As the empire continues to collapse, losing foreign wars but turning inward upon its own citizens with threats and bluster, its military forces will continue to embarrass themselves. In particular, the US Navy will soon be revealed as a wet paper tiger, boasting a carrier battle group (CBG) force structure designed solely to punish small-state defectors from the petrodollar, rather than having any connection whatsoever to the historical missions of power projection and sea control. When faced with a sufficiently determined “near peer” adversary, the CBG is likely to collapse like a house of cards. This is a fact which has been known through wargaming since the mid-1970s, and through internal DoD studies since the late 1950s. The author’s credentials to make the bold claims in this article are substantiated at the end of this piece. Although the predictions are grim, former provinces (i.e., “states”) of the collapsing empire can benefit from the correct interpretations of these issues. In other words, it is completely unnecessary to defeat, or even combat, the dying empire, it is only necessary to not lose to it.
Carrier Battle Group (CBG) History
The modern composition, theory and public perception of the US Navy CBG is based on a single heavily-biased precedent, that of fighting the Japanese Navy in the Pacific during World War II. This CBG-vs-CBG is an historical anomaly that will never again be repeated. Because of its victory in that war, the US Navy learned the wrong lessons. Every other observant nation learned the correct lesson, which is that the Japanese Navy abandoned its natural maritime aviation (defined later) high ground, to its detriment.
Studies in the late 1950s (think “Rand”) revealed that a CBG was critically vulnerable to a saturation attack in the missile age. Even low-tech missiles, hardly more sophisticated than the Nazi V1 flying bomb, with low-tech terminal homing necessary to hit the broadside of a carrier barn, in sufficient quantity, would overwhelm the defenses of the day. It was these studies which led to the F14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix fighter/missile combination to hit maritime missile platforms before launching, the Aegis/SM-2 missile combination to hit anti-ship missiles after launch, and the Close In Weapon System (CIWS) concept to catch leakers.
For the last seventy or so years, the CBG has been caught in an expensive race against rapidly evolving missile technology, where each small advance in anti-ship missile technology requires a greater advance in defensive technology and expenditure. Worse, any given anti-ship missile technology, in sufficient numbers, will eventually overwhelm even the highest-tech shipboard defense when the escort ships’ magazines run dry. This article focuses on the gradual and deliberate degradation of the first layer of CBG defense as a reflection of imperial policy; other articles may address the latter two layers. Note that none of these three layers has ever been battle tested against a determined near peer. So, there can be no special hidden knowledge that resides within the naval establishment that has a shelf life of less than about seven decades. Similarly, claims of secret wonder weapons can be safely ignored, especially given the Navy’s demonstrated inability to reliably field new classes of ships with even modest technological improvements, nor does it appear to be able to maintain the systems it has with anything close to the level of professionalism of even a few decades ago (the emerging “rust bucket Navy” concept). To be generous, as would any rational near peer planner, we will assume that the Navy’s existing systems work as advertised 100% of the time, although the author’s personal experience aboard the USS Ticonderoga AEGIS ship in the summer of 1987 (long before the modern era of social engineering and its corrosive effects on readiness) wildly conflicts with this assumption.
The Maritime Aviation Advantage
For purposes of this discussion, let us define maritime aviation as being land-based aviation assets which are applied against forces at sea, as opposed to carrier aviation. Conventional wisdom believes that no nation without a CBG of its own can defeat the mighty US Navy CBG. This is vain absurdity, a point which was already well-known from those 1950s studies, and which became painfully obvious at the fleet level in the 1970s with the advent of the at-first classified NAVTAG simulator, and then by the commercial Harpoon PC game. In the author’s personal experience, NAVTAG simulations at the Naval Academy had to be watered down to the point of absurdity to give the US side even a decent chance of survival.
From a maritime aviation perspective, a CBG’s advantages include maneuverability (a dubious advantage in the real-time satellite era) and no need to obtain host nation approval (an increasing necessity as the empire collapses and former allies defect). However, the more numerous advantages of a sufficiently large and coordinated maritime aviation strike against a CBG include the obvious factors such as a) unsinkable bases, b) the ability to disperse units, making them harder to find, c) employment of large aircraft capable of large missile loads, d) the employment of aircraft of any size or mix from behind a dense anti-aircraft screen and e) the ability to coordinate attacks en-masse against any CBG in range (CBGs out of range of maritime aviation are of little immediate threat).
Further, for this purpose anti-CBG forces can also include sea-based patrol boats (let’s call these “littoral forces”) such as the often-derided Iranian patrol boats, which are reported to number in the thousands and could, if employed in a sufficiently coordinated way, either alone or with maritime aviation, easily deny Persian Gulf entry to the US Navy. A similar approach is practical for Russian, Chinese and Indian littoral forces in their respective waters. Littoral forces also include low-cost, low-tech, short-range diesel submarines. Again, these are highly derided in popular press as being laughable compared to American nuclear submarines. However, Navy planners know that these diesel boats can be very lethal to a CBG, especially if coordinated en masse with anti-ship air and surface attacks. Finally, a smaller near peer CBG can act as an extension of littoral forces. For this purpose, even conventionally powered small carriers lacking long range endurance, or even catapults, but packing a wallop of anti-ship and anti-air capabilities, and despite again being derided in popular press as “not as good as Murican”, is sufficient to assist near peer maritime and littoral defense against incoming US CBGs.
Without belaboring the point, any sufficiently objective simulation will reveal that maritime aviation in sufficient quantity will eventually saturate and overwhelm CBG defenses, and at much lower required cost, levels of training, and technology than required by that CBG to maintain and defend itself. This balance becomes even more heavily weighted against the CBG if the maritime aviation attack is coordinated with a significant littoral anti-ship attack. Destroying an attacking CBG with existing low-tech weapons systems by a sufficiently determined near peer defender is really just a numbers game, no exotic weaponry required. This fact has been known to all but the American public for over a half a century.
Near Peer Force Structure
The US defense propaganda machine, in its magic dirt vanity, will often deride potential adversaries as “near peer”, meaning that they are “almost, but not quite, as good as us”. Although I detest this term, it is useful for this discussion to distinguish from “war on terror” adversaries (i.e., petrodollar defectors), who are too weak to defend themselves against “shock and awe” tactics (thus “weak-state” adversaries in this paper). Three of the four emerging new first world allies, Russia, China and Iran, contrasted to the sinking second-world axis of US, UK, Australia and their NATO colonies (France and Japan wisely deciding to sidestep this collapse) have and always have had force structures indicative of their understanding of the CBG vulnerabilities. Of the emerging first world nations, only India is choosing to attempt to follow the declining US lead; the other three have correctly learned the lessons from World War II onward, lessons which in my experience were readily available to any Naval Academy graduate since the mid 1980s.
National policy drives force structure. Stalin has been quoted “quantity has a quality all its own”. Whether or not this is an actual Stalin quote, the former Soviet Union certainly implemented its own force structure in this way. If a nation’s policy is to punish weak-state defectors from the petrodollar (or equivalently, to intimidate weak-states from defecting), while at the same time maximizing contractor profits and taxpayer liabilities, then CBGs are the logical outcome. If, on the other hand, a nation’s policy is to defend itself from CBGs, the rational cost-effective answer, based on numerous studies and simulations now available to anyone, is a combination of large numbers of low-tech maritime aviation, air defense, and littoral weapons systems. This combination is exactly the approach favored by Russia and China, and now being adopted by Iran, and was the observable policy of the former Soviet Union.
Just as national policy drives force structure, even a secret national policy can be inferred from the observable force structure. In other words, the observable force structures and weapons development of Russia, China and Iran indicate that these nations recognize the power of the maritime aviation/littoral forces partnership against a US Navy CBG (or against their own CBGs if they were inclined to field any as other than a limited extension of littoral forces). These nations, like the former Soviet Union, appear to have little intention to invade the US in any way in which a CBG would be helpful in countering, as indicated by a conventional maritime and naval force structure designed specifically to defend itself from US Navy CBGs. In fact, even if any near peer was successful in wiping every US Navy CBG from the seas, the near peer(s) would still lack the ability to attack/invade the US by sea to any significant degree (nuclear excepted) as they would then be facing exactly the same maritime aviation / littoral forces advantage aimed at their approaching forces. Former imperial provinces, when they arise, would do well to heed this lesson and adopt the far less expensive approach of a maritime aviation / littoral force partnership, rather than exhaust themselves fielding expensive and vulnerable CBGs. Or allow themselves to be coerced into thinking that they are vulnerable without the increasingly leaky imperial umbrella.
This is a lesson that Billy Mitchell, considered the father of the US Air Force, understood about a hundred years ago. Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto, well versed in US naval policy and force structure, was himself caught in a policy death-spiral, to the detriment of the Japanese Empire. A fraction of the resources spent on Japanese carrier aviation and support, applied instead to maritime aviation and littoral shipping, would have gruelingly exhausted the US Navy, and denied the US the Pearl Harbor moral high ground. Stalin’s Soviet Union took note, and so have Russia, China, Iran and India, who can drive to anywhere they care about and can cost-effectively protect their shores from landward, rather than seaward.
Buckaroos: The Dogfighting Canary in the Maritime Aviation Coal Mine
The studies in the 1950s onward, and the simulations in the 1970s onward, were not lost on the naval establishment. A separate piece will address naval corruption in particular, but the policies and procurement decisions of the naval establishment indicate that they have recognized the vulnerabilities of the CBG. One need look no further than the evolution of the F-14 Tomcat to see the patterns emerge. Both the Navy and the Air Force can be indicted by their respective fascination with the dogfighting mythology, but let’s focus on just the Navy’s approach to this mythology to reveal their own decades-long hypocrisy.
Dogfighting, also known by the clever term Aerial Combat Maneuvering (ACM), has long been a purely American vanity to appeal to the Old West gunfighter ethic. An enormous portion of aviation procurement is driven by the idea of “dogfighting”, but the US appears to be the only nation that considers dogfighting to be a modern necessity (versus “interception”, which is a related but more cost-effective approach). Once upon a time, a brash USMC 2ndLt referred to pilots as being either glorified truck drivers or glorified weapons system operators, an assessment which indicates their role on a larger team, rather than being individual divas. A favorite movie scene is from the predictably “Team Murica” Tom Clancy techno-thriller “The Hunt For Red October” where Soviet Captain Ramius refers to the American sub captain as a “Buckaroo” for wearing a pistol (later justified by the contrived plot line, but that is beside the point). The term rings true as it reflects a stereotypical “me me me” diva attitude that weakens cohesiveness.
If we focus on only near peer conflict, then a simple fact of life is that if a carrier pilot finds himself in a dogfight, then his team is already losing the larger battle. This brings us back to the history of the F-14, greatly simplified here. As mentioned above, the Navy’s classical approach to CBG defense involved three layers, the one of interest at the moment being the F-14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix system. The interested reader can do their own web research, but the theory behind this interceptor/missile system was to shoot down large numbers of maritime planes before they could launch even larger numbers of missiles against the CBG. The relevant Wikipedia article is deceptive in that it mentions land-based jet missile platforms, but a greater threat was from large numbers of cheaper and reliable turbo-prop bombers (ex. Tu-95 Bear) with heavy missile loads. The F-14/AIM-54 concept allowed a squadron of planes to carry up to six heavy long-range interceptor missiles each, take them out to the edge of the CBG air-defense envelope at supersonic speeds, fire them, and return to the carrier to reload and repeat, no dogfighting required or desired. In this context, if an F-14 engages in dogfighting, it isn’t doing its main job of being this advanced missile platform. The F-14 was never intended, or at least never advertised, as a buckaroo fighter. The more appropriate term for this system would be “interceptor”, but Americans want to be called dogfighters, which is why the F-14 wasn’t the “I-14” as the latter sounds like an interstate highway. Clearly, F-14 crews (pilot plus radar intercept officer) were originally intended to be glorified supersonic truck drivers hauling their missile payloads out to the launch points, an image that just didn’t seem sexy enough to prospective naval aviator buckaroos.
However, as the F-14 was being developed, the experience of the US Navy in Vietnam was that relatively low-tech Soviet planes, operating as integrated teams including SAM and AA envelopes (this topic can be an article on its own), were racking up a more than acceptable rate of American losses. Rather than take a step back and decide that the fighter concept was outdated, Americans doubled-down and amped up the buckaroo dogfighter mythology. The Navy, in particular, founded Top Gun, formally named the Naval Fighter Weapons School (NFWS), at Miramar in 1969 to address this misplaced need. So, by the time the F-14/AIM-54 system was actually fielded in the 1970s, even though the Vietnam war was over, the buckaroo ego prevailed over the advertised CBG defense. Ink barely dry on the Top Gun charter, F-14 crews began to cycle through learning the latest in buckaroo techniques against imagined hostiles who would never materialize in reality. Meanwhile, F-14s would so rarely fire an expensive Phoenix that to do so would become a major event, requiring weeks of planning and preparation, mirroring the similar hype and pomp of the rare SM-2 missile shots from an Aegis ship.
Here is where the first round of naval establishment hypocrisy rears its head: “We need an expensive interceptor to carry this heavy and sophisticated missile to defend the carrier battle group against the low tech maritime aviation threat, but we’re going to spend most of our training time and money practicing everything but that role because the saturation implications are too horrific to admit.”
The very existence of dogfighting training as a major syllabus item for F-14 crews means that the Navy has known for decades that the maritime aviation threat from a determined near peer could not be countered, rendering the CBG effective only against weak states, the only context in which dogfighting might possibly be justified (and not even then in reality).
Buckaroo Part Deux: Strike Fighter Tactics
Once the Navy decided that near peer CBG actions were untenable, it decided to go all in on the weak state petrodollar intimidation mission and introduce the second round of naval establishment hypocrisy. Following on the heels of Desert Storm, and now no longer concealing weak state operations on the wrong side in Kosovo, the Navy establishment abandoned any pretense of carrier defense by revamping the F-14 and team training to include ground attack. In 1996, Top Gun was renamed as the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program. All those expensive carrier defense aircraft were now going to be trained in ground strikes, with a nod to the buckaroo ethic by still calling them “Strike Fighters”. Anything to keep that word fighter in the name.
Now imagine this scenario as if you were in charge of a carrier battle group around Y2K. You have a limited number of F-14/AIM-54 systems available to defend your carrier. If you believed there was any risk of a near peer maritime aviation threat, would you risk even one of those irreplaceable systems and their highly specialized crews on ground attack? No, you would not. Neither would a reputable naval establishment.
The very fact that near the end of its service life the F-14s began to be repurposed in a ground attack “fighter” role means that the Navy itself was not imagining a near peer conflict as a credible threat at that time.
Buckaroo III: Super Hornets and Lightning Bugs
The F-14/AIM-54 system was in service for about three decades. In that time, technological advances allowed the Navy to turn its dollars and attention to the multi-role F/A-18 Hornet, culminating in the Super Hornet. Advances in missile technology allowed lighter long-range air-to-air missiles to replace the AIM-54. This one-stop shopping (anti-ship, air-to-air and air-to-ground missions) returned some refreshing honesty to naval planning and procurement. However, the emphasis on dogfighting remained even with the slower F/A-18 (Mach 1.8 versus 2.4 for the F-14), with the ground strike role designed in from the start, a feature only useful in weak state actions versus the CBGs role as a near peer missile sponge. The fact that the extra 0.6 Mach CBG defense capability no longer mattered is an important indicator that the naval establishment no longer believed its own near peer hype but was instead fully embracing the weak state intimidation mission.
Remember that integrated team of low tech fighters plus AA/SAM? The typical defense establishment answer to that problem is “send in stealth” (yet another weak state concept which falls apart in the near peer environment). For decades, the Navy grew dependent upon Air Force stealth to handle the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) mission, with near peer systems becoming sufficiently agile (another large topic) to be able to defeat anti-radiation missiles and stealth itself.
To break its dependence upon Air Force stealth, the Navy, in its now third round of hypocrisy, has committed to adopting the problematic and expensive F-35 Lightning II, with all of its attendant bugs. At a top speed of Mach 1.6, even slower than the Hornet, the Navy has moved even farther away from CBG defense against near peer maritime aviation threats. To be clear, CBG defense from maritime aviation threats is not a stealth operation, it is a high volume missile launch operation. By definition, the bad guys already know where you are, and know you are coming. The only option for CBG defense is to get as far forward as fast as possible, launch as many missiles as possible, and get back to reload as fast as possible. And hope that aviation maintenance in the emerging rust bucket Navy can handle the interception operational tempo with a fighter well-known for numerous breakdowns.
Recruiting Versus Reality
There is no question that the buckaroo dogfighting image is valuable recruiting fodder. Not just prospective pilots, but also many young sailors and airmen join for the chance to touch the hem of the latest fighter (in addition to lucrative avionics and aircraft maintenance specialties given the post-service opportunities to dip into the buckaroo budget). Even the recruiting flicks (“The Final Countdown” and “Top Gun” as two examples) play up the weak state mission while totally sidestepping the near peer CBG defense problem. Admittedly, it would be difficult to use this for recruiting: “Near Peer Command and Control!” would make a boring movie, since CBG defense is boring. Until it isn’t, and then it gets exciting very quickly.
This article, long as it is, merely touched the high points of the advantages of maritime and littoral forces defending against an incoming CBG, and contrasted these to the US Navy’s fascination with “fighters” or “strike/fighters” versus outer layer air defense interception. This apparent paradox between the weak state and near peer mission profiles for a US Navy carrier battle group reveals that the empire has completely abandoned any pretense that it has any real-world naval mission other than weak state intimidation. Near peers already know this and, having focused their more limited defense spending for decades on air defense, maritime aviation, littoral forces and team-oriented interception versus dogfighting or their own globe-spanning CBGs, are well-suited to defeat any US carrier battle group wet paper tiger which approaches their territorial waters by simply overwhelming the latter’s more sophisticated defenses.
Quantity does indeed have a quality all its own. To reframe a famous WWII quote, “scratch one empire”.
Interested readers can access additional resources on the web which address the technical aspect of the topics addressed in this article.
Ward Carroll’s YouTube Channel
Ward Carroll, a Naval Academy graduate, is probably the most famous F-14 Radar Intercept Officer on the planet. Not surprisingly, he is closely affiliated with the US Naval Institute (USNI), the public-facing information arm of the naval establishment. Interestingly, the USNI’s publications include “The Hunt For Red October”, which as mentioned previously, features the buckaroo image as a valuable plot point. Ward’s YouTube channel has a wealth of establishment-friendly F-14 information.
If you only have time to watch one Ward Carroll video, this is where I would start:
In the above video, Ward unintentionally supports the thesis of this paper by illustrating how restrictive dogfighting training rules are. These restrictions are rationally imposed for aircraft and crew safety. However, under the “fight as you train” principle, these restrictions mean that not even “top guns” are getting close to the performance envelope, revealing an essential gap if the buckaroo model was itself realistic.
Grim Reapers’ YouTube Channel
The Grim Reapers are a bunch of gamers, led by SuperCap, whose YouTube channel presents a large number of gaming-based simulations using Digital Combat Simulator World (DCS World). For example, they have an entire series of simulations regarding attacking US and other CBGs which mirror the results of the aforementioned 1950s studies and 1970s+ in-house Navy simulations. Spoiler alert, the determined near peer maritime aviation and littoral adversary wins, even accounting for simulation inaccuracies. Before being critical of these guys for just being gamers, they have as much real-world near peer CBG defense experience as any current US Navy carrier battle group staff, meaning zero for both groups. And they have far more relevant high mix near peer simulator time than any Naval Academy graduate, Navy Surface Warfare Officer or Naval Aviator, and can muster more Command Post Exercise (CPX) participants than most fleet command and control agencies. You can see their tactical thinking and teamwork evolve over the years of their videos toward the team-oriented command and control framework favored by near peers, and less toward the American buckaroo mentality. Someone has been doing their homework.
If you only have time to watch a couple of Grim Reapers videos, these two are where I would start:
In the above video, the Grim Reapers simulate an attack on a CBG in the Persian Gulf with low-tech Silkworms. Now imagine a higher number of incoming missiles.
The above video simulates an attack on that same Persian Gulf CBG with low-tech gunboats. A subsequent rematch allows the US to attack with cluster bombs, but this change really only reflects the artificial clustering of the gunboats themselves. Now imagine hundreds of gunboats at once, with the fire discipline to not waste their ammo on aircraft, but instead reserving their gunfire for large and soft superstructure targets. Then imagine some inexpensive handheld anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADs), keeping the defending US aircraft at altitude during the run-in. It gets worse than that, but this is enough for now.
More on these topics later, including the implications for Taiwan Strait or South China Sea operations.
Tom Baugh is a 1988 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy (“an Annapolis man” or “ring knocker”), graduating in the top 3% of his class with a degree in Control Systems Engineering from the then-named Weapons and Systems Engineering Department. After graduation, he was then commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps where his MOS was 7208, Air Support Control Officer. A Desert Storm recipient of the Air Medal, where as a First Lieutenant he served as a Senior Air Director for the USMC Direct Air Support Center (a position normally filled by a more senior officer), he is well-acquainted with the command and control systems of the USMC and Navy, and familiar with those of the Air Force and Army. After Desert Storm he served as the Operations Officer of Marine Corps Recruiting Station Cincinnati, where he accumulated formal training and experience in sales and sales management. He also holds a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Virginia Tech earned as an Air Force Laboratory Graduate Fellow. After receiving that degree he was hired as a Principal Engineer in McDonnell Douglas’ Advanced Electronic Systems group in the Product Development Directorate where he received patents for his work on communications and maintenance platforms. He has also written flight planning software for the Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (a la “Blackhawk Down” fame). His consulting company later designed dozens of ultra-low-power microcontroller development tools, software and processes, which were purchased by thousands of companies world-wide spanning about ten thousand engineers and other end users who have provided unique insight into various industry trends. His personal design experience spans multiple industries including aerospace, banking, medical, automotive, consumer products, energy, communications and public safety. His company continues to assist with new product designs from napkin-sketch to production, and his personal specialty is rescuing in-extremis projects on the verge of collapse.