The U.S. Navy’s Range Has Diminished Dangerously

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro has called China his service’s “most significant” challenge, and he’s dead right. Recent satellite images suggest China has been building a model of an American aircraft carrier in the desert to use as target practice. It’s clear the rising power intends to hit the U.S. Navy’s most visible and valuable ships at sea. Yet the American carrier fleet isn’t set up to strike Chinese targets ashore. Instead of addressing this major vulnerability, the Navy is throwing time, money and energy into a new jet-fighter program. Not much is known about the “next generation air dominance,” or NGAD, aircraft. Official statements report that it will be a “family of systems,” perhaps a manned aircraft working with unmanned companions, and that it will feature new stealth technologies. Rumors suggest that it will be somewhat comparable to the F-14 Tomcat, made famous by the 1986 movie “Top Gun,” whose primary job was defending the carrier and other ships. Yet what the carrier air wing urgently needs to compete with China is the ability to project power ashore from a great distance. In 1996 the range of the carrier’s air wing was about 800 nautical miles. By 2006 that figure had dropped to 500 miles. Meanwhile, China has developed antiship missiles like the Dong Feng-21, the “carrier killer,” with a range of 1,000 miles. The reason for the Navy’s “retreat from range,” as I described the situation in a 2015 paper: The Navy retired the A-6 Intruder aircraft in 1997. The Intruder could cover 800 miles fully loaded with bombs and more than 1,200 miles carrying a mix of bombs and external fuel tanks. The planned replacement, the A-12 Avenger, a stealthy flying wing design, would have been ready to carry 6,000 pounds of bombs nearly 1,000 miles. But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney canceled the program in 1991 because of delays and cost overruns. At the time, the American military had no peer competitor. The Navy consolidated its offensive capability in the F/A-18 Hornet and later the Super Hornet variant, with a combat radius of about 500 nautical miles. The Navy did well with the F/A-18s over the past generation, operating over places like Iraq and Yugoslavia, which posed no threat to the fighter’s home carriers, which could thus sail close to land. But China and Russia have fielded anti-access/area-denial weapons, and that is likely to push carriers 1,000 miles offshore, well beyond the reach of F/A-18s. The F-35B and C variants, now halfway through their delivery schedule, can reach targets only roughly 400 and 625 miles, respectively, from the carrier. Unmanned tankers that can fly off the carrier, like the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray program now in development, could mitigate the problem. But those drones don’t exist in large enough numbers and carry less fuel than their manned predecessors did. Air Force tankers have enough fuel, but they are based on land and thus too vulnerable to Chinese long-range weapons to be of use. This problem is especially urgent given the Navy’s plans to continue building aircraft carriers—the $13 billion, 100,000-ton Ford-class supercarrier—even as it lacks the ability to strike deep in enemy territory. The Navy missed an opportunity to resolve this issue. Fifteen years ago, the Navy and industry designed and built two stealthy unmanned aircraft, known as the X-47B, with a flying radius of 1,050 miles. The aircraft flew from, and recovered aboard, Navy supercarriers in 2013 and 2014. The aircraft even refueled from an airborne tanker without difficulty. That prototype could have easily been scaled up to carry 4,000 pounds of ordnance to targets 1,500 miles away, in repeated cycles, without concern for pilot proficiency or fatigue. Yet the program was terminated at the direction of the Navy’s uniformed leadership in 2015. In 2015 Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said that the F-35 would be the Navy’s last manned aircraft, citing the evolving strategic environment. Yet naval aviation waited out its civilian leadership and appears intent on not only keeping human pilots in the seat, but continuing to build fighters amid an obvious strategic need for attack aircraft. Unless long-range, penetrating strike aircraft, manned or unmanned, are put into air wings soon, carriers will be unable to make a meaningful contribution to deterring and, if necessary, winning a conventional conflict with China over Taiwan or other flash points. To avoid that unfortunate outcome, civilian leaders, including lawmakers and the Navy secretary, will need to step in to get naval aviation back on target.

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