The Age of the U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Being Unbeatable Is Over

USS Ronald Reagan Aircraft Carrier
May 30, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaU.S. NavyNavyMilitaryAircraft CarriersMissiles

The Age of the U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Being Unbeatable Is Over

China's technological advancements have raised concerns about the vulnerability of U.S. aircraft carriers in potential conflicts, especially given their historical invincibility and symbolic value.


Summary: China's technological advancements have raised concerns about the vulnerability of U.S. aircraft carriers in potential conflicts, especially given their historical invincibility and symbolic value.

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier


-While the U.S. has avoided direct conflicts with major powers since World War II, it has built a large fleet of advanced aircraft carriers, now facing threats from China's sophisticated weaponry, including hypersonic missiles.

-The deployability of these carriers may depend on public sentiment and the perceived significance of conflicts.

-In highly supported conflicts, carriers may still be deployed despite risks, but in divided or apathetic scenarios, planners might reconsider their use.

Are U.S. Aircraft Carriers at Risk? China's Advancements Pose New Threats

China's technological advancements pose a significant threat to these carriers, raising concerns about their vulnerability in a potential conflict. The geographic deployment of carriers may now depend on public sentiment and perceived conflict significance. 

Rethinking US Aircraft Carriers: Vulnerabilities in Great Power Competition

Wisely, the United States has avoided direct conflict with great and middle powers since the conclusion of World War II. The US has, however, during the same period, engaged consistently with less formidable foes, i.e., North Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, the Taliban. The result has been a public and a military leadership inoculated against the hardships and horrors of great power conflict.

Simultaneously, the US has stockpiled the world’s largest fleet of advanced aircraft carriers. Costing many billions of dollars per unit and taking years to construct, the supercarrier has become a symbol of American global dominance and a practical tool for expanding American air power.

But as America built their supercarriers, and avoided conflict with great and middle powers, the subconscious notion of carrier invincibility took place.

The United States has never lost a modern aircraft carrier. Yet, lately, as adversaries (especially China) develop and stockpile weaponry capable of harming US carriers, observers are being forced to reconsider the aircraft carrier’s vulnerability, and relatedly, the aircraft carrier’s deployability.

Understanding the risk to aircraft carriers

An aircraft carrier is a remarkable machine. Running on nuclear power, capable of operating indefinitely, with upwards of 5,000 sailors and 100 aircraft aboard, the aircraft carrier is a modern city and a floating airbase – a key to the international projection of American power.

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

But, the aircraft is still just a boat with a hull, screws, bow, and stern. And boats, as the designers of the Bismarck or the RMS Titanic could tell you, are sinkable – mainly when targeted with weaponry designed specifically to sink boats.

America’s adversaries, most especially China, has developed technology that is increasingly likely to sink an American aircraft carrier. Xi has overseen one of world history’s most ambitious shipbuilding sprees, under which the Chinese Navy has expanded to include various attack submarines and surface vessels that could potentially harm a US carrier.

China is also expanding its own carrier fleet, which could launch aircraft capable of targeting an American carrier, in the sort of carrier-on-carrier conflict that the US hasn’t experienced since the Pacific Theater of World War II.

And the aircraft that China would launch from that aircraft is increasingly sophisticated, increasingly capable of slipping past defensive lines and landing a blow.

More concerning still, China has stockpiled intermediate-range missiles (which until recently, the US was treaty banned from possessing) and developed hypersonic missiles (which the US cannot yet reproduce or defend against). Either China’s intermediate or hypersonic missile arsenal could be used to target an American carrier with lethal results.

The point is: US carriers would likely be vulnerable in a direct conflict with a great power, i.e., China.

Are US aircraft carriers only deployable to relatively safe regions?

The US has spent several decades deploying their aircraft carriers worldwide, without much concern for the vessel’s safety. Now, however, an aircraft carrier’s safety may be geographically determined.

Would the US deploy their carriers to a region where the carrier is at heightened risk? That would likely depend on public sentiment and on the nature of the conflict.

If the US public is committed to the conflict, as they were during World War II; if the conflict is perceived and approached as if it were existential, then yes, the US would likely deploy their aircraft carriers without reservation for the prospective loss of fiscal treasure, military hardware, or human life.

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

But if the US public is not fully invested, if the population is divided, or apathetic, or skeptical, (as in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan) then American war planners would be less likely to risk the sinking of an aircraft carrier.

And if the public is not fully supportive of a conflict, the US may want to reevaluate the necessity of participating in the conflict.

About the Author: Harrison Kass 

Harrison Kass is a defense and national security writer with over 1,000 total pieces on issues involving global affairs. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.  

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