Smaller aircraft carriers and more cruisers. Multiple unmanned airframes for tanking, strike missions and dog-fighting. Sixteen carrier strike groups.

As budget season kicks into high gear, House lawmakers called in experts Thursday to discuss the future of the carrier air wing.

With possible looming threats from China, Russia and Iran, they testified, the Navy needs to re-think how it will use its carriers in an environment where they might be vulnerable to an adversary with batteries of long-range missiles.

"The risk to U.S. aircraft carriers is arguably as large as it’s ever been since our carriers were actually out there fighting in the Second World War," Michael Horowitz, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told members of the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on seapower.

Horowitz was joined by Seth Cropsey, director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, and Naval War College professor emeritus Robert Rubel, who shared their ideas for switching up the carrier air wing to keep it safe from attack while still patrolling contentious parts of the world.

"This will be a difficult process for a Navy that has become accustomed to being unchallenged for the past 25 years," Rubel said.

The Navy would benefit most from broadly diversifying the carrier and its wing, Cropsey said. That could include adding smaller aircraft carriers to the existing fleet, and developing multiple strike airframes to deal with high-end and low-end threats separately.

The F-35C, for instance, is overkill for missions like targeting an Islamic State group convoy.

"I don’t think that if the danger that you face on a camping trip is a grizzly bear, that you should bring a 500-mm Howitzer along with you," he said. "You can protect yourself with less."

Similarly, Rubel suggested that smaller platforms like cruisers, destroyers and amphibious ships could provide deterrence.

"If we don’t have enough carriers to do it, we have to do it with something else," he said. "We might as well develop something that allows us to take the pressure off the carrier force."

The problem the Navy could face, Horowitz added, is that its slow procurement timeline could bottleneck the fleet down to Nimitz- and Ford-class supercarriers and F-35s, even against low-end adversaries.

"My concern is that I’m not sure that we have a choice given the current procurement plans of the Navy," he said. "The F-35 is perhaps the only game in town for those types of missions."

The rebranding of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program could compound that, he added. The new Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System, an unmanned tanker, could be a good move if it speeds up getting unmanned technology onto deployed carriers.

"It won’t be a good news story if, rather than being a bridge to the future of combat aircraft, the purchase of an unmanned tanker represents a shift away from thinking about unmanned systems for deep strike operations," he said.

If the Navy hesitates on developing an unmanned strike aircraft, he said, the delay will snowball.

"If you want to identify a risk point in the strategy, it would be that it takes so long to actually acquire and actually deploy this tanker and to use it and feel comfortable with it, that it’s 25 years later and we still haven’t made any real progress," Horowitz said.

Reinventing the fleet

The Navy's 2017 budget proposal permanently deactivates the tenth carrier air wing, bringing the number of air wings in line with the nine deployable aircraft carriers at any given time.

"I think it’s another of the salami slicing that the Navy has been forced to and has chosen to do over the past 10 to 15 years," Cropsey said.

When the carrier Ford comes online, that will make 11 carriers. Would a 12th carrier help fill some of the recent gaps, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, asked Cropsey, who has been an outspoken advocate for building a much bigger fleet. Absolutely, he replied.

"I also think that it is correct that one carrier in each of the areas of contention as we have today is insufficient now, and will become more insufficient in the future and does not include the Mediterranean."

Cropsey suggested that the Navy needs "something like 16 carriers" to keep more flattops deployed to tense regions and to get the needed maintenance when they return.

"We limit ourselves and we limit our capabilities, and ultimately we limit our security, by looking at this in terms of what can we afford," he added. "The question is, what do we have the will to do and what must be done?"

Rubel and Horowitz, however, stressed that the supercarrier isn't the only way to provide deterrence and respond to aggression.

"To do this, we need to get more strategically efficient," Rubel said. "We relieve the carriers of their station-keeping duty, sub and substitute with distributed lethality," through smaller ships.

"The Navy has to reinvent itself on the fly, while it’s the best in the world," Horowitz said.

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