Are Aircraft Carriers the New West Berlin?

The foolishness of thinking CVNs make good gambit pawns in the struggle with China.

There is an empirical problem with the debate over United States military strategy towards China: aircraft carriers are “dead,” but they can still be seen patrolling the Western Pacific.

Most observers agree that Chinese antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities have technological and economic advantages over US carriers. Antiship ballistic missiles have roughly twice the range of carrier jets. Their launchers are hard to find and easily dispersed, whereas supercarriers are large, travel in the open, and heavily concentrate resources in one target. Unsurprisingly, China has many times more missiles of various types than the US has carriers. UAVs and advanced countermeasures may eventually save the platform, but it is clear carriers now operate at great risk in China’s Near Seas.

The natural conclusion is that flattops are “operationally irrelevant”: they won’t be deployed in probable scenarios. When the PLA tried its hand at coercive diplomacy during the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Clinton sent in the carriers. Defense analysts like ANU professor Hugh White speculate that Washington has little choice but to respond meekly if a similar situation arises in today’s A2/AD environment. Likewise, CNAS and CSBA proposals note that “carriers are far less likely to operate at such close ranges in the future,” and “the wisdom of deploying carriers within range of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles… is doubtful at best.”

Yet strangely, policymakers still plan on using them. Last November, former senior officials gathered at CSIS for a crisis simulation. According to Robert Haddick, they decided to send two carrier strike groups into the East China Sea during a Sino-Japanese standoff. And at a March 5 HASC hearing, PACOM Commander Samuel Locklear testified that US carriers in the Pacific would have “a significant role in any contingency, any crisis… for now and the foreseeable future.”

How do we explain this? I would suggest that a very fruitful debate over US military strategy has missed something crucial: Washington might try to use carriers for deterrence despite or even because of their vulnerability. The purpose would be to signal America’s willingness to raise the stakes. In December, Zachary Keck made one analogy between Cold War Berlin and the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute; I will offer another. Like the US garrison in West Berlin, aircraft carriers are relatively defenseless, but they have a separate function as a highly visible warning about US resolve. Today, a strategy of mobile “tripwires” is neither credible nor prudent, but it is worth studying because it may actually be implemented.

Specifically, our bargaining chip against Beijing is to make things uncomfortably apocalyptic. The point is less what the carrier can do and more what an attack on it promises—full retaliation, and a war that may quickly get out of hand. As ASPI analyst Harry White observed last month, “the idea is that anyone who attacks as valuable an asset as a US carrier should expect a significant response.” Internationally, a successful strike would deeply wound American prestige, especially if it went unanswered. Domestically, the deaths of six thousand crewmembers would generate almost unbearable political pressures for revenge. Our entries into WWII and the Global War on Terror were sparked by less. In fact, there are already hints of such a strategy more broadly. In a January Foreign Policy article, Elbridge Colby and Ely Ratner advise “communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think” and “pursu[ing] policies that actually elevate the risks.” They hope to avert both war and aggression by intensifying their consequences.