Are Aircraft Carriers Still Relevant?


The debate over the centrality of the aircraft carrier in fleet structure continues unabated over 70 years since it came of age during World War II. The discourse over the decades – and this picked up steam in recent years – has been that anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weaponry like submarines and missiles, or even drone swarms in the future, will dethrone the “Queen of the Waves” from her exalted position.

Much of the debate focuses on how dangerous these threats are to the carrier. There is some basis to these arguments based on historical examples, but the main limitation is that these threats have not been truly proven in real-world combat. And of course, nobody has ever attacked a flat-top of any nation since World War II. Therefore, the literature on the so-called “carrier-killers” is based largely on informed speculation. Moreover, there are credible counters to them, as Dr. Robert Farley, a regular voice in the carrier debate as well as a frequent contributor to The Diplomat, correctly pointed out in an article on the Foxtrot Alpha defense blog. Another, more nuanced, look at this issue is perhaps in order.

Deterrent Value

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Leaving aside the likely real-world effectiveness of carrier-killers, what is perhaps most ominous about them is that they could indirectly reduce the flat-top’s combat effectiveness via their deterrent effect. During a high-intensity conflict, for instance, the carrier could be deployed much more cautiously (or even not at all) given the potential threat of these weapons. While the effectiveness of carrier-killers may be operationally unproven, they could create a sense of uncertainty in the other party.

This uncertainty, coupled with the symbolism and high cost of the carrier, could profoundly influence national leaders and military commanders on how best to deploy the platform. To illustrate, the last unit of the American Nimitz-class carrier, USS George H.W. Bush, has a princely $6 billion price tag, while India’s two flat-tops and Japan’s so-called “helicopter destroyers” are similarly in the multibillion-dollar ballpark. In addition to its astronomical cost, the large size of the carrier makes its symbolism for its owner almost phallic. The Nimitz has a displacement of about 100,000 tons while “small-deck” carriers like those of India are in the 40,000-ton range.

At this juncture, let us revisit the Pacific War. During this conflict, William Halsey of the U.S. Navy was the archetypal aggressive and offensive-minded carrier admiral. His polar opposite, Raymond Spruance, was restrained and more adverse to risk. Hence, the big question is: In a future conflict involving carriers, would the leadership be in the mold of Spruance, the “Quiet Warrior”? Or would a “Bull” Halsey hold sway? The risk of losing a capital asset could play on the minds of the leadership, and it might take an existential threat to the homeland for carriers to be sent into a nonpermissive environment. Hence, it is likely that leaders, whether military or political, would deploy the vessel in a manner more akin to Spruance than Halsey.

It is worth noting that there has not been a direct clash-of-arms between great powers since World War II. Moreover, there has not been a major campaign at sea for over 30 years since the Falklands War. With very few reference points, any future conventional maritime campaign is likely to be cautious, with the side having the more valuable assets taking more probing actions.

Deterrence favors the A2/AD-centric nation in such circumstances.

Though carriers have not been in a high-end fight since 1944, there is evidence of them being deployed more cautiously in combat during the Cold War. In the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, India’s carrier, the Vikrant, was sent to the permissive Bay of Bengal and not to the more contested northern Arabian Sea. Similarly, during the 1982 Falklands campaign, the Royal Navy kept its two carriers farther from the area of operations than usual for fear of reprisals from Argentine airpower. It also bears notice that these two episodes occurred before the coming of age of precision-guided munitions and what the Russians termed as the reconnaissance-strike complex.

Moreover, in this current age where the “battle of the narratives” predominates, the enemy need not sink the carrier to secure a major political victory; this could be attained by merely hitting it (which may or may not cause significant damage). That said, even limited damage to the carrier force could be spun into a political victory for the adversary. Think China or Russia and their far-reaching information warfare (IW) edifices. To illustrate, the adversary’s IW machinery could amplify on social and other mediums a hit on a destroyer escorting the flat-top. The invincibility of the much-vaulted carrier task group could then be downplayed

Whither the Carrier?

If the Queen of the Waves could thus be rendered as a “non-kinetic mission kill” of sorts in this manner, this raises questions over the centrality of the platform in a navy’s force structure. All that being said, military platforms are “black boxes,” to use the term of the esteemed strategist Edward Luttwak, and the efficacy of anti-carrier and carrier-defense systems can only be revealed in the crucible of real-world operations. We think we know what weapon systems our potential adversaries possess, and we think we know how these might be deployed — which means we do not actually know anything. When there are more unknowns than knowns, one should diversify one’s assets and not put all eggs in a single basket, as cliched as it may sound.

All in all, the carrier has played a vital role in naval affairs historically. There is no denying its utility as demonstrated in various combat operations since 1945. However, all of its proven power in the past does not necessarily make it suitable for the navy fleet of the future. Going forward, the throne where the Queen of the Waves is sitting on might have to be shared, as some observers argue, with the missile-armed platform in view of geopolitical and military developments around the world. The relationship between the carrier and the missile shooter will be one of symbiosis, these observers maintain, with each platform mutually supporting one another. In other words, the situation is such that there are arguably two firsts among equals in terms of naval platforms. How will this prediction pan out and will the mighty carrier really be dethroned?

Given that the answers to these questions may involve substantial blood and treasure, hopefully, we will never get to find out.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is an Associate Research Fellow with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He writes primarily on naval affairs, and has published widely on maritime aviation and aircraft carriers. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered at the panel titled “Debate: The Continuing Relevance of the Aircraft Carrier” during the “Maritime Security Challenges 2018: Pacific Seapower” symposium held last month in Victoria, Canada.

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