Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: West 2016 Conference Part II

“The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.”
― Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783


Aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (MC3 Magen Reed / U.S. Navy)

About a month or so ago, I read a new publication by the Center for A New American Security called “The Growing Threat to U.S. Aircraft Carriers”. Its intro stated:

“While the U.S. Navy has long enjoyed freedom of action throughout the world’s oceans, the days of its unchallenged primacy may be coming to a close. In recent years, a number of countries, including China, Russia and Iran, have accelerated investments in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities such as advanced air defense systems, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines and aircraft carriers. These capabilities are likely to proliferate in the coming years, placing greater constraints on U.S. carrier operations than ever before… But as A2/AD capabilities continue to proliferate, the United States will be faced with a choice: operate its carriers at ever-increasing
ranges – likely beyond the unrefueled combat radii of their tactical aircraft – or assume high levels of risk in both blood and treasure.”

The report concluded:

“As the United States considers the nature of the evolving threat landscape and confronts the global proliferation of A2/AD capabilities, it must re-examine the relevance of the carrier and its air wing and explore innovative options for future operations and force structure.”

I thought the publication was excellent, informative and well written. With the exception of the Chinese Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), all of the weapon systems and platforms mentioned were just new and updated versions of the type of threat the aircraft carrier has always faced. Aircraft don’t stop participating in conflicts because they can be shot down by artillery or surface to air missiles. Surface ships don’t stay in port because they can be sunk by a torpedo or cruise missile. I’m not implying that the Chinese Navy is not a threat to the U.S. Navy in the event of a crisis or war, it is. The bottom line for me when comparing how one military will fare against another is not just the military equipment. but also the tactics, techniques and procedures used, or as the military says, TTPs.

One of the things I’m enjoying about getting older is that I don’t have to do too much research on subjects I write about, because I lived it. I only have to make sure something has been declassified so NCIS doesn’t show up on my doorstep to arrest me. What’s my point? If you think the Chinese have developed an effective counter to the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier, go back and look at what the Soviet Union’s military developed to counter the threat during the Cold War.

A 1983 CIA publication, “Soviet Naval Strategy and Programs Through the 1990s”, NIE 11-15-82/D March 1983 (Approved for Release CIA Historical Review Program), summarized Soviet Naval strategy as follows:

-” To deploy and provide protection for ballistic missile submarines in preparation for and conduct of strategic and theater nuclear strikes.

– To defend the USSR and its allies from strikes by enemy ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carriers”

The NIE went into a great deal of detail on how the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community believed the Soviets would execute the strategy. I recommend checking it out, it’s a great read. Essentially, the Soviets planned to take the aircraft carriers out using surface, air and submarine-launched cruise missiles. Cruise missiles were then, and are still, very difficult to defend against. The Soviets also did things like calculate how many aircraft they would need to overwhelm an aircraft carrier’s air defenses. They also had a very robust air defense system defending their homeland against attacks by carrier based aircraft carriers.

This was not all theory, research and war gaming; for the Navy, the Cold War provided a very unique operating environment. As Christopher Ford and David Rosenberg point out in their book, The Admirals’ Advantage, “far from merely eyeing each other across a frontier or demilitarized zone, the Soviet and U.S. navies flew and sailed around and under – and occasionally into- each other as a matter of course.” For instance, in 1984 the aircraft Carrier USS Kitty Hawk was operating in the Sea of Japan. In an eight day period, Soviet aircraft flew near it 43 times. There were six Soviet Navy surface ships and at least one submarine following it around. At one point the submarine surfaced and collided with the aircraft carrier. That would be front page news today, but I don’t remember it even making the news back then.

Because of this environment, the U.S. was able to fine tune TTPs against their potential real world opponents. There have been many reports that China was shocked and surprised at how well the U.S. military performed in Desert Storm and cite that as one of the events that have caused them to start rapidly modernizing their forces.

I remembered these Cold War strategy challenges as I listened to the West 2016 speakers. I wanted to hear what steps they were taking to counter present day threats, particularly Chinese operations in the South China Sea. I realized most of that information is and should remain classified, but since 9/11, the military and the intelligence community have been far more transparent about things than in the past.

There were several panels during the West 2016 conference but the one I found most interesting was titled “How Do We Execute the Strategy”. As it says on the Navy website, the mission of the Navy is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas. Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, the Naval Surface Force Commander, put it more succinctly quoting the legendary Admiral Hank Mustin, “The Navy exists for sea control”. Vice Admiral Rowden pointed out that in the 1980’s, the Navy worked hard for sea control and power projection. Through the 1990’s we had sea control and drove our Navy wherever we wanted. Now we’re back in a time where we’re facing tremendous challenges in obtaining power projection and sea control. The Admiral said this also provides us with opportunities. We need to see how we can operate in innovative ways. The objective is to ensure that all of our forces are more lethal. The buzzword for this is “distributed lethality”.

Vice Admiral Joseph Tofalo, Commander Navy Submarine Forces U.S. Atlantic Fleet, thinks the submarine is the primary weapon to deal with A2/AD because it can get underneath it. He also said we need an anti-ship version of the Tomahawk cruise missile. He believes we will be operating in contested seas for the next 10 to 15 years. Rear Admiral Matthew Kohler, Commander Navy Information Forces Command, reiterated Vice Admiral Rowden’s point about the U.S. having unfettered sea control over the last 20 years. Now the Chinese have challenged that with their A2/AD strategy. Because we had sea control for so long, some of our skills like electronic warfare have atrophied. His command is new and includes electronic warfare, weather, intelligence, space, command and control and cyber. He’s been asked to start up a warfighting development center and develop TTPs.

Think I’ll stop here. In my next blog on the conference, I’ll conclude with insights provided by the Admiral Scott Swift, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, as well as my thoughts on the threats to the Asian Pacific Region. As always my views are my own.



Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on