U.S. Navy's Aircraft Carriers Might Have a Fatal Flaw

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier
March 11, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyNavyMilitaryDefenseAircraft CarriersRussiaChina

U.S. Navy's Aircraft Carriers Might Have a Fatal Flaw

Now that the Global War on Terror is largely over and near-peer conflict is back on the menu, carriers will have a harder job on the battlefield. But would the U.S. military really risk its aircraft carriers in a war with Russia or China?

Aircraft Carriers in the Age of Near-Peer Warfare: The U.S. Navy's Strategic Pivot: The U.S. military in recent decades fought against weaker states such as Iraq, or against non-state groups like al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State, and the Taliban. The U.S. Navy used its aircraft carriers for ground support missions during these operations. Carrier battle groups didn’t have to worry about enemy long-range munitions, sabotage, submarines, or air attacks. 

Now that the Global War on Terror is largely over and near-peer conflict is back on the menu, carriers will have a harder job on the battlefield. But would the U.S. military really risk its aircraft carriers in a war with Russia or China?

Money and Adversary Capabilities vs. Aircraft Carriers 

Aircraft carriers are mighty expensive. The latest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, cost American taxpayers $13 billion. Although subsequent ships of the class will cost less, their price tag will still hover in the several billions. 

The total fleet of U.S. aircraft carriers cost nearly $60 billion. This number covers only the carriers themselves. It does not include the expensive fighter jets they carry, such as the F-35B/C Lighting II, F/A-18 Super Hornet, and EG-18 Growler, or the supporting warships of the carrier battle group. 

Meanwhile, near-peer adversaries have developed advanced capabilities that pose a significant threat to these invaluable assets. China in particular has been investing heavily in missile technology. It is also creating a robust anti-access/aerial denial bubble in strategic areas in the Indo-Pacific in an attempt to prevent U.S. aircraft carriers from entering a potential conflict. 

In sum, aircraft carriers are very expensive, and U.S. adversaries have more powerful options than they did in the past to destroy, sink, or restrict them. 

Considering this combination of factors, a logical question that comes up is whether U.S. aircraft carriers are now relegated to fighting wars only against those who can’t fight back.

Adjusting Fire

The answer is no. 

The Pentagon spends so much money on aircraft carriers because they are still the ships that can determine a naval battle and influence the course of a war. Advances in technology might mean that carriers are once more vulnerable to enemy fire – much like they were in World War Two – but there hasn’t been a “Midway moment” to turn the carrier battle group obsolete. 

The Navy should adjust its fire and invest more in light aircraft carriers to complement its supercarriers. More ships would divide adversary resources and increase overall survivability, providing the time and resources necessary to prevail. 

The “Lightning Carrier” concept that pairs amphibious assault ships – essentially small aircraft carriers – with advanced fighter jets like the F-35B Lightning II can still achieve a lot on the battlefield and help determine a naval clash. More of these ships, coupled with investment in anti-missile technologies such as directed-energy weapons and hypersonic munitions, could be decisive factors in the next near-peer conflict.

About the Author

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He holds a BA from Johns Hopkins University and an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP. Email the author: [email protected].