The Demise of Aircraft Carriers?

by Chuck Donovan

It seems no matter where you turn somebody is saying that old stuff is gone, new stuff is here to stay.  Cell phones are here, there is no room for phones wired into our walls.  Electronic publications are here and paper documents will soon be a thing of the past.  The Internet is here, and the days of libraries are numbered.  It has always been like this.  When radio came along people thought it would be the end of music.  When records came along people thought it was the end of radio.

And so it goes.

In military planning there is a nearly endless list of things that were supposed to be long ago made useless by new technology and new tactics.  In the 1980’s I flew a fighter jet designed in the late 1950’s that did not incorporate a gun because guns were supposedly made obsolete by guided missiles.  Then the Vietnam experience taught the world that fighter jets must have guns.  Today all new fighter jets have guns in them.  Down on the ground, is there any doubt that our war experience in the Middle East has taught us a thing or two about what is obsolete?

Now comes a discussion about the aircraft carrier.  Is the carrier obsolete?  It certainly is big and very, very expensive.  Does it have a place in today’s military world?

The report that caught my attention is titled “At What Cost A New Carrier”[1].  As you read these few excerpts, keep in mind that navy commanders have always had to contend with guns on the shore.  It is easier to place a bigger gun on the beach than the gun you place on the moving deck of a boat.  Get the boat too close to the guns on the beach, and your boat is at risk of being sunk.  If you don’t have the ability to fight your way past the shore artillery then your navy cannot project power to the enemy’s land assets.  That’s naval warfare101.

Ground based anti-ship missiles such as China’s DF-21D[2] could reach out and touch a carrier long before the newest planned strike aircraft, the F-35, will be within range of land targets.

“China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the United States builds going forward.”[1]

There is of course the question in any military of how to spend your military dollars.

“…life-cycle cost of an F/A-18 Hornet, that works out to $7.5 million per bomb. That is quite substantial when compared with the precision-strike Tomahawk cruise missile, which each cost a conservative $2 million.  …To achieve the same return on investment as the Tomahawk, Hornets would have needed to fly nearly four times the number of sorties and drop 100,000 air-to-ground weapons.”[1]

That puts it into perspective.  Those sexy “Top Gun” scenes are a lot more expensive than they looked before I knew this.

Time is also an issue.  To produce one carrier pilot a college graduate must make it through officer training and at least 2 years of flight training before actually getting into a combat unit onboard a carrier.

“The inefficiency of manned aviation, with its massive fiscal overhead of training, pilot currency and maintenance, is rapidly outpacing its utility.”

The question remains what we expect our Navy to do.

“The U.S. Navy must be ready to support the nation’s interests. It must commit itself to developing the reliable means to conduct precise, limited strikes on strategic targets such as leadership facilities, power relay stations or water treatment plants. After 100 years, the carrier is rapidly approaching the end of its useful strategic life. As arrows shot by English longbow men at Agincourt supplanted knights in armor on the battlefields of Europe and were in turn overtaken by muskets and cannon, the one constant in warfare is change. To continue to invest in aircraft carriers at this stage, to believe that the USS Ford, with a service life of 50 years, can see the carrier through to a 150-year life unchallenged upon the high seas smells of hubris. Advancements in surveillance, reconnaissance, global positioning, missiles and precision strike all signal a sea change in not only naval warfare, but all forms of warfare.”

The author is quite correct that we need to carefully consider further committing to the carrier as our naval centerpiece.  However, we also have to maintain a balanced approach.  Shore strikes are not the only thing navies do.  Future battles on the high seas are not out of the question and our carriers remain dominant in that part of the battle space.

When I was a young Marine Officer Candidate in training we had to have memorized answers ready for questions our instructors would snap at us.  I remember one particularly well.  “What is the most deadly weapon on the battlefield?”  The required answer was, “A Marine Corps rifleman and his rifle, sir.”  If you haven’t thought about it the first impression might be one of indoctrination.  Take another look at that answer.  The fact is that you haven’t finished a war until you have put your infantry, rifles in hand, on the enemy’s real estate.

What does this all mean?  Is the carrier dead?  I think the aircraft carrier has probably seen its zenith as a capital ship, but its usefulness remains and will remain long into the future.  Will its role be different?  Of course it will, but just as you have to commit your infantry to step onto the enemy’s real estate, you are going to have to commit your aircrew to the enemy’s skies.  Certainly there is a place for the carrier to launch and recover those assets in any future scenario.

Affording it is another question, especially for our already bankrupt United States.

The bottom line is that war is an ugly, violent, bloody business.  Don’t be fooled by terms like “surgical strike”.  War means killing, getting killed, and generally getting your hands quite dirty.  Don’t get involved in war unless you are ready to pay a big price and you are ready to finish it.  Also, don’t ever think that the enemy will cooperate with you.  None of your war plans will survive contact with the enemy.  There are no rules in war except that people will continue to die and the national treasury will continue to hemorrhage massive amounts of cash long after you have either won or lost.


[1] “At What Cost A New Carrier”, by Captain Henry J. Hendrix, USN (Ph.D.), http://www.cnas.org/atwhatcostacarrier, published by Center for a New American Security (CNAS), http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/CNAS%20Carrier_Hendrix_FINAL.pdf

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