USN CNO underscores carrier flexibility in responding to evolving threats

The US Navy (USN) aircraft carrier
The US Navy (USN) aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower conducts strike operations in the Red Sea in January 2024. USN carriers have demonstrable capability to operate across the spectrum of naval tasks.

The US Navy’s (USN’s) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) has underlined the strategic and operational flexibility an aircraft carrier brings for carrier-operating navies and their parent countries, including in responding to evolving threats.

Speaking in late January at the Paris Naval Conference, co-hosted by the French Navy and the French international relations institute (IFRI), Admiral Lisa Franchetti explained that – even when set against the enduring and emerging threats present in contemporary maritime operations – the flexibility of a carrier strike group (CSG) to deliver various capabilities and effects at the place and time of operational choice gives strategic advantage to decision makers.

While discussing both the history of aircraft carrier operations and the current activities of the USN’s USS Dwight D Eisenhower CSG, CNO said “The one thing you really see from carrier aviation, from CSGs, is their adaptability and flexibility.”

Following the outbreak of the Israel/Hamas war in early October 2023, the Eisenhower CSG deployed to the Middle East region, demonstrating deterrence presence firstly in the Eastern Mediterranean and then by sailing through Suez and on to the Northern Arabian Sea, before heading back to the Gulf of Aden to provide high-end combat capability to protect shipping threatened by Yemeni Houthi rebel attacks in the Red Sea/Bab-al-Mandeb/Gulf of Aden corridor.

The effects a CSG brings are both politico-strategic and military-operational, CNO explained. “Aircraft carriers can respond to crisis. They can preserve the peace through deterrence. They can also deliver lethality and decisive combat power whenever and wherever it’s needed. I think the inherent flexibility gives our political leaders a lot of options,” said Adm Franchetti.

In politico-strategic terms, “The aircraft carrier … is 100,000 tonnes of American diplomacy …. It can send an incredibly strong deterrent message,” said CNO. This deterrent effect can be generated with a CSG at both national and multinational levels. Conducting integrated, multinational carrier operations sends a message of partnership, Adm Franchetti explained, but “it [also] sends a message of … opportunity that we can ‘plug and fight’, [and] that we can ‘plug and deter’ any adversary, anywhere, any time.”

In military-operational terms, a carrier can move as much as 2,900 square miles in an hour or 5,000 miles in a week to be somewhere different. This mobility remains vital when dealing with modern threats, said CNO. “As you look at the challenges – new technologies that come online like hypersonic weapons or anti-access/area denial capabilities that some adversaries may be interested in trying to develop – the mobility of a CSG is critical. The flexibility it gives you to ‘move, shoot, move, communicate’, [is] really important.”

Speaking at a post-conference press event, Adm Franchetti expanded on these themes.

A carrier has the flexibility to harness effectively the capabilities of its embarked airwing and its assembled CSG and deploy these capabilities where and when needed, providing options for decision makers, said CNO. “I think it’s important that our carrier can operate wherever it needs to, [and] whether that’s in the type of situation [the Eisenhower CSG] is in now or whether it’s to get after the high-end threat,” Adm Franchetti said. “We train all the time for the high-end threat, understanding that we will be able to do all the other missions we may be tasked to do …. When it comes to operating, we need to be able to answer the bell, whenever and wherever we need to do it.”

by Dr. Lee Willett