-deck carriers. This was the only force level guidance provided for naval forces. The review also noted with approval the Navy's acquisition of 12 new preposition-ships of the future sea-basing support fleet.
Any concern that carriers may become more vulnerable in future wars has no basis. The aircraft carrier is no more vulnerable than any other fleet unit. The carrier is, in fact, the primary source of protection for the conduct of virtually all other naval warfare functions. For example, strike operations by Marine expeditionary forces would be unthinkable without the level of air superiority and general naval supremacy provided by large-deck carriers. Land operations conducted by the Navy-Marine carrier and expeditionary forces are the only opposed-entry capability available in the U.S. armed forces today.
Carrier Force Levels
U.S. NAVY (KRISTOPHER WILSON)
Precision-guided munitions, hanging from a Strike Fighter Squadron 105 Hornet, directed and maintained by an experienced and motivated crew, are among the foundations of the carrier force entering the 21st century.
The Department of Defense approved force level for large-deck, nuclear-powered carriers is 11, extending over the full period covered by its planning documents and supported by an appropriate shipbuilding program. The number of carriers and their associated strike groups in the order of battle exerts a critical influence on this nation's foreign policy. Today, and into the future, the country will go to war with no more than the carrier force in being when the shooting starts. During the Korean War, when the successful outcome of the conflict was dependent upon the available air power that could be brought to bear against the Chinese invaders, the Navy was able to triple the size of its carrier fleet by taking World War II-vintage Essex (CV-9) -class ships out of mothballs and manning them with veterans from the Naval Reserve. Today there are no carriers in mothballs available for mobilization. It would take five years to construct a large carrier even with the highest priorities. Therefore the carrier force in being today and its sustaining shipbuilding program, must be capable of supporting the nation's foreign policy in the most critical arenas.
Admiral Holloway, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, was the 20th Chief of Naval Operations. He retired in 1978 after 39 years of active duty.
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Misnaming Aircraft Carriers
Norman Polmar, Author, Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet
Congressional legislation is pending as this column went to press that could force the Navy to name the next nuclear aircraft carrier, the CVN-78, for former president Gerald R. Ford. This congressional action violates policy and tradition, by which the Secretary of the Navy-under the direction of the President of the United States—is responsible for assigning names to Navy ships. This policy dates to an Act of Congress of 3 March 1819.1
The policy of naming super carriers for politicians, however, must be laid at the feet of the U.S. Navy. In 1944-45 four Navy admirals and four Army generals were appointed to five-star rank. As the admirals passed away the Navy honored them by naming destroyer-type frigates for them: King (DLG-10), Leahy (DLG-16), and Halsey (DLG-23).2 This move fit well with the tradition of naming destroyer-type ships for Navy leaders, which honored several previous Secretaries of the Navy, Chiefs of Naval Operations, and fleet commanders.
But when Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz passed away in 1966 the Navy's leadership did not name a destroyer-type ship for the man who had commanded the Pacific Fleet from 1942-45 and served as Chief of Naval Operations from 1946-47. Rather, the Navy named the second nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier—the CVAN-68—the Nimitz.
This was in sharp contrast to the U.S. policy of naming aircraft carriers. Beginning with the USS Lexington (CV-2), completed in 1927, carriers were generally named for battles or historic ships.3 The policy was broken in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the press that the Doolittle raid against Japan had come from Shangri-La, the mythical Asian kingdom of James Hilton's popular novel Lost Horizon. The Navy promptly assigned the name Shangri-La to a new ship, CV-38, to honor the carrier Hornet (CV-8), the actual base of Doolittle's bombers. (Subsequently, after the Hornet was sunk in action later in 1942, another carrier, CV-12, was given that name; thus, the first carrier Hornet was twice honored.)
But other war-built carriers had battle and historic ship names. On 8 May 1945, a month after President Roosevelt died in office, the then-building large carrier Coral Sea (CVB-42) was renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt. The full name was apparently used because there was another Roosevelt in the fleet, the engine repair ship Kermit Roosevelt (ARG-16).
The first carrier built after the war, the CVA-59, was named Forrestal to honor the first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal, who had committed suicide shortly after leaving office. The next seven carriers remembered older ships, although the Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) was named to honor the North Carolina location of the Wright Brothers' first airplane flight on 17 December 1903, rather than the war-era aircraft transport of that name, the APV-1, later AKV-1.
An additional exception to the naming scheme occurred when the CVA-67 was named John F. Kennedy for another president who died in office. There was already a destroyer named for his older brother, the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (DD-850), hence the full name was used.
But the Navy's leadership broke the mold when the CVAN-68 was named Nimitz. That ship was followed by another carrier named for a five-star officer, the Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVAN-69). That name was assigned by direction of the White House as President Richard M. Nixon honored the man whom he had served as vice president. Thus, the paradigm was established for naming aircraft carriers for national leaders and politicians:
CVAN-69 Dwight D. Eisenhower4
CVN-70 Carl Vinson
CVN-71 Theodore Roosevelt
CVN-72 Abraham Lincoln
CVN-73 George Washington
CVN-74 John C. Stennis
CVN-75 Harry S. Truman
CVN-76 Ronald Reagan
CVN-77 George H. W. Bush
Periodic calls by individuals and groups to return naming carriers for battles and historic ships have fallen on deaf ears. John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy from January 1981 to April 1987, was able to gain authorization for four carriers during his tenure, and named the CVN-75 the United States. The original USS United States was one of the six frigates authorized by the Congress in 1794. The second United States was a battle cruiser (CC-6) laid down in 1920 but cancelled; two of her sister ships were completed as the carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). The next United States was the first super carrier (CVA-58), laid down in April 1949 and promptly cancelled.
After Mr. Lehman's departure from the Pentagon the CVN-75 was renamed for the 33rd president-Truman. Significantly, two U.S. Navy warships other than carriers were named for former presidents during this period: The nuclear-propelled submarine SSN-23 was named Jimmy Carter, honoring a president who-despite his nuclear training as a naval officer-never served in a nuclear submarine, and whose presidency is remembered by some for a rundown of U.S. military forces.
Next, the Aegis destroyer DDG-80 was named Roosevelt, honoring FDR and-to be politically correct-his wife Eleanor. She is the first "first lady" to have a Navy ship named in her honor. (The 32nd president previously was honored by the carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was on the Naval Vessel Register from 1945 to 1972.) FDR had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy-the No. 2 Navy position at the time-in World War I and as President was largely responsible for the naval buildup of the late 1930s and for guiding the nation during most of World War II. His accomplishments certainly warranted consideration for being honored with a CVN.
The CVN-78 will likely be named for Gerald R. Ford, certainly a great American, who served as ship's company on a light carrier in World War II.
Instead of Mr. Ford, who had little impact or influence on naval or defense matters, naming the new ship the Franklin D. Roosevelt would honor a great American and navalist. This would also carry on the tradition of naming modern carriers for national leaders and politicians while recapturing the tradition of naming carriers for former warships-in this instance, the CVB-42.5
1Navy Department, press release, 29 September 1938, p. 1. back to article
2In 1975 the DLGs were reclassified as CG or DDG. back to article
3The first U.S. carrier, the USS Langley (CV-1), was named for aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley, who at times was credited with the first powered flight in the United States. back to article
4The Nimitz and Eisenhower were ordered as CVAN; changed to CVN on 30 June 1975. The Vinson and later ships were ordered as CVN. back to article
5With regard to DDG-80 and the suggested naming of CVN-78, in the past, the U.S. Navy has renamed ships in commission. The DDG-5, originally named Biddle, was renamed Claude V. Ricketts. back to article