As the US re-orients itself to conventional warfare amid a new “Great Power” contest with Russia and China after decades of fighting unconventional wars, it also revises some of its most fundamental military concepts and weapons systems.
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One of these is the aircraft carrier, an unmistakable and ubiquitous symbol of American military power in general and maritime superiority in particular.
The EurAsian Times has extensively reported on Chinese and Russian weapons and doctrines completely blindsiding the US. China’s YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missile (range 540 km); the carrier killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (1500 km) or the; PL-15 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (300 km) outranging US’ Harpoons; AIM-120D or Standard Missile (SM) systems.
Russian Avangard, Kinzhal, or Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic missiles being able to bypass any known Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system while the US not possessing any such weapon, is another case in point.
The American Dilemma
These vulnerabilities to Moscow and Beijing’s patient politico-military rejuvenation, which has sprung nasty surprises before Washington, have been admitted by US military leaders themselves.
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The desperation to develop counter doctrines and systems has been stymied by contradictions within America’s political economy itself.
The privatized Military-Industrial Complex’s (MIC) influence on its decision making has seen overly advanced (and failed) systems like the F-35 stealth fighter, the USS Zumwalt, and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) programs being not only dumped on its defense forces but been found to be useless in theaters as well.
For instance, America’s nuclear-powered USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. In March 2020, then-US Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said he “didn’t know if (the US was) going to buy any more of that type.” He added that “(they were) thinking about other possible classes.” The Ford’s follow-on, the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) is scheduled for delivery in 2024 with an initial deployment date set for 2026.
The third, the USS Enterprise (CVN-80), is expected to join the fleet by 2027, while the fourth, the Doris Miller (CVN-81), is expected to enter service with the Navy by 2032.
In 2019, the Pentagon decided to cut the number of carriers from 11 to 10 – which was immediately reversed by the new incoming Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite. The Future Carrier 2030 study to examine USN’s future carrier doctrinal and technical concepts before Russian and Chinese weapons was also halted.
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A report by the US government’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) lists a series of issues with three of the 23 new technologies incorporated on the carrier. These include the SLQ‑32 (V) 6 electronic warfare system; the SPY-3 Multi‑Function Radar (MFR); and the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC).
“These deficiencies and limitations reduce the overall self-defense capability of the ship…(the carrier) is unlikely to achieve the Sortie Generation Rate (SGR) requirement.” The Ford-class was designed to increase the SGR by 25 to 30 percent compared to its immediate predecessor, the Nimitz class.
While these are only the technical issues with the carrier, its vulnerability to the very Russian and Chinese weapons – particularly the latter’s DF-21D carrier-killer missile – has left the USN with very little appetite to field them in the South China Sea. Cost is another issue, with a hull of the Ford-class is worth $15 billion.
The ‘Lightning Carrier’ Concept
It now considers the ‘Lightning Carrier’ concept, where smaller carriers carrying the F-35B Short/Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) can conduct a more sea-control/sea-denial oriented role.
This is a fundamental departure from the high-intensity strike operations effected by massive SGRs, sending up fighters one after the other to command the seas, the land, and the skies over the seas, in a classic fearsome signature of American military might.
High SGRs themselves will be quite futile in today’s wars with peer competitors like Russia and China, according to a RAND Corporation study. They will keep American carriers at least 1,000 miles from their shores with their Anti-Access/Area Denial carrier-killing weapons.
Second, under no conceivable political scenario will the US ever plan to launch a land invasion to occupy these countries, like in Iraq or Afghanistan. High SGRs for supporting ground troops to rapidly capitulate enemy ground and air forces to invade any country will never be an eventuality.
And thirdly, neither have high SGRs ever been achieved in the first place. The Nimitz-class has never seen its optimal highest SGR of 120 sorties in a 12-hour period, nor has it been found to be necessary.
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Smaller carriers based on the America-class amphibious assault ships can carry up to 20 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, but lacks the catapults and arresting gear to accommodate other aircraft, including the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, E-2D Hawkeye carrier command and control planes, and the upcoming MQ-25A Stingray aerial refueling tanker drone.
However, they also cost $3 billion, compared to Ford’s $10 billion to $13 billion range.
Experts say that ‘Lighting Carriers’ can still be modified for operating these heavier aircraft, and still cost less than half than the Ford.
Another option suggested by experts is to continue the development of the MQ-25 Stingray refueling drone program for it to carry at least 7000 liters of fuel to allow short-range jets like the F-35C and F-35B to make the 1,000-mile range, within the A2/AD zone of the enemy.
The F-35 can currently only fly between 800 and 900 km. The Stingray itself could be converted into a long-range carrier-borne semi-stealth drone bomber and deep penetration strike aircraft.
- Parth Satam is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been covering India’s defense sector for more than a decade. He maintains a keen interest in defense, aerospace and foreign affairs and can be reached at [email protected]
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