Whatever lay behind the indecisive Trump administration response to the alleged Sept. 14 Iranian missile and drone strike on Saudi oil facilities, one thing is clear. The United States’ ability to project power into the Persian Gulf region via carrier strike groups, the go-to U.S. option in such situations for decades, is not what it used to be, nor what it might have been.
Not long ago, a modern version of gunboat diplomacy—dispatching carriers or guided missile cruisers to the region to loiter menacingly offshore—could have decisively influenced events. In the 1981, carrier aircraft slapped down a territorial grab by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in the Gulf of Sidra by downing two of his fighters. Parking a carrier off Lebanon the next year pressed a cease-fire on Israel and Lebanese factions long enough to affect a U.S.-organized evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, removing at least one source of the country’s chaos. And similarly, in 1996, U.S. President Bill Clinton reacted to provocative Chinese war games off Taiwan by sending two carriers to the Taiwan Strait, leading Beijing to back down in a humiliation cited frequently today as a reason for China’s own naval buildup.
Today, however, such a deployment would no longer elicit the same response in a potential adversary. In part, the change reflects the closing of the enormous technological advantage the U.S. Navy had enjoyed for decades over any realistic rival. New classes of quiet diesel submarines and new developments in mine and torpedo technology make operations close to tense coastlines far more dangerous today than in the past. As a result, U.S. aircraft carriers are no longer immune from risk when entering waters within range of enemy forces.
More serious still is the deployment of Russian and Chinese area denial systems, like the so-called carrier killer DF-21 antiship missile developed in the last decade by China. Its range of over 1,000 miles far outstrips the range of any warplane on U.S. flight decks today. Sailing a U.S. carrier strike force through the Taiwan Strait these days—in a show of support for pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, for instance—would risk catastrophe.
Iran does not yet possess anything as sophisticated as China’s DF-21. However, its domestically produced Noor antiship missile (itself a reverse-engineered rip-off of an earlier Chinese cruise missile) is dangerous at over 100 miles. In 2016, the USS Mason, a destroyer ship, discovered as much when it was targeted by several Noor missiles apparently fired by Iran’s Houthi rebel allies in Yemen. The combination of these missiles and Iran’s fleet of fast and cheap patrol boats has been enough to keep the USS Lincoln out of the Persian Gulf as tensions between Iran and the United States increased this summer.
This is an important moment for military strategists. Even against what the U.S. military regards as a second-tier power like Iran, Washington’s options are severely limited. As a result, as the Trump administration ponders what to do in Iran, President Donald Trump’s options will be limited, likely confined to surface warships and submarines capable of launching long-range cruise missiles, warplanes based in politically sensitive and unreliable Middle Eastern countries, or strategic bombers such as the B-52 and B-2s based half a world away. Naval air power, which since World War II has been the main weapon in the U.S. arsenal in such scenarios, is quite suddenly nearly irrelevant.
Forward-looking officers in the U.S. Navy have been warning that this day would come for years. Like the naval aviators of the 1920s and 1930s who prophesized the end of the battleship as the Navy’s most important weapon, for today’s officers, pointing out that some of the U.S. Navy’s most beloved and expensive equipment is obsolete is hardly a career move. Nonetheless some voices persist.
“In today’s Navy, the aircraft carrier has become ‘too big to sink,’” wrote Navy Lt. Jeff Vandenengel, a submariner, in a provocative article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings two years ago. “Yet the Navy remains blind to the reality that its carriers—by way of destruction, damage, or deterrence from completing their missions—are poised for defeat in battle.”
Or perhaps not so blind. After all, the Lincoln and its 90-plane strong air wing have remained about 200 miles off the coast of Oman since May, even though its F/A-18 strike aircraft have a range of only about 500 miles. At best, this leaves strike aircraft barely able to get to the eastern Iranian coast and back and hundreds of miles short of the Iranian naval bases in the Gulf most frequently cited as potential targets.
The Navy is not entirely unaware of this problem, either. Over the past several decades, it has made several efforts to address the area denial problem.
For one, back in the 1980s, the Navy began development of a new carrier-based attack aircraft, the A-12 Avenger II, with McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics. It was to replace a Vietnam War-era warplane, the A-6 Intruder, which ultimately disappeared from the Navy inventory in the last decade. The A-12 II was to have a range of over 900 miles as well as an early variant of stealth technology. Unfortunately, as the change orders continued and overruns piled up, it grew to be a 30-ton white elephant. If U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney hadn’t killed it in 1991, it would have consumed the entire U.S. Navy aircraft procurement budget during the early 1990s. With the Cold War over, the consensus was that the A-12 was no longer needed.
Another attempt came in the 2000s. The post-Cold War Navy, having foreclosed on longer-range attack aircraft, increasingly found itself operating in waters unsuitable for large carriers: off Somalia, East Timor, and, of course, the Persian Gulf itself. Enter the littoral combat ship. The concept was to create something akin to the cheap, functional corvettes that helped the British Royal Navy keep the Atlantic sea lanes open during the U-boat battles of World War II. Sixteen years in development, until this year not one of the vessels—derided by critics as the “Little Crappy Ship”—had passed its sea trials. A 2017 Pentagon review concluded that none of the current designs would be “survivable in high intensity combat.”
It will be years before the United States can regain its previous naval edge—years during which one can only assume China, Russia, and others will further extend their own area denial capabilities. Even if China’s aircraft carriers stand little chance of surviving an encounter with their U.S. counterparts in the open sea, their point isn’t global power projection. The goal is simply to keep the United States out of the South China Sea and other waters Beijing regards as its national wading pool.
Some hope that soon-to-be-deployed F-35C Lightning IIs (range of perhaps1,300 miles) and upgraded F/A-18 Super Hornets (sporting additional fuel tanks to extend their reach to 750 miles) on carriers will help right the ships. But these, too, are years away and miles short of ideal. Deployment of carrier-based refueling tankers—none of which currently exist or are on order—is similarly distant.
Adding insult to injury, due to budgeting and planning mishaps, only one of the 11 large carriers commissioned or under construction for the U.S. Navy—the Lincoln—is able to operate the new F-35 Lightning II. The Navy expects it will be 2020 until other carriers begin operating the longer-ranged stealth aircraft, too. Until then, beware any saber-rattling that would involve carriers. They simply can’t get there safely.