The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. Photo: Wikipedia
The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. Photo: Wikipedia

Former US Navy Secretary John F. Lehman says reports of the aircraft carrier’s death have been much exaggerated.

He tells Asia Times in an exclusive interview that US nuclear aircraft carriers can successfully operate against China in contested areas like the South China Sea despite Beijing’s use of maneuvering anti-ship missiles like the DF-26. But he warns that Russian hackers are blunting the US military’s tech edge by stealing secrets and that the US no longer leads in submarines and anti-submarine warfare.

Lehman headed the Department of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, from 1981-1987. He championed the idea of using a 600-ship force against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He currently chairs J.F. Lehman & Co. Partners, a defense consulting firm.

Are large capital ships like nuclear carriers still relevant in an era of so-called anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons like Chinese anti-ship missiles?

As long as I’ve been sentient on these issues, the carrier was about to be made totally obsolete by… you fill in the blank. Accurate cruise missiles were first encountered at the battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima in 1945. The Japanese kamikazes were the ultimate cruise missiles, and indeed they did put four US carriers out of commission — though they didn’t sink any. Carriers will be hit and carriers will be put out of action. But because they are so robust, it would take a nuclear weapon to really sink them.

So the anti-access/area-denial weapons being developed by China are not the game changers they are made out to be?

This A2/AD is just a trendy type of thing. It’s laughable for anybody who has any historical perspective. The Soviets had a maneuvering anti-ship missile. The idea is not that new and there are ways to counter it. None of these (A2/AD) weapons are any great breakthrough.

If somebody’s going to be shooting missiles at you, would you rather be tied to the coordinates of a fixed land base or moving at 35 knots?

The large capital ships, particularly the aircraft carriers, provide the protection for everything else. If you don’t have air superiority over the surface of the sea and submarine superiority under the sea, how are you going to move the world’s commerce or your army transports or anything? You can’t provide that kind of security and air superiority from land bases. So aircraft carriers have to be survivable and they can be made survivable.

Is there a need to develop new tactical concepts such as “distributed lethality” in facing the threat posed by anti-ship missiles?

Distributed lethality is just another kind of conference-speak buzzword. It’s meaningless. If you look at a US Navy task force during World War II, the lethality was distributed over thousands of square miles. You had big carriers, small carriers, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, submarines and 24-mile-range guns.

John F. Lehman. Photo: JFL Partners

If you look at the naval exercises we recently ran in the western Pacific and the Norwegian Sea, the battle groups were spread over 2,000 square miles. They were very hard to target but they carried land-attack cruise missiles — the Tomahawk, anti-ship Harpoon missiles, F-14s that could command whatever was flying in a 300-mile disk around the task force, and submarines. That’s distributed lethality. We already have it — you couldn’t distribute it more.

How damaging has cyber-hacking by Russia and China been to US defense competitiveness?

The most worrisome aspect of it is that after World War II, the Soviet Union adopted a brilliant and effective strategy. They knew they didn’t have the depth of technological, laboratory, university and engineering development that the West had. So they said, ‘well, we’ll let them develop these weapons and we’ll steal them.’ And that’s just what they did.

Their procurement plans were to wait until breakthroughs were made in the US, the UK and Europe and then buy them or steal them — which they could always do. You remember the movie ‘The Falcon and the Snowman’? They knew their espionage would enable them to get that F-18 radar. The Gen 4 Russian fighters essentially have F-18 radars. The same is true of their version of the fire-and-forget AMRAAN air-to-air missile.

What are the Russians doing now?

Today, they have the same philosophy, except that instead of having to wait until the technology is fully developed and deployed before stealing it, their cyber hacking brings them right into the laboratories of the main defense contractors and universities — so they ride right along with us as we’re developing things like lasers, electric guns and jamming devices. So that’s the most damaging thing and it’s helped them to close that technological gap with the West.

Are the Chinese doing the same thing?

Yes. They have essentially been doing the same thing. The Russians are better at it, better at fielding what they steal. But the Chinese are not just a clone of the Russian systems. They are very good at more basic research, in some cases, than we are. Both China and especially Russia are concentrating in areas where they believe, and I think accurately, our highest vulnerabilities are.

What is a major area of US vulnerability?

The Russians have concentrated a lot of their R&D in submarines and antisubmarine technology. The confident edge we had in the Cold War we no longer have. They’ve copied their submarine quieting off of our technology. They are also ahead in some offensive capabilities.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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