These are the predictions of Owen R. Cote Jr., associate director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology national security studies program. Cote is a futurist working on a Navy-funded study focusing on what lies ahead for carrier-based aviation. The study was commissioned by Vice Adm. (Sel.) Mark Fitzgerald, former director of naval aviation.
Cote said he can predict safely that “sea basing and tactical aviation are growth industries” in the U.S. Navy. “Access to bases is episodic, and comes with constraints. That’s not likely to change.”
Although critics contend that the vulnerability of sea bases to enemy attack will put a damper on this strategy, potential enemies of the United States are unlikely to pose serious threats to aircraft carriers or other large-deck vessels, Cote noted. It would be reasonable to expect that “the basic capability asymmetry that exists today will remain for as long as we can see,” Cote said.
Early-warning radar aircraft such as the Air Force AWACS or the Navy’s E-2C Hawkeye will help to “keep the other guy at arm’s length,” he added. These airborne radar platforms, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, are too expensive for most countries. “There aren’t a lot of people making these, except some of our friends, who are selling them to our friends.”
But the Navy should not be fooled into thinking technology can fix every problem, Cote cautioned. He cited space sensors, unmanned aircraft, stealth and network-centric warfare as examples of over-hyped concepts that in fact should be viewed as “non-panaceas.”
The Air Force and the Navy also should rethink their approach to command and control, he suggested. Today’s sophisticated “combined air operations centers” are too cumbersome and bureaucratic, Cote said. “Managing the air battle from a central location on the ground, some distance away, linked by satellite communications, works great against small-scale opponents where the number of targets is limited. But it’s always going to constrict the pace.”
In the future, he added, the management of the air war will need to be more decentralized. “A lot of what now goes on inside the CAOC we’ll have to do in the back seat of an F/A-18 fighter jet.”