The Navy is in the midst of an intense debate on the future of the carrier air wing. There is a lot at stake, not just the tens of billions of dollars that will be spent to acquire a new generation of high-performance aircraft carriers and their escorts, but also what will be the complement of different aircraft that will constitute the air wing. Arguments over the future aircraft carrier air wing have centered on the balance between different platforms, the F-35C, F/A-18 E/F and UCLASS, in particular. The way these arguments are being framed is largely around classic measures of performance, e.g., range, payload, speed and stealthiness. While cost does play into the argument it is most often framed as cost-effectiveness, again based on what it costs to acquire combinations of characteristics. So platforms are compared based on which one flies farther or faster, carries more weapons, is stealthier, etc. In essence, this is a one versus one comparison.
Unfortunately, this is an antiquated approach to thinking about future forces, in general, and the carrier air wing, in particular. It fails to take into account the impact of the information technology revolution and the power of networking on the way military forces need to operate in the future. Metcalfe’s law, which states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system, applies as much to the military as it does to the commercial world or our own individual lives. To put it simply, three platforms with highly capable sensors that are networked together and able to exchange information can be worth more across a range of missions than several times their number of platforms with less information gathering capability or that lack the ability to share that information. One aircraft may be able to carry more bombs than another but if the former doesn’t know where to drop them or is vulnerable to hostile air defenses, it is less valuable than the latter if it has better information. So comparing sensor-equipped, network-enabled platforms with those that aren’t needs an entirely new framework and new measures of effectiveness.
While it is true, as the old saying goes, that quantity can have a quality all its own, this is an industrial age view of military power. Information has a quality all its own. This has been demonstrated repeatedly, including in our recent conflicts. Air power had a disproportionate impact during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan less as a result of the range, speed, or payload of the aircraft employed, including aircraft carrier-based strike platforms, than as a result of the ability to accurately identify targets. Fighters and bombers loitered over the battlefield, sometimes for hours, waiting for targets to be identified.
The Navy actually knows that it’s the network that makes the difference. That is why it built the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA), a system that brings together the advanced E-2D Hawkeye aircraft, the Aegis air and missile defense system, fighter aircraft and even land-based sensors and weapons to create a robust common operating picture and response capability. With NIFC-CA, threat and targeting information from any sensor can be passed to any firing unit, particularly those not co-located with the sensor. The whole of NIFC-CA is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.
The issue of the composition of the future air wing needs to be debated in the larger context of changing strategic requirements and warfighting modalities. This means also rethinking the role of the aircraft carrier itself. It is a mistake to see the aircraft carrier of the future as just a floating airbase for the generation of sorties and the delivery of ordnance. In the future the primary role of the aircraft carrier could just as well be as the central node in a massively distributed sensor and communications network that will see, communicate and act over vast areas of the land, air and sea. The mission of dropping bombs and shooting missiles will be far less important for the carrier air wing of tomorrow than the ability to know what is going on across the South China Sea, for example, and to support the coordinated operations of the joint force. A dispersed network of F-35Cs, UCLASS, ship borne and land-based sensors will serve as the collective eyes, ears and mind for fleets of strike aircraft, squadrons of strategic bombers and salvoes of long-range weapons. The ability to put weapons on targets, or to deliver effects will not be unimportant for the carrier strike group, but it will be a secondary role.
In a recent article, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, asserted that in the future payloads would be more important than platforms. He was partially correct but only because advances in information technologies allow a different balance to be created between platforms and payloads. It isn’t platforms, it isn’t payloads, it’s the network that will be most important. The Navy needs to truly embrace the information age and change the way it thinks about and evaluates forces and platforms.
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