America's Aircraft Carriers: A Game Changer or Paper Tiger?
The utility of a large, flat-decked ship comes primarily from the kinds of aircraft it can carry and launch. The aircraft carrier as a concept has survived, in no small part, because aircraft carriers are good for jobs other than penetrating tightly defended A2/AD systems. Indeed, no U.S. carrier since World War II has ever needed to directly challenge such a system. Instead (as noted above) aircraft carriers have found themselves jobs in a variety of other conditions.
The U.S. Navy has enjoyed the advantage of nearly unfettered access to enemy airspace over the past twenty-five years, and has structured its air wings accordingly. While the U.S. has been slower than many would have liked to adapt to the new array of anti-access threats, the development of fifth and sixth generation stealth aircraft, as well as the eventual procurement of long range, carrier-based strike zones, can help restore the usefulness of the CVN-78 class, even if anti-access weapons drive the carriers further out to sea.
The Final Salvo:
Plenty of world-beating weapons quickly become obsolete. The fast battleships of World War II went into reserve less than a decade after their commissioning. The early fighters and bombers of the jet age sometimes had even briefer lifespans. Aircraft carriers, in widely variant forms, have enjoyed a good, long run. They survive because aircraft have short ranges, and fixed airfields have significant military and political vulnerabilities. These two factors seem likely to persist.
However, just because flat-decked aircraft carrying ships will likely be with us does not mean that the Ford class, which emphasizes high-intensity, high technology warfare, represents an ideal investment of U.S. defense capital. The vulnerabilities of the big carriers are real, and the U.S. needs to either remedy those problems, or consider an alternative means of delivering ordnance.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
This first appeared last summer.