As the world’s two biggest naval fleets engage in the Indo-Pacific region, China’s People’s Liberation Army can observe and learn from the United States Navy in adapting future tactical combined operations, according to defence analysts.
The USS Makin Island is a 40,000-tonne Wasp-class amphibious assault ship able to carry a detachment of Marine F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. The LHD and two San Antonio-class landing platform dock (LPD) amphibious transport ships – the USS Somerset and USS San Diego – as well as several helicopter and assault craft units form the Makin Island ARG.
“The displacement size and functions of the Wasp-class LHD are similar to the PLA’s Type 075 LHD, while the San Antonio-class transport docks are similar to China’s Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD),” Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the PLA would learn from the experiences of its American counterpart in turning its LHD and LPD into mini-aircraft carrier strike groups, an effective cost-saving measure.
“The US has studied how to operate their ARG in a more feasible and efficient way,” Li said.
“For China, the key mission of their Type 075 and Type 071 will be defending the country’s territorial sovereignty in the East and South China seas, as well as overseas interests, meaning the ARG combination is a better option than aircraft carrier strike groups.”
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said deploying both LHDs and LPDs indicated the US Navy’s capacity for tactical manoeuvres and joint cooperation on the high seas.
“The combination of LHD and LPD is an integrated expeditionary strike group, which is worth the PLA learning from if they are going to better deploy their Type 075 and Type 071 amphibious warships,” Wong said.
China has launched three Type 075 LHDs, which were designed to each carry up to 30 attack helicopters and armoured vehicles, and eight smaller Type 071 LPDs with the displacement of 25,000 tonnes.
The Type 075 is the world’s third largest amphibious assault vessel behind the USS Wasp and America classes. It is bigger than Japan’s Izumo class and France’s Mistral class.
However, Song said that in addition to the amphibious ships, the most powerful weapon of the Makin Island ARG were the F-35B squadrons and detachments of multi-role helicopters suited to different types of sea warfare missions.
“The most challenging problem of the PLA is a lack of new-generation fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft like the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets,” Song said.
“The F-35B helps the USS Marines grab air supremacy in both ARG operations, making its function like that of the mini-carrier strike groups … that means the US Navy owns nearly 20 carrier strike groups around the world.”
To solve the current shortcomings, Song suggested the PLA install a catapult on the deck of the Type 075 LHD to upgrade the platform and allow it to operate the country’s carrier-based J-15 fighter jet.
The US Navy was reported to have tested the idea of smaller carriers, which would reduce the range, speed and capacity of its US$13 billion nuclear-powered supercarriers known as CVNs, but cost half as much or even less, Forbes reported in December.
The ARG operation could be seen as testing a mini-carrier option, an exercise China could learn from, Song and Li said.
The United States military has engaged in a form of “cognitive warfare” following the latest encounter between its warships and the Chinese navy.
Both countries have deployed aircraft carrier strike groups to the East and South China seas, led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Liaoning, respectively.
On Sunday, the US released a photo that showed one of its guided-missile destroyers, the USS Mustin, shadowing the Liaoning group – a move that analysts said was designed to send a clear message to the Chinese.
The photo taken on Monday somewhere in the East China Sea showed the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Robert J Briggs, and his deputy, Cmdr. Richard D Slye, watching the Liaoning, which was just a few thousand metres away.
“In the photo, Cmdr. Briggs looks very relaxed with his feet up watching the Liaoning ship just a few thousand yards away, while his deputy is also sitting beside him, showing they take their PLA counterparts lightly,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
“This staged photograph is definitely ‘cognitive warfare’ to show the US doesn’t regard the PLA as an immediate threat.”
Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Yuan Wang think tank, a Beijing-based military science and technology institute, said the photo indicated that the US warship kept a “very safe distance” while shadowing the Liaoning.
“Both sides understand that there is a big gap between the US and Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups,” Zhou said.
Andrei Chang, the editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, said the photo was a “warning to the PLA” that the US was thoroughly informed about the Liaoning strike group.
The Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said the US military had increased the deployment of aircraft and warships to the East and South China seas.
It also said the USS Mustin had been sent to waters near the mouth of the Yangtze River on April 3, and since last Sunday has been following the Liaoning group through the East and South China Seas.
The Liaoning aircraft carrier group also includes the Nanchang, one of China’s most advanced Type 055 destroyers, two other destroyers, a frigate and a support ship.
The Japanese defence ministry is also reported to have sent the destroyer JS Suzutsuki and two patrol aircraft to monitor the strike group as it passed between Okinawa and Miyako Island on Sunday.
Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Austin Lloyd had a phone conversation with his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana to reaffirm their shared commitment to their alliance after Chinese vessels massed at a disputed reef, according to the Pentagon.
China has described the presence of the 200 vessels near Whitsun Reef as “normal and legitimate” and said officials are maintaining close communications with the Philippines.
But the Philippines has described the vessels as a maritime militia and last week the broadcaster ABS-CBN claimed two Chinese vessels armed with missiles drove away the ship carrying its news crew near the island province of Palawan. The broadcaster said it was the first recorded instance of a military manoeuvre against a civilian boat.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the report indicated that the PLA had deployed Type 022 missile boats to Mischief Reef, one of the seven artificial islands Beijing has reclaimed in the disputed Spratly Islands, which are just 250km (155 miles) from Palawan.
“The massing of China’s maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef implies that Beijing may attempt to resume its land reclamation project in the Spratly Islands because of the geostrategic location of Whitsun Reef, which is located between Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef,” Wong said.
“China realised Mischief is too far away from the mainland and too isolated in the Spratlys, but land expansion based around Whitsun Reef will solve the problem.”
The last US Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler squadron, Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 (VMAQ-2), was formally deactivated in March 2019, when the last two jets, 162230/CY-02 and 162228/CY-04, took part in a sundown ceremony that also included flying in formation over Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina.
All the US Navy and Marines Prowler squadrons had already been deactivated since then (the last ones being all USMC units: VMAQ-1, in May 2016, VMAQ-4 in June 2017 and VMAQ-3 in May 2018).
The EA-6B was an iconic aircraft born out of military requirements during the Vietnam War. It entered service in 1971 and 170 aircraft were built before the production was terminated in 1991. For more than four decades, the Prowler was “at the forefront of military electronic warfare allowing high-profile air combat missions.”
The EA-6B’s last deployment, in 2018, was carried out by VMAQ-2 to support of Operation Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel, in Afghanistan, as well as Operation Inherent Resolve, in Iraq and Syria.
But, overall, the Prowler deployed more than 70 times to support every major combat operation, including those in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Serbia.
While not deployed, the type carried out stateside training sorties, practicing ground-attack support missions, disruption of enemy electromagnetic activity and tactical electronic intelligence.
While most of the latest mission profiles saw the aircraft operate at medium and high altitude, the Prowler’s aircrews regularly flew low-level training missions too.
The footage in this post was taken in 2010 by a user who, based on the other videos posted on his Youtube channel, flew with the US Navy’s VAQ-139 “Cougars.”
The clip is particularly interesting as it shows, from the front cockpit, an EA-6B flying low level along VR-1355, one of the low-level routes running through national parks in the Cascade Mountains.
Thanks to the video below, now you can also get an idea of what it looked like to fly the route at low level in the Prowler.
While the footage is outstanding, I’m pretty sure it will also remind someone the famous incident that occurred to an EA-6B in Italy in 1998.
On February 3, 1998, EA-6B Prowler #163045/CY-02, from VMAQ-2, deployed at Aviano Air Base, in northeastern Italy, for the Balkans crisis, using radio callsign “EASY 01” and flying a low-level route cut a cable supporting a cable car of an aerial lift, near Cavalese, a ski resort in the Dolomites. Twenty people died when the cabin plunged over 260 feet and crashed on the ground in what is also known as the “Cavalese cable car disaster” or “Strage del Cermis.”
At 15:13 LT, when the aircraft struck the cables supporting the cable car the aircraft was flying at a speed of 540 mph (870 km/h) and at an altitude of between 260 and 330 feet (80 and 100 m) in a narrow valley between the mountains.
While the aircraft had wing and tail damage, it was able to return to Aviano.
The subsequent investigation found that the EA-6B was flying too low and against regulations. Initially, all four men on the plane were charged, but only the pilot, Capt. Richard J. Ashby, and his navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, actually faced trial (that took place at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina), charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide.
At the end of the first trial, the pilot was acquitted on all charges relating to the disaster (charges which were dropped for the navigator too) in a verdict that caused shock and resentment in Italy generating an upsurge of anti-American feeling.
During the trial it emerged that the US Marine Corps aircrews used obsolete US military maps that, unlike local ones, did not show the cables, and were not aware of altitude regulations concerning low-level flying.
The two Marines were court-martialed a second time when it became evident they had destroyed a videotape filmed on the day of the incident. Eventually, Capts. Ashby and Schweitzer were found guilty in May 1999; both were dismissed from the service and Ashby received a six-month prison term. Families were eventually compensated 1.9M USD per victim.
Every day, scores of US military commands reach millions with posts aimed to inform and inspire: videos of valor, motivational photos, and, yes, puppy pics.
The military has codified the rules for managing these official accounts. But sometimes these social-media pros – even those at the four-star command responsible for the US’s nuclear weapons – fail miserably.
Here’s a rundown of some of the military’s most embarrassing, troubling, and dumb social-media mistakes in recent years.
US Strategic Command, which oversees the US nuclear arsenal, sent out an unintelligible tweet on March 28, 2021 that went viral before it was deleted.
The post simply said: “;l;;gmlxzssaw.”
In a follow-on tweet, STRATCOM wrote: “”Apologizes for any confusion. Please disregard this post.”
The blunder received lots of humorous responses on social media, including a retired US Army lieutenant general.
An “administrator” used Fort Bragg’s official Twitter account to send explicit sexual messages to an OnlyFans creator.
The Army installation initially claimed the account was hacked before deleting not just the tweets but its entire Twitter account. The base later acknowledged that the tweets were sent by one of their own.
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) deleted a March 25, 2020 tweet making light of the coronavirus.
The tweet, which featured a picture of a CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, read: “Know what else has CV that isn’t #COVID19? #CV22uesday!”
The tweet was deemed to be in poor taste given the devastation the virus had caused. An AFSOC spokesman told Military Times that “we recognize it was in poor taste and have taken it down and apologize to anyone offended.” He added that the command will “review how this happened and act accordingly.”
Questions about COVID-19?
The Army put out a post on March 21, 2020 as part of an Army COVID-19 question and answer series that was considered racist and offensive. “Why did the man eat a bat?” the post asked. The answer, which was accompanied by a picture of a man shrugging, was “it wasn’t because he was thirsty.”
The Instagram post appears to have been referencing early reports that the coronavirus outbreak originated from the consumption of bats in China, which have fueled insensitive comments and jokes.
“This is simply unacceptable. We do not know how #COVID19 first infected humans but racism has no place in our Armed Forces,” Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth wrote on Twitter in response.
The social media manager responsible for the post, which, in addition to offensive content, also included inaccurate coronavirus information, was fired.
On March 6, 2020 the Defense Department flubbed a #KnowYourMil moment, when it tweeted out an image of Utah National Guard M109 Paladins but wrote: “Ready to roll out the big guns! The tanks of the @UTNationalGuard are lined up and ready to participated in #AfricaLion.”
Paladins are tracked and have large cannons, but they are not tanks. The Utah National Guard responded to the tweet, writing, “Guys … the M109 Paladin is a 155mm turreted self-propelled howitzer.”
Remembering the Battle of the Bulge with a picture of a Nazi that massacred US troops
In a move that drew significant criticism, the official Facebook pages of the Army 10th Mountain Division, the 18th Airborne Corps, and the Department of Defense all shared the picture of a Nazi responsible for the murder of more than 84 American prisoners of war in Dec. 16, 2019 posts commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, a fierce WWII battle.
The posts were later deleted. The Army said that it “regrets” that the image was included in the post that was shared on social media.
On November 20, 2019, the Department of Defense’s official Twitter account shared this stunning image of an armored vehicle firing at a training exercise with the tag, #KnowYourMil.
The only problem — they named the wrong armored vehicle.
That’s a Stryker armored vehicle firing its 105mm gun, not a Paladin self-propelled howitzer, as the DoD tweet identified it. One easy way to tell them apart is that the Paladin is a tracked vehicle like a tank. Strykers have wheels.
‘The last thing #Millennials will see if they attempt the #area51 raid today’
On Sept. 20, 2019, the Pentagon’s Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) tweeted out a warning to millennials planning to attend the “Storm Area 51” event that day, suggesting it was going to bomb them.
“The last thing #Millennials will see if they attempt the #area51 raid today,” the tweet read. The accompanying image was a B-2 Spirit bomber, a highly-capable stealth aircraft built to slip past enemy defenses and devastate targets with nuclear and conventional munitions.
The tweet prompted some backlash online, and the next day, DVIDS deleted the offending tweet and sent out a new one explaining that “last night, a DVIDSHUB employee posted a tweet that in NO WAY supports the stance of the Department of Defense.”
US Strategic Command, which oversees the US’s nuclear arsenal, rang in 2019 with a reminder that they’re ready, at any time, to start a nuclear war.
Playing off the image of the ball dropping in New York City’s Times Square, STRATCOM’s official account posted a tweet that included a clip of a B-2 dropping bombs. The command apologized for the message.
In May 2018, the internet was debating whether the word heard on a short audio recording was “Yanny” or “Laurel.” Then the US Air Force joined the debate, referring to a recent strike on Taliban.
“The Taliban Forces in Farah city #Afghanistan would much rather have heard #Yanny or #Laurel than the deafening #BRRRT they got courtesy of our #A10,” the official US Air Force Twitter account said.
The A-10 gunship carries a fearsome 30mm cannon used to destroy buildings, shred ground vehicles, and kill insurgents. It can fire so rapidly — nearly 3,900 rounds a minute — that the sound of each bullet is indistinguishable from the previous one, blending into a thundering “BRRRT.”
The US Air Force apologized for the tweet and deleted it, acknowledging it was in “poor taste.”
The US has the number of aircraft carriers it needs to meet requirements across the globe – unless “additional challenges show themselves,” the four-star admiral nominated to oversee military operations in the Asia-Pacific region said.
The 11 aircraft carriers in the military’s arsenal – as currently required by law – are what the force needs, Adm. John Aquilino said during a Tuesday Senate confirmation hearing. Aquilino has been nominated to lead U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Aquilino was asked by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., whether the Navy has enough carriers to deter China in the Pacific while still operating in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“We’ve complied to the law [with] 11, but is that enough though?” Wicker asked Aquilino. “Just tell us – we need to know. We can change the law of the land if we get enough votes.”
Aquilino said carrier strike groups are a tremendous form of deterrence, but demurred on saying the Navy needed more.
“I think currently that the size of that force is correct unless additional challenges show themselves,” he said.
Navy aircraft carriers are in high demand across the globe, but the service faced criticism from Congress when leaders in 2019 proposed retiring one early to invest in new technologies. USNI News reported this month that Pentagon leaders are again considering a reduced carrier force structure as part of its upcoming 2022 budget submission to Congress.
Resistance from lawmakers is likely. Wicker released a statement Monday calling for a bigger Navy in response to growing presence at sea from Russia and China. He urged the Biden administration to embrace a military plan released under President Donald Trump to increase the fleet to 405 manned Navy ships by 2051.
“If we do not ramp up shipbuilding dramatically, it will be more and more difficult to prevent a future conflict with our adversaries,” Wicker wrote.
Bryan McGrath, a retired surface officer and naval consultant, said while he has great respect for Aquilino, he believes the admiral is wrong to think 11 carriers are enough for the Navy to carry out its global requirements. McGrath cited ongoing trouble with carrier maintenance, readiness woes, and the need for extended or double-pump deployments that have weighed on the force.
The 11-carrier requirement was made law at about the same time as the Navy’s 2007 maritime strategy, which enshrined a “two-hub” presence in the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean.
Eleven is the minimum necessary carrier count to support the two hubs with continuous coverage, McGrath added, given maintenance and transit-time requirements.
Whenever two carriers are needed in one of those hubs though – which happened last year in response to Iranian threats and again just last month in the South China Sea – “the brittle relationship between that number of carriers and that number of hubs comes into stark relief,” he added.
And today, the US is also now dealing with a resurgence from Russia in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, McGrath said.
“The nation cannot ignore Europe as a theater for carrier operations, and in fact, it hasn’t,” he said. “And so for several years, we’ve taken the minimum number of carriers necessary to fill two hubs continuously and attempted to time share in a third, even as we desired multiple carriers in one or more of those hubs in this period.”
McGrath made the case in 2015 for a 16-carrier Navy. That many carriers could support continuous coverage of “three hubs indefinitely,” he wrote, “with little or no risk of gap.” He said he stands by that argument, adding, “if anything, today’s security environment is more pressing than when I wrote these words in 2015.”
Last week, Adm. Phil Davidson, who currently leads Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers there’s no substitute for having an aircraft carrier in the Pacific to counter China’s growing presence in the region.
The Navy is also still considering reactivating another numbered fleet in the Western Pacific, Davidson said. The Japan-based US Seventh Fleet currently oversees Navy operations all the way from India down to Antarctica and up past Japan to the Kuril Islands.
After nearly two decades of counter-terror operations around the world, the United States military has recently begun shifting its focus away from this form of asymmetric warfare and back toward the potential for near-peer conflicts with nations like China or Russia.
Despite maintaining the most powerful military apparatus on the globe, this pivot won’t be without its challenges. Over the past 19 years, the United States military has funneled the majority of its funding into combat operations and new technologies that support the counter-terrorism endeavor.
During this time, national opponents like China have had ample opportunity to observe the way America’s military operates, and find cost-effective methods of countering the US’s most significant strengths.
In 2015, for instance, both China and Russia established space-specific branches of their armed forces tasked with replicating some of America’s orbital strengths (like a GPS satellite constellation), but also with finding ways to mitigate America’s established orbital dominance.
Put simply, it’s cheaper and easier to interfere with or destroy technology than it is to replicate it, and America’s enemies have leveraged that simple logic to great effect in recent years. Today, it’s believed that both Russia and China operate semi-autonomous orbital assets that can already spy on or potentially even destroy satellites that are currently in orbit.
But while America has maintained the lead in orbital technology, it has apparently fallen behind in some weapons technologies that saw reduced focus throughout these many years of fighting terror organizations – namely, weapons technologies intended for use against technologically capable opponents.
Hypersonics, as one pressing example, are a rapidly developing field of extremely fast (higher than Mach 5) weapons that, to date, no air defense system can counter.
While both China and Russia claim to have operational hypersonic weapons in their arsenals, there’s one weapon that has wreaked more havoc in American military strategy than any other: China’s hypersonic DF-21D anti-ship missile.
Why is the DF-21D such a threat?
The DF-21D is a hypersonic anti-ship missile employed by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The platform itself is a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile. Once launched, the DF-21D follows a similar arc to that of an intercontinental ballistic missile, flying high into low earth orbit before deploying a hypersonic glide vehicle that can reach speeds as high as Mach 10 during its guided descent phase.
Existing missile defense systems simply can’t intercept a target moving that fast, making it all but impossible to stop one of these missiles once it’s been fired.
While the DF-21D’s speed makes it a clear threat to US Navy ships, it’s the missile’s range that poses the biggest problem. The DF-21D has an operational range of about 2,000 kilometers, or a bit more than 1,200 miles.
By placing these platforms along the Chinese coastline, the PLA has been able to establish an area-denial strategy, sometimes referred to as an area-denial “bubble,” or a 1,200-mile circle around each missile that enemy ships can’t enter without being within range of the weapon system.
It’s important to note that while these missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, the sheer kinetic force of a Mach 10 impact would be enough on its own to sink many ships, and when coupled with an explosive warhead, could conceivably take even a massive Nimitz-class supercarrier out of the fight with a single shot.
The strategic implications of China’s ‘area-denial bubble’
China’s area-denial bubble that extends some 1,200 miles from their shoreline poses a significant challenge for America’s conventional wartime strategy of using aircraft carriers as a means of force projection.
The US Navy maintains a fleet of 11 supercarriers, each capable of delivering more firepower than many entire nations could manage. One Nimitz-class carrier is capable of accommodating as many as 130 F/A-18 Super Hornets, or as many as 90 aircraft of varying types, along with a massive 6,000 service personnel.
The US uses these carriers to deliver huge amounts of firepower to any region of the globe, using carrier-based aircraft to deliver ordnance to targets extending out hundreds of miles.
It’s that “hundreds of miles” part that is the real issue here. The US Navy’s workhorse fighters are F/A-18 Super Hornets, which are currently undergoing a massive overhaul that will offer a similar increase in capabilities to the previous shift from Block I Hornets to Block II Super Hornets in 2001.
However, even with these Block III Super (Duper) Hornets, the ranges these jets are capable of engaging targets at are still far too short to compensate for China’s area denial bubble.
Block III Super Hornets and F-35Cs come up short
The Navy’s current Block II Super Hornets have a combat radius of approximately 500 miles while carrying a full weapons payload. That means these jets can take off from a carrier, fly 500 miles to engage a target, turn tail, and fly 500 miles back to their ship.
The forthcoming Block III variant of these fighters will add conformal fuel tanks (additional fuel tanks that hug the fuselage of the aircraft) which will allow them to carry 3,500 pounds of additional fuel, which will increase their fuel range by approximately 300 miles, or combat radius by 150. That means the top-end fourth-generation fighters employed by the US Navy in the near future will need to be launched within 650 miles of a target to be able to engage it.
The Lockheed Martin F-35C (carrier variant) offers about 10% more fuel range than the Block II Super Hornet, making its combat radius approximately 660 miles. Again, that mark falls far short of China’s DF-21D anti-ship missile’s range, at better than 1,200 miles.
This means that, in a best-case scenario, the U.S. Navy would have to park its carriers about 650 miles off of Chinese shores to be able to target shoreline assets, which places it well within China’s area-denial bubble. The minute an American carrier comes closer than 1,200 miles from Chinese shores, we run the risk of losing it to a DF-21D strike.
Put succinctly, this single missile platform has effectively neutered America’s most potent form of force projection: its fleet of supercarriers.
Increasing the fuel range of carrier-based aircraft
The US Navy is currently developing a carrier-based drone refueler called the MQ-25 Stingray. Originally developed to serve as a low-observable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (or armed drone), Boeing was able to convert their platform into a carrier-based refueler when the Navy began to recognize the importance of pulling more mileage out of existing fighters.
On August 30, 2018, the US Navy awarded Boeing an $805 million contract to continue development on the platform, and the drone took its first test flight just over a year later in September of 2019. The Navy intends to purchase a total of 76 Stingrays from Boeing, and according to the Pentagon, they may be able to extend the range of carrier-based aircraft by as much as 400 miles.
This increase in range is substantial – but isn’t substantial enough to allow carriers to launch sorties from outside China’s area-denial bubble. It’s important to note that the Navy’s fighters can’t refuel over the target, so each jet needs enough range to make it back to where the MQ-25 can reach them after delivering ordnance.
While there are current concerns about the MQ-25 program being delayed by external issues within the Navy, a spokesperson from Naval Air Systems Command recently confirmed that they expect to reach initial operating capability for the MQ-25 sometime in 2024.
Finding alternatives to carriers
There are a number of initiatives in development aimed at offsetting the strategic advantage China maintains in the region through their area-denial strategy, but thus far, no single effort that has been discussed publicly will do it on its own.
The US Marine Corps has had a great deal of success launching F-35Bs (short take-off, vertical landing variant) off the deck of smaller “flat-top carriers” the US refers to (for legal reasons) as amphibious assault ships. These vessels would likely be called aircraft carriers by other nations, but are significantly smaller than the Navy’s Nimitz or Ford-class supercarriers – making them a more difficult target to locate and engage.
It’s important to recognize the significant challenge accurate targeting will be for China’s DF-21D. Aircraft carriers may be massive, but against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, they’re practically tiny and can move at around 35 knots (40 miles per hour) with the throttle open.
In order to hit one on the move, China intends to employ supersonic drones to locate and transmit targeting data back to the missile. A smaller target (in the form of an amphibious assault ship) does make effective targeting even more difficult.
Other efforts include creating austere airstrips for F-35Bs on land masses inside China’s area denial bubble. These hastily cleared airports would allow heavy lift helicopters to deliver fuel and ordnance for F-35Bs to land, resupply, and take off once again.
However, these hasty airstrips, like a stationary aircraft carrier, would have a short shelf-life inside the range of China’s ballistic missile arsenal.
Support from the Air Force and the Army
While the US Navy and Marine Corps have both been working tirelessly to find ways to extend the reach of America’s carrier strike groups, it may be the Air Force that would need to lead the way in a conflict with China.
Northrop Grumman’s forthcoming B-21 Raider is expected to be the stealthiest bomber ever to take to the skies and will offer global strike capabilities similar to that of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit.
The B-21, then, may come to the Navy’s rescue by flying long-distance bombing missions over Chinese shorelines, engaging DF-21D and other hypersonic anti-ship platforms to clear the way for America’s carriers to sail close enough to begin launching sorties of their own. However, because the DF-21D is road mobile, it’s likely that it will be difficult to be sure where these platforms are. That’s where the Army may be able to help.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy recently let the cat out of the bag about a new program under his purview called “Vintage Racer,” which is a previously undisclosed hypersonic weapon that, unlike the hypersonic missiles employed by China and Russia, aims to solve problems through data collection and lots of brainpower, rather than brute force alone.
Vintage Racer closes with targets at hypersonic speeds, making it just as difficult to defend against as China’s own hypersonic missiles, but once it reaches a target area, the platform deploys a loitering system that uses its own sensors to find hidden or moving targets in the area. Once that system spots a mobile missile platform, it can then engage and destroy it.
Could a new fighter solve this problem?
With the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. recently claiming that the US Air Force needs to develop a “clean-sheet” stealth fighter that combines some F-35 capabilities with the cost effectiveness of a 4th-generation fighter, it’s clear that the United States no longer sees the F-35 as a solution for every problem.
The Air Force also claimed to have designed, built, and flight tested a “6th-generation fighter” platform that will likely mature into a replacement for the stealth F-22 Raptor via the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program.
So if the Air Force is looking to bolster its own F-35s with a handful of more specialized fighters, what’s to stop the Navy from following suit? Namely, the money.
America’s Defense Department has to compete within itself for portions of the budget, and while the Air Force considers new fighter acquisitions, the Navy is stuck trying to expand the size of its surface fleet to compete with China. America’s Navy has something in the neighborhood of 293 vessels, with many slated for retirement in the coming decades. In order to keep pace with China’s 700+ size fleet, the US Navy needs more ships, and ships are expensive.
But what if the Navy were to find a way to hop into bed with the Air Force’s multiple fighter programs? While trying to cram the word “joint” into a fighter program may give us all a bit of pause (for good reason, after the acquisition nightmare the F-35 has become), if a new jet could solve this problem for the Navy, what would it have to look like?
To be clear – it would be asking a lot. In order to offset the area-denial bubble created by China’s anti-ship weapons, this new jet would need to have a massive amount of range and a tiny radar profile. If we assume the area-denial bubble extends 1,200 miles from China’s shores and the existence of operational MQ-25s for refueling, we can do some back-of-the-envelope math to determine range requirements.
This new aircraft would need to fly 1,200 miles out from the deck of a carrier, and then a minimum of 800 miles back, where it could be refueled for an additional 400 miles. That means the Navy needs an aircraft with a whopping 2,000-mile range … at a minimum. It would also need to be stealthy – in order to survive in the highly contested airspace it would operate in.
While such an aircraft may not be impossible … it is a pretty big ask.
Does this even matter if we don’t go to war with China?
While the capabilities the US is developing with an eye toward China will certainly benefit combat operations in any theater, there’s another important aspect of defense technology development that warrants consideration: diplomatic leverage in the pursuit of deterrence.
Like Theodore Roosevelt’s “talk softly and carry a big stick” approach to diplomacy, military capability is often as much about the threat of use as it is about actual use. When engaged in diplomatic talks, the understanding that warfare is foreign policy by other means is ever-present.
When it comes to aggressive states like China, who are moving to enforce illegal claims over the hotly contested South China Sea, knowing we can’t stop them plays an important role in how they approach the subject in international dialogue.
Likewise, if China is aware that the US possesses the capability to do away with their anti-ship arsenal and begin launching combat sorties in their airspace, it forces them to engage with the dialogue directly. A great deal of foreign policy really comes down to posturing and veiled threats, but threats are only effective when they’re backed by real capability.
From a strategic military standpoint, the most effective way to deter a 21st-century war with China is to ensure America would win such a conflict. In order to get to that point, the capability gap created by China’s area-denial bubble needs to be closed, and right now – that all boils down to fuel range.
The US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft have started flying missions in the US 5th Fleet AOR (Area of Operations) carrying AGM-84D Harpoon missiles.
Images just released by the naval service through the DVIDS network show sailors assigned to the “Fighting Tigers” of Patrol Squadron 8, deployed with Commander, Task Force (CTF) 57, performing preflight checks on AGM-84 Harpoon missiles carried by a P-8A of VP-8 ahead of a mission in the US 5th Fleet area of operations (that encompasses the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean) on January 15-16, 2021.
While the location where the images were taken has not been disclosed, it seems quite likely that the P-8A was being serviced at its usual deployment base in Manama, Bahrain, where P-3 Orion and Poseidon aircraft supporting CTF-57 are usually based.
CTF-57 is the maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft Task Force for the US 5th Fleet, Naval Forces Central Command, and Combined Maritime Forces.
CTF-57 aircraft conduct missions in support of maritime operations to ensure stability, security, and the free flow of commerce in the Central Command area of responsibility, which connects the Mediterranean and Pacific through the Western Indian Ocean.
The AGM-84D Harpoon is an anti-ship missile that complements the Mk 54 air-launched lightweight torpedo, used for ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) mission.
We don’t know where the Poseidon with its live Harpoon payload flew after the shots were taken.
The P-8s are a common presence in the Persian Gulf area, where they have often been tracked by means of their Mode-S transponders. However, they also extend their patrols to the Gulf of Oman and to the Horn of Africa, where they support anti-piracy operations.
Still, considered when the image was taken (mid-January, a period of intense Iranian naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz), it seems more likely that that kind of weaponry was loaded to deter any kind of attack against US Navy warships and commercial traffic in the area.
In fact, the US has maintained a significant naval presence in region consistently since May 2019, as a hedge against Iran. Since then, a carrier strike group has been positioned in the Gulf round-the-clock, with few gaps in presence.
At the beginning of February, USS Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and embarked Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (Reinforced), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (with its F-35Bs) transited the Strait of Hormuz to operate in the Persian Gulf replacing USS Nimitz, after supporting Operation Octave Quartz off the coast of Somalia.
P-8As are maritime patrol aircraft but even when they are not loaded with anti-ship missiles or toperdos, they carry a wide array of sensors that give the aircraft the ability to operate in the ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) battlespace. Here’s what we have already explained in a previous article here at The Aviationist:
[…] the P-8s are multi-mission platforms that can gather valuable intelligence using a wide array of sensors. Among these, an Advanced Airborne Sensor (a dual-sided AESA radar that can offer 360-degree scanning on targets on land or coastal areas, and which has potential applications as a jamming or even cyberwarfare platform according to Northrop Grumman); an APY-10 multi-mode synthetic aperture radar; an MX-20 electro-optical/infrared turret for shorter-range search; and an ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure (ESM) suite, able to geo-locate and track enemy radar emitters. Moreover, all sensors contribute to a single fused tactical situation display, which is then shared over both military standard and internet protocol data links, allowing for seamless delivery of information amongst U.S. and coalition forces.
In that respect, the P-8A Poseidon represents a huge leap forward if compared to the P-3 Orion. For instance, the externally mounted AP/ANY-10 MTI imaging radar system (upgrade from the P-3’s Littoral Surveillance Radar System – LSRS), adds both an overland and maritime MTI capability approaching the fidelity provided by the US Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). The significant difference with the more modern P-3s is, in particular, in the P-8’s ability to rapidly exchange and share information internally among the crew and externally among joint partners.
In 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed its top secret mission of delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian Island in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk on its way to join a task force near Okinawa.
Of the ship’s 1195 crew members, only 316 survived the sinking and the subsequent time adrift at sea in the middle of nowhere. Among the survivors was the captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III.
McVay would be charged with negligence in the loss of the ship. Even though he was restored to active duty after his court-martial and retired a rear admiral, the guilt of the loss haunted him for the rest of his life. He committed suicide with his Navy revolver on his own front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand.
McVay did everything he could in the wake of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis. He sounded the alarm, giving the order to abandon ship and was one of the last men off. Many of the survivors of the sinking publicly stated he was not to blame for its loss. But this wasn’t enough for the family members of the ship’s crew, who hounded McVay year after year, blaming him for the loss of their sons.
The Navy was partly to blame. They didn’t warn Indianapolis that the submarine I-58 was operating along the area of the ship’s course to Okinawa. They also didn’t warn the ship to zigzag in its pattern to evade enemy submarines. When the Indianapolis radioed a distress signal, it was picked up by three Navy stations, who ignored the call because one was drunk, the other had a commander who didn’t want to be disturbed, and the last thought it was a trap.
Three and a half days later, the survivors were rescued from the open water, suffering from salt water poisoning, exposure, hypothermia, and the largest case of shark attacks ever recorded. It was truly a horrifying scene. The horror is what led to McVay’s court martial, one of very few commanders to face such a trial concerning the loss of a ship.
Even though the Japanese commander of I-58, the man who actually destroyed the Indianapolis, told the US Navy that standard Navy evasion techniques would not have worked – Indianapolis was doomed from the get-go. Even that didn’t satisfy McVay’s critics.
It wasn’t until sixth-grader Hunter Scott began a history project in school about the sinking of the Indianapolis.
He poured through official Navy documents until he found the evidence he needed to conclusively prove that McVay wasn’t responsible for the loss of his ship. His project caught the attention of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who helped pass a Congressional resolution exonerating McVay. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Hunter Scott, the onetime sixth-grader and eternal friend to the crew of the Indianapolis, is now a naval aviator. He attended the University of North Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship and joined active duty in 2007. He even spoke at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.
According to a recent story published in Naval News, for the first time, the power module for the F-35C Lightning II multirole combat aircraft has been delivered by a CMV-22B Osprey to an aircraft carrier at sea, the USS Carl Vinson.
The engine was an F-135 Power Module, which is common to all three variants of the F-35 aircraft.
To the casual observer, this may not seem like an event of much importance, but for the Navy and the Marine Corps that fly the plane, this is a very big deal.
It is said that when it comes to the art of war, amateurs talk about tactics while professionals talk about logistics. And the F-35 coming into naval service created some unique logistical challenges for the Navy and Marine Corps.
There are some 500 F-35s currently in service building to a peak strength of over 2,400. While the F-35 holds out the promise of incredible performance and combat capability, none of that will matter if these aircraft cannot be sustained while operating at sea.
One of the major problems was that the hot exhaust of the F-35’s engine tended to melt the flight decks of the ships they were landing on. The same problem existed with the V-22 Osprey and its engine nacelles when in the vertical position. The Navy solved that problem by making the decks more heat-resistant.
The F-35 also incorporates an automated parts system that tracks every component installed on this enormously complex aircraft to keep track of its performance and durability. This system has also been plagued with data-entry problems that are still being worked out.
This is in no way unique to the introduction of a new aircraft into the Navy or Air Force. You can plan very carefully to take all factors into account, but logging hours with the F-35 in the real world is necessary to find problems no one ever thought of. One of those problems for the F-35 was engine swaps.
The Lightning II uses the Pratt and Whitney F-135 Power Module designed to be unplugged and removed from the aircraft. It is then shipped as a single unit to a maintenance facility ashore to be overhauled and then returned to the squadrons as a spare.
Building a fleet of F-35s is pricey, but their construction cost isn’t the only cost involved. To keep these planes flying and fighting requires a very long and expensive logistics “tail” of spare parts and engines. This is why about 70% of the Navy’s weapons budget is just for the sustainment of the weapons it already has.
When it comes to the F-35C and its modular powerplant, the Navy needed to buy hundreds of spare engines that need to be replaced after a certain number of running hours are logged. The problem was how to get them out to the aircraft carriers that have Lightning squadrons.
The F-135 Power Module is a beast in terms of weight and size. It’s over 4,500 pounds and too large to fit into the cargo bay of the ancient C-2A Greyhounds. Further, you cannot just slam the F-35C’s engine onto the deck during a carrier landing and not expect it to be damaged. In contrast, the Osprey will be able to land vertically with a minimum of shock and vibration to the Power Module.
Now here is why this rather mundane delivery of an F-35C engine to the Vinson matters so much: If the F-35C is fully sustainable at sea the Navy can roughly double its carrier strike capability and give the Marine Corps the ability to provide its own close air support and inland strike capability without needing a Carrier Strike Group to help them.
Using the fleet’s current amphibious landing ships with flight decks the Navy could put to sea with 24-25 aircraft carriers flying variants of the F-35, instead of just 12 supercarriers. And for Marines landing ashore, it would be its own F-35B in the VTOL variant providing not just close air support for troops on the beach but also a deep inland strike capability.
There are still other logistical problems to be worked out. For example, Navy ships and resupply vessels need larger electric motors and specialized skids to sling the power module during replenishment-at-sea operations, and an Osprey variant that can do in-flight refueling for the F-35 is badly needed.
But being able to fly 1,000 miles out to sea and gently land the power module for these aircraft brings us much closer to the game-changer that the Lightning II aircraft promised to be at its inception.
The RMS Titanic was billed as “unsinkable.” Many conflicting reasons have been proposed as to why but, nonetheless, they were proven wrong. When the RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, she took with her over 1,500 of her 2,224 estimated passengers and crew.
Countless expeditions were sent to go salvage the wreckage, but it wasn’t until 1985 when it was “suddenly” located. For many years, there was a shroud of mystery surrounding exactly how it was found.
The truth was later declassified by the Department of the Navy. As it turns out, finding the Titanic was a complete accident on the part of US Navy Cmdr. Robert Ballard, who was searching for the wreckage of two Navy nuclear submarines.
Ballard had served as an intelligence officer in the Army Reserves before commissioning into the active duty Navy two years later. While there, he served as a liaison between the Office of Naval Research and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
He spent many years of his life dedicated to the field of oceanography. Even before enlisting, he had been working on his own submersible, called Alvin, with the Woods Hole Institute. He’d continue designing submersibles and technologies until he finished his famous craft, the Argo. The Argo was equipped with high-tech sonar and cameras and had a detachable robot called Jason.
It was then that the US Navy secretly got in touch with Ballard about finding the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion in 1982. Both nuclear submarines had mysteriously sank at some point in the 1960s, but the US government was never clear on what exactly happened.
The approximate locations of the submarines were known, but exactly how well the nuclear reactors were holding up after 20 years on the ocean’s floor was a mystery. They sent Ballard and his team to go find out. To cover their tracks, they said they were embarking on a regular expedition to search for the lost Titanic (which, despite the outcome, wasn’t the objective at the time).
The mission was to take four one-month-long expeditions – two months per lost submarine. Ballard asked if he’d ever get the chance to look for the Titanic while he was out there, a chance to fulfill his childhood dream. The Navy struck a bargain. They said that he could look for the sunken behemoth after he found the two subs, if time and funding permitted.
He received his funding and set off with the French research ship Le Suroit. Ballard kept most of the crew in the dark, opting instead to stick with his cover story of searching for the Titanic. He’d personally go down in a submersible and check on the status of each nuclear reactor and their warheads. He had a rough idea where to look, but he followed debris trails on the relatively smooth ocean floor to get to each destination.
Once he finished checking on the USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, he had 12 days remaining. Between the two wrecks was a large debris field that littered the ocean floor. This was far from where many experts claimed the Titanic would be.
Just like the two submarines, Ballard believed that the Titanic imploded, leaving behind a massive trail of debris as it drifted to its final resting place. He used what he learned from the submarines and applied the same theory to the Titanic.
First he found the ship’s boiler, and then, eventually, the entirety of the hull.
He knew that his remaining time was short and a storm was quickly approaching, so he marked his exact location on the map and returned to the wreckage the following year. For a year, he didn’t tell a soul, for fear of others showing up and trying to remove artifacts from the ship. He eventually returned on July 12, 1986, and made the first detailed study of the wreckage.
Ballard would later investigate the wreckages of the Bismarck, the RMS Lusitania, the USS Yorktown, John F. Kennedy’s PT-109, and many more.
The story of the Titanic, of course, would later be turned into a film that won 11 Academy Awards – which conveniently left out the fact that the ship’s wreckage was actually discovered due to a top-secret government operation.