Navy Aircraft Carriers Might Just Be Unsinkable. Here's Why.
Although U.S. aircraft carriers are protected by the most potent, multi-layered defensive shield ever conceived, they do not take chances when deployed near potential adversaries. Their operational tactics have evolved to minimize risk while still delivering the offensive punch that is their main reason for existing. For instance, a carrier will generally not operate in areas where mines might have been laid until the area has been thoroughly cleared. It will tend to stay in the open ocean rather than entering confined areas where approaching threats are hard to sort out from other local traffic. It will keep moving to complicate the targeting challenge for enemies. It will also use links to other joint assets from the seabed to low-earth orbit to achieve detailed situational awareness.
New technology is bolstering carrier defense:
Although there has been much speculation about emerging threats to aircraft carriers, the Navy invests heavily in new offensive and defensive technologies aimed at countering such dangers. The most important advance of recent years has been the netting together of all naval assets in an area so that sensors and weapons can be used to maximum effect. Initiatives like the Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air program link together every available combat system in a seamless, fast-reacting defensive screen that few adversaries can penetrate. Numerous other advances are being introduced, from the penetrating recon capabilities of stealthy fighters to shipboard jamming systems to advanced obscurants that confuse the guidance systems of homing missiles.
The bottom line on aircraft carrier survivability is that only a handful of countries can credibly pose a threat to America's most valuable warships, and short of using nuclear weapons none of those is likely to sink one. Although the Navy has changed it tactics to deal with the proliferation of fast anti-ship missiles and the growing military power of China in the Western Pacific, large-deck aircraft carriers remain among the most secure and useful combat systems in America's arsenal. With the unlimited range and flexibility afforded by nuclear propulsion, there are few places they can't go to enforce U.S. interests. And at the rate the Navy is investing in new warfighting technologies, that is likely to remain true for many decades to come.
Loren B. Thompson is Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy. Prior to holding his present positions, he was Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. He has also taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
This first appeared in 2016.