The Buzz

What if the Aircraft Carrier Had Never Been Invented?

Aircraft carriers are multi-billion dollar investments—in the case of USS Gerald Ford, some $12 billion. They take years to build—in the case of the French ship Charles de Gaulle, twelve years. They take a long time to repair—USS Eisenhower is just back from a two-year stay at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. And as the U.S. Navy is remembering in its Optimized Fleet Response Plan, training their crews is difficult and costly. As Michael Horowitz wrote in The Diffusion of Military Power (Princeton University Press, 2010), they pose serious organizational challenges to any navy. So what if all these problems had been deemed too daunting back in the 1920s? What if the world had taken a collective pass on the aircraft carrier? The balance of bureaucratic and international rivalries would have produced alternative histories, and some intriguing military-technological trajectories.

The aircraft carrier is indeed a challenge—thus today, only Brazil, China, France, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United States operate fixed-wing aircraft from ships. Brazil’s membership in that club is tenuous, as its 55 year-old second-hand French carrier, the São Paolo (formerly the Foch), has been under almost continuous repair for the past fifteen years. Soon enough, the United Kingdom will operate a fixed-wing carrier again (HMS Queen Elizabeth); currently (with HMS Ocean) sits with Japan, South Korea, and Thailand as operating carriers, but only with rotary-wing aircraft. Operating helicopter carriers is challenging too, but the flight deck and hangar bay choreography is not on the same order of complexity.

Several countries have operated carriers and quit. Canada paid off HMCS Bonaventure in 1970. The Netherlands bought HMS Venerable in 1948, and operated her as the Karel Doorman, before selling her onto Argentina as ARA Veinticinco de Mayo in 1969. During the Falklands War in 1982, lurking British submarines chased her back into port. Aftewards, the Argentines hardly operated her, and effectively got out of the business, scrapping her in 1999. Australia sent the old HMAS Melbourne to a Chinese yard for scrapping in 1985. In the process, the Chinese Navy got to see her taken apart level by level (see Ian Storey and You Ji, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions: Seeking Truth from Rumors,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2004, p. 79).

In a big war, some carriers will indeed need repair. As Andrew Krepinevich of CSBA wrote at length last year, operating any naval surface force in narrow seas invites attack. In the Mediterranean, from 1941 through 1943, this mostly kept the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina at arms' length from one another. That’s one reason that Italy, Spain, and France don’t operate more than one or two carriers each. Around the periphery of the Mediterranean, the cost tradeoff just doesn’t merit a large investment in floating (and thus sinkable) airfields. The trouble is that increasing missile ranges are making all the oceans narrower.

So without carriers, what would have been different? Obviously, no Pearl Harbor raid. In his 1925 novel The Great Pacific War, Hector C. Bywater under-appreciated the future of airpower at sea. He suggested that the Japanese surprise attack would come from a floating bomb of a freighter against the Panama Canal, while the main force attacked the Philippines. (Think of his book as the last century’s Ghost Fleet.) An attack on Hawaii might only have been a submarine minelaying operation to block the channel. (That’s less Ghost Fleet.) The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Top Gun would have been Air Force movies. (That’s just harsh.) Over Vietnam, without Navy carriers on Yankee and Dixie Stations, the Air Force would have had to run the entire bombing campaign from Thailand and Guam—though perhaps without the benefit of the Navy’s investment in the Sidewinder missile.