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The Bunker: Bridge to the Future

This week in The Bunker: The collapse of that Baltimore bridge raises questions about technological hubris, like the Navy’s continuing fetish to build massive aircraft carriers that still launch humans into harm’s way; and more. 

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: The collapse of that Baltimore bridge raises questions about technological hubris, like the Navy’s continuing fetish to build massive aircraft carriers that still launch humans into harm’s way; and more.

I. TWO TARGETS

How to protect and project a more lethal Navy

In the early hours of March 26, a huge ship, powered only by momentum, plowed into a 1.6-mile bridge crossing the Patapsco River in Maryland. The central span of the Francis Scott Key Bridge plunged into the frigid salt water. The still-unexplained collision killed six workers on the bridge, severed a vital interstate highway, shut down the port of Baltimore, and has damaged the cargo ship Dali for months, if not longer.

The U.S. Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers, propelled by their own peculiar momentum, could meet the same fate. While the Pentagon is trading mass for miniaturization and distributing assets to minimize their value to enemy strikes, carriers do the opposite. The Defense Department knows that as weapons become more precise, its hulking carriers become more vulnerable. But the Navy, and its civilian overlords inside the Pentagon, the White House, and on Capitol Hill, continue to buy(PDF) the behemoths, with a price tag (including aircraft) nearing $20 billion each.

This makes no sense for a Navy increasingly reliant on short-range aircraft flown by humans. The flattops, floating targets with 5,000 souls aboard, have to stay outside the ever-increasing range of ever-more-accurate enemy missiles. They’re dedicating more of the carriers’ planes to their own defense, and tankers that allow their attack planes to launch from beyond missile range. This is a formula for irrelevance. Believe it or not, The Bunker knows something about irrelevance. As a mere deckhand in the print media for more than 40 years, he stood watch on the bridge as publishing’s admiralty set sail for oblivion despite red lights flashing and klaxon horns blaring.

II. ON THE SEA

Spread the weapons around

The U.S. Navy’s carrier fleet just celebrated its 100th birthday. “With an unequaled ability to provide warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict, and to adapt in an ever-changing world,” the Navy says, “aircraft carriers, their air wings, and associated strike groups are the foundation of US maritime strategy.”

But physical and fiscal reality have eroded that foundation. While the cost of China’s DF-21 missile — dubbed the “carrier killer” — isn’t known, it could launch barrages of them against U.S. aircraft carriers for pennies on the dollar. China recently built a “new aircraft carrier target” deep inside its territory “that is a dead-ringer for the U.S. Navy’s newest supercarrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford,” The War Zonereported in January.

At a minimum, such weapons would keep U.S. warships further from China amid rising tensions. The missile “gives the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against ships, including aircraft carriers, out to the Western Pacific from mainland China,” the Pentagon said(PDF) in its annual report on China’s military in October.

Carriers made sense when naval aircraft needed acres of deck to land and take off. Today, they’re juicy targets for militaries as powerful as China’s, and as puny as Houthi rebels choking commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

“Advances in artificial intelligence and drone technology are opening the door to a solution for this strategic quagmire: make every ship a carrier,” Navy Lieutenant Commander Jeff Zeberlein writes in the latest issue of Proceedings, an independent journal that likes to rattle the Navy’s anchor chains. “Making every ship a carrier will revolutionize and unite the air and sea domains in ways unseen since the birth of the aircraft carrier.”

Carrier critics have been singing this song for years. “It’s just tradition, the industrial base and some other old and musty arguments” that keep carriers in production, Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former Pentagon strategist, toldThe Bunker 14 years ago. “We should scale back our carrier design to something much cheaper and simpler. Think of mother ships launching waves of cheap drones — that would actually be more frightening and intimidating.”

III. IN THE AIR

Stop risking pilots

Nothing galvanizes the U.S. public like the shootdown of a U.S. military pilot. The Bunker knows, having covered the shootdown of U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady’s F-16 in 1995, and interviewing him shortly after his rescue following the six days he spent eluding Bosnian Serbian forces in the Balkans.

Yet as drones and artificial intelligence make risking young American lives in cockpits increasingly debatable, the U.S. military continues to send them into harm’s way. The Navy’s newest carriers are designed to launch 270 piloted flights(PDF) into the air every 24 hours. A piloted plane’s life-preserving systems means it carries less fuel and/or ordnance. Each pilot is a potential prisoner who could force a U.S. president to make decisions he or she could have avoided if it had been a drone that was shot down. While Zeberlein argues that such “intelligent autonomous airborne systems” could even provide “close-air support of ground troops,” ground-pounders remain skeptical.

The Pentagon is typically tippy-toeing. In February, Boeing announced it had delivered the first MQ-25 Stingray, a carrier-based aerial refueling drone, to the Navy for testing. But its mission, put bluntly, is to let human-flown planes fly deeper into danger.

Yet slow progress is better than no progress. “The Navy is seeking revolutionary launch and recovery technologies to operate low-cost, attritable, fixed wing … UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones] on sea-based platforms other than aircraft carriers,” the service said last fall. Initial plans call for exploring the deployment of such drones aboard destroyers, which are less than 10% the size of carriers.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge tragedy, involving a cargo ship the size of U.S. Navy carriers, occurred only 1,500 yards from Fort McHenry. That’s where U.S. troops defeated the British Navy in 1814’s Battle of Baltimore. The sight of the U.S. flag flying over the fort, in the dawn’s early light, inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Historians believe Key spied the flag while aboard a U.S. ship within 100 yards of the bridge. That span was named for him 162 years later. It fell into the sea last week.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, if only the Navy can figure it out.

WHAT WE’RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

Profile in courage

The skyrocketing cost of the Air Force’s new Sentinel ICBM program is the service’s fault, said an official of missile-builder Northrop, who didn’t have the guts to be named, Defense News’ Stephen Losey reported March 28.

Plane in a poke…

Colleague Dan Grazier here at the Project On Government Oversight argued in The Hill March 28 that despite the Pentagon’s OK for full-rate production of the F-35 fighter, key questions about the plane, and its capabilities, remain MIA.

Never forget

Sean Dietrich noted last week’s National Vietnam War Veterans Day by recalling his recent visit to Washington’s Vietnam Memorial, in his Sean of the South column, March 31.

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