The Aircraft Carrier (or just Carrier) has been the American Navy’s preeminent weapon since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War Two. The Carrier allowed the Navy to project ship sinking power out to the limits of the range of its ship borne bomber and torpedo carrying aircraft. Instead of needing to be within sight of each other, opposing navies could now strike at each other from hundreds of miles away.
Carriers were instrumental in defeating Japan and winning World War Two. Ever since then, the Navy has continued to rely on the Carrier as its means of projecting combat power into a military theater of operations. Carrier aircraft have flown combat missions in Korea, Vietnam, and all of the modern conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
There are two big differences regarding Carriers between World War Two and now. The first is that air to air refueling wasn’t practical until the 1960s. Prior to then, aircraft had to rely on the fuel they carried internally on takeoff. Carriers were the only platforms that could provide both air cover and striking power to fleets operating in the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. Land based aircraft, particularly fighter planes, could not fly that far away from their airbases. So only Carrier aircraft could operate far out to sea, or attack Japanese installations like those on islands located hundreds of miles from our nearest land bases. But since the 1960’s, due to air to air refueling, land based aircraft can reach anywhere. There may be some short term difficulty in getting the logistics set up for the Air Force to operate in a specific geographic area, but once this temporary issue is solved, the land based Air Force can operate anywhere we want it to.
The other big difference is what exists to potentially sink a Carrier. In World War Two, the only things really capable were dive and torpedo bombers (which usually operated off of other Carriers) and submarines. The submarines of World War Two were very slow, had to be within sight of the Carrier, and then had to hit the Carrier with “straight shot” dumb torpedoes. Still, while the American Navy sank twenty different Japanese Carriers during the war, eight of those were sunk by submarines, not aircraft. Today’s submarines are vast improvements over their WW II ancestors. They are super fast, never have to surface, and carry both anti-ship missiles and wire guided torpedoes that can be steered to the target. Since the 1960’s, submarines have repeatedly gotten embarrassingly close to carriers during naval maneuvers. It would be worse in a real war.
Submarines aren’t the only serious threat to Aircraft Carriers today. The most serious threat is probably long range anti-ship missiles. These include weapons that fly at something like a thousand miles an hour a few feet above the waves, while carrying a multi-ton conventional or, worse yet, nuclear warheads, and track the massive Carrier through a combination of active and passive radar with infrared and other backups. Even more dangerous are ballistic missiles with “steerable” re-entry warheads.
What I’ve outlined here is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the arguments against the continued reliance on $10-15 billion Aircraft Carriers. But the end result for Carriers in a war with a real enemy like Russia or China is that they will most likely end up like the Battleships in Pearl Harbor, obsolete and near defenseless targets of more modern weapons.
What to Do
We need to stop building these extremely expensive massive floating targets that have marginal usefulness. To add to the arguments against the Aircraft Carrier, the most recent, the USS Gerald Ford, which has new “electronic” catapults and aircraft landing capture gear, is both a model of cost overruns and “high tech” equipment that doesn’t work. The ship is has already had $5 Billion in cost overruns and its new equipment for launching and retrieving aircraft is not working. So this now $17.5 Billion floating island is currently completely useless.
We need a strong Navy to protect the sea lanes and the shipping operating in them. Both for commerce and for the supply lines we would have to defend in a major war. That Navy should be equipped for the modern war it will have to fight, not a war with Imperial Japan that just involves bigger ships and jet aircraft.
Most of the money we are now spending on our Navy (not unlike much of it spent for the Army and Air Force) is being wasted on weapon systems designed not for battlefield efficiency but for maximizing the profit of defense contractors. We need to pressure our representatives in Congress and the appointees in the Defense Department to push for truly cost effective weapons, ships and aircraft. Our Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen need effective modern weapons. The key word being “effective”.