Should America Embrace Smaller Aircraft Carriers?

Even though smaller carriers would be less expensive, the decline in capability would be significant.

Eric Heginbotham and his colleagues at RAND should be commended for their recent report “The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017.” It is one of the very best publicly available assessments of aspects of a potential Sino-American war, and it makes a clear and compelling case of its central conclusion: “Over the next five to 15 years, if U.S. and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces remain on roughly current trajectories, Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance.”  However, one of its more talked about recommendations—that of harvesting Navy aircraft carrier force structure to generate savings for other capabilities—is unfortunately not supported by their analysis.

Each of the report’s ten operational areas are fascinating and worthy of detailed analysis, and there are numerous wise observations and recommendations throughout the report. However, focus should be drawn to the report’s assertions that “To pay for [higher procurement] priorities, more rapid cuts to legacy fighter forces should be considered, as should decreasing the emphasis on large aircraft carriers” and “the U.S. Navy, for its part, could spread risk and increase flexibility by moving to smaller carriers, as well as save resources.” While the recommendations are surely composed with the best of intentions, they are neither supported by the report’s own analysis nor the findings of a forthcoming Hudson Institute report on the future of the aircraft carrier Seth Cropsey, Bryan McGrath, and I co-authored.

In the section on “Air Campaigns”, the RAND report finds that in a defense of Taiwan scenario, the contributions of fighters from Carrier Air Wings (CVWs) would be critical to attriting PLA air forces, in conjunction with USAF air power operating from bases in the First and Second Island Chain. The contribution of CVWs would be further elevated if the limited number of distant air bases in Guam and northern Japan were assessed to be under attack by long-range missiles, such as the DF-26 (something that section of the report did not model).

Another section of the report examines “Chinese Anti-Surface Warfare”, including PLA Over-the-Horizon (OTH) targeting, Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) capability, Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) threats, and offensive submarine capabilities. The section lucidly conveys the rapidly increasing threats to surface ships, including aircraft carriers. If anything, the report understates the gravity of the threat in order to make the model consistent, by using relatively short-range carrier acoustic detection ranges by PLAN submarines, by not modeling the impact of a 3,000-4,000 km DF-26 ASBM, and by not displaying the effects of a surge deployment of the PLAN submarine fleet.

However, after establishing that carrier aviation would play an important role in an air campaign and that threats to land bases and surface ships are greatly increasing, the report’s conclusion calls for a “refocusing of procurement and force structure.” This is a logical and appropriate suggestion that seeks to prioritize the most important capabilities. In this section, though, the report states: “At the other end of the spectrum, large carriers, which are primary targets for China’s growing array of anti-access capabilities, may also be suboptimal. The U.S. Navy might productively explore smaller fast carriers, which could be escorted into harm’s way by more capable (and stealthier) destroyers, which might borrow promising technologies embedded in the Zumwalt class.” and further-on states “In an era of budgetary austerity, any discussion of procurement needs would be remiss in not addressing where savings might be achieved. […] The U.S. Navy, for its part, could spread risk and increase flexibility by moving to smaller carriers, as well as save resources.”