Are Aircraft Carriers the New West Berlin?

Are Aircraft Carriers the New West Berlin?

The foolishness of thinking CVNs make good gambit pawns in the struggle with China.

There is an empirical problem with the debate over United States military strategy towards China: aircraft carriers are “dead,” but they can still be seen patrolling the Western Pacific.

Most observers agree that Chinese antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities have technological and economic advantages over US carriers. Antiship ballistic missiles have roughly twice the range of carrier jets. Their launchers are hard to find and easily dispersed, whereas supercarriers are large, travel in the open, and heavily concentrate resources in one target. Unsurprisingly, China has many times more missiles of various types than the US has carriers. UAVs and advanced countermeasures may eventually save the platform, but it is clear carriers now operate at great risk in China’s Near Seas.

The natural conclusion is that flattops are “operationally irrelevant”: they won’t be deployed in probable scenarios. When the PLA tried its hand at coercive diplomacy during the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Clinton sent in the carriers. Defense analysts like ANU professor Hugh White speculate that Washington has little choice but to respond meekly if a similar situation arises in today’s A2/AD environment. Likewise, CNAS and CSBA proposals note that “carriers are far less likely to operate at such close ranges in the future,” and “the wisdom of deploying carriers within range of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles… is doubtful at best.”

Yet strangely, policymakers still plan on using them. Last November, former senior officials gathered at CSIS for a crisis simulation. According to Robert Haddick, they decided to send two carrier strike groups into the East China Sea during a Sino-Japanese standoff. And at a March 5 HASC hearing, PACOM Commander Samuel Locklear testified that US carriers in the Pacific would have “a significant role in any contingency, any crisis… for now and the foreseeable future.”

How do we explain this? I would suggest that a very fruitful debate over US military strategy has missed something crucial: Washington might try to use carriers for deterrence despite or even because of their vulnerability. The purpose would be to signal America’s willingness to raise the stakes. In December, Zachary Keck made one analogy between Cold War Berlin and the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute; I will offer another. Like the US garrison in West Berlin, aircraft carriers are relatively defenseless, but they have a separate function as a highly visible warning about US resolve. Today, a strategy of mobile “tripwires” is neither credible nor prudent, but it is worth studying because it may actually be implemented.

Specifically, our bargaining chip against Beijing is to make things uncomfortably apocalyptic. The point is less what the carrier can do and more what an attack on it promises—full retaliation, and a war that may quickly get out of hand. As ASPI analyst Harry White observed last month, “the idea is that anyone who attacks as valuable an asset as a US carrier should expect a significant response.” Internationally, a successful strike would deeply wound American prestige, especially if it went unanswered. Domestically, the deaths of six thousand crewmembers would generate almost unbearable political pressures for revenge. Our entries into WWII and the Global War on Terror were sparked by less. In fact, there are already hints of such a strategy more broadly. In a January Foreign Policy article, Elbridge Colby and Ely Ratner advise “communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think” and “pursu[ing] policies that actually elevate the risks.” They hope to avert both war and aggression by intensifying their consequences.

Defense planners prefer not adopting force postures based on creating risk, but there are few alternatives if America’s goal is to maintain supremacy in China’s immediate periphery. Existing war plans require carriers to project air power onto the Asian mainland; mothballing them would deprive the US of the bulk of its striking power. Fixed airbases are in even greater danger, partly because facilities in South Korea, Japan, and Guam have not been hardened in years. A few months ago, Andrew Erickson concluded that America retains an important advantage in anti-submarine warfare. But the study he cites raises questions about whether a technological lead will suffice against a worsening numerical handicap off China’s coast.

Ultimately, this strategy lacks credibility for the same reasons we desire it. Each time we raise the stakes, China reveals the better hand. If Washington deploys a carrier into the East or South China Sea and Beijing decides to sink it, we could send in more carriers. They will be just as vulnerable as the first. We might scramble jets and bombers from Asian airbases, but China could strike them preemptively or in reprisals. Only long-range stealth bombers and conventional precision strikes remain once these principal means of power projection are removed. Yet the capacity to find and destroy thousands of launchers, radar sites, and command and control centers distributed across a continent doesn’t exist. Simply put, China could punish America more than we could punish them. Concepts like Air-Sea Battle try and fail to recapture “escalation advantage,” at least in China’s own backyard.

If Washington continues using carriers to telegraph diplomatic intentions, it should realize the message might be misread. In Germany during the early Cold War, the US compensated for a similar conventional inferiority by adhering to a policy of nuclear retaliation. Then as now, many questioned whether the Americans would really trade New York for Bonn, or Los Angeles for Taipei. If deterrence worked, however, it was because the Berlin garrison was just one part of a comprehensive string of containment policies. This unambiguity is much weakened today. The US could be trying to send Marines to every island in the Pacific, including Taiwan. Instead, we are slashing the defense budget, investing in obsolete technology, and actually shrinking contingents in Okinawa. The US is giving neither a “red light” nor a “green light,” communicating both hostility and weakness. With power shifting west to east, China’s confidence to call what it might reasonably expect to be America’s bluff is bound to increase.

Because it lacks the requisite credibility, a “Berlin strategy” for carriers is dangerous and futile, or just futile. Two outcomes are possible if a carrier is sunk. Either we will have provoked the war we thought we were preventing, and it is a war we might very well lose. Or the threat is hollow, the bluff will be called, and an empire will be gracelessly dethroned. A tripwire strategy is not prudent when there is a good chance the wire will be tripped.

I have written elsewhere that Americans continue to underestimate Chinese resolve and power. The day may come when the misperception gap closes, and the US meets the rise of China head on. But a truly forceful approach is not now forthcoming. Instead, we are seeing efforts to do the same with less. Neither Cold Warrior hopefuls nor those who favor accommodation should take solace in this. No matter how many times the president says he does not believe in tradeoffs, eventually a choice must be made. It will have to be about more than carriers.

Jake A. Douglas is a research assistant at the College of William & Mary. His commentary has appeared in The Strategist and The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter: @JakeADouglas.