Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Transforming the Navy's War-Fighting Capabilities

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Transforming the Navy's War-Fighting Capabilities

Article excerpt

On June 26, 1897, Great Britain's Royal Navy conducted a review in honor of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. The review represented the greatest concentration of naval power the world had ever seen. At the heart of that power were the Royal Navy's battleships, row upon row of them.

In some respects, that review represented the high-water mark of the battleship. The advent of the airplane and the modern submarine would soon consign the battleship to the same fate as the wooden sailing ships of the line that preceded it. By the early days of World War II, the aircraft carrier displaced the battleship as the naval fleet's capital ship.

Rapid advances in aviation technology had transformed the carrier from a ship that provided aircraft to scout the enemy fleet and provide gunfire adjustment for the battleships into a strike platform in its own right. Carriers could now launch strikes several hundred miles from their targets, while battleships could hurl their shells but a few miles. Although the so-called battlewagons managed to hang on for nearly 50 years after the war, they were decommissioned after the Gulf War, apparently for good.

Today, advances in information technology, coupled with the diffusion of advanced military technology, threaten to make aircraft carriers - and their crews of thousands - increasingly vulnerable to attack. Nonetheless, the Navy plans to spend billions of dollars on a new supercarrier and is testing expensive new missile systems to defend its carrier battle groups. To look to the future, the Navy should look to the past: The technological advances that are putting carders at risk could pave the way for the resurrection, albeit in a more efficient, lethal, and different form, of the battleship.

A growing threat

In the wake of the Cold War, a growing number of would-be U.S. adversaries are developing or procuring military and intelligence capabilities that may soon permit them to mount a serious threat to U.S. aircraft carriers. A brief overview of these capabilities includes the following:

Long-range reconnaissance and strike capabilities. A number of countries have access to surveillance satellites and other intelligence collection capabilities that would allow them to observe a carrier battle group from space, perhaps days before the carrier comes close enough for its aircraft to strike their targets.

To be sure, carriers, despite their size, are not easy to find at sea. But this may not be necessary. Cold War-era operations emphasized using the carrier to maintain control over the high seas, thereby keeping sea lanes open. But with the Cold War over, concern over regional threats such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea has led the Navy to emphasize operations in coastal areas, to better support U.S. military operations ashore should aggression occur. As a result, Third World aggressors could have a much easier time finding their targets: They could focus their reconnaissance efforts exclusively on their littoral area, which the carrier would have to enter in order to launch air strikes against inland targets.

Third World states also are acquiring the means to strike targets at far greater distances and with greater precision than they could just a few years ago. More than 15 nations (including Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and Libya) have ballistic missiles. It is not clear whether these states could move targeting information quickly enough to conduct successful strikes against the carriers, or whether they would be able to penetrate U.S. fleet missile defenses. But the threat is serious enough that the Navy is expending considerable resources to protect the carriers from such attacks.

Antiship cruise missiles. More than 40 Third World militaries now possess antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), which can be launched from the shore, aircraft, ships, or submarines. Although they are not cheap, these missiles have been used to good - and sometimes devastating - effect in recent years. …

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