WASHINGTON — Just because China might be able to hit U.S. Navy aircraft carriers with long-range anti-ship missiles doesn’t mean carriers are worthless, the service’s top officer said Thursday.
The chorus of doom and gloom over China’s anti-access weapons is too simplistic, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said, but that doesn’t mean the Navy should refrain from adjusting the way it fights.
“Let’s look at this like a physics problem,” Gilday proposed. “[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.”
Gilday’s comments come as the fleet is gearing up for the first of what it intends to be annual “large-scale” exercises this summer, a major muscle movement that will allow the Navy to test new concepts and play with new technologies. The Navy is shifting from fighting as an aggregated force, clustered around an aircraft carrier serving as the main strike arm of the U.S. fleet, to a more distributed and spread-out force that it hopes can stretch Chinese surveillance assets and frustrate their ability to impose unacceptably high losses on the U.S. Navy.
But to get there, the Navy must come up with new ways of fighting, Gilday said.
“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,” he told the audience at the USNI Defense Forum in Washington. “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.”
Gilday acknowledged that his fleet is not optimized today to fight the way it thinks it must to beat China, but that can’t lead the Navy to just throw its hands up, he said.
“Our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big,” he said. “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.
“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 percent of it, will be the fleet we have in 2030 So, we have to think about how we get more out of it.”
The CNO’s defense of the carrier comes after two separate op-eds in Defense News by active and former senior Navy officials defending the carrier’s continued utility in the era of long-range anti-ship missiles.
The discussion around making the carrier relevant in an anti-access environment is nothing new, but in the past several months the topic has gained traction because of a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments that called for the Navy to build its capabilities to fight at extended ranges.
The study called for the carrier air wing of the future to be able to hunt submarines (serving as a replacement for the S-3 Viking aircraft), provide surveillance and targeting, and destroy ships and land targets with standoff weapons, all while fighting at nearly double the range of today’s air wing.
If the Navy wants to counter China’s anti-ship cruise missiles and increasing naval capabilities, it must resurrect the Cold War-era Outer Air Battle concept, which focused on longer-range aircraft to counter Russia’s bombers. However, instead of fighting at 200-plus nautical miles, the air wing will have to fight at 1,000 nautical miles, according to the study’s lead author, retired submarine officer and analyst Bryan Clark.
“The air wing of the future is going to have to be focused less on attacking terrorist training camps and huts in Syria, and more focused on killing ships and submarines at sea — dealing with naval capabilities and island-based littoral capabilities,” Clark said in a telephone interview earlier this year. “Those are the challenges: Range and the mission set is changing.”
In other words, the entire air wing, both the range at which it can fight and the missions it is set up to execute, must be completely overhauled.
Clark called for the effort to start with the Navy fully committing to the MQ-25 Stingray autonomous refueling drone, which when operational will be able to drag the current air wing out to the 1,000-nautical-mile range.
Boeing inked an $805 million contract award last year for the first four aircraft, and in September the company announced that the Stingray’s prototype had taken its first flight.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.