It seems to me…
“Somebody said that carrier pilots were the best in the world, and they must be or there wouldn’t be any of them left alive.” ~ Ernie Pyle.
The U.S. Navy remains enamored with its behemoth aircraft carriers though as impressive as they might be, now have become archaic fossils of a bygone age. While the basic art of warfare[i] remains basically unchanged from centuries past, all of the associated artifacts constantly must be updated to reflect changes in weaponry and tactics. The army now relies more on swift airborne units rather than the huge tank battalions associated with traditional large-scale ground combat. The air force increasingly uses drones and fast stealth combat aircraft rather than large heavy bombers. Only the navy remains mired in the past.
The naval aircraft carrier has been the primary visible symbol of American military power in recent years and appear likely to remain so for the near future[ii]. While no carrier has been lost since the Japanese sank the Hornet in 1942, they have become increasingly vulnerable to attack. By current standards, they are obsolete, weighed down by escalating costs, inefficiency, and susceptible to the latest weapon systems. It is time to begin drawing down the Nimitz– and follow-on Ford-class vessels which are increasingly vulnerable to a new class of weapons such as China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) systems. The carrier group still has a role to play similar to retired veterans expected to turn out for every Fourth of July parade, the carriers’ primary role should be to symbolically visit ports around the world as impressive reassurances of U.S. strength.
An aircraft carrier is a 100,000 tons of nuclear-powered steel, a 1,000ft long structure towering 20 stories above the waterline crammed with about 70 aircraft and costing around $15 billion each; an entire carrier strike group is considerably more expensive. Carriers not only are big and expensive, they are increasingly vulnerable and irrelevant to conflicts of the future. Factoring the staggering personnel numbers, roughly 6,700 men and women, and the daily operating cost of $6.5 million, the value of these in real terms is questionable. Some of the U.S.’s potential enemies have acquired ASBMs and modern submarines; as technology advances and costs decrease, more will do so in the future. A few well-placed explosives could result in a catastrophic loss of life. Additionally, they are a challenge to staff and maintain; no more than three of the Navy’s 12 carriers are typically deployed at once.
Up to now, most nations, including China, had not developed the range of capabilities including space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control structure, and ground-processing capabilities necessary to detect, identify, locate, track, and strike a vessel moving at 30 knots at distances up to 1000 miles. 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.
If the U.S. Navy was being designed today, with technologies currently available, and the threats now emerging, it likely would be very different. What the navy needs is a fleet of more numerous but less concentrated smaller ships and to accelerate development of longer-range drones deployed on those smaller nimbler vessels which would be less conspicuous than today’s easy targets[iii].
It even is questionable as to how necessary large fleets of manned aircraft will be in future combat. The inefficiency of manned aviation, with its massive fiscal overhead of training, pilot currency, and maintenance is rapidly outpacing its utility. Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) with longer range and loitering time could be operated from conventional carriers currently deployed, including light amphibious carriers.
By increasing its reliance on UCAVs (drones), the Navy potentially could replace the aviation capability of today’s carriers with many other vessels already in the fleet. Increasingly all new warships, from the small Littoral Combat Ships to the latest Lewis and Clark-class supply vessels, come with extra-large flight decks[iv]. In the future, every ship will potentially be a carrier.
Additionally, the Ohio-class guided-missile submarines (SSGN) represent the most effective path in forward strike warfare and would supplement carrier replacement capabilities. These vessels are the largest submarines ever built for the U.S. Navy (Russia has two classes that are larger – their Typhoon-class has twice the displacement). It also has swimmer lockout chambers configured to support clandestine forward deployed missions by special operations forces.
The Navy needs to consider the type of engagements it will be asked to support in the future. Considering the range of weapons arrayed against them, it is doubtful that future includes the traditional aircraft carrier.
That’s what I think, what about you?
[ii] Aircraft Carrier [In]Vulnerability, Lexington Institute, http://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/aircraft-carrier-invulnerability.pdf, August 2001.
[iii] Thompson, Mark. In China’s Sights, Time, 28 July 2014, pp30-36.
[iv] Axe, David. After the Aircraft Carrier: 3 Alternatives to the Navy’s Vulnerable Flattops, Wired, http://www.wired.com/2013/03/replacing-aircraft-carriers/all/, 20 March 2013.