James Holmes

How to Measure an Aircraft Carrier’s Worth

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James Holmes

How to Measure an Aircraft Carrier’s Worth

If aircraft carriers aren’t used in battle it’s hard to justify their enormous price tag.

Time Magazine has its Man of the Year. The aircraft carrier must be the Ship of the Year for 2013, considering how many countries are fitting out such behemoths. Debates over these platforms customarily dwell on technical specifications. The size, configuration, and striking power of the air wing, a flattop’s main battery furnish grist, as do such characteristics as sortie rates. Those are a function of variables like catapult capacity, the design of the flight deck, and procedures for moving aircraft around what is, after all, a rather small airport. And then, of course, there’s cost.

Such discussions are entirely proper. Wrangling over tradeoffs among speed, armament, and protection — the basic attributes of any man-of-war — has been part of fleet design as long as there have been men-of-war. To me, though, the fundamental question is whether changes in maritime warfare have dethroned the carrier as a modern navy’s capital ship, the core of the battle fleet. How do carriers and their retinue of escorts fit into naval strategy in hotly contested settings? If they remain capital ships — ships able to take a pounding while pummeling peer navies — they’re worth their expense. If not, there may be cheaper and more effective ways to fulfill the same missions.

Let’s look to Edwardian England for insight. Sea-power gadfly Julian S. Corbett supplies a handy yardstick to help measure whether flattops provide enough bang at critical times and places to justify the big bucks they consume.

According to Sir Julian, navies can do three basic things in wartime. If strong enough, they can take command of important sea areas for strategically relevant spaces of time. That usually means wresting control of these from a hostile navy through battle. If not strong enough — yet — to fight and win, they can prosecute an “active defense.” Defensive measures include thwarting a stronger opponent’s plans while building up superior strength, or inducing that opponent to weaken himself. Active defense, then, is offensive-minded defense — a temporary expedient until circumstances permit a counteroffensive. And, once sea control is in hand, navies exploit it. Neutralizing the competition lets a fleet move people and materiel without serious interference, land troops, or strike inland, whatever. Such are the fruits of maritime mastery.

To these wartime functions we might add maritime security, the constabulary-like missions navies discharge in peacetime. Maritime security is an umbrella term for upkeep of the global system of trade and commerce. Counterpiracy and counterproliferation number among these functions. That’s the naval repertoire: dispute command, win command, exploit command, police the sea. Subordinate functions beyond counting fit within these basic categories.

Here endeth the reading. Now, for which of these missions are aircraft carriers suited? Maritime security? That’s a mighty expensive platform for conducting police duty. And, as Corbett pointed out with battleships, carriers are too few in numbers to monitor the sea lanes effectively. How about denying or winning command? These are both battle functions, and the nub of the debate over the flattop’s future longevity. Are commanders and their political masters prepared to risk a $13 billion asset in combat in an increasingly lethal environment?

Their attitude toward risk might come to resemble that of Gabriel de Sartine, Louis XV’s first secretary of the navy. As Canadian scholar James Pritchard observes, it was Sartine who superintended the reconstruction of the French Navy after Hawke smashed it at Quiberon Bay in 1759. Having managed the finances, he was intimately acquainted with the cost of outfitting a fleet. He also presided over French naval strategy for a time after France allied itself with the American colonists in 1778.”Sartine,” writes Pritchard, “was anxious to preserve the great hoard of wealth that the navy represented. He may have feared to risk it without a guarantee of success.” He thrust risk-nothing tactics on French commanders as a result. Better to conserve precious ships, he believed, than hazard them in combat against the Royal Navy. Gollum!

Similarly, U.S. naval officials may prove reluctant to place supercarriers in jeopardy if they doubt these vessels can withstand, say, saturation missile attacks from sea- and shore-based shooters. They may hold back, letting more elusive platforms such as submarines and more expendable platforms such as surface combatants bear the brunt of the fight for command. If that happens, where will the aircraft carrier fit into Corbett’s scheme of naval missions? In effect the leadership will have demoted it from the capital ship, the navy’s premier combatant, to a power-projection asset. To a ship sent into relatively safe zones after battle.

That would convert the carrier into something like an amphibious transport, a ship that exploits but plays little part in winning command. That’s a heckuva comedown for a pricey warship.