Leveraging America’s Aircraft Carrier Capabilities: Exploring New Combat and Noncombat Roles and Missions for the U.S. Carrier Fleet
Apr 28, 2006
To meet future combat and noncombat demands, U.S. aircraft carriers will require a range of new capabilities. Carriers will need to be better able to mix and match personnel, aircraft, and other assets to emerging tasks. They will need capabilities to perform more extensive surveillance and reconnaissance, conduct longer-range air operations, and operate in nuclear environments. And they will need to be more modular, deploy on shorter notice, and be prepared to handle more casualties than they can today.
For more than seven decades—stretching from before World War II through the Global War on Terrorism, to the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami—the United States has used aircraft carriers and their air wings to show force, deter adversaries, engage friends and allies, provide humanitarian assistance, and bring airpower to bear against opponents.
In coming years, it is likely that aircraft carriers will be called upon to shoulder even more duties. Some duties may involve new variations of combat and noncombat operations that carriers traditionally have pursued. Others might entail an expansion of nontraditional assignments. Equipped with aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles and possessing large, open and covered spaces, significant human resources, and massive electrical-power-generation capabilities, aircraft carriers represent substantial resources that the U.S. Navy may be able to more fully exploit.
The Navy sought RAND's help in 2004 to better understand possible nontraditional roles for aircraft carriers. Over the course of six months, RAND convened two small groups of experienced military and civilian experts, defense analysts, and potential users. One group explored and identified new ways that aircraft carriers could be used in combat operations; the other examined ways that the vessels could be used in noncombat homeland-security missions or in helping the nation recover from terrorist attacks or natural disasters.
The groups cataloged how and under what conditions aircraft carriers have been employed in the past and identified circumstances over the next 20 or 30 years that could require U.S. aircraft carriers to be employed in nontraditional roles.
The Navy has not been shy about using aircraft carriers in alternative ways. During World War II, for example, it used carriers as platforms from which to launch Army bombers in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942, as vessels to transport Royal Air Force, Marine Corps, and U.S. Army planes to various theaters, and as launch platforms for Army spotter planes throughout the Pacific theater. In the Vietnam War, it used them as electronic intelligence and communications antenna farms. And in later conflicts, it used them as bases for Army air assault and Special Operations Forces (SOF).
Aircraft carriers also have been used in noncombat roles—as launch platforms for U-2 spy planes, spacecraft-recovery vehicles, troop transports, mobile electric-power plants, and as centers from which to conduct disaster-relief operations.
|China-Taiwan||Taiwan is threatened by the People's Republic of China|
|Pakistan coup attempt||Radical group within Pakistani military attempts to overthrow the government in Islamabad|
|Korean crisis||North Korea, equipped with a dozen or more nuclear weapons, confronts South Korea|
|Strait of Hormuz crisis||A nuclear-armed Iran sponsors nonstate terrorist groups|
|Nigeria civil war noncombatant evacuation||Civil war in Nigeria requires a large-scale noncombatant evacuation operation|
|Colombia insurgency||Colombia's police and military require help to counter an insurgency by two major guerrilla groups|
|Myanmar civil war||Myanmar government is pressed by a foreign-backed civil war|
|Nuclear detonation in Long Beach, California||Radical nonstate terrorist detonates nuclear device in Port of Long Beach|
|Tsunami along U.S. Atlantic coast||Underwater earthquake in mid-Atlantic causes major tidal wave on U.S. East Coast|
|Volcanic eruption in Hawaii||Kilauea volcano erupts, significantly damaging major portions of the Big Island|
|Earthquake in San Francisco, California||Large earthquake strikes San Francisco area, simultaneous with security crisis in Korea|
|Cuban refugee crisis||Post-Castro civil unrest in Cuba leads to a massive flood of Florida-bound refugees|
The research groups also examined 12 combat and noncombat scenarios (shown in Table 1) that they speculated the U.S. carrier fleet might encounter in the future.
For each scenario, RAND examined tasks that the United States might assign to its carrier fleet, evaluated whether the current fleet could handle them or would need to change, and assessed the operational and technical implications of such changes. RAND made five recommendations to the Navy related to future combat missions and five recommendations for future noncombat missions.