Aircraft Carriers Vs the Red Army Pt 2
By the 1980’s, the American “forward strategy” might have been likened to a naval version of the Charge of the Light Brigade, in the face of every launcher imaginable able to fire new ship-killing weapons. Warships including cruisers, destroyers, frigates, fast attack craft, nuclear attack submarines, plus quieter diesel/electric subs, were now armed with stand-off cruise missiles as were maritime patrol bombers and ground-based missile batteries. As proved dramatically in the Gulf Wars, with numerous US warships hit, the old-fashioned naval mines were still potent. Yet, the obstacles didn’t deter the Navy under President Reagan, says Ronald Spector:
By the mid-1980s, Pentagon strategists were debating and testing operational scenarios involving early offensive action against the Soviet Union by forward deployed battle groups and amphibious forces positioned in the Norwegian Sea and the North Pacific. In general war, the plans called for naval forces to attack the Soviet fleet in its home waters, including the remote Barents Sea.
The new strategy did have the effect of forcing the Red Navy to curtail its own Blue Water operations for a time, but it is probably a good thing that the few hundred USN naval bombers didn’t have to contend with the many thousands of missile launchers in Soviet home waters. Sadly though, the practice of sending carriers against land powers continues to this day, which seems to work as long as you don’t expect your adversary to shoot back.
As the US Navy participation in the Vietnam Conflict neared its finality in 1972, Vice Admiral Malcom W. Cagle would write concerning the use of naval airpower in this war and Korea:
“Supporting the land battle is strictly a secondary and collateral task.”
Yet, not since the aerial clashes of the Pacific Campaign 30 years earlier between Imperial Japan and American flattops had there been any other type of war at sea, nor to this very day. Despite strenuous efforts by the Soviets late in the Cold War, no other nation has been able to duplicate the numbers and capabilities of the US nuclear powered attack carriers to pose a significant challenge.
What is disturbing, is the most minor of naval threats have found a weak link in this forward strategy. Somali pirates using asymmetric tactics at sea are expanding their operations further from shore, while the Navy seems overly concerned about what is happening with native tribesmen inland. Certainly the carriers could make short work of the village headquarters and pirate bases with a few strikes of naval airpower, but this would require much political will currently lacking due to concerns over civilian casualties. NATO has been extremely reluctant to invade Somalia which would doubtless solve the problem, but the memories of the embarrassing “Black Hawk Down” episode from 1993 still lingers. The 2006 Ethiopian invasion with American carrier support, to destroy the radical Islamic Courts seems to have fed the chaos rather than solving it.
Our post Cold War naval strategy is simple enough: the great Blue Water battleships need to flee the shallow seas and the small ships should go in. Our aircraft carriers designed to intimidate and contain land powers like the old Red Army are too vulnerable in waters infested with missile firing corvettes, submarines, and airpower. As in the Iraq Surge on land, the USN should get out of their giant “Floating Green Zones” and meet the insurgents at sea in small craft head on.
Instead of Carrier Strike Groups, we would send “Influence Squadrons” as recently described by Commander Henry J Hendrix in a Proceedings article titled “Buy Ford, Not Ferrari.” Such a unique and versatile fleet as proposed would include an amphibious mothership, missiles escorts, high speed–shallow water catamarans, a littoral combat ship, and notably M80 Stiletto stealth craft. Such a smaller, less vulnerable, less costly fleet makes much more sense than risking so much of our national treasure in giant flattops, in the type of insurgency conflicts we so often contend with where a “Ford” will fit in just nicely.
Shield of the Republic by Michael T. Isenberg
Power at Sea–A Violent Peace, 1946-2006 by Lisle A. Rose
The Age of Steam Part 2 by John Van Duyn Southworth
At War at Sea by Ronald H. Spector