As the first of its class (and perpetually troubled) super carrier USS Gerald R. Ford continues to steam toward completion and a second carrier’s (the USS John F. Kennedy) production continues, the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, laid out his vision of how the Navy needs to shift its approach to warfare in the coming years. And according to the admiral, the U.S. Navy is going to have to make some changes in order to prepare for the threats presented by nations like China — especially when it comes to carrier ops.

Among the top concerns discussed by Gilday was the advent of hypersonic anti-ship missiles. These platforms, when coupled with a reliable, long-range targeting system, could prove to be all-but-indefensible carrier killers that would prevent the vessels from closing to within striking distance of Chinese shores. As a result, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have both been working feverishly in recent years to try to find ways to pull more mileage out of carrier-based aircraft — and the MQ-25 Stingray drone refueler program — adding conformal fuel tanks in the Block III Super Hornet upgrades, and even experimenting with “hot loading” F-35s on austere runways on captured island chains.

Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray drone refueler will help extend the range of carrier-launched aircraft. (Boeing)

Let’s look at this like a physics problem,” Gilday proposed. “[People will say]: ‘Hypersonics go really fast and they travel at long ranges. Carriers can only travel [‘X’ distance], so carriers are going to have to go away.’ That’s a very simplistic way to look at the problem. I’ve been in two big war games since I’ve been [CNO], and I absolutely believe that we have to wring more out of what we have today in terms of how we are going to fight with it.”

The U.S. Navy is currently preparing for a series of “large scale,” exercises set to kick off this coming summer. These exercises will serve as a unique opportunity to test new approaches to combat against peer and near-peer adversaries. The Navy will need to make a hard pivot in order to embrace the best approaches to combat against such a different sort of adversary.

“There are alternative concepts of operations that we must develop and we have to test, and we’re not going to do it during the certification phase of a carrier strike group for a combat deployment,” Gilday said last week. “We have to do that in large-scale exercises, that’s where we are going to experiment with unmanned. That’s where we are going to experiment with new capabilities.”

Gilday seems to be among those who worry that America’s aircraft carriers will be too massive for their own good in such a conflict. He pointed out in his remarks that he feels as though the Navy is too reliant on the hulking vessels. This isn’t a new criticism, as some have been calling for decades for an end to America’s love affair with aircraft carriers. The nation’s current approach to warfare, however, is heavily reliant on air power, deployed from the decks of carriers, and on cruise missiles launched from a variety of air and sea-based platforms. That means America will need to change how it does business in order to shift its reliance away from these aircraft laden behemoths.

Our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big,” he said. “And that needs to change over time. [But] we have made significant investments in aircraft carriers and we’re going to have those for a long time.”

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