Sorry: Aircraft Carriers Won’t Rule the Seas Forever

October 12, 2021 Topic: Aircraft Carriers Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarPentagon

Sorry: Aircraft Carriers Won’t Rule the Seas Forever

Continued overinvestment would be a major mistake.


Yet, a cruise missile fired from a wide range of lower signature ships costs less than a third of each bomb delivered by a fighter from the deck of a carrier. Nor do these platforms require a carrier’s defensive shield — and they can launch from beyond the range of carrier-based aircraft.

In another time, the battles of Crecy and Agincourt signaled the end of the age of the armored knight who could be defeated from a distance with advanced, low cost, armor-piercing arrows. The age of the cavalry ended with advances in artillery, mechanized armor and the machine gun in World War I.


A similar shift is occurring now and will displace the modern equivalent of the dashing cavalry officer — the fighter pilot. The knight class never passes willingly — as they take justifiable pride in their acumen and truly believe in their mission. However, the carrier and its air wing cannot be allowed to drive strategy or procurement.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Navy continues to pursue the next generation of fighter, the F-35C, and the next two Ford-class carriers to launch them in spite of an explosion of costs and questions about performance, including its stealthiness.

In what seems like a perversion of logic, the air-Navy “union” has even proposed using some of the new unmanned systems being developed by the Navy, not to replace the fighter, but as an aerial refueling tanker to try to keep the manned aircraft relevant.

USNI News has also reported that the Navy plans to reduce the UCLASS drone to perform only surveillance functions in order to preserve manned fighters. More Rube Goldberg. It’s in no way to dishonor the bravery and skill of fighter pilots to recognize the facts of physiology and physics. Unmanned vehicles and missiles can operate at speeds and turn radiuses that are impossible for a human to withstand.

With the pilot no longer in the equation, the vehicles can also achieve greater stealth. Unmanned craft and missiles cost dramatically less and remove the loss of the pilot from the equation, thus opening up an entire range of strike options than would otherwise be unavailable or suicidal.

Although TV viewers were in awe of images of precision weapons during Desert Storm, precision guided munitions had improved in effectiveness by 12 to 20 fold by the time of the second Iraq war. Those improvements will continue to be matched by increases in range accompanied, in some instances, by hypersonic speed.

In the meantime, new passive and active methods– including the use of VHF and UHF from other sources — will make stealth increasingly elusive to achieve. Worryingly, Defense News has reported claims by Chinese sources that its DWL002 passive radar had already rendered the F-35 obsolete.

Concurrently, improvements and the ubiquitous placement of sensors feeding into massive computational systems will make total battlefield awareness — with the world being the battlefield — a reality. “Sooner or later most of the world’s oceans will fall under the shadow of land-based precision weaponry,” Holmes wrote.

The next two Ford-class carriers will not be completed for another decade — assuming the problems with the first vessel are resolved — and will have a life of 50 years. Can anyone possibly believe, given the pace of technological improvements, that by 2065 supercarriers and the manned aircraft that fly off of them will be anything other than relics?

Given these arguments, the Navy cannot and should not continue to pursue a force structure of 11 carriers. In 2013, an unmanned X-47B with a range three times the current carrier strike group — and twice that projected for the F-35C — landed on the deck of a carrier. Yet the Navy is spending too little on the revolution in unmanned systems.

In a recent joint think-tank symposium, both CSBA and Center for a New American Security called for decommissioning at least two carrier strike groups and possibly diverting savings from the F-35 program to “facilitate this revolution.”

In other words, over the next four or five decades the Navy would transition from large carriers launching fifth-generation fighters to supercarriers launching unmanned systems and to smaller amphibious assault ships — and other lower cost platforms — launching a variety of unmanned systems.

The Navy’s penchant for building ever larger and more complex carrier strike forces is analogous to an effort to build ever larger mainframe computers while the world is already moving from distributed systems to the cloud. Precise weapons can also be placed on a wide range of craft — even fishing boats — raising the specter of the USS Cole suicide attack on steroids.

“Because the most critical naval competition will be a battle of signatures, a small signature-controlled combatant with long-range precision strike will be a decisive component of any fleet,” Hendrix pointed out in Proceedings.

The economics and efficacy of substituting modular and expendable payloads for large hulking platforms is compelling. Such a naval force structure would “more distributed, networked, numerous, elusive, small, long-range and hard to find,” David Gompert and Terrence Kelly of the RAND Corporation noted.

Although the supercarrier would remain in the fleet until the Ford comes out of service, the Navy must move away from its carrier-centric architecture. Large surface ships are increasingly vulnerable, and the Navy should not be build and operate them if the costs are unacceptable.

New and very low-cost landing ships such as the USNS Montford Point and John Glenn can be built at about 1/25th to 1/30th the cost of a supercarrier and project advanced missiles, drones, helicopters, V-22 Ospreys or jump jets. Instead of an arsenal of 90 missiles on an existing Aegis craft, the new Afloat forward stage base ship Lewis B. Puller can hold 2,000 missiles at one-fourth the cost of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

Another logical response to the strategic and technological realities facing the Navy would dictate a very marked emphasis on the improvement and development of a subsurface strategy — both manned and unmanned. Submarines are less vulnerable to cyber and electronic interventions than air- and surface-weapons.

“The sea acts as a massive electromagnetic barrier to interference and as a de facto armor against most forms of attack such as anti-surface cruise or ballistic missiles like the DF-21D ‘carrier killer,’” retired Commander Victor Vescovo stated in Proceedings.

The increasing vulnerability of carriers presents the U.S. in a crisis with a Hobson’s choice of acquiescence or possible exposure of the fleet to heavy losses and potential escalation.

The emerging doctrine of AirSeaBattle, besides possibly coming too late to be of use, would similarly present the U.S. with a policy option that seems to ensure escalation.

The pivot to Asia should result in a pivot in procurement to subsurface vehicles — including stealthy unmanned underwater drones and gliders — not with the objective of scrapping for a fight, but for deterrence and to preserve the peace.

Unfortunately, that’s not happening. The fleet of nuclear attack submarines — as opposed to strategic submarines armed with nuclear warheads — is now slated to drop from 54 in 2013 to cover the entire world to possibly as low as just 39 by 2030.

At present, the Navy is straining to build two attack submarines a year, while it could afford to build 10 at the cost of just one carrier and its air wing and, arguably, to much greater strategic effect. In addition, unlike most of the surface ship acquisition programs, attack submarine programs have had a generally good record for coming in on schedule and budget.

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.