Eaglen: The future of aircraft carriers

By Mackenzie Eaglen

A decade of counterinsurgency and counterterror operations has created doubts about the utility of the aircraft carrier. Today’s budget cuts threaten to shrink the Navy’s carrier force – already reduced from 11 to 10 – to as few as eight or nine.

Yet whether in a direct or supporting role, aircraft carriers have taken part in almost every U.S. major military operation since World War II. They have served as diplomatic tools to ratchet up or ease political pressure. They have given our military unparalleled freedom of action to respond to a range of requirements.

They have supported several missions simultaneously, guaranteed access to any region in the world and reduced the nation’s reliance on others for basing rights.

If the U.S. Navy is to continue to secure the high seas, trade routes and shipping lanes around the globe long into the 21st century, it needs a robust fleet – both in quantity and quality.

The new Ford-class carriers are an important step toward this goal. The first, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is scheduled for christening today in Newport News.

Called by the Navy “true ‘leap ahead'” ships, the Ford-class features important advances to project power over the course of the century it is expected to remain in service.

The carriers’ electromagnetic aircraft launching system and advanced arresting gear will allow them to operate planes heavily loaded with weapons and fuel.

In addition to a new dual-band radar, a larger flight deck and improved ordnance elevators, the Ford-class emphasizes automation and maintenance, which will reduce operating costs.

While analysts rightly point to potential threats to carriers such as anti-ship missiles, the United States is not the only country investing in aircraft carriers.

As of 2012, about a dozen nations operate carriers of one form or another. While the size, capabilities and effectiveness of these vessels vary widely, the fact that India, China, Brazil and Thailand enter and stay in the aircraft carrier business speaks to the ship’s continued utility both in peacetime and war.

As states like China modernize their navies and acquire more advanced capabilities, they implicitly threaten America’s long-standing maritime supremacy.

This is especially troublesome because despite America’s overall superiority at sea, conceivable future battles would likely force America to play an “away game.”

Nearby enemy forces would enjoy large numerical advantages at first, whereas American forces in theater would have to make do until the arrival of reinforcements.

This “away game” dilemma is especially vexing because of the growing role that smaller and less survivable ships are playing in America’s navy. An increasing number of more vulnerable ships results in an overall naval balance likely to be less favorable in the future than it has been in the past.

A military tilted in America’s favor is the most cost-effective use of military power. While Americans hope not to have to defeat a capable military anytime soon, the best way to win any future conflict is not to fight one at all. A robust defense investment to keep a military gap in America’s favor would achieve this goal.

While aircraft carriers are under increased risks due to increasing global capabilities, the solution is not to capitulate. Rather, the United States needs to leverage its own technological advantages for creative solutions.

Potential game-changing developments in directed energy and unmanned aviation may go a long way toward extending the military lifespan of carriers and other surface combatants. The key is to do what Americans do best: create innovative solutions.

It’s not a matter of whether aircraft carriers are floating relics. It’s a question of how the nation can risk not investing in a fleet of new super-carriers.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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