The 2001 response would probably involve America’s giant aircraft carriers, floating cities that carry more air power than most air forces. But in 2015, the idea of putting 5,000 American sailors in range of Iraq’s latest missiles would be foolhardy. As formidable as they are, the Nimitz-class carriers simply can no longer venture close enough to shore to put Iraqi targets within range of their aircraft. Nor can the president risk launching long-range missiles, fearing such a move could be mistaken by China or another nuclear rival as an attack on them.
For a growing cadre of senior officers and military experts who appear to have Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s ear, the way to prevent this dilemma lies in “Streetfighters,” a totally new class of smaller, faster, stealthier vessels that will expose a far smaller crew to the increasingly dangerous coastal waters of the nation’s foes. These ships would be integrated in a single battlefield computer network, enabling commanders to move and strike with unprecedented precision. Among these vessels is a fast-moving missile attack ship built on a catamaran hull known as Sea Lance, along with a towed “arsenal barge” loaded with Tomahawk missiles. Sea Lance could operate with unmanned midget submarines and fast assault craft capable of moving 1,000 troops and their equipment in and out of battle zones at speeds of up to 50 knots.
The most dramatic proposal, and the one likely to prove most controversial for a service built around the big carriers, is a plan to build a new class of pocket aircraft carriers known as Corsairs. The Navy envisions the Corsairs as a carrier of only 6,000 tons with a crew of about 20 sailors. It might carry only a half dozen Joint Strike Fighters, the aircraft now being developed for the Navy and Air Force. Ultimately, the Corsairs would field UCAVs — unmanned combat air vehicles.
Vessels like the Sea Lance or the Corsair might be built on the order of several hundred million dollars, compared with the $4 billion price tag of a Nimitz carrier.
Not only would it allow the Navy to operate in coastal waters even as the missile power of its foes increase; it would also allow the United States to provide air cover for smaller deployments like the peacekeeping missions in Haiti or East Timor — missions typical of the post-Cold War era that currently tend to divert a giant Nimitz-class carrier.