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Carrier Diversity Thursday

October 22, 2009

Varyag01

Chinese Carriers Not the West’s Biggest Worry

The following quote is from the China Military Report blog. I have rephrased the translated text into better English, hoping to have kept the spirit of the statement:

As for the US-Japan Pacific League,  the real threat from the Chinese armed forces is not the number of aircraft carriers, but the anti-ship missiles. China’s anti-ship missile is based on the existing medium-range missiles developed specifically for use against U.S. aircraft carriers. Mach 10 speed coupled with the changing track, makes null and void the current US-Japan defense capability to intercept . The missile has a maximum range of 3,000 kilometers, covering the entire western Pacific, including Japan and all the East and South China Sea . In other words, the U.S. warships won’t be able to sail when and where they will, as previously, while the U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific will be gone forever.

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The US Navy’s Maritime Continental Strategy

Having no peer adversary after World War 2, and really since, to justify the construction of large deck aircraft carriers, the admirals had to come up with a new use for their Big Decks. The marvelous role of power projection and attacking enemy land bases suddenly pushed control of the sealanes to second place, and became the Fleet’s primary reason for existence. It remains so to this day. Here is part of a 1990 report from the CATO Institute on this practice:

Although the Maritime Strategy is still evolving, one of its original purposes was to ensure that the U.S. Navy would play a greater role in the event of a European war. A basic tenet of the strategy is that carrier strike forces, submarines, and Marine Corps expeditionary forces would attack Soviet naval forces as close to Soviet bases as possible and destroy the attack and ballistic submarines at the outset of a war. Thus, the Maritime Strategy assumes that the defense of Europe is a critical obligation of the United States–an increasingly debatable assumption…

The Maritime Strategy can be viewed as an implicit acknowledgment that aircraft carriers are not essential to the navy’s traditional post-World War II missions, peacetime patrol and crisis management. The navy had been able to cite ample evidence that of all the instruments at their disposal, presidents prefer aircraft carriers. But it had not been able to demonstrate that carriers have a significant impact on the outcome of peacetime crises. Thus, it was natural for the navy to invoke a different mission–an attack on Warsaw Pact forces–to justify the use of carriers, especially the new large-deck carriers.

Instead of a single main adversary, the Navy’s shrinking number of supercarriers face numerous foes, from terrorists, to pirates, and rogue dictators threatening with Weapons of Mass Destruction. With so many enemies, the dwindling number of Big Decks are stretched thin, growing in size, and price, while the number and quality of aircraft on its costly hulls decreases steadily. Which is why we call, no plead for alternatives.

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Carriers More Vulnerable Than Ever

Speaking of the Cold War era flattops, at least the Navy back then spared no expense in ensuring the survival of their tremendous investment. Yet many of these systems for carrier self-defense has been discarded because the ships themselves have become too costly to defend adequately. For instance:

  • Then-Threat from Long Range Bombers countered with the long range F-14 (1600 nm range) and the massive 100 mile range Phoenix missile. The latter also apparently possessed an anti-missile capability. Now-Shorter range Hornet fighters (400 nm range) which also do double duty as bombers are armed with short range Sparrow missiles.
  • Then-Threat from submarines are countered with S-3 Viking jet patrol planes with a 10 hour endurance. Now-With the retirement of the Viking from carrier service its place has been taken by the SH-60 Seahawk helicopter with less than a 4 hour range.
  • Then-A-6 Intruder with a 1000 nm combat radius. Now-The latest model Hornet, the F/A-18 E/F with a combat radius of 400 nm.*

Arguably the threat from missiles and aircraft against the carriers is greater now than ever. With the dissolution of the old Soviet Union, its advanced weapons geared to sinking the American large decks, are now in the hands of numerous potential adversaries, notably China, but also advanced aircraft, missiles, and submarines armed with supersonic cruise missiles going to the likes of North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and even non-state powers such as Hezbollah. All this makes it increasingly possible than in a stand off even with a Third World hybrid military, our most powerful and advanced warships will be at risk from an extremely low tech power.

Also we consider another nation very experienced with modern war at sea, the British, and the plight of its war winning veteran carriers. Since 2006 the Navy’s Sea Harriers which handily defeated supersonic Argentine Mirages over the Falklands have been withdrawn from service, replaced by the slower and less capable (for air defense) ground attack version, the Harrier GR9. As with the US Navy, in order to keep some kind of carrier force operational, a less superior plane was chosen. Another example of the cost of a platform out-weighing its worth as a weapons launcher.

*(Note-I compiled the ranges on the various aircraft from different sources, including the Navy Fact File, Global Security.org, and Wikipedia. Feel free to argue over the numbers but I still insist the last generation Tomcats and Intruders possessed better endurance than the current or even future generation planes like the F-36C. The future UCAVs might tip the scales, but the Navy seems in no hurry with this capability.)

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Lobbyists take a Stand!

The author of the article we reviewed here last week from the Boston Globe, Christopher M. Lehman, titled  “Keeping the aircraft carrier fleet afloat,’’ was actually in the pay of the company that builds these wonders to our technical prowess, according to an Oped at the Globe’s websight. Surprise!

ISN’T IT inappropriate for the Globe to publish an oped advocating the construction of aircraft carriers when the author works at a consulting firm that represents Northrop Grumman, the company responsible for carrier construction? In Christopher Lehman’s Oct. 14 oped, “Keeping the aircraft carrier fleet afloat,’’ the Globe did not bother to disclose the author’s financial stake in the position he was arguing, which would have helped readers evaluate Lehman’s credibility (or lack thereof) as a dispassionate analyst.
Lehman doesn’t base his case on military or strategic grounds, conceding at the very beginning that “the United States does not need aircraft carriers to counter those of other countries.’’ Instead, he asserts that carriers are valuable as power projectors that the United States uses to affect crises “without releasing a single weapon.’’ In other words, while carriers might not actually do much militarily, they make us feel like we’re shaping outcomes.

As of this writing, here is all the Globe posts on Mr Lehman’s credentials:

Christopher M. Lehman, a former special assistant for national security affairs to President Reagan, is chairman of Commonwealth Consulting Corporation in Arlington, Va.

Kudos to an alert Travis Sharp a “military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation”. I’d almost bet he reads this blog!

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A Better Way of War

Instead of keeping our most valuable assets forward deployed and on a constant war-footing, we consistently offer warship alternatives for use in the power projection role. Fortunately, modern technology, especially advanced missiles, and increasingly UAVs at sea give us a way out from a single-minded and costly strategy of using the large deck aircraft carriers as our gunboats. From a 2008 article in Armed Forces Journal, here is Cmdr. Henry J Hendrix writing on Dead Reckoning (or Carried Away):

AN ALTERNATIVE CARRIER STRATEGY In fact, we should consider moving away from regular carrier deployments and toward an alternative strategy of directed/focused surge deployments. In this alternative future strike, carriers on both coasts would be in a constant state of readiness to deploy in response to crises. The West Coast strike carriers and their air wings would be forward based at Guam to cut transit times. In this scenario, we might be able to get by with fewer strike carriers in the inventory than what we maintain now, and send a percentage of the remaining carriers into a maintenance reserve status.

The remaining carriers could be placed in semi-active status and reconfigured for other mission sets, namely to act as expeditionary sea-base platforms to embark Army and Marine Corps expeditionary brigades during crises. Ever since the introduction of the Sea Power 21 operational construct five years ago, the sea base has been getting the short end of the stick from long-term planners, even though it was touted initially as having the most potential to have a positive effect in the post-9/11 world.

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Seeking Solutions for Sapped Morale

The headline from Navy Times says it all How lean manning saps morale, puts sailors at risk. It is the more heart-wrenching when you think it is all so unnecessary. You probably know where I’m going with this:

When the cruiser Port Royal ran aground in February off Hawaii, Navy investigators found a number of reasons for the failure. The ship’s navigational gear was broken. Watchstanders lost their situational awareness. The fathometer wasn’t working, so the ship had no way of assessing depth.

But the investigation also found two other problems that have become all too common in the surface fleet: The captain had barely slept, and qualified lookouts who could have spotted the disaster in time were stuck doing jobs in other parts of the ship.

Both problems — too much work to do and not enough people to do it — are byproducts of the fleet’s years-old practice of “optimal manning,” slowly whittling the number of bodies in each command throughout the fleet.

Where to find the extra manpower? Hmmmm…How about where the Navy currently holds 15% of its total 329,390 personnel, all in 10 giant warships? It seems astonishing that in these few decks the Navy will insist there can be no compromise, no alternatives, even in this age of the guided missile and computers.

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China Warns Concrete Navy Will Crush the West

Leaked photos revealing a large Chinese aircraft carrier-type structure, has been officially confirmed by the Beijing News Agency as the lead vessel of its new concrete fleet.

“Soon our concrete warships will flood the oceans, faster than a high rise apartment in Hong Kong”, declared a spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

A shipbuilding expert familiar with concrete warships, also known as “ferrocement construction“, says that while such vessels are very strong, the labor costs to construct them might be prohibitive to a Western Navy. In China, though, where labor is plentiful and cheap, manpower costs would be no obstacle. Such a thick hull might also be invulnerable to US torpedoes, with nuclear submarines being a primary deterrent to surface ships in modern war.

“Our weapons would be impervious to such a force, much like the faulty Navy torpedoes as the start of World War 2, which often failed to explode”, warned the expert.

A spokesman for the US Navy only replied that he hoped the Chinese will use the popular building material to further the good relations and close ties both nation’s feel toward each other. The chief of the Navy also declared his intention to persuade his counterpart in the PLAN to share this advanced new technology with the West, in a show of goodwill. The admiral said that US scientists have been working on concrete warships themselves and expect to field such a vessel, likely a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier, also able to carry troops, perform minesweeping, and operate in littoral waters, by 2020.

I couldn’t resist.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2009 6:40 pm

    There go the -two- RN carriers, purportedly. And blame is being placed on the ever-growing cost of the JSF…

    Royal Navy surrenders one new aircraft carrier in budget battle – Times Online

    http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?t=167537

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article6888962.ece

  2. Tarl permalink
    October 23, 2009 8:54 pm

    The Soviets had carriers in the 40s and early 50s when the Navy was shaping its Cold War strategy? All that worried us at sea were their submarines, and somehow the USN justified their large deck carriers for ASW warfare. A sly move and lucky for us never tested in wartime.

    Yes, the Soviets were a peer adversary for the US even when the Soviets had no carriers, and US carriers had valid and necessary roles in fighting the USSR even when the Soviets had no carriers.

    Again, the fact that the Soviets spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how to find and kill US carriers is a clear indication that they found our carriers threatening, even when the Soviets had no carriers of their own, and that our carriers had a valid role in deterring (and if necessary, fighting) the Soviets even though the Soviets had no carriers.

  3. Matt permalink
    October 23, 2009 1:58 pm

    You neglected to mention MPA (P-3C / P-8A) as ASW defense for CSG. Even more critical now that S-3s are gone…

  4. Joe K. permalink
    October 22, 2009 9:35 pm

    And how practical is fighting a war with only an arsenal of Tomahawk missiles? Not very. Without adequate ground intelligence and observation you’re more likely to cause unnecessary casualties. Not to mention if you had planes in the area they’d probably be able to respond much more quickly and effectively than by launching a Tomahawk.

    Not all situations can be solved by a Tomahawk or a ballistic missile. Use it too often for the wrong kind of situations and it’ll do more harm than good for being “practical”.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 22, 2009 5:51 pm

    Joe K said “Prove beyond a reasonable doubt (not just conjecture, actual fact) that a missile or UAV can infinitely surpass the fighter and maybe I’ll consider it.”

    I can’t because, guess what? They do not. The UAV and guided missile is not superior to manned aircraft. Didn’t expect me to admit that did you?

    But they are more practical and better able to take advantage of the “one bomb, one hit” ability of precision warfare. They cannot put as many bombs on target as legacy aircraft, but if you imagine that a single missile launched from a single submarine or surface ship might take out a high value target, or a UAV launched from the same (only a matter of time that the abilities of sea launched UAVs match those of land, any doubt?) can provide the troops close air support, then the savings of such an advantage is too much to resist. If a single warship can mimic most functions of a massively expensive and visible carrier group, then what nation wouldn’t choose the new technology over the old?

    It isn’t the manned aircraft so much that is the problem, but its launch platform. The next aircraft carrier will price at $14 billion each (CBO numbers), then $8-$10 billion for followup ships. Add to this equally costly escorts, and logistics plus annual upkeep, more than many European nations entire defense budget. No nation in a war with the Third World whose operating costs are as small as ours are large can keep up such a race. It is a sure path to bankruptcy.

    As far as the abilities of drones and missiles, if you doubt me can you doubt the lessons of our land wars with 5000 new UAVs in service in the Middle East, but as far as new legacy planes, not a single one other than the Super Hornet? The robots are increasing, manned air is decreasing, but I would be the first to acknowledge they aren’t done yet.

  6. Joe permalink
    October 22, 2009 5:10 pm

    Aka “Joe P”, as there are two Joe’s running around the site now.

    If we accept all of Mike’s numbers on the F-14/A-6/S-3, then it’s not his always-repeated assertion of gold-plated super carriers that continue to increase in size and cost that is at fault but rather the Navy’s mismanagement of its air assets.

    If carrier defense against peer competitors is truly provided only by having a longer-range fighter like the F-14 in stock, and the Navy knew it was replacing that airframe with a much, much shorter ranged asset in the F-18SH, then why not either pursue a modernized variant of the F-14 or a “Mega” Hornet – one with max range but otherwise the same basic characteristics as the Super Hornet?

    This may not be an important consideration against the Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s of the world, but against a block of Russia/China and any ally it might sell advanced weaponry to, it sure as heck could be.

    _______________________________________________________

    As an aside…has anyone else noted that these “gold-plated super carriers that continue to increase in size” have been virtually the same size going all the way back to the Forrestal class – if you define that as visible ship length? Even the redesigned Midway Class weren’t exactly midgets.

    Midway Class:
    Midway, 1980’s: 976 feet, 70,000-ish tons.
    Coral Sea, 1980’s: 1,003 feet, 65,200 tons.
    Forrestal Class: 1,070 feet, 75,000 tons
    Kitty Hawk Class: 1,069 feet, 82,000-ish tons
    Enterprise Class: 1,123 feet, 92,000-ish tons
    Nimitz Class: 1,092 feet, 103,000-ish tons
    Ford Class: 1,092 feet, 100,000-ish tons

    all per Wikipedia.

    I know…listed ship length isn’t the only “size” component, but given Mike’s statements over time, one might assume that yesteryears carriers were but mere midgets upside the copies we have today. It’s entirely accurate to say tonnage has gone up over time, but that tonnage of the Fords (if they’re built) will be roughly in line with the Nimitz-class that began in the 1970’s.

  7. Joe K. permalink
    October 22, 2009 3:42 pm

    Jerry Hendrix
    I really couldn’t say looking solely at the carrier’s fighter aircraft inventory because the combat range of a whole CSG includes EW aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, ASW aircraft and ships, etc. And putting aside usage or existence of tanker aircraft I might say that with an all-Hornet fighter force maybe it’s increased slightly(not fact, just opinion).

    Mike
    Having more of an all-Hornet fighter force does mean lower overall costs both for training pilots and for fixing the planes. Even if you had a few models of that one plane they’re bound to share the majority of mutual components. Sure, you don’t have “superfighters” that are prevalent in the mix, but with a flexible platform with the simplified costs what’s there to lose, really.

    I’d think that you would appreciate the idea of having a unified platform(at least on the cost side).

    On three side notes:
    1. When claiming that we have a “fighter gap” or some other vague weakness it might help you to actually make specific (and I mean specific) examples that A. actually exist and B. are actively exploiting that weakness.
    2. In sticking with such one-sided numbers (claiming that A-6s and F-14s can both trump the F-18 any day) it doesn’t matter if you claim that the numbers aren’t necessarily true because YOU picked them when it wasn’t hard to find the real numbers.
    3. Also, please stop throwing out the missile or UAV silver bullet sh*t all of the time. Prove beyond a reasonable doubt (not just conjecture, actual fact) that a missile or UAV can infinitely surpass the fighter and maybe I’ll consider it. Do you want to have another M.A.D. world?

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 22, 2009 3:30 pm

    “sadly (ASW) its an unglamorous job”

    Thus it is greatly underfunded. So for the third time in a century we ignore or underestimate the undersea threat.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 22, 2009 3:28 pm

    Joe claimed “You still lied about the numbers to support your case.”

    Joe, as I noted in the post script I wasn’t positive about the numbers because they came from different sources and everyone said something different. That said, I am still sure the current generation of aircraft are less capable than the old as far as endurance. That said, there are still good planes, especially the Super Hornet. I just don’t believe they are good enough for gold-plated super carriers that continue to increase in size and cost while decreasing in numbers. With no superfighters in the USN mix, the Navy still struggles to maintain numbers and avert a “fighter gap”. This is a very sad state.

    The best thing about modern planes are not any enhanced capabilities, but precision guided weapons. As we increasingly see, you don’t need a smart platform to launch smart weapons. Instead of $100 million+ fighters, why not million dollar missiles or UAVs?

  10. Jerry Hendrix permalink
    October 22, 2009 2:10 pm

    Joe K
    Would you submit that the combat effective range of the carrier strike group has a: decreased, b: stayed the same, or c: increased since the demise of the A-6/F-14 and the expansion of the all-Hornet flight deck?

  11. dalyhistory permalink
    October 22, 2009 1:32 pm

    The point about guarding sealanes is interesting. After the effort expended in WW2 sheperding convoys around the globe, you would have thought that the Royal Navy would remember how vital this role might be to an island nation. Its what the first navies sprang up for, but sadly its an unglamorous job, like when you compare sexy fast jets to workhorse transport planes.

    Worryingly, the mounting cost of our two new flat tops has forced the Admiralty to sacrifice more and more destroyers and frigates.

  12. Joe K. permalink
    October 22, 2009 12:30 pm

    I maintain that Wikipedia is not a credible source to quote – the references maybe, but not the site. If it isn’t allowed in educational institutions as credible sources then it shouldn’t be used obvious problems aside.

    ANYWAYS…

    You still lied about the numbers to support your case. According to Globalsecurity.org the F-14 Tomcat’s combat radius (not Ferry) is 500nm, NOT 1600nm (it’s “Typical” range probably assuming minimal armaments, Ferry range surpasses 1700nm). Defencetalk.com puts it’s combat at around 600nm so its still a far cry from your argued 1600nm.

    For your information my information about the F-18 Hornet comes from Aerospaceweb.org (which cites multiple other sources), Boeing’s website, and even your Globalsecurity.org. And the combat radius is dependent on the mission parameters whether it is a hi-lo-lo-hi (meaning flying first at high altitude, flying low for combat missions, and then flying hi for the return) or a hi-med-hi or whatever. Since fuel consumption increases closer to the ground the range would of course decrease because of it. There is no clear-cut default “range” of an aircraft.

    Do actual research instead of cherry-picking.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 22, 2009 11:11 am

    “the US had a peer adversary after WW2 – the Soviet Union.”

    The Soviets had carriers in the 40s and early 50s when the Navy was shaping its Cold War strategy? All that worried us at sea were their submarines, and somehow the USN justified their large deck carriers for ASW warfare. A sly move and lucky for us never tested in wartime.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 22, 2009 11:08 am

    Joe, those are combat radius not full ferry range, and please check the sources I mentioned, punching in the plane names in each site search engine. They’re there.

  15. Joe K. permalink
    October 22, 2009 10:19 am

    I was sad to see the F-14 retired all the same (though I question whether you were as well, Mike) but they had valid reasons – mainly in the F-14’s unique swing-wing design.

    Much like with the maintenance requirements of the Harrier jets, the Tomcat’s swing-wing mechanics posed an issue when it came to maintenance time and parts. Add to it the fact that it was an aging plane as well.

    I don’t know where you got the range numbers for comparing the F-18 with the F-14. While your number of 1600nm for the F-14 was technically correct depending on the load of equipment and the individual models of the F-14, the F-18 has a range of up to 1800nm if lightly armed or unarmed, a max of about 290nm IF fully armed (meaning no drop tanks), but certainly capable of 1000nm+ ranges if equipped appropriately.

    Where did you come up with 400nm anyway? I doubt the Navy would willingly buy an aircraft which had incredibly horrible default range compared to its current aircraft. Or dare I suggest that you deliberately used that number to make your case sound credible?

  16. Tarl permalink
    October 22, 2009 8:06 am

    Having no peer adversary after World War 2, and really since, to justify the construction of large deck aircraft carriers, the admirals had to come up with a new use for their Big Decks. The marvelous role of power projection and attacking enemy land bases suddenly pushed control of the sealanes to second place, and became the Fleet’s primary reason for existence.

    Of course the US had a peer adversary after WW2 – the Soviet Union. The question was what would be the Navy’s role, and specifically the carrier’s role, against the USSR. The Navy turned the carrier into a nuclear strike asset, which was a valid (and for a time, quite necessary) role. The major effort the Soviets devoted to finding and killing carriers testified to the validity of this role and to the fear (and deterrent effect) the carriers generated.

    It is fundamentally untrue that “power projection and attacking enemy land bases suddenly pushed control of the sealanes to second place”. The Navy’s role during the Cold War, and the Fleet’s primary reason for existence, was always to keep the sea lanes open. The main threat to the sea lanes was the increasingly large and capable Soviet submarine force. The role of the carrier per se in defeating Soviet submarines was somewhat dubious, but the fact remains that keeping the sea lanes open was the Navy’s primary mission.

    The offensive threat that carriers presented both to land bases and to Soviet territorial waters contributed to keeping the sea lanes open, because it forced the Soviets to keep their Navy and some of their submarines at home on defense rather than sending them out into the Atlantic and Pacific to harass allied sea lanes. In particular, the carriers could suppress Soviet air and surface ASW assets that protected the Soviet SSBN force, allowing allied SSNs to hunt and kill Soviet SSBNs without hindrance.

    Again, the Soviets took the US carrier force seriously, and devoted considerable resources to countering it with a large and expensive reconnaissance-strike complex (see Chapter V of Bob Work’s report). Whatever you think the “primary reason for the carrier’s existence” was during the Cold War, the carriers were clearly not a waste of money that the enemy did not find threatening.

    Yet many of these systems for carrier self-defense has been discarded because the ships themselves have become too costly to defend adequately.

    No, the defensive systems have been discarded because the threats to the carrier that required these systems totally evaporated. After 1991 there was no more long-range bomber threat, so we no longer needed the F-14 with Phoenix missiles. After 1991 there was no real submarine threat, so we no longer needed the S-3 in the ASW role. The Navy was correct to discard these capabilities. Of course, the increase of the Chinese submarine force indicates that the Navy will have to reconstitute its ASW capability, and probably needs more and better ASW on the carrier, but this does not mean the Navy was wrong to save money while the threat did not exist.

    The Navy has not needed long-range attack aircraft for the past 18 years, and was probably correct to discard the Intruder. Undoubtedly they will need a longer-range aircraft when they replace the Hornets.

    Arguably the threat from missiles and aircraft against the carriers is greater now than ever.

    No, the threat to the carriers is lower than ever.

    With the dissolution of the old Soviet Union, its advanced weapons geared to sinking the American large decks, are now in the hands of numerous potential adversaries, notably China, but also advanced aircraft, missiles, and submarines armed with supersonic cruise missiles going to the likes of North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and even non-state powers such as Hezbollah

    The likes of North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Hezbollah are not the Soviet Union and can never be. These clowns aren’t going to sink or damage a carrier, get real.

    Yes, the Chinese can credibly threaten a carrier. However, this is not an argument to discard the carrier or to shift to smaller carriers, but an argument to put more and better aircraft on large carriers.

    The West Coast strike carriers and their air wings would be forward based at Guam to cut transit times.

    If China scares us, then the last place we should put a carrier is Guam, where the carrier would be a sitting duck for a first strike. The answer is not to put the carriers forward to reduce transit times but to acquire longer-range aircraft. If the carrier can strike from long range, you don’t need to move the carrier and you don’t care about transit times because the carrier is already within strike range before it moves.

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