If you are interested in aircraft carriers, read Robert C. Rubel’s article, “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” in the latest issue of Naval War College Review. I will state up front that I have some quibbles with individual items. I notably don’t care for his assertion that ships like American America-class and the British Invincible-class are not “true aircraft carriers”—if the ship’s primary mission is to carry aircraft, then what else would we call it? But otherwise, it represents some very good thinking on the issue.
Particularly helpful is Rubel’s brief, high-level history of the evolution of aircraft carriers’ roles, particularly in American service:
- Scouting for the fleet (back in the day, for the battleships)
- Hit-and-run raids with aircraft
- Capital ships meant for the destruction of the enemy battle fleet
- Nuclear strike platforms (mostly in an interservice competition with the USAF)
- Mobile, self-protecting airfields afloat
Even the mobile airfield role seems not as important as it once was. The entire air campaign against the Qaddafyists in Libya was usefully supported by aircraft carriers, at various times including the Kearsarge, Enterprise, Garibaldi, and Charles de Gaulle. But the entire campaign could have been run without any of them. For as the Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Dalton put it a few months ago, “on the periphery of Europe,” land-based fighter-bombers flying from secure NATO airfields can do the work of aircraft carriers considerably more cost-effectively.
The second trouble flows from improvements in the speed and accuracy of antiship missiles, whether ballistic or cruising, and the range and fidelity of electronic scouting systems. Counter-scouting is absolutely an option, but it’s not foolproof. As American fighter-bombers today have considerably shorter ranges than American carrier aircraft of the 1940s, the modern supercarriers wouldn’t be approaching the fight with a great deal of standoff—at least not without an airplane like the forthcoming X-47B attack drone.
The third trouble, if one that Rubel does not directly address, is that the American federal government is essentially out-of-money. This has put everything into play as a possible source of budgetary savings, including those heretofore sacrosanct supercarriers. But fortunately, the situation is not so grim if we can glom up to a few more-than-plausible hypotheses:
- Supercarriers are not terribly useful anymore in the Atlantic
- Supercarriers are still very important in the Pacific, even if all those Chinese missiles are pretty scary
- All that deploying and “presence” is not as useful as the Navy pretends
Hypothesis (B) seems self-evident, though it should be noted that presence, such as it is, in the western Pacific is pretty adequately provided by that supercarrier permanently stationed in Japan.
That gets to hypothesis (C): single carrier air wings don’t really deter war. And with the assumption of the sudden-strike role by submarines, they’re not really needed for those much-beloved short-notice smack-downs. In short, it might be time to save a lot of money in steaming back-and-forth by keeping much more of the fleet closer to home.
Without the urge to deploy constantly to the far side of the world, and without the need to balance the fleet between the Atlantic and Pacific, the US Navy could adopt a very different approach to its carrier strike groups. If the six carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet are today adequate to the job of deterring or defeating some future Chinese malfeasance, then they might be presumed to be all that’s needed on that side of the world. It’s the five carriers of the Atlantic Fleet, all homeported at the moment in Hampton Roads, that are less clearly needed. If two would do the job, so that one was always available in a pinch, then are three more excess to real needs?
At this moment, anyone from the Virginia congressional delegation reading this might be having a coronary attack. But that’s just the geopolitical reality laid bare by the campaign of the past several months. A fleet of eight supercarriers—would this be so problematic to American security?
For the details on how this could work, I will shortly have a study for clients on the sequencing, the rough cost savings involved for the government, and the implications for business—most notably, of course, Huntington Ingalls Industries.