Be Afraid, Russia and China: Why Aircraft Carriers Will Win the Wars of the Future
Fundamentally, the strength of a carrier depends most on the capabilities of its air wing. In the next decade, the aircraft launched from U.S. carriers will undergo considerable change. Most notably, the arrival of the F-35C (whatever the larger problems with the program) will increase the stealth, sensor capacity, and communications capabilities of the air wing. In combination with the EA-18 Growler, this will increase the lethality of the entire air wing.
Down the road, the Navy’s pursuit of a sixth-generation fighter will hopefully keep the carrier air wing vital and effective, even against strongly defended targets. The aircraft that the Gerald Ford enters service carrying will look little like those that it flies when it leaves service.
The biggest threat to the future of the aircraft carrier lies not in missiles or torpedoes, but in the enormous combined cost of the ships, their escorts, and their air wings. This is a problem that has not improved over the past century; carriers have grown ever more expensive, increasing the strain on defense budgets and national governments.
The Ford class and the F-35C have not been exceptions to this trend, as both have exceeded cost expectations. In the future, the Navy hopes to rein in costs by focusing on finding construction efficiencies, and using “concurrency” to accelerate the development and operationalization of new technologies. Thus far the results haven’t been great. In the future, the exorbitant cost of the ships and their aircraft may force the Navy to choose between smaller carriers, or fewer carriers.
Aircraft carriers are just big ships with flat decks. Their true power comes from their ability to provide a secure, mobile airbase for a powerful air wing. Given the expected lifespan of the new carriers entering service with the USN (50 years or more), we can have no doubt that the ships will radically increase in lethality over the next decades.
This first appeared last year.