During every American war, politics are involved. And I am not referring to relating with the client government, “winning the hearts and minds” of the indigenous population, or even maintaining popular support for the war at home. I am talking about the politics among the services at the Pentagon. Such politics often get buried in the “hurray for our troops, even if you don’t like the long, miserable quagmire they are involved in” reporting by the American media.
When war breaks out, all the services want a piece of the action in order to justify bigger future budgets so that they can buy more and better weapons and gizmos. Lately, the Navy and the Air Force have been frustrated with all of the current counterinsurgencies, wherein the “ground pounders” of the Army and Marines get all the attention. And then along came the heavy use of unmanned drones, which can hover over an area for hours, conduct reconnaissance and surveillance, and even blast bad guys on the ground with missiles. What are piloted jet aircraft, the top of the pecking order in terms of Navy and Air Force assignments, good for these days? If you read between the lines of the “Aren’t these jets cool?” press stories, not much.
The New York Times recently ran a front-page story involving a reporter who got to ride with the aviator of a Navy F/A-18F on a mission over Afghanistan. The Navy will occasionally allow such access to influential media when it needs to remind people that its aircraft carriers are still relevant in what is mainly a ground war. But how relevant is a key question.
Predictably, the reporter was so dazzled by being part of “cool” carrier air operations that he forgot to ask some hard questions about the Navy’s changed mission in Afghanistan. The gist of the article was that manned jet fighters drop little ordnance these days because they are afraid of killing too many Afghan civilians — as they did at the beginning of the war — thus wrecking Marine and Army attempts on the ground to win Afghans’ hearts and minds. Yet after the earlier carpet bombing and dropping of anti-personnel cluster munitions, it may be a little late for the Navy to spruce up its image among Afghan civilians.
Nowadays, to be at all relevant to the Afghan conflict, jets fly 800 miles from an aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea or from distant land bases in the Persian Gulf (if you are in the Air Force) to watch over troops on the ground with infrared sensors but rarely drop bombs to help them out. They fly from so far to get to the “battle” that an Air Force tanker must refuel them, upon arrival, before they can do anything. And when they do assist ground forces, they conduct somewhat ridiculous “show of presence” missions by dropping down to an altitude of 5,000 feet, flying over at 620 miles per hour with engines roaring to reassure friendly forces and scare the Taliban.
But what if the Taliban have begun noticing that the high-tech aircraft do flybys but don’t drop many bombs out of fear of hitting and thus disaffecting civilians? Likely, the militants are not as scared of the aircraft as they used to be. This is really reaching for some role in counterinsurgency operations.
Of course, the Navy and the Air Force are eager to move beyond the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to the new threat of a rising China. In the wide-open Pacific theater, these services believe that air power will play more of a role in any future conflict than ground forces, especially given the American post-Korea and post-Vietnam aversion to land wars in Asia.
Yet even here, the carrier group may come up short. The carrier needs to be used primarily for peacetime “show of force” missions, because taking off and landing from the short runway of a carrier — the Air Force uses longer land runways — severely limits the amount of ordnance Navy fighters can carry compared to Air Force fighters and bombers. In addition to having limited firepower for any future war with China, the aircraft carrier battle group and its aircraft and weapons may be very vulnerable to more sophisticated air defenses, electronic jamming, cyber attacks, mines, and enemy ships or submarines carrying anti-ship missiles or torpedoes. Although the Chinese finally have a used, outmoded aircraft carrier that they don’t really know how to use very well, they have astutely invested more heavily in such “anti-access, area-denial” weapons that would prevent U.S. carriers from entering waters where they could launch effective airstrikes. Moreover, a torpedo or anti-ship missile that actually sank a vulnerable carrier would be a real coup for a weaker power.
The carrier battle group is very expensive because of the cost of the huge carrier, the air wing aboard it, and the surface escorts needed to protect the mother ship. The personnel, operations and maintenance, and specialized infrastructure needed to maintain a nuclear-powered ship makes the carrier an exorbitantly expensive way to bring only limited firepower to bear only on targets fairly near the coastline. Carriers aren’t even that good anymore for “showing the flag” because to stay safe, they need to stay over the horizon and thus out of sight of recalcitrant enemies.
With yawning American budget deficits and a $15 trillion national debt, it would save significant amounts of money to reduce the number of carriers and carrier air wings well below the excessive 11 and 10, respectively.