'Carriers at War': Navy Veteran Bryan McGrath Makes the Case for Aircraft Carriers

President Donald J. Trump departs USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) on Marine One after Ford’s commissioning ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk. (photo PO3 Matthew Fairchild)


The Smithsonian Channel's new series "Carriers at War" explores the current state of the aircraft carrier in the U.S. defense arsenal. Episode four "USS Ford" (airing Sunday June 10th at 8pm ET/PT) will dig into the making of the new $14 billion USS Gerald R. Ford, which represents the latest evolution in naval technology.

It's the first new aircraft carrier design since the USS Nimitz in 1968. Made in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, the show follows every moment of contraction. The show gives at detail look at new technology, including the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) and the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG).

Bryan McGrath is one of the on-camera experts featured in "Carriers at War" and he's most definitely qualified to be there. Navy veteran McGrath spent 21 years on active duty in a career that included command of USS Bulkeley (DDG 84). He received the “Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Award for Inspirational Leadership” from the Surface Navy Association and the Bulkeley earned the USS Arizona Memorial Trophy when it was named the Fleet’s most combat-ready warship. He's currently the founding Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a military consulting firm.

McGrath's an expert who's not afraid to stake out an opinion and stick to it. We talked about aircraft carriers and why he thinks they're essential to American defense strategy. 

Bryan McGrath (Ferry Bridge Group)

Tell us about your military career.

My military background was 21 years in surface warfare, including command of the USS Bulkeley (DDG84).  Bulkeley won the USS Arizona Trophy when I was in command, which signified the most combat-ready ship in the fleet at the time. I served on other cruisers and one frigate throughout my career in the Navy. 

I retired in 2008 after having led the team that wrote the 2007 Maritime Strategy.  

What have you done since you left the Navy?

Since I retired, I've been a a national security consultant, principally on naval matters, although I've done a little bit of Army Air Defense Artillery Work.  For the last few years, I've been the Assistant Director of the Hudson Institute Center for American Seapower, a think tank within a think tank. 

How did you get connected with the folks who made "Carriers at War"?

I honestly don’t know. I did a debate at the Naval Academy in January of 2015 that was shown on C-SPAN.  That's gotten a lot of interest within naval circles.  

Here's the video that Bryan mentions in our interview.

The debate was with a fellow named Jerry Hendrix, who was a very vocal carrier critic. We had a spirited debate. That debate was available to stream on the internet.  I also  wrote a report for Hudson on the role of the carrier in high-end warfare. People just tend to look at me as somebody who believes that aircraft carriers are still effective, relevant, and are worth it, even though there are an increasing number of threats to them. I think I ably carry that opinion forward.

The Ford has been a long time coming, because it's first carrier in something like 40 years.

I don’t know exactly when Nimitz came out.  You're probably close.  We generally sort of think about carriers as 50-year platforms, that we get 50 years out of them. When people thought about the Ford, they thought about doing one every five years, and they'd do ten of them

If we’re trying to replace Nimitz as it goes out of service, it’s about time.  I'd say it’s a little late coming out.  I don’t think anybody would argue with that.  It’s a little late.

Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 1st Class Lonnie Hancock directs an F/A-18F Super Hornet on he USS Ford's flight deck.

When did the design start for the Ford-class carrier?

Well, there were trade studies in the late 90’s that focused on what would come next.  There were literally dozens of different potential carrier iterations studied at that point: large, medium, small, conventional, nuclear.  They looked at the ones that had the ski ramp for takeoffs.  So there were a number of different iterations.  

The real impetus to go forward with Ford as we know it today happened in the very early days of the George W. Bush administration, in the heady days of transformation. That’s when Secretary Rumsfeld made his famous, now infamous, decision. All of the new and enabling technologies for the Ford, which were going to be spaced out over the course of the first three to five ships, would all go into the first one.  In my view, the cost overruns and delays and technical problems since that time have generally tended to be the fruit of that decision.  

An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the "Swamp Foxes" of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 74 prepares to take off from USS Gerald R. Ford's (CVN 78) flight deck. (Sean A Elliott)
An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter prepares to take off from the USS Ford flight deck.

If you think back to 2003 and remember the technology we used to fight wars and the  the technology we used in our everyday lives, the changes in the last 15 years are greater than the changes in technology that happened in the previous 40 years.  How do you plan for the future on something that’s going to take so long to build when technology is moving so fast?

That’s a good point.  With anything that’s as capital-intensive and takes as long as a to produce as a warship, you're not going to be able to necessarily invest it with the latest and greatest technology.

What the Navy is striving for in Ford and subsequent ship classes is to get to a point where you actually design ships in a way that makes upgrading them less intrusive. So you don’t have to take it offline for a year and tear it apart and cut all kinds of holes in it. 

This is the sort of Valhalla ship building. I think the Ford has done some of this in the way its spaces are arranged and the way that they have this really innovative sort of flooring system so they're able to move cabinets, electronic closures and the like around, and replace them.  We're in the early stage of this innovative way of building ships so that you can move new technology in them. 

The thing about an aircraft carrier, though, is that its weapon system is the airplanes.  The aircraft carrier will pace technology over time by introducing and eliminating airplanes from its airwing.  

If you look back over the USS Enterprise and its 50-odd years of service, I counted over 60 different type models/series of airplanes that flew off that carrier in that 50 years.  The beauty of the aircraft carrier is that it doesn’t necessarily become obsolete because you change its weapon system so often and so easily.  And you do that by flying one plane off and another one on.

Sailors load an F/A-18F Super Hornet onto the electromagnetic aircraft launching system (EMALS) on the USS Ford.

There are people who think that the whole idea of an aircraft carrier is obsolete in the 21st century. Why do you think they're wrong?

As long as you value tactical aviation to do strike, anti-air warfare, anti-surface warfare, and even anti-submarine warfare, as long as you value those attributes or those missions, there are only two ways to deliver that.  You can do it from land and you can do it from the ship.  

If you do it from land, the land has got to be close enough to the fight.  And if you do it from land, you have to take into consideration the fact that everyone knows where you are, your coordinates are well-known. There are weapons that are already paired against those landing strips and bunkers and fuel farms.  Or you can do it from something that moves around at nearly 40 knots and can reposition itself 600 miles away the next day.  

People will say to you, "Well, that’s all fine and good, but because of satellites and other ways of locating ships, you won't be able to hide ships." Well, okay, I get that.  But in the modern battlefield you can't hide anything.  

Until we say that we no longer value tactical aviation, we’re going to have to find a way to deliver it.  To me, it seems to make sense to deliver it from something that moves and that has a defensive system around it known as a strike group and a fleet that enables it not to disappear, but to deceive and to strike. Within the 50-year lifespan of this ship, I don’t see us no longer valuing those attributes. 

Lt. Cmdr. Jamie “Coach” Struck, speaks with Sailors attached to USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).

We’re at a point where it seems like Navy officers may not be getting the level of training they need to fulfill the duties they're being asked to perform. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment?

I would say that in the case of the Seventh Fleet, there was a significant, persistent mismatch between the number of ships available and the things that were asked of them. What that squeezed out was training and maintenance.

How can we solve this problem?

There are only two things that you can do to fix this. You can do one, the other, or a little bit of both.  You can either cut back on what you ask of the Navy or you can increase the size of the Navy.  That’s it.  That’s all.  

I have yet to see a great debate within the American electorate that says, we don’t want to be #1 anymore, that we don’t want to be the world’s premiere military/economic/diplomatic power.  

As long as you want to be the world’s #1 economic power, you must be in the game.  And in the game to me means you must be the guarantor of freedom of the seas because freedom of the seas is the most important factor in American prosperity that exists, bar none.  

If we want to continue to be #1, we need to build our Navy.  We need a bigger Navy.  We can cut back, we could do that.  We could keep the Navy the same size it is and do fewer things; the world would become less safe.  And a less safe world means a less secure world, and less security means less prosperity.  All of those things are interrelated.  

My solution to this is a larger Navy.  Spend the money required to build the Navy we need to guarantee freedom of the seas and protect our prosperity.  

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