- The US Navy is making plans to keep its carrier aircraft relevant in a conflict with a more capable adversary.
- China and Russia are developing capabilities that could restrict what those aircraft could do in a conflict.
- US special operators could help those aircraft see — and strike — in places adversaries want to keep them out of.
Recently the Navy released a new vision for its aircraft carrier air wing that describes how it plans to keep its fighter jets relevant in the future.
In a potential conflict with a near-peer adversary, such as Russia or China, the Navy’s aircraft carriers could make the difference, especially against China, because of its proximity to the sea.
But advances in Chinese and Russian military capabilities could significantly restrict aircraft carriers and minimize their effectiveness.
Special-operations units, especially US Navy SEAL Teams, could alleviate some of these concerns.
Flying into the future
American aircraft carriers showed their promise for the first time during the Battle of Midway in 1942, when aircraft from three US flattops sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers, setting the conditions for the Allied victory in the Pacific.
In the 70 years since then, naval aviation has become the go-to option for force projection across the world. When an aircraft carrier shows up in a hotspot, countries take notice.
But for that capability to remain effective, the Navy needs to evolve and incorporate new technologies and concepts. It will also need to address Chinese and Russian military advances.
One of the major limiting factors for US or allied aircraft carriers is China’s anti-access/area denial (AD/A2) umbrella.
Composed of complementary webs of weapons, including anti-ship and anti-air cruise missiles, this umbrella could prevent aircraft carriers from sailing close enough to Chinese forces for the carrier’s jets to strike.
By keeping carriers at bay, AD/A2 systems in the South China Sea and the Strait of Taiwan could prevent America’s main force-projection tool from projecting force.
Naval Special Warfare
Although the Navy’s new vision for its air wings doesn’t explicitly mention the SEALs or any other special-operations units, those units are being incorporated US naval aviation training.
In March, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group included Naval Special Warfare personnel in a composite unit exercise, a training event designed to “certify” a warship or naval task force for joint and/or combined operations.
Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) operators worked with the aircraft carrier and acted as its eyes and ears, directing airstrikes and close air support and enabling the flattop’s air wing to conduct over-the-horizon targeting — striking targets that are beyond visual and sometimes sensor range.
SEAL Teams “are very versatile and can accomplish a wide range of mission sets,” one of which is strategic reconnaissance, a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.
“It isn’t as sexy as it sounds and doesn’t drive recruitment, but it’s a very useful capability to have and to be proficient at. If you can place a couple of guys near the enemy without him even knowing they are there, then you have an advantage over him and you can use it to win,” the former SEAL said.
Naval Special Warfare is an ideal partner to carrier strike groups as it can employ a series of special-operations watercraft, including stealth boats and mini-submarines, to clandestinely infiltrate or approach a target, paving the way for Big Navy’s ships and aircraft.
Part of the Navy’s plan for Distributed Maritime Operations — simultaneous maritime operations in several places — is an integrated communications network that will support an “any-sensor/any-shooter” kill chain, a concept that aims to integrate the joint force.
For example, in a conflict, an F-35C over the South China Sea could use its advanced sensors to detect a Chinese destroyer and then transmit the vessel’s position to other air, ground, or naval forces in the area. Those forces could then fire on the Chinese ships.
The idea is to have intelligence-sharing so robust that any target spotted by one unit is immediately visible, and attackable, by any other unit. Resilient communications networks are essential to doing that, which is where special-operations units could play a part.
The former SEAL officer wasn’t certain how SEALs or other special operators would factor into the plan the Navy is now working on but said strategic reconnaissance would likely be part of it.
“It will put a couple of highly trained guys close to the enemy so they can provide timely intelligence to an inbound strike package that was launched, let’s say, from an aircraft carrier a couple of hundred miles away and direct it to the target, the former SEAL said.
“Those guys on the ground would also be able to paint the target with infrared lasers to guide in any aircraft and ensure that the intended target is hit and destroyed” and then provide a battle-damage assessment after the strikes, the former SEAL added.
Navy SEALs and SWCC operators on small islands or at sea could operate with a small footprint and great mobility, making it very hard for an enemy to spot them. They could use their presence and sensors to provide an early-warning capability for other Navy and allied forces.
Both China and Russia have deployed A2/AD capabilities, but Beijing is a greater long-term challenge to US interests, experts have said.
That gives more urgency to developing means to counter China across many domains, especially military power, the former SEAL said.
“China is definitely something to worry about. I don’t want to sound like I’m beating the war drum, but as the old adage goes, to prevent a war you must prepare for war,” the former frogman added.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.