As Obsolete as a Battleship: Why Is the U.S. Navy Still Building Aircraft Carriers?

April 17, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarPentagon

As Obsolete as a Battleship: Why Is the U.S. Navy Still Building Aircraft Carriers?

We take a look. 

One of the most effective components of an effective submarine procurement program should be a back-to-the-future program involving very quiet diesel submarines. Diesel submarines are very hard to detect and can be procured at a rate of three or four per the cost of each nuclear submarine.

But here, as with Navy carrier policy, the leadership will encounter strong resistance from one of its “unions,” in this case the submariners who are committed to the nuclear Navy.

Sound policy will also require overcoming resistance to replacing manned subs with all manner of unmanned underwater vessels — from the very small to large-displacement unmanned vehicles.

Submarines, which were unsung game changers in both world wars, must continue to develop in terms of offensive capability as launchers of cruise missiles, non-nuclear ballistic missiles and eventually hypersonic missile.

The U.S. Navy is unquestionably the most powerful in the world today in the aggregate. Unfortunately, repeating that phrase like a standard campaign applause line isn’t helpful. While the entire U.S. Navy dominates in tonnage and sheer firepower, that may not be meaningful in a specific locale with the force on deployment.

Then again, although Navy war games often disallow this reality, the very fact that the American Navy is the most powerful to fight a specific type of naval engagement practically guarantees that a future opponent will be so rude as to play a different game.

Yet, the Navy projects into the future a force structure that really is an updated version of what fought in the Pacific in the 1940s, and which was really untested in the Cold War. The alternative force structure hinted at here would equip the Navy possibly for the next 30 to 40 years.

Projected advances in sensor technology, as Greenert noted, will “make stealth difficult to maintain above and below water.” So, too, will the increasing range and precision of hypersonic weapons and the disabling stealth of deniable cyber-attacks. At that point, going into the 2050s and 2060s yet a different force structure and battle concept will be required.

One thing is certain, however. The aircraft carrier will not be the relevant weapon in the second half of the century. Continued overinvestment in them only ensures that the nations and possibly non-state groups that understand the future will be the ones that control the waves.


This article by David W. Wise originally appeared at War is Boring in 2015.

Image: Flickr / Official U.S. Navy Page