Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ocean Security : The role of air dominance

The sea offers no possibility of cover. Aerial envelopment at sea is too easy.

During WWI everyone became acutely aware of the vulnerability of surface ships to aerial envelopment. WWII saw the extremely effective use of carrier task forces against shore and sea based targets.

In the more modern context, naval air arms provide a major force multiplier in any conflict at sea. Aircraft are able to quickly discriminate real threats (surface or submarine) and swiftly eliminate them.

As a result of this - in naval parlance - the establishment of an island/shore airbase (or an "unsinkable aircraft carrier") or the deployment of a carrier task force - is exactly equivalent to forming your fingers into a fist in bar. Regardless of specific context, such acts almost always conveys a hostile intention.

It is important to note that an aircraft carrier (island or ship based) costs a lot of money. It is very mechanically complicated to build and operate and it needs its own set of support and security assets.

A detailed cost-benefit analysis has to be carried to determine if a island airbase or a carrier task force is better for a particular context.

Again  - shaped by movies like "Top Gun" - the public imagination of what a carrier is able to do is quite far from the actual reality of this ships (or islands).

We begin by exploring the physical limits
  1. Aircraft Carriers are big - they have hard limits on maneuverability and speed. 
  2. Aircraft Carriers are big - they cannot be hidden easily from enemy surveillance.
  3. Launch and recovery of aircraft from a carrier is hostage to local weather conditions.
In terms of carrier operations - a carrier (island or ship) can only create a finite bubble of control (usually a few hundred miles in diameter, 50,000 feet high and 1000 feet deep). Anything adverse occurring in that bubble can be neutralized rapidly. Doing much better than that is difficult given physical limits on sensor technologies and finite response times. 

This bubble is defined largely by the extent of air operations that are permissible from the carrier. Depending on whether night operations are possible the bubble may shrink at night or during inclement weather. 

Basic economics again dictates that a carrier ship on a long voyage will be able to reduce costs by sticking to existing shipping channels. Similarly an island airbase will be much cheaper to operate if it is close to existing SLOCs (example Djibouti is much cheaper to operate than something like BIOT/ Diego Garcia).

In the case of ship based carriers, given the mechanical complexity of the platform, significant amount of time has to be reserved for refit and training. The average carrier spends about a third of its time in port undergoing refit or in training missions where new crew members are brought up to speed.  Ship based carriers have to be periodically resupplied and re-crewed. This process creates a supply line security issue. If this supply line is cut, the carrier will no longer be effective.   

When projecting force from a carrier (island or ship) - given that fuel and munition stocks are finite, it makes sense to conserve strength until the threat is very clearly defined and located. This places a great burden on sensing platforms deployed with the carrier. Without an able sensor suite - the carrier is useless.

Carriers are not secure against interference. The most common threats to carriers are submarine threats, air patrols and "carrier killer" ballistic missiles. The critical task in all these interference options is detection of the exact position of the carrier (definitely easier when it is an island as opposed to ship). 

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