Aircraft Carriers: R.I.P?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

Aircraft Carriers: R.I.P?


Two detailed arguments on the end of the aircraft carrier emerged earlier this month.  The first, which has already received notable attention in the naval blogosphere, comes from Captain Jerry Hendrix in the form of the first Center for a New American Security (CNAS) “Disruptive Defense” paper.  CNAS’s Disruptive Defense series seeks to provide analysts an opportunity to “present hard-hitting arguments” on controversial U.S. defense issues.

Hendrix argues that the modern American nuclear aircraft carrier (CVN) is, in cost-effectiveness terms, unequal to the task of managing the proliferation of anti-access technologies, particularly China’s DF-21D Anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).

This argument has not gone unchallenged. As Bryan McGrath argues over at Information Dissemination, a straight comparison between the costs of a CVN and of 1,227 DF-21s is surely misleading; both weapons require support systems not included in that cost, and the carrier is considerably more flexible in usage than the ballistic missile.

Moreover, many of the key problems identified by Hendrix involve decisions about the air group rather than about the platform itself.  Carriers need planes, and any assessment of the cost of a carrier requires an analysis of the price and capabilities of its aircraft. At the same time, carriers tend not to be bound to a single specific air group configuration, and over the lifespan of the platform will be expected to employ many different aircraft.

The blogger Sir Humphrey presents a broader challenge to the aircraft carrier, arguing that it is in decline across the globe. Spain has given up its lone carrier in preference for a (somewhat larger) amphibious multi-purpose ship, the Principe de Asturias. Italy may soon do the same and the future of France and Brazil’s carrier fleets are increasingly in doubt.

I’m sympathetic with parts of this argument, as it seems clear that states are more frequently opting for multi-purpose aircraft carrying ships that can conduct amphibious, command, and relief missions in addition to serving as platforms for high-intensity air combat. 

The key transition, however, involves less a decision to forego carriers than the lack of an affordable successor to the Harrier jump jet, which has long served as the staple of naval air forces unable to operate CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) aircraft. The last Harrier II was delivered in 2003, making it not particularly old for a modern jet airframe, but the maintenance and training requirements exceed the capabilities and resources of many small and medium size navies.

An affordable, user-friendly successor to the Harrier II might find numerous international customers, although perhaps not enough demand to justify design costs. Perhaps UAC could devote some attention to developing a useful successor to the Yak-38?  However, during the Libya conflict the French and British navies ameliorated this gap by launching attack helicopters from amphibious assault ships, a project that emphasized the flexibility of the flat deck aircraft carrying ship.

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.

Brian Foley
September 6, 2013 at 12:24

Ridiculous arguing here, a carrier is simply a floating airfield, China can build as many carriers as it wishes to whatever size it desires. The defining element of the carrier is the type of aircraft it carries and that is where China falls over as it hasnt the techinical know how to design and manufacture a tenchnologically advanced naval combat aircraft worthy of taking on anything in the West.

May 20, 2013 at 06:10

interesting rhetoric, I am currently working and designing the current military vessels from the UK. your arguements are interesting but limited in aspect. the Maersk D class are faster than any declared conventional warships, the dated technologies and labour intensive nature of the modern warship is where china will have the advantage.they are used to building 600 000dwt vessels for operation by 15 people, that takes relieability and ease of maintenance.  granted the human redundantcy element means warships must carry more personel than commercial vessels, afterall civilians are not there to catch bullets.


March 23, 2013 at 11:00

Ultimately, carriers are used for invasion of an enemy country; or it is used to protect an ally in a distant part of the world.  It can also be used to protect shipping convoys of hundreds of ships and protect them from enemy fleets or bombers of enemy carriers.  The best way for China to protect Iran is to go to the Persian Gulf with 1,000 fighters carried on carriers.  With 1,000 fighter/bombers and dozens of destroyers and submarines, China can make Iran unassailable.

March 22, 2013 at 15:28

John Way wrote:

March 21, 2013 at 10:25 am


The World never gives a damn for your 'Chinese scientists', Liang1a. So, don't swagger about 'their talent & expertise' ( in 'stealing & theft'!) any more!


Actually that is not true.  But you can believe whatever you want to believe.  Chinese science and technologies will not stop advancing just because you think little of it.

John Way
March 21, 2013 at 10:25


The  World  never gives a damn for your  'Chinese scientists', Liang1a. So, don't swagger  about 'their talent & expertise' ( in 'stealing & theft'!) any more!

March 21, 2013 at 05:27

John way wrote:

March 19, 2013 at 2:45 am

@Chan & Lang1a,

Wishes & dreams are a way of sharing human positive thoughts & sentiments with other people. But illusions & delusions are exactly, the opposite (dark) side of the coin, quite negative & harmful to human beings. In reality, today's China's been chronically lacking its own innovations & creativity, the two most important factors in any competition for supremacy with the West. Copying, stealing & conducting cyber-espionages are all China could do for now, to play catch-up with the West, but of course will never be able to reach the same standards or level as them. J20s, J31s, space plane Shenlong or 'carrier-killer, DF21Ds' are some copycats just for, at best experimental not a real threat yet. China still has a long long way to go. Remember it's not easy to sink an American aircraft carrier w/o any severe consequences or total destruction to China itself. So, don't be too boastful & cocky!


DF-21D and DF-25 are anti-ship ballistic missiles that are unique without any precedents in the West or even America.  If you want to say China had copied the concept of anti-ship ballistic missiles then show me the American original that the Chinese had copy the DF-21D from.  You will find America simply doesn't have any kind of anti-ship ballistic missile.  As to sinking an American aircraft carrier, that will happen only when China is prepared to go to war against America or when war has already broken out.  And do you think China cares about America's retaliation when it is already at war against America?  At least use your brain a little.  And you're the cocky one yourself thinking America is invincible and can punish China anyway it pleases with impunity.  Remember China had bashed America's nose in in Korea when it was much inferior in arms.  Today China is just as powerful as America and can hurt America even more.  And don't think you have seen all of China's weapons.  Especially, don't believe in the published figures about the number of Chinese nuclear warheads or J-20, etc.  China most probably got much more than anybody has ever seen hidden away in mountain caves and underground tunnels.

Obviously, China cannot copy Western technologies forever.  But the copying phase is just about over as China has now reached the same level as America and there is nothing left to copy.  From now on China will take the lead and innovate all new technologies.  The unique innovativeness of DF-21D is just an example with too many others to mention.  Especially with 100,000 to 200,000 new science and engineering doctorates coming on stream in the next 10 years, China will be able to blaze new technological trails in all sectors of science and engineering from deep underwater to far out open space and from the microscopic nanotechnologies to macroscopic interplanetary explorations.  Just keep your eyes open and see the flowering of Chinese dreams.  It will be many splendorous things the West has ever seen before!

March 20, 2013 at 07:34

Kevin Brent wrote:

March 15, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Absolutely amazing how many people do not know what the term 'ballistic missile' means. If they had any clue at all, they would know that such a weapon is useless against a moving target on the open ocean. And this ignorance is not just present here in the blogoshphere, it proliferates places like the Pentagon like a moldy moss. China sees them and other believing the myth of a ballistic anti-ship missile and they laugh, loudly.

The biggest danger to a carrier, is a nuclear tipped torpedo. Cruise missiles can do damage, but they are conventional aircraft in all respects aside from being pilotless and can be easily intercepted and shot down by the carriers fighters.

Drones, are nothing but a joke. They will never survive a modern battle space theatre of warfare, where someone is actually shooting back with AAA or a decent shoulder launched SAM or are jammed and hacked into by a modern military on their game. Drones have only been used against terorists successfully, because in warfare terms they are nothing more than bands of street thugs.


The theoritical definition of "ballistic" is:

1. Of or relating to projectile or their flight

2. Moving under the force of gravity only.

Obviously if a missile is moving under the force of gravity only it cannot be guided in any way.  But a "ballistic missile" has been variously defined by various experts.  Below is a definition at the given link:

A ballistic missile is a missile only guided during the relatively brief initial powered phase of flight, whose trajectory is subsequently governed by the laws of classical mechanics. Modern inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), contain a maneuverable orbiting bus that positions and releases ballistic warheads in space using celestial navigation.

The definition above defined a ballistic missile as being "guided" only during the initial period.  That is the boost phase that launches the rocket into a precisely defined trajectory.  According to the definition of "ballistic" nothing more should be done after that to guide the missile.  But the definition above also said in a modern ballistic missile a "bus" can be maneuverable with small rockets and by means of celestrial navigation positions and releases ballistic warheads which then "free fall ballistically" to their final destination.  Therefore, there are 2 definite parts to ballistic missiles.  The first part is the rocket and the second part is the bus that carries the warhead/s.  Nowadays, each warhead can also be maneuverable.  If you think this violates the definition of ballistics then you're being too narrow.  You're thinking a "ballistic missile" can only be targeted to hit a fixed target because "ballistic" means unable to maneuver or that it is something with a fixed flight path due to gravity only.  This reflects only your own narrow definition.  The truth is China has developed anti-ship "ballistic" missiles that can move at Mach 10 or more.  These missiles can release warheads that are maneuverable with terminal guidance system that include radar, infrared and TV cameras with computer target recognition.  Whatever you want to call these missiles is a matter of label.  If you don't like to call it ballistic missile then you can call it by some other name.  Maybe "Fast Guided Missile".  But as they say, a rose by any other name.  And all you're doing is quibbling about an inconsequential name.  If that makes you feel superior, then indulge in your fantasied superiority.  It makes no difference to anybody else.  Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles will still hit their moving targets.  And the term "ballistic missile" may only designate speed of Mach 10 to Mach 20 or more.

As to cruise missiles, there are also many different kinds of cruise missiles with a wide range of speed and terminal guidance and maneuverability.  And with each passing year, cruise missiles will no doubt become smarter and be able to find their targets and avoid being hit.  With a cruise missile travelling at Mach 4 speed, it cannot be hit by a CIWS firing fewer than 11,000 rounds per minute.  America's Phalanx can only fire 4,500 rounds per minute and can only hit subsonic cruise missiles.  Anti-missile missiles might hit cruise missiles travelling at Mach 4 but it will be more difficult if the warhead can maneuver.  Already, cruise missiles are programmed to move in a random pattern during the final approach which makes it difficult for the anti-missiles to hit them.  Therefore, don't disparage cruise missiles.  And some cruise missiles will dive into the water at the very end and hit the ship underwater. 

Drones are not missiles.  They are usually observation platforms.  Bigger drones can carry one or two rockets but that is all.  They are never meant to be weapons in regular battles.  Though there is no reason why they cannot be used to distract the enemies.  They can certainly be decoys or launch decoys that will squander the defensive weapons of the enemy ships.

March 19, 2013 at 08:38

John Chan

March 18, 2013 at 11:34 am

I believe no-first-use, peaceful rise and non-interference are meaningful propositions, it can show the world that China can lead the world to better future; Westpac’s bellicose and barbaric way is not the only way to be strong and prosperous.

Building a strong military only shows China’s sincerity to what she proposed and no unscrupulous people is allowed to undermine her propositions.


Nobody respects a country that cannot defend its own sovereign territories.  If China says it will not fire the first shot even if other countries invaded and occupied territories that China has declared to be its sovereign territories, then no countries in the world will respect China.  They won't even believe that these territories are China's.  Nobody can understand why China keep insisting on "peaceful rise" and non-interference.  It is gentlemanly but unrealistic.  It is time for China to stop being foolish and act nobly in ways that other countries can understand and respect.  That means to destroy China's enemies when they invade China's sovereignt territories.  Respect cannot be bought with trade and investment.  Respect can only be earned with courage and decisive actions.  Demonstrations of unwillingness to fight will only embolden aggression.  Ultimately, peace can only be maintained by war.  Si vis pacem, para bellum.

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