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Tom Ricks Can't Sink the Aircraft Carrier

December 10, 2013 Topic: State of the MilitarySecurity Region: United States

Tom Ricks Can't Sink the Aircraft Carrier

A misplaced attack on America's most vital and enduring defense tool.

The New America Foundation’s Tom Ricks’ December 6 commentary for The Washington Post advocates cutting the size of the military in order to improve it. While his general argument is worth considering, his decision to make his case by targeting the aircraft carrier demonstrates a questionable understanding of the role of aircraft carriers, the threats to them, and their demonstrated value over time across a wide range of threats and scenarios.

Ricks draws heavily on the work of naval historian and aviator Captain Henry Hendrix for his initial salvo. I have dealt specifically with Hendrix’s arguments elsewhere (see especially the section on cost), but the plain truth is that reports of the death of the aircraft carrier have been greatly exaggerated. Ricks and Hendrix would have us believe that only recently has the capability evolved to target and engage aircraft carriers; this “newfound” vulnerability is at the heart of their criticism (“What use is a carrier if the missiles that can hit it have a range twice as long as that of the carrier’s aircraft?”). Yet such a view ignores eight decades of experience in which risks to the carrier arise only to be mitigated by the inherent flexibility of naval power in general and the aircraft carrier in particular.

Forty years ago, the Soviet threat of regimental raids of long range bombers (enabled by a dense “ELINT” (electronic intelligence) satellite constellation) employing supersonic, deep-diving, anti-ship missiles, and submarine-launched high-speed maneuvering cruise missiles fired by stealthy nuclear attack submarines were among the last generation’s “carrier-killer” threats. The journals of the day were replete with the same arguments raised by Ricks (and Hendrix) today. The Navy developed counters to these threats, some of which remain in existence, (the Aegis anti-air warfare system, for example) and the aircraft carrier remained the centerpiece of American power projection.

Among the most questionable assertions about the aircraft carrier Ricks makes is this: “Its modern aspects include a smaller crew, better radar and a different means of launching aircraft, but it basically looks like the carriers the United States has built for the past half-century.” Are we to now judge the worth and effectiveness of our weapon systems on the basis of how they look? The main battle tank of the U.S. Army appears relatively similar to its WWII predecessors, yet it appears to still have value. Land-based airfields appear and operate nearly identically to the way they did decades ago, and are if anything far more vulnerable to attack than the highly mobile aircraft carrier. Yet we continue to operate them. Far more insidious, though, is Ricks’ suggestion that since the aircraft carrier looks like it did in the 1950s, it has not evolved. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and it is this evolution over time that continues to guarantee the aircraft carrier’s utility.

The aircraft carrier continues to survive every bureaucratic attack on its existence because it is, in essence, a large, moving airport which does not care—within some bounds—what flies off of it and what lands on it. The evolution of the carrier air wing over time has provided the flexibility to deal with myriad threats. It is notable that Ricks raises man’s inability to divine the nature of the next war by pointing to how we were surprised in the past, writing that “The wrong way to prepare is to try to anticipate what the next war will be and then build a military—on land, sea and air—that fits that bill. Guesses about the future will almost certainly be wrong. In 2000, no one thought we would invade Afghanistan the following year. In 1953, Vietnam was a faraway country about which Americans knew little. In 1949, Korea was thought likely to be beyond our defense perimeter. And so on.” What Ricks does not mention is that in each case he cites, carrier airpower was central to the fight. And in each case, the nature of that airpower evolved significantly from its predecessors..

The flexibility of the carrier and its air wing was demonstrated earlier this year by the successful takeoff and landing of an unmanned test vehicle. The future air wing will almost certainly be a mix of manned and unmanned platforms, and, in response to the evolving nature of the threat, will likely greatly increase its combat radius. The situation in which current threats to the carrier have longer combat range than planes that fly off of it is the result of conscious decisions made after the fall of the Soviet Union, when no power had the capability or capacity to realistically threaten it. The Navy traded air wing range for sortie generation, recognizing that it could operate carriers closer to the target and generate more combat power by a greater number of shorter range strike aircraft employing precision weapons. Someday, the air wing will employ platforms with laser weapons, perhaps even high-power microwave. The threat has changed, and so will the air wing. It has ever been so.

But what about these “carrier killer” missiles we hear so much about, the Chinese DF-21D? Aren’t these game-changers? Don’t they create the very vulnerability that Ricks points to? The answer is no, or at least no more so than the Soviet threats described earlier. There is a breezy and uninformed certainty ascribed to the ability of the Chinese to accurately employ these weapons, one that simply does not account for the difficulties involved in finding, localizing, and targeting a moving platform that is purposefully attempting to hide itself, hundreds if not thousands of miles away, equipped with both active and passive countermeasures and protected by a variety of other ships and systems. Additionally, the very nature of seapower (i.e., that it operates primarily at sea) creates the unique circumstance that even the nearest of misses are virtually harmless, and the ability to make a missile miss by even “a little” is technologically easier to accomplish than the effects chain necessary to consummate the engagement.

The cost of the aircraft carrier makes it a convenient target for those whose primary desire is to reduce spending on the military or to protect spending on capabilities they value more highly. Gussying up old arguments with new fearsome technologies helps to make the case to those unwilling to dig deeper. For those with a more nuanced view that encompasses ensuring the ability to protect and sustain our national interests by forward-stationing credible combat power—where those interests are most at risk—the aircraft carrier remains the key to conventional deterrence and the assurance of increasingly wary allies.

Bryan McGrath is the Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, and is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consultancy.