Thursday, August 10, 2017

Carriers And Tankers

The recent post about the Navy’s proposed unmanned tanker, the MQ-25 Stingray (see, "Navy Issues Tanker RFP"), engendered a lot of discussion about tankers, the various aircraft that could fill the role, and the need for tankers, in general.

Before anyone goes any further with this, it is mandatory to reread the excellent article on mission tanking written by guest author Mr. Bustamante (see, Why The Navy Needs A Really Large Tanker Aircraft”).

Now that you've done that, let's move on.

All of our tanker aircraft discussion is missing one key point – the only point that really matters, actually – and that is the role of the carrier.  To make the point with a ridiculous example, if we envision the role of the carrier to be one of sitting in a harbor providing combat air patrol (CAP) then we don’t need a tanker at all, or no more than a small, simple tanker for overhead recovery tanking, as a safety measure.  On the other hand, if we envision the carrier conducting 10,000 mile standoff strikes then we need a mammoth mission tanker and some much longer ranged strike aircraft!  

So, what is the role of the carrier?  I’ve answered this before in both posts (see, “AircraftCarrier – What Future”) and comments but it clearly needs repeating so let’s have at it, again, and see what it tells us about tankers.

Historically, the carrier has been a strike platform both for anti-surface and land attack.  Early in WWII, carriers would dart in from a long ways off, under cover of darkness, launch strikes, and retreat before an effective counterattack could be mounted.  Later in the war, when proper carrier groups could be assembled, carriers were a bit more willing to stake out a location and stand and conduct strikes secure in the belief that they had sufficient combat power to deal with any counterattack.

Today, we talk about anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zones that extend a thousand miles or more from an enemy’s territory.  These zones are established by the range of the weapons that can be brought to bear on any intruder – weapons such as mines, aircraft, land based anti-ship missiles, short range ballistic missiles, air launched anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines, and surface ships.  Compounding the problem for an attacking carrier group is the presence of sophisticated surface to air missile defense systems guarding high value bases and targets – systems with radars that can see and strike aircraft for hundreds of miles around.  Add to this fast, long ranged defensive aircraft armed with long range air to air missiles and it is almost taken as a given that manned aircraft cannot successfully penetrate and attack a land target defended by a peer enemy.

Increasingly, long range, penetrating strike is a mission given to cruise missiles.  That being the case, what role does the carrier serve?  Well, the cruise missiles (Tomahawks, at the moment) are mounted on Burkes and submarines.  Burkes need to get within several hundred miles of their targets.  Depending on how close the targets are to an enemy’s shoreline and how straight a course the missile will fly, the Burkes may need to penetrate hundreds of miles into an A2/AD zone to reach their launch point.  They’ll need protection to do that.  Some of that protection can be provided by their own Aegis/Standard defense systems, of course, but that alone will not be sufficient especially if we want to heavily load the VLS cells with cruise missiles rather than surface to air missiles.  Thus, the ideal escort for the cruise missile shooting Burkes is a carrier.  The carrier provides airborne protection for hundreds of miles in every direction and provides an added layer of protection to the Aegis/Standard missile defense.  Carrier aircraft also substantially decrease the likelihood of an enemy’s sensor platforms finding and targeting the carrier/Burke force.

Thus, the carrier becomes the escort for the Burkes instead of the other way around.  Or, to be more accurate, the carrier and Burkes mutually escort each other with the Burkes providing the group’s striking power.

Cruise missile shooting submarines are fine on their own.  Their inherent stealth makes them an ideal Tomahawk shooting platform and negates the need for a close escort.  Even here, though, we see another mission for the carrier – to hunt and kill the enemy’s anti-submarine forces, both surface ship and airborne.  If the carrier can relieve the pressure on the submarines, the subs can be more effective in the cruise missile shooting role.  Note, that I’m talking about dedicated cruise missile shooting submarines – SSGN’s loaded with 150+ cruise missiles, not SSN’s loaded with 12 cruise missiles – those are an ineffective and inefficient means of cruise missile delivery.

Of course, the Air Force’s long range bombers can also launch cruise missiles, if they can survive to reach their launch points.  Again, the carrier air wing can provide the local air superiority needed to clear transit lanes and safe launch points for bombers.

So, how does all this relate back to the subject of tankers? 

Understanding what the role of the carrier is, we see that the carrier does not, and indeed should not, have the role of deep penetrating, land attack strike against a peer enemy.  The job of the carrier and its aircraft is to secure local (though a very large “local”) air control for the purpose of escort.  Tankers are needed to facilitate that but not long range, stealthy, penetrating, high capacity tankers.  All we need is a medium capability and capacity tanker to support the far flung air superiority aircraft.  A fair amount of speed in the tanker would be helpful to get from one location to the next in an expeditious manner.  Other than that, the tanker would be a plain, non-descript airframe.  Conceptually, a higher speed S-3 Viking would do just fine.

Carriers and tankers are intimately related and yet we persist in discussing them in isolation.  When we discuss tankers we must do so with a clear understanding of the role of the carrier.  Of course, the role of the carrier comes from having a geopolitical strategy and the associated military strategy – one of my favorite, overarching themes.  When we lack a clear strategy we fall into a pattern of haphazard acquisitions, hoping that something we buy may prove useful in the future instead of purpose designing and acquiring assets that we know will support our strategy.

We should also note that as the A2/AD threat is neutralized and the operational distances are greatly reduced, the carrier can revert to its traditional strike role but, by definition, this will involve much shorter distances and require only a medium endurance and medium capacity tanker – just what we described for supporting the carrier’s air superiority fighters.


  1. My thinking is we need the Marines to return to their WW II role of establishing advance naval bases, now known as Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in a dozen westpac locations. These to provide refueling and rearming. The carriers remain safely east of Guam and feed aircraft to the FOBs for a few days each then they return to the carrier for rest and maintenance. But the real fighting is done from the FOBs (most aircraft sorties in the Pacific in WW II were flown from land bases). These would be attacked, but the Marines and CBs are there to patch runway holes and do CSAR.

    Bigger tankers like the Marine KC-130 would feed the FOBs and support strike aircraft from them. A FOB may be empty most of the time, then one day 100 fighters show up to rest and refuel for a strike mission. They depart and fight and strike, then may return or air-fuel from KC-130s for a long trip back to the safety of the carriers because the enemy may target that FOB, which has its own SAMs, maybe even Aegis ashore, but a portable system than can be moved around the island to confuse the enemy.

    1. Give me a couple of examples - where would these FOB's be?

    2. You know that a F-18E/F SuperHornet, for example, has an internal fuel load of around 14,000 lbs of fuel (1750 gal approx), right? So, in your scenario of refueling 100 aircraft, where does this austere FOB get 1,400,000 lbs (175,000 gal) of fuel to conduct this refueling without the enemy noticing and dropping some missiles on the base?

      The logistics are what make FOB's a fantasy rather than a reality.

    3. This is an appealing notion that keeps cropping up and that is utterly devoid of supporting logic (or logistics!).

    4. You make it sound like Marine FBOs won the war alone in the Pacific during WW2. NOT. US Navy carrier aviation did most of the heavy airpower lifting on a 20 to 1 ratio for every Naval victory. Any proponent of what you propose does not understand the geographical limits of the earth itself and the vastness of the Pacific ocean. Only us old Navy types from the WW@2/Cold War generations understand the sheer enormity of true blue water ops and all the platforms it takes to prevail. I would never expect an Army type or a Marine to understand these ramifications and challenges no matter how well taught they were at the war colleges. Its not in their DNA. In the 1970s and 1980s CVBGs and their airwings, that defended this nation against the Soviets, rarely if ever used big wing (USAF) tanking or Omega or niche USMC C-130'. Rather, US Navy air wings dependence on big wing tanking is just a recent invention as a result of the cheaper force we have fielded since the 1990's, and only seems the status quo to those today because of the permissive environment the war on terror offers (no real SEAD). That thinking doesn't transfer to the scenario we could face against peer adversaries that CNOPs is discussing.

      However, in the USMC heavy WH administration of today your idea might just be considered...


  2. Mostly use existing civilian airfields. Andrews, Mactan, and Clark in the Philippines. Palau, Tinian, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Guam (the old NAF now airport) I'll assume Anderson AFB Guam and Okinawa will get flattened with missile strikes. Maybe Midway, Thailand, Singapore, Australia (Darwin and Cocos Island). It would nice to pre-po airfield support equipment and ammo bunkers, and conduct some training exercises, but that is political.

    1. It is not uncommon to use long straight roads as runways.

    2. You realize that of the places you named, the US only owns Guam and Tinian/Saipan which are OVER 3000 MILES FROM THE SOUTH CHINA SEA!!! The other locations would require us to invade a sovereign and likely neutral nation to establish a base.

      Think about the distances involved. Those are not useful FOBs for aircraft!

      Come on, apply some logic and operational thinking!

    3. Much of war is about economics. China is easy to blockade due to Indonesian and Central pacific geography. They will have to go on the offensive like the Japanese did in WW II to secure sea lanes to the Middle East and Africa. We just need to keep them bottled up (like we hurt the Japs), and the further they venture from their bases in China, the weaker they are. Distance is our friend, although those Philippine airfields are much closer, and Iwo Jima is key after Okinawa is smashed.

      We could ready all several FOBs at one-tenth the cost of a new carrier. Our super carriers are just like the Japanese super battleships of WW II. We'll keep them far from serious action out of fear of losing one, and if forced to employ them in a real battle, they won't last long.

      We have rights to military bases in Tinian, Saipan, Palau, and have some rights already in the Philippines, Singapore, Iwo Jima, and Australia. Lets prepo some ammo and airfield equipment there and get the Marines organized and equipped for this mission. Also, have some expeditionary airfields sets ready ready on Guam to deploy wherever we can.

      There were no cruise missiles in WW II, except Kamikazes that hurt our fleet. And it was the USAAF operating from land bases that pummeled Japan.

      We need these FOBs anyway where damaged aircraft can divert or if a carrier is damaged the aircraft need somewhere to land. We don't have much else for the Marines to do anyway. No thinks were are going to send amphibs into a contested naval zone.

    4. You're missing the basic concept that most of those bases are thousands of miles from likely operating areas. That's not a forward base for aircraft!

      It is inconceivable that we will be given permission to use bases in Philippines given the current government there. In fact, it is far more likely that the Chinese would be granted basing rights in the Philippines!

      Check out a map and the distances involved.

      A "forward" base that's thousands of miles from the operating area is nearly useless. Sortie rates would be abysmal, responsiveness would be non-existent, we lack sufficient aerial tanking for sustained operations over those distances, and time over target would be limited to minutes!

      Forward bases for carrier air ops, the original proposal, is a nonsensical concept.

    5. The CODs and P-8s need air bases too.

      Here is a historical perspective.

      Marine Defense Battalions in World War II.

      "For decades before Japan gambled its future on a war with the United States, the Marine Corps developed the doctrine, equipment, and organization needed for just such a conflict. Although the Army provided troops for the defense of the Philippines, the westernmost American possession in the Pacific, the Marine Corps faced two formidable challenges: placing garrisons on any of the smaller possessions that the Navy might use as bases at the onset of war; and seizing and defending the additional naval bases that would enable the United States to project its power to the very shores of Japan's Home Islands."

      In his annual report to the Secretary of the Navy for the fiscal year ending in June 1940, General Holcomb stated that four battalions had been established and two others uthorized. "The use of all six of these defense battalions can be foreseen in existing plans." he wrote, adding that the fleet commanders had already requested additional units of this type. The new organizations took advantage of the latest advances in automatic weapons, radios, tanks, coast and antiaircraft artillery, sound-ranging gear, and the new mystery -- radar. Teams of specialists, which had mastered an array of technical skills, it was hoped would enable a comparatively small unit to defend a beachhead or airfield complex against attack from the sea or sky.

    6. Let's not change the subject. The proposition was that forward airbases could take the place of carriers.

      "We could ready all several FOBs at one-tenth the cost of a new carrier."

      This, of course, is logistically unsupportable and operationally useless.

      Your historical example doesn't even support the premise as it deals with naval bases, not airbases. For naval forces, a base that is thousands of miles from the operating area is much less of a problem as ships can afford the time and have the range to make an extended transit. Naval aircraft do not.

      Further, COD's and P-8s are incapable of forward operations due to their slow speed and non-stealthy signatures. They would be shot down in short order.

      Finally, as history proved, an isolated island is indefensible. The Japanese, despite massive defensive preparations were unable to successfully defend a single forward island base. History is not on the side of this concept!

      The lack of forward bases is the biggest challenge the US faces in a war with China and there is no easy solution.

    7. A FOB is also a fixed geographic location which makes a FOB the target for ballistic missiles, while a moving carrier group--which is also a smaller and more dispersed target than an island base--is inherently less likely to be taken out by a non-nuclear ballistic missile.

    8. No one suggested: Let's not change the subject. The proposition was that forward airbases could take the place of carriers.

      It was suggested that FOBs could provide a refueling, rearming and divert airfields for carrier aircraft, allowing the carriers to remain a safe distance from enemy subs and aircraft.

      A FOB is an easy target, but a 400 acre facility easily survives the impact of a $5 million IRBM with a 1000lbs warhead. Most hits cause no damage, while others are patched in a few hours. FOBs don't sink!

  3. Is this what they teach at Marine Indoc/doctrine command? IMO, your intellectually specious niche argument for FOBs and the USMC doing all the US Navy's ship missions from fixed support bases has nothing to do with the post. I can also turn it on you and honestly ask why the USMC needs to exist outside the bullock role...

    CNOPs posted about "organic" (within the CVW) US Navy tactical overhead/mission tanking.

    CNOPS takes a holistic view of only the strike side of the equation re range of the aircraft/weapon systems and their fit into the overall US Navy CSG land attack/power projection and the ASUW/War at Sea roles.
    I have made my views on tactical Navy tanking clear in many posts in the past here and stand by all my comments from actual experience. Nearly every mission that goes beyond line of sight of the CVN requires some level tanking support for execution (sometimes just as backup/contingency). Utilizing a $100M Boeing strike fighter to be a tanker in the modern, diminished platform, carrier airwing, is not the most desirable situation yet that same individual SuperHornet configured as a mission tanker in a pod of strike fighter going after a enemy capital ship has value for that specific mission. However, during "routine" (nothing in jet aviation is really routine...) tanker ops that predominate the daily strike ops plan, the Super Hornet is a wasted warfare platform doing that mission. Realize please that the CVW is layered in depth and is not practicing or executing long range interdiction/WAS strikes every mission cycle, although that is where the CVN/CVW earns its real value, just like the Battle of Midway...


    1. b2, you might want to consider replying under the specific thread that you're commenting on (I think this is a reply to the FOB thread(s)). This just helps keep the flow of discussion clear and organized. Unrelated comments can stand alone, of course. Thanks.

      Please keep the comments directed at the idea, not the person. Argue the idea as passionately as you wish but be sure to leave the person out of it. Again, thanks.

    2. Perhaps you'd like to guest author a post on what you see as the role of naval aviation in a war with China? Agreement with my opinion is absolutely not a requirement! Let me know if you have any interest.

    3. CNOPs,

      Every comment above was about that "good idea" so I thought I would push it aside and comment in the same post!

      Re a postulated OOB with the PRC in a W-A-S scenario, I'm would be reticent to comment. If you presented specific scenarios or TACSITs, I would read and comment but originate one? No sir. War with China over what? Invasion of Taiwan? War with India? They attack Hawaii? I wouldn't know where to start.

      Today, as you also know, I see a powerful economic force in the world finally taking its place on the global, not regional, stage despite having had significant civilizations and dynasties before Greeks and Romans. Everything in their defense model EXCEPT land warfare (see Mao & SunTzu) they have copied us, the USA, right down to the flight deck jersey colors their carrier sailors wear! Perhaps taking/holding the Spratleys to them in their hemisphere, is like us with our Monroe Doctrine 200 years ago...Maybe huh? Manifest Destiny?

      If the PRC follows the roadmap we set the past two centuries, they will possibly, or eventually come into serious conflict with us, but not yet. On the other hand perhaps the more they become like us, the more we can be partners vice adversaries... I would hope so. China is not Americas natural enemy. Trust but verify, and have contingencies plans for war with any nation I say.


  4. On FOB, it does not have to be long runways, if the following conditions are met.

    1. Japan is in it, which is the most likely scenario, and which means all these Ryukyu chain postage stamp islets can be utilized

    2. Lots of F-35B

    3. Every hardened 'basketball/tennis court' a potential launch pad.

    4. Lots of specially designed trucks/loads for one-unit-of-fire (or fuel).

    5. Lots of squads of personnel for this.

    Lastly, these tiny-FOBs, in sum or separate, are good missile sinks.

    BTW, how survivable is a 150-Cruise-missle-load sub during missile launch. It looks to be about 15-20 sec per shot coming out of Burke's VLS. That's almost 40 minutes of missile sub with its pants down. And, it seems you just reduce the role of carrier as door-kicker to that of cleaning crew. If the USN/AF ran out of its 4k Tomahawks before A2AD is down- what do you do? It took 60 missiles to keep down a Syrian airfield for half a day; 4000 don't seem much.

    1. While the airfield was quickly repaired, we destroyed a number of aircraft, which was the purpose of the strike. And, since then, Syria hasn't used chemical weapons on its population.

    2. Professionals discuss logistics. Before you go too far down the rabbit hole of disbursed little operating bases for F-35B's consider the logistics. How will you deliver fuel, munitions, spare parts, diagnostic computers, tools, highly trained maintenance technicians, mission planning facilities, food, water, communications, radar, air defense weapons, defensive personnel, and the million other things that even a minimally functional airbase needs TO EVERY LITTLE AIRFIELD???? We don't have even a fraction of the logistics transport capability to do this. We don't have even a fraction of the number of specialized maintenance techs to keep the aircraft running for more than one sortie (there's a reason why we cluster aircraft and personnel and supplies in centralized airbases!!!!

      I'm sorry but the concept of disbursed airbases is stupid on a plate.

    3. The VLS launch rate is about one every two seconds. A moment's thought would tell you that if the launch rate were 15-20 sec a ship would be unable to mount any effective defense against incoming missiles. If you're seeing some video with drawn out launch rates it's because they were in no hurry and just taking their time.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. You're flat out wrong about his and I won't allow incorrect information on the blog. For example, I just finished watching a video on YouTube showing a ship launching three missiles SIMULTANEOUSLY. The sustained launch rate is absurdly fast, when needed.

      VLS data sheets state that two missiles in each 8-cell group can be prep'ed simultaneously. Presumably at least one (if not two) missiles in each 8-cell group could be launched simultaneously. The exhaust handling is the only limiting factor, as far as I know. So, for a Burke with 96 cells (twelve 8-cell groups) presumably 12 missiles could be fired simultaneously with 12 missile salvos every 1-2 seconds thereafter. There are some practical considerations that might limit the launch rate under some circumstances but the launch rate is very high.

  6. meanwhile

    Modified X-47B Breaks Cover As Testbed For MQ-25 Bid