Since World War I, the aircraft carrier has replaced the battleship as the Navy’s largest capital ship and the primary means to project power. They are recognized everywhere as symbols of America’s promise of peace at sea and ashore. But not since Word War II have carriers been in greater danger of being destroyed in battle.
Today, with no enemy carriers to fight, our carriers are floating airfields protecting troops ashore and ships at sea. To do that they have become gigantic, carrying aircraft and supplies for long deployments far from America’s homeland.
A carrier strike group is indeed awesome. The carrier, Aegis cruisers, destroyers, nuclear submarines, and support ships have aircraft, missiles, guns, radar, sonar and satellite data providing long-range layered defenses. At home on the high seas, a strike group can evade or defeat threats from enemy aircraft, ships, and submarines. But to be prudent, the Navy tested those defenses against asymmetric threats in constricted waters — the Persian Gulf.
A war game named the Millennium Challenge was conducted by the Joint Forces Command in 2002, at a cost $250 million, which involved aircraft, ships, and 15,000 personnel. There has not been a similar exercise since then, and shrinking defense budgets make it unlikely there will ever be another. Still, the lessons learned are unchanged and valuable.
In Millennium Challenge a Blue Team fleet entered the Gulf opposed by a Red Team led by retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul van Riper, with forces simulating those of Iran. When the Blue Team armada appeared, van Riper attacked with cruise missiles and swarms of small boats. It was over in minutes. Blue Team lost 16 major combatants, and Red Team proved the vulnerability of warships in reach of shore-based weapons. The Gulf became a graveyard for carriers.
The National Air and Space Intelligence Center 2013 report on ballistic and cruise missile threats shows advanced versions of those weapons are in the Gulf now, even more deadly and numerous than in 2002. And other powers have not ignored the Millennium Challenge lesson. Early this year, communist China held a war game in which it ‘sunk’ a simulated super carrier with two DF-21D anti-ship missiles, dubbed “carrier killers.” Nevertheless, stationing a carrier in the Gulf region remains essential.
The mission of the USS Nimitz carrier strike group is to defend our allies and keep the Straits of Hormuz open to shipping. Obviously, it is safer for Nimitz to cruise the Arabian Sea outside the Gulf and away from hostile shores, but that option is unavailable because of the short combat range of F-18 Hornet carrier aircraft. To carry out its mission of defending allies and the flow of oil, the strike group must be inside the Gulf.
Though Iran’s ability to challenge the aircraft carrier’s Gulf mission has dramatically increased, sequestration means stationing more carriers to defend the Gulf is unlikely. We’ve run out of money, so we’ve got to get creative.
For example, there is a missile defense system described in a paper by the Committee on the Present Danger named the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) with radars in tethered aerostats 10,000 feet above the surface. At that altitude, the radars see missiles and even small boats 340 miles away, well beyond the detection range of the carrier’s radars, or of missile defense systems like Patriot. A JLENS system on Oman’s Musandam peninsula would oversee the Strait, much of the Gulf, and deep into Iran. In Bahrain, the system would cover Iran’s entire Gulf shoreline and even further into Iran’s interior.