The U.S. Military's Ultimate Fear: Are Aircraft Carriers Too Big To Fail?
Various defense pundits, scholars, and journalists have spent a considerable amount of digital ink debating the various threats to America’s carrier fleet while avoiding a more central question. In the cliché phrase of our time: Are carriers too big to fail? Clausewitz tells us, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Is there any political situation of such gravity that losing a carrier would be deemed an acceptable risk? In other words, how expendable are carriers? The answer to this question has large implications for the tactical and strategic options available to U.S. policymakers.
Total security from all risk is impossible. The aircraft carrier is not invulnerable to attack. The new U.S. Ford-class aircraft carrier will be a floating home to over 4,000 sailors and comes in at the hefty price tag of around $12 billion dollars. In light of the development and proliferation of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weaponry, does this enormous investment of human resources narrow U.S. tactical and strategic options? What are the implications of the sinking of a U.S. carrier?
Over 4,000 American soldiers died during the recent eight and a half year Iraq war. These casualties played a large role in the extensive domestic opposition to the conflict. Imagine for a moment that a similar number of sailors perish in less than an hour. Such an event would be a national catastrophe and would likely create enormous political pressure to end combat operations. Such a catastrophic scenario is characteristic of naval warfare. In his book Seapower, Naval strategist Geoffrey Till tells us that:
“The nature of forces engaged in maritime operations…are expensive, hard to replace, and even the smallest units represent a sizeable investment in human resources, whose loss can be sudden and instantaneous and very hard for publics and governments to bear.”
The U.S. public is not conditioned to enduring high amounts of casualties. The last time commensurate numbers of U.S. troops died in a single military engagement was in 1950 during the Korean War. Knowing that, what would be the reaction if a U.S. carrier were attacked and sunk?
How it Could Happen:
To those who doubt such a scenario will ever unfold, consider this: Nothing is ever truly invulnerable. The sinking of the Titanic and the Bismarck as well as the passing of the “Battleship” era can all attest to that. Consider the various threats from Beijing’s A2/AD missile arsenal, specifically the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) and YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM). The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2013 global defense assessment, The Military Balance, states that the DF-21D has gone through limited testing and has been deployed to the Second Artillery, the branch of China’s military that controls its nuclear and conventional missile arsenal. Managing Editor for The National Interest Harry Kazianis brings up the point that simple math weights in the favor of the attacker when it comes to anti-ship weapons like the DF-21D. The U.S. Navy has a total of 30 ships equipped with the state-of-the-art Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system. Even if Washington utilized every Aegis BMD-equipped ship from across the globe, there is a limited amount of interceptors America could bring to the fight. American ships would be sitting ducks once they ran out. Worse, thousands of such missiles can be expended and not even come close to approaching the cost required to field a fleet capable of taking on the U.S. Navy.