Why Aircraft Carriers Sail On

Despite impressive anti-access weaponry, modern aircraft carriers are still a prized possession. Why?

Have aircraft carriers become obsolete?  Since 1949, analysts have argued that some combination of strategic bombers and cheap anti-shipping weapons have rendered the aircraft carrier a relic. The latest round in the conversation over the continued viability of aircraft carriers was spurred by Robert Haddick’s Foreign Policy column suggesting that improvements in long range strategic airpower and ballistic missile technology could render the carrier irrelevant. 

There’s no single answer as to why the carrier persists, but the experience of the last sixty-five years has helped give us a handle on the persistent utility of the flat deck aviation warship. While individual anti-access platforms are inexpensive, developing an anti-access system of systems requires immense investments of time, treasure, and human capital.  The PLA has undoubtedly created a formidable set of weapons to defeat U.S. carriers, but it has done so at the expense of other capabilities.  Haddick notes “For the price of a single major warship, China can buy hundreds or even thousands of anti-ship missiles.” Indeed, China (and the USSR before it) has foregone the development of offensive, power projection platforms in no small part because of the need to invest heavily in systems to counter U.S. carriers. 

Moreover, governments find a way to use aircraft carriers that doesn’t involve high intensity combat against peer opponents. However expensive they may be, U.S. carriers have proven infinitely more fungible than the array of missile boats, short range submarines, and advanced missiles that the PLA has deployed to counter them.  A U.S. carrier can show the flag outside the Strait of Hormuz, support relief operations in Haiti, or kinetic military operations in Libya, while an armada of DF-21D ASBMs can do little but sit and wait. 

This is why states continue to build (and buy) aircraft carriers even at great trouble and expense. A carrier may never run the risk of an anti-ship missile during its long lifespan, but it will likely contribute to the national interest in some fashion. The prestige offered by a major, modern capital ship may seem an ephemeral goal to spend the national treasury on, but prestige also constitutes influence; the arrival of an aircraft carrier at a regional port of call carries more diplomatic weight than an attack submarine or destroyer (witness the concern over the deployment of Admiral Kuznetsov to the Mediterranean). This is particularly true in a crisis, whether natural or manmade; aircraft carriers have the capacity to influence events ashore that neither strategic bombers nor surface ships possess. We should think of the procurement priorities of China, India, and Japan in these terms.

Given that future missions will force flexible demands on aircraft carriers, we may continue to see a shift away from expensive super-carriers and towards multi-purpose warships such as the USN’s amphibious assault vessels.  The enormous expense of the largest, most capable aircraft carriers will prove a greater danger to their continued relevance than the anti-access systems designed to destroy them.  However, this development is likely only to change the priorities of designers, rather than to eliminate the type altogether.