Asia Defense

Can the US Navy Actually Afford to Keep Its Aircraft Carriers?

Recent Features

Asia Defense

Can the US Navy Actually Afford to Keep Its Aircraft Carriers?

It is unlikely that the US Navy will abandon its carrier fleet in the years ahead, yet maintaining it will be costly.

Can the US Navy Actually Afford to Keep Its Aircraft Carriers?

What would Robin Hood have thought about Prince John’s counter-measures to his longbow?

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I wrote about the tremendous success of the English yeoman longbow archers and how they successfully defeated French cavalry time and again during the Hundred Years War (see: “What Can the Middle Ages Teach Us About US Naval Strategy?”).  Yet by 1453, England had lost all of its possessions on the continent and had been severely defeated on the battlefield.

What happened?

Of course, there are numerous reasons for defeat on the battlefield and in war, but looking at it through the prism of the dialectical nature of warfare the reason was simple: The very narrow efficiency of the English longbow had evoked a strong counter reaction by continental knights.

Highly efficient weapons, due to their narrowly specialization and lack of adaptability, cannot accommodate broad counter-countermeasures. The longbow is a countermeasure because it was invented to counter the dominance of feudal cavalry; the task of feudal cavalry was to find a counter-countermeasure to the longbow.

The English longbow corps had two weaknesses: its lightly armored men were poor defenders in close combat and extensive training slowed down the production of new longbowmen.

The French army exploited both of these weaknesses at the battle of Patay in 1429, where they caught the English unprepared with a direct mounted charge and massacred the bulk of the English longbow corps. The narrow French response to the efficiency of the longbow consisted of the tactic of surprise after they assessed that the only way to counter the weapon was not to protect themselves against arrows but to kill the archers who fire them. After the battle of Patay, England was not able to recuperate and raise a new corps of longbowmen due to their extensive need for training.

What does this mean for today’s debate about a future U.S. naval strategy in the face of the numerous anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities of peer competitors?

First, carrier strike groups can defeat foes applying anti-access/area denial tactics and strategies. Second, to cut a long story short, developing these counter-countermeasures will impose various extra costs and will be very expensive to realize for the United States Navy, should it choose to maintain the current size of its carrier fleet along with the present U.S. naval doctrine.

Defending a carrier strike group in the face of access/area denial (A2/AD) will lead to an increase in marginal costs in terms of launching air strikes but also decrease operational mobility due to over-cautious protection of the main vessel, and lead to a gradual diversion of resources from offensive to defensive capabilities (I highly recommend “The New Strategic Realities of U.S. Carrier Operations” for further elaboration of this point).

For example, today most aircraft carrier strike groups include more than 20 long range fighter interceptors supported by three to five early warning radar aircraft, four jamming aircraft, four tanker aircraft, two to four Ticonderoga-class (CG-47) or Arleigh-Burke-class  (DDG-51) destroyers, cruisers, a SSN- Los-Angeles-class submarine as underwater escort and 16 planes scanning the area for enemy submarine threats to counter anti-ship missiles. Out of approximately 90 aircraft, only around 30 – 35 would remain for actual offensive operations.

As I noted yesterday, the defense of carrier strike groups is tantamount to defending U.S. hegemony, just like the adherence to the mounted charge was tantamount to maintaining a privileged position in society for the European chivalry. Consequently, despite  the U.S. Navy’s new surface warfare strategy called “distributed lethality” (which bears resemblance to the European knights’ tactics at the battle of Patay in 1429), it is unlikely that American admirals will abandon the carrier fleet in the years ahead (the “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons” is a good example of an expensive and indirect strategy to counter A2/AD threats). Yet, this will come with enormous financial expenditures, not to mention the opportunity costs involved.