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Aircraft Carriers: The Plot Thickens

[ 55 ] March 14, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat evaluates a couple of arguments on the end of the aircraft carrier:

I suspect that we will continue to see navies devoting resources to multi-purpose flat-deck aircraft carrying warships. Put simply, as long as states continue to see utility in such ships, they’ll continue to build them. Larger ships with dedicated equipment will carry more and better aircraft. The largest ships, operated by the largest states, will carry an array of exceedingly advanced aircraft, both manned and unmanned.

At the same time, the constitution of a carrier air group will always be an imperfect fit with the tasks of the day, because development of the air group generally takes place long before the specifics of future conflict are known. And this fact underscores the utility of aircraft carriers.

Any air group (whether consisting of F-35s, F/A-18s, Yak-38s, A-6s, or Sea Hawk helicopters) represents a best guess at the demands of future conflict, mediated through the lenses of bureaucracy and the defense industrial base. Many of the assumptions behind these decisions can and often do turn out to be incorrect. The carrier’s primary virtue is therefore its flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances, not in its unique capacity to solve specific problems.

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  1. José Arcadio Buendía says:

    As long as people keep opposing DR0NZ, we’ll need aircraft carriers.

  2. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    …we will continue to see navies devoting resources to multi-purpose flat-deck aircraft carrying warships.

    I, for one, would really like to see multi-purpose flat-deck aircraft that are capable of carrying warships.

    Who said the carrier was dead? There’s whole new areas of development on the horizon!

  3. LosGatosCA says:

    Until some other tool provides flexible projection of sustainable force on the scale of a carrier, carriers will live. And probably past that point if a defense contractor can make a buck off it and a politician can get a vote from electorate building it or a contribution from the donor selling

    When anti-gravitational hovercraft with invulnerable force fields can sustain local presence and dominate air space without fear of effective local retaliation he carrier will be doomed.

  4. Major Kong says:

    The problem I see with carriers (mind you I’m biased being a retired Air Force guy) isn’t that they’re particularly vulnerable.

    The problem is that so much of the battle group’s resources are there just to protect the carrier.

    That’s an awful lot of effort just to park a couple of Hornet squadrons off somebody’s coastline.

    • Doug says:

      “That’s an awful lot of effort just to park a couple of Hornet squadrons off somebody’s coastline.”

      Compared to the effort required to have pre-positioned bases everywhere we think we might need one?

      • Barry says:

        (shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh – don’t tell him that those AF bases cost actual money)

        • ajay says:

          They needn’t cost money if they don’t belong to you. All you need is allies who commit to supplying bare-bones bases in time of war.

          • Anonymous says:

            In essence, this is true, but of course, it means also that the expeditionary capability of the Air Force must be strong. It is much more speedy to move a fighter wing to an existing air base, which has all the necessary host nation services than to build an air base around a bare airstrip. If you want to operate near Europe or China Sea, the ground services you need are mostly provided by the host nation. In Africa, Central Asia and large portions of South America, you need to bring absolutely everything with you.

            The value of the aircraft carriers is that they can operate regardless of allies’ political positions. This is especially useful in gunboat diplomacy. For example, in the Libya raids of 1980′s. Italy and Spain declined to allow the US to operate from their soil, although those bases were extremely well equipped and manned with US personnel. In 2003, Turkey showed similar unwilligness to allow US to launch attacks.

            The other advantage, less often needed, of the aircraft carriers is that they can be withdrawn easily. Dismantling an air base is costly and involves a large loss of materiel. (It is not feasible to take everything back to the States.) It also signals very clearly that the US interest in the area has waned. Think about Iceland: the political cost of closing the Keflavik base was considerable. A carrier group, on the other hand, can leave the region with little public fuss for “routine maintenance”.

            • Major Kong says:

              Both the Libya operation and Iraq in 2003 still required large commitments of land-based air to complete the mission.

              Carriers are indeed fine for “gunboat diplomacy”, which of course assumes that gunboat diplomacy is a good idea (that’s a whole other discussion).

              When it’s actually time to start putting iron on targets – they still call in the Air Force.

              • mojrim says:

                “Putting iron on targets?” Really? Given that the USN currently flies more tactical aircraft than the USAF, that hardly seems a valid claim. The reality is that everything short of Gulf I and II could have been accomplished with naval air alone, but we as a nation are terrified of anything, ever, going wrong and thus demand an absurd margin on these things.

                I assume you’re familiar with the A-B-C war idea, Major? Like the army, the AF is only really needed in A-wars, which will go nuclear in about 72 hours anyway. If not for gunboat diplomacy (which often gets the job done without actual shooting) then what is the point of anything outside SAC?

      • Major Kong says:

        Please name one conflict since WWII where carrier-based air was the primary force?

        Certainly not the Gulf War, or Vietnam, or even Korea. Grenada maybe.

        The carriers are useful for getting there quickly, but we’ve always had to bring in land based air to do the heavy lifting.

        In the Gulf War 50% of the US bombs (30% overall) came off B-52s.

    • Pseudonym says:

      Are you saying the battle group’s resources would be more effectively used elsewhere or for some other purpose?

      Or that the problem with carriers is that the carrier’s capabilities aren’t worth the cost of the entire battle group?

      How much of the U.S. Navy is dedicated to doing something other than supporting naval aviation? (I guess even cruise and ballistic and anti-ballistic missiles could technically count as aviation. But by that point you might just be arguing that bullets count as aviation.)

  5. Arouet says:

    I take your point, and I understand that certain efficiencies can be realized from adopting a common platform (F-18/F-35 and their variants) for most tasks, but to me this seems like an argument against putting all your eggs in one capability basket like the Navy has done for some time now.

    It seems to me that the Navy would be much better off having more options in terms of capabilities, including a long-range strike option with more than a ~600m combat radius. Now, the obvious objection to this is the boondoggle of epic proportions that is the modern procurement process, and for that I have no firm answer. I just think if the problem is that you can’t predict which air wing composition will best fight the next war, the answer is to have a more flexible air wing with a wide range of capabilities, rather than one compromise platform which does nothing particularly well.

  6. firehat says:

    States will continue to covet flat tops until a Kilo or a 212 puts one under the waves. The USN has yet to invest enough to adequately recapitalize its ASW assets, let alone its carrier-borne ASW assets. Has anyone seen any investment in carrier-borne ASW from the BRIC navies? Or the French? The carriers today are the battleships of 1941. Except instead of being made obsolescent by other capital ships, they’ll be checked by SSK’s. They’re several orders of magnitude cheaper to build, man, and equipment and quality SSK’s with AIP are proliferating like the flu.

    • Arouet says:

      I agree with you for the most part, but SSKs have serious limitations, such as a general inability to keep up with carrier groups while remaining quiet, which limit their usefulness in blue water environments.

      They’re a problem, but they’re not going to end the usefulness of carriers overnight. Also, while carrier-based ASW is sorely lacking, we do still have subs as well which can screen for carriers.

    • ajay says:

      States will continue to covet flat tops until a Kilo or a 212 puts one under the waves.

      But plenty of carriers have been sunk already (many by submarines) and that hasn’t stopped navies investing in them.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sunken_aircraft_carriers

    • Major Kong says:

      You don’t have to sink a carrier, just damage it to where it can no longer conduct flight ops. At that point it’s just a very expensive cruise ship.

      • Lurker says:

        The carrier is not really needed in a shooting war. In any conflict of the US with a major power, most air operations would be conducted by land-based aircraft. Especially the South China Sea is a very inhospitable place for a carrier group, and very well equipped with air bases available to the US (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and, most likely, Philippines). Similarly, in a European or Middle Eastern conflict, there would be a lot of air bases available.

        In other areas, the carrier group doesn’t really face any air or sea opposition to speak of, and can operate with almost complete freedom of action, with only politics limiting the use of air power. There, the survivability of the carrier group is of little importance.

        The only situation where the carrier group survivability would be a factor would be a major naval war with China on the Pacific, in reminisence of WWII. However, that is utterly unlikely, as China would need at least four carrier groups with good aircraft to try anything of the sort, and it currently has none.

        P.s. The Anonymous post above at 8:58 is mine.

    • socraticsilence says:

      People say this but I don’t think they quite grasp the overall cost to sinking a USN supercarrier– the moment a nation does that its basically doomed its existing government barring Nuclear deterrence- so while for instance Iran may have the ability to taken one down in the shallow box it borders, it wouldn’t do so unless regime survival was already out the window.

      The loss in prestige, money and material not to mention lives would necessitate a ferocity in U.S. response that I don’t think is fully predictable.

      • Lurker says:

        This depends. It is clear that if Iran or some other third-rate country would be uppity enough to sink a US carrier, that country would face a regime change, perhaps also a nuclear strike at a major population center. (In fact, I think that the US has tried to entice Iran or, actually, radical elements inside Iran’s coastal defence into doing something like that, but that’s another story.)

        In a real, but limited, war with an actual great power (i.e. with China), the US government would take real pains not to take its carriers into a zone where they could be damaged. The risk of escalation would be too high. So you will not see a US carrier group sailing into Straits of Taiwan when the missiles start to fly.

        • socraticsilence says:

          I debate this, I think a carrier group might be sent to the straits for just such a reason– to act as a check on aggression- much as USAB wasn’t actually expected to stop or even really slow Soviet aggression but rather act as a trip wire (the same could arguably be said largely for the Fulda Gap forces as formidable as they were, though I’d love to read the actual wargaming/strategy on this and not just after the fact speculation).

        • Arouet says:

          The U.S. would not respond to the sinking of a carrier with a nuclear strike, let alone one against a major population center. That simply wouldn’t happen, it’s against U.S. policy and it goes against the very strong norm against first-use.

          • Lurker says:

            Are you sure? When the US Navy was sailing carrier task forces in the Straits of Hormuz in 2006 and 2007 to show flag, a lot of US blogs discussed the eventual consequences of sinking a carrier. Several blogs that had and still have a good reputation did actually have conversations where the sinking of a carrier was considered a justification for any US retaliatory action, including a nuclear strike. (At least ObWi had such discussions, and it is a left-wing blog.)

            The US doesn’t have a no-first-use policy and it is the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons, and against population centers, too.

            The fact that we are having this discussion shows, anyhow, that there is enough ambiguity for the deterrence to work.

            • Dave says:

              I think you need to work on the random blogs / high-level strategic policy-makers distinction a bit more closely.

            • Arouet says:

              Actually the U.S. does have a no-first-use policy with regards to the vast majority of the world, though it’s true it does not apply to Iran or North Korea because they aren’t in compliance with their obligations under the NPT. Even so, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review did everything short of making a concrete no-first-use pledge, specifically promising that “The United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

              That’s as close as you’re going to get to an assurance, but really that’s besides the point, because the political (not to mention moral) costs would simply be too great and the military benefits too minimal to justify the use of a nuclear weapon.

              Simply put, the U.S. would never engage in a countervalue strike these days unless it was existentially threatened. The sinking of a carrier is not an existential threat.

          • cleter says:

            Didn’t the US nuke the last country that sank a US carrier?

            • Arouet says:

              Yah, I’m sure the sinking of a single carrier was the cause of that one. Not to mention the myriad ways in which US and global thinking on nuclear weapons has changed since the first and ONLY time they were ever used in anger.

              • cleter says:

                The whole reason nuclear weapons exist is because we created them in a spirit of vengeance over the destruction of some capital ships It’s not unreasonable to think we might use them again if somebody made a carrier group go boom.

                And yeah, there’s been some change in US military thinking, but I’m pretty sure they never repealed the “go batshit insane if a capital ship gets sunk” doctrine. I don’t think you can underestimate the crazy that would be unleashed if, say, somebody sank the USS Ronald Reagan.

                • Pseudonym says:

                  You think the U.S. involvement in WWII was an instance of going batshit insane? Or just the Pacific War part? Or what?

                • Arouet says:

                  Pearl Harbor was not the proximate cause of using nuclear weapons against Hiroshima or Nagasaki…. Jees.

  7. firehat says:

    I wish I could edit that comment. And that I didn’t have to use my phone to type.

  8. Edward Furey says:

    Is there another A-6? The Navy has retired all its Intruders and none were sold or given to other countries. So they are all gone, unless some foreign Navy/Air Force has a plane it calls the A-6.

  9. Paul says:

    The problem I see is things like the D-21 Chines super weapon have not as far as I know even had Billy Mitchell moment let alone picking off a randomly maneuvering target out to sea.

    Why it treated as a fact by the same people who rag on every US weapon/system that only succeeds in scripted tests?

  10. socraticsilence says:

    http://roblem with ASBMs is not just the untested aspect but also the sheer risk involved with using them– how do you use conventional ballistic missiles without risking nuclear retaliation? I mean were not talking about SCUDs, from everything i’ve read the Chinese ASBMs if launched in a wartime attack instead of an announced drill could certainly be mistaken for something much worse.

    • Njorl says:

      The maximum time from launch to detonation for the dongfeng-21 would be about 14 minutes. I don’t think any of our nuclear retaliation plans have missiles in the air in less than 14 minutes after launch detection.

  11. Derelict says:

    I think it’s an open question on the continued utility of carrier groups. Sink one US carrier in a way that entails minimal cost to the attacker, and the entire strategic underpinning of carriers begins to collapse.

    For example, having a carrier sunk (or even damaged to the point of being put out of action) by something as cheap as a sea-skimming missile (or 300 such missiles that simply overwhelm the battlegroup’s defenses). Or having the carrier wander into the sites of a submarine. Or even running into a minefield or tangling with suicidal aircraft pilots.

    Any of these would immediately call into question whether carrier battlegroups are still suitable for the modern combat environment.

    • Arouet says:

      I agree with you for the most part, but I think you overstate the threat somewhat.

      Submarines and sea-skimming missiles are significant threats, but they’re much easier to counter than ASBMs… the former are in fact the very threats the current carrier escort group was designed to counter during the Cold War.

      The real problem is that ASBMs can be fired from beyond the reach of a CSG’s strike assets, which means that there is no chance (at least not organic to the carrier) of intercepting or negating them before launch.

      • Pseudonym says:

        Couldn’t you say the same about land-based aircraft, at least ones with longer range than Hornets and real tankers for air-to-air refueling? And isn’t the Aegis BMD system supposed to intercept ballistic missiles mid-course?

        • Arouet says:

          The difference is that aircraft would still have to close within range of the hornets in order to fire their missiles, so they actually need to put themselves in danger and risk far more significant assets than a missile.

          Also, I’m not aware of any potential adversaries that combine long-range strike aircraft of even middling quality and a robust air-to-air refueling capacity.

  12. Pseudonym says:

    Why isn’t the F-35B considered the successor to the Harrier II?

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