The Navy talks a good deal about how the fleet will fight in the future, and the current top-level description is a concept known as “Distributed Maritime Operations” (DMO). The concept exists only in classified form, and the Navy has not issued an authoritative unclassified summary. From various news reports, it seems clear that geographic distribution of forces, longer range and more energetic weapons, persistent sensors, and operational deception are all key enablers of the concept. The lack of public specificity has the benefit of denying adversaries insight, but it also leaves room for all manner of misunderstanding and errors in logic.
One of those errors is the conclusion that since “Distributed” Maritime Operations appears to privilege geographic distribution of naval power, “concentrations” of naval power must therefore be less important or even irrelevant. This argument resonates with analysts who believe the day of the large, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN) has passed, as the CVN appears to represent the single most concentrated example of combat power in the naval arsenal. This view both misapprehends the centrality of carrier air power to the Navy’s ability to carry the fight forward and the degree to which carrier air power is an enabler of distribution.
There is no question that the Navy wishes to distribute combat power more broadly across the force. Building on an idea born in the Surface Warfare community known as Distributed Lethality, creating operational dilemmas for potential opponents by increasing individual unit lethality and then networking those units across large expanses of the sea has taken hold in Navy planning. This approach forces an opponent to “care” about a larger number of widely spaced platforms, and in this case, “caring” means the devotion of precious intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISRT) systems.
Additionally, since more of the U.S. Navy force would pose realistic threats, a more significant number of adversary weapons would have to be allocated across the architecture, which dilutes the theoretical number available for any one engagement. In summary, the theory is to spread and connect a more powerful force that can attack from multiple avenues of approach to gain operational advantage.
Any realistic war plan for the Western Pacific would involve multiple aircraft carrier strike groups with embarked air wings and powerful escort combatants employing both offensive and defensive weapons, as attack submarines cull the adversary herd of its surface warships. And while it is indisputable that a stationary aircraft carrier with its magazines full and its aircraft stowed onboard represents an immense amount of concentrated combat power, this is not how aircraft carriers are employed (though it is the very definition of a land-based airfield).
Multiple CVNs will reposition continuously, with possible operating areas amounting to circles of over 1.6 million square miles from day to day* (30 knots/24 hours/720-mile radius). This speed and concomitant range is the essence of distribution and maneuver, virtues that underlie the goal of presenting an adversary with multiple, changing force postures and avenues of attack which they must plan to defend.
But the geographic mobility of the CVN is only part of the distributive value of carrier air power. During a recent panel discussion at the U.S. Naval Institute, leaders of the Naval Aviation Enterprise laid out a compelling vision of the future carrier air wing, one in which manned and unmanned platforms are integrated to—as the Navy’s Director of the Air Warfare Division (N98) RADM Andrew Loiselle put it—to operate “…at ranges off of the aircraft carrier that vastly exceeds what we are doing today.” The Navy will field a new generation of longer-range weapons employed by longer-range manned and unmanned platforms operating together and with aircraft from other CVNs in a single, airborne “combat system” that can distribute or concentrate as the tactical situation dictates. Should a large raid of modern fighter bombers need addressing, effects can be concentrated at range. Should numerous land and maritime targets across a wide geographic area need servicing, the combined power of manned and unmanned aircraft employing long-range weapons can distribute fires accordingly.
The Navy is seldom the most effective communicator of its extensive and unique contributions to American security and prosperity, constrained by the twin impediments of having to compete for resources within often ambivalent presidential administrations and the cultural prohibition within the Pentagon against unseemly advocacy for one’s own service capabilities. This unfortunate situation often leaves others to the business of forceful support to crucial Navy capabilities like the aircraft carrier. Even as the Navy tries to shape attitudes with oblique references to its concept of Distributed Maritime Operations, it often fails to cite the role of the most vital component of that concept—the large, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its embarked air wing—while extensively advocating for less powerful and more unproven contributions such as unmanned surface vessels (USV).
That the aircraft carrier has been central to American naval power for eight decades is often cited as evidence of the Navy’s resistance to innovation and lack of imagination. This is unfortunate, both in its misunderstanding of how American shipbuilders have innovated aircraft carrier design and construction and in the misunderstanding of where on an aircraft carrier imagination and innovation are most important—within the air wing. Carrier air wings have evolved to meet an ever-changing threat set, including long-range nuclear strike, anti-submarine warfare, outer air battle fighter operations, war-at-sea, strike, and now manned and unmanned teaming.
As the Navy rightfully asserts its unique ability to capitalize on the maneuver space offered by the Western Pacific, it needs to be more forceful in tying the built-in distributive qualities of its largest capital investment—the CVN—to the concept. Continuing to talk about DMO—even in the indistinct manner the Navy currently does—without placing the CVN and its air wing in the proper operational context risks not only the resources necessary to field the future naval aviation force, but the success of the concept itself.
Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a national security consultancy. All views contained herein are his. He tweets @ConsWahoo.