Despite being arguably the most potent naval weapon system ever developed, the aircraft carrier has always been the subject of doubts and debate. The battleship Navy of pre-WWII wanted no part of it. The post-WWII leadership of the country wanted to do away with the carrier in favor of long range Air Force bombers. Today’s opponents argue that the age of the carrier is over and that carriers are just floating targets; relics of a past age, rendered obsolete by modern carrier-killing missiles. Even many supporters wish to replace supercarriers with smaller “escort” or “jeep” carriers.
Is today’s supercarrier a relic or does it have a vital role to play in the future fleet?
Let’s start by stipulating that the carrier has played a vital role, historically. There’s no denying the power of the carrier as demonstrated in conflict after conflict. However, all of the carrier’s proven power in the past does not necessarily make it suitable for the Navy fleet of the future. Let’s look closer, analyze the situation, and see if we can logically determine the future of the carrier.
The carrier has three general uses: peacetime operations, limited conflict operations, and all-out war operations.
Peacetime operations can be considered as those actions which provide a stabilizing influence on events. While useful and important, this role can be filled by other ships or, often, land based air power, and hardly justifies the cost of a carrier.
Limited conflict operations involve regional or localized conflicts such as Desert Storm, Viet Nam, and Iraq, historically, and N. Korea, Iran, or other Mid East or Third World countries in the future. These conflicts would likely involve relatively little naval combat and the carrier’s role would be to provide inland strike and local air supremacy. This role demonstrates the flexibility and power of the carrier. The ability to roam up and down the coast of N. Korea, for instance, delivering strikes that aircraft based in S. Korea would be hard pressed to accomplish is a potent capability. Or, consider the freedom of action the carrier offers in various Mid East scenarios where we might or might not be granted operational rights and overfly permission from “friendly” countries. Africa presents a host of possible future conflicts and we would have few bases available to us for land based aircraft to operate from. The carrier would represent an enormous amount of power and flexibity.
|Future of the Fleet or Relic of the Past?|
All-out war, at the moment, means China and the carrier’s role would be to conduct naval warfare, inland strike, and strike group escort. Entire research papers and books could be written about the conduct of a future war with China and the strategy and tactics that would be employed. The actual usefulness of a carrier would depend on the strategy and tactics required and such a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this post. We’ll consider a few fairly obvious uses.
The carrier still offers the most effective means of finding and destroying enemy naval forces. While some may argue that Air Force bombers with standoff anti-ship missiles could do the job, that argument assumes that surveillance and targeting can be provided in a timely fashion. Given the geography and distances involved, it will be very difficult for aircraft based in Guam or the U.S. or wherever to respond in time. A carrier group, on the other hand, provides its own surveillance and targeting on a localized basis and can respond instantly with massive force. Others may argue that submarines can fill the role of anti-ship combat and that’s true except that the submarines are going to be busy conducting Tomahawk strikes, ASW, and surveillance. Certainly, submarines will be able to contribute to the naval warfare operations but in a somewhat haphazard fashion as opportunities present themselves. Bear in mind that submarines have a limited field of view, sensorwise, as compared to the hundreds of miles offered by a carrier group’s Hawkeyes and Aegis.
A carrier’s strike range is limited by its aircraft to a few hundred miles, at best. Thus, in the early stages of a war with China, the much discussed Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) will prevent the carrier from conducting much in the way of useful inland strike operations since the initial operational area for a carrier group will, presumably, be a thousand miles from the Chinese coast. However, what the carrier can do is provide escort protection for other strike platforms that do have the range to strike from A2/AD distances. Currently, Burkes and Ticonderogas armed with Tomahawk missiles represent the Navy’s long range strike capability. It will be the job of the carrier to escort and protect the Burkes/Ticos so that they can carry out their strike role. It’s ironic that at this stage of conflict, the carrier will be the escort for the destroyers and cruisers rather than the other way around, as has been traditional. Of course, submarines also carry Tomahawks but they don’t require escort and, therefore, don’t enter into this aspect of the discussion. Clearly, the only way Burkes/Ticos can survive to penetrate to Tomahawk shooting distance is with a very strong, layered defense. Aegis alone won’t do it.
As the A2/AD threat is neutralized and the operational distances are greatly reduced, the carrier can revert to its traditional strike role.
It is important to note that at all times the carrier will be vital for providing area air supremacy for itself, for other surface groups, for nearby land forces, and for Air Force units. It is going to be very difficult for the Air Force to provide continuous coverage given the distances involved. Carriers are going to frequently be the only source of air cover for friendly forces.
To sum up, carriers will be vital for conducting strike operations in future regional conflicts and will provide both escort protection and strike in an all out war. Of course, the caveat here is that the value of a carrier lies wholly in its air wing, as we’ve discussed previously. If the air wings continue the trend towards fewer numbers and less capable aircraft, the value of the carrier, and the conclusions drawn here, become less. On the other hand, if the Navy increases air wing size and develops long range, hard hitting aircraft the value of the carrier becomes greater. Honestly, the carrier is teetering on the edge of unjustifiability (is that a word?) due to the declining air wings. The theoretical case for the carrier is easy to make but the reality is that the air wing trends are driving the carrier’s value down to the point where it’s getting tougher to make the real case.
Of course, at this point some of you are saying, sure, carriers are useful and powerful but they’ve been rendered obsolete by modern carrier-killing missiles. Large, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and intermediate range anti-ship ballistic missiles make the carrier nothing more than a large, floating target. Throw in the submarine threat and carriers just can’t be justified given their obvious vulnerability. Well, that’s the next post.