Too big to sail? US aircraft carriers could go the way of the dinosaur
by Jamie McIntyre
President Trump is worried that the newest class of American supercarriers may have a fatally flawed system for launching aircraft, and has ruminated publicly about why the new electromagnetic catapults have replaced the old-fashioned steam version.
But deep thinkers believe the most tangible symbol of America’s military dominance could face a much bigger problem: U.S. aircraft carriers may soon be rendered obsolete by short-sighted decisions and new long-range weapons.
No other nation in the world has more than two modern aircraft carriers. The United States has 11, and is proceeding at flank speed on an ambitious multibillion-dollar program to gradually replace its Cold War-era Nimitz class carriers, with the new Gerald R. Ford class, the biggest and most expensive warship in human history, price tag $13 billion.
The Navy’s plan is to go from building one new carrier every five years, to one new carrier every three years until a fleet of 12 can be sustained by 2030.
But historians suggest the Navy might take a lesson from World War II, in which another behemoth, the Japanese battleship Yamato, fell victim to U.S. airpower.
Armed with more than 150 guns and clad is massive armor, the Yamato was the mightiest warship of its day, and was considered virtually impregnable to the guns of any ship in the world.
But intercepted en route to defend Okinawa, the dreadnaught-class ship exploded and sank after wave after wave of attacks from American dive bombers and torpedo bombers.
While the U.S. decommissioned its last battleship in 1992, that day in 1945 marked the end of the age of battleships armed with big guns. The question now is whether today’s aircraft carriers are doomed to dinosaurs status, similarly falling victim to new technologies, such as highly maneuverable hypersonic missiles or swarms of drones.
“The idea that you would have a platform that was invented in 1912 as a concept that could last 150 years … just strikes me as a historian as odd,” argues retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, now vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy firm. “We are building carriers now that will last 50 years and so therefore you’re making a 150-year bet that no one will figure out how to make this go away.”
Hendrix irked Navy leaders in 2013 when he wrote a seminal paper arguing that the aircraft carrier — the centerpiece of American naval operations for over 70 years — was in danger of becoming too vulnerable to be relevant in future conflicts.
At the November El Pomar National Security conference in Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, Hendrix said the fate of the aircraft carrier has only become more tenuous, in part because of decisions by the Navy to replace longer-range bombers such as the A-6 r and F-14, which could fly as far as 1,200 nautical miles, with shorter range F-18s and F-35s, which need aerial refueling to fly much beyond 600 nautical miles.
“We have fundamentally the wrong aircraft on our aircraft carrier flight decks right now,” Hendrix argues.
“We’ve gone from a flight deck that could do about 1,000-nautical-mile strike distance during the Cold War unrefueled, to a flight deck that can do right around 500 nautical miles. And when you have an enemy who was built an A2 anti-access area-denial complex that essentially can push your carrier back beyond a thousand miles, if your flight deck that can only reach out 500 miles, it’s not in the game anymore.”
Sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier today is nearly impossible because of the bubble of defenses that surround it, including its onboard aircraft and an armada of escort ships bristling with missiles and anti-submarine defenses.
The problem, says Hendrix, is that too many warships are not in a position to conduct offensive operations.
“If you look at the number of missiles that are on some of our surface ships and you find out how many of them are dedicated to trying to defend the carrier versus how many of them are dedicated toward projecting power, you realize that we’ve gotten critically out of balance.”
But the technology that poses the biggest peril to the supremacy of the supercarrier is the hypersonic glide vehicle, essentially a maneuverable warhead that travels at Mach 5 or faster, or about a mile a second, making then extremely difficult to shoot down. Both Russia and China are developing hypersonic weapons, and the Pentagon is racing to develop defenses.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in a speech in March he already has a hypersonic weapon, code-named Avangard, although he only showed crude animation to back up the claim.
China has developed the DF-21D, an anti-ship ballistic missile touted as a “carrier killer,” but the U.S. Navy insists the threat to carriers, while real, is often hyped.
In a 2014 defense of aircraft carriers Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, former Nimitz commander, and at the time the Navy’s director of air warfare, wrote a spirited treatise arguing the modern carrier carries “more firepower than any combat system in the nation’s arsenal,” and “remains the most effective instrument for shaping the national military strategy.”
Aircraft carriers, he said, have always evolved to meet new advances in weaponry.
“Threats to the aircraft carrier have existed — torpedoes, mines, kamikaze, long-range bombers, cruise missiles, and now the ballistic missile — since the first one was built in the early 20th century,” Manazir wrote. “The history of warfare is replete with new technologies begetting new capabilities, begetting new threats, begetting new tactics, and so on.”
For now the Navy has no plans to scuttle what it commanders the ultimate manifestation of Naval power and the nation’s premier power projection platform.
“No other weapons system in existence or on the drawing board can deploy and redeploy with the responsiveness, the endurance, the multi-dimensional might, and the inherent battlespace awareness and command and control capabilities of a full sized, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier battle group and its air wing,” said Capt. Greg Hicks, the Navy’s chief spokesman.
The Navy says stand-off weapons and carrier-based aerial refueling aircraft, including new types of drones will compensate for the shorter range aircraft.
The carrier and its escort ships have the ability to conduct full-scale military operations over nearly 70 percent of the earth’s surface in nearly any environmental condition,” argues Hicks, who says the bottom line is that U.S. aircraft carriers will remain “Iethal, agile, resilient and survivable,” for the foreseeable future.