by Stephen Bryen
Do we need aircraft carriers and can they fight in a modern war? These are important questions that trouble many defense analysts. While aircraft carriers have proved useful in power projection and recently supported US operations in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, in Syria, the role of aircraft carriers against a well-armed and capable adversary is very much in doubt.
China has developed an anti-ship ballistic missile called the DF-21D, also known as the CSS-5 Mod 4 missile. The missile can be guided against moving ships, including aircraft carriers, and works in tandem with satellites and UAVs for target acquisition. Once this missile reaches full operational status no one should be surprised to see it proliferating around the world with countries like Iran and Pakistan first in line to buy them.
Missiles like this make aircraft carrier operations in sensitive areas such as the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf risky, if not impossible. The DF-21D is a mobile ballistic missile, meaning that neutralizing a DF-21D threat is a very big challenge. Without being able to assure the 21 D’s elimination, carriers and their associated fleets can’t be moved into harms way.
Today’s American aircraft carriers are nuclear powered mega-ships with a crew size of some 5,000 sailors and specialists and with air wings on board. The newest aircraft carrier currently under construction will cost $13 billion just to build not counting the aircraft on board which represents easily another $20 billion. Are these aircraft carriers too big to use?
Some argue that a better approach is to rely on smaller aircraft carriers to do the job. But what is the job?
The aircraft carrier was developed originally more than 100 years ago. The first flight off the deck of a ship was in 1910; the first purpose built aircraft carrier started construction in 1918 and was completed in 1922.
During World War II the aircraft carrier played an important role in supporting American forces trying to push the Japanese off critical island chains. Carriers also played a major role in the Battle of Midway and other attacks where US launched carrier based aircraft challenged Japan’s carriers.
In 1942 the United states lost four Fleet aircraft carriers to Japanese attacks, mainly torpedoes launched by Japanese aircraft or, in the case of the CV-7 Wasp, to a torpedo from a Japanese submarine. In addition the US lost a number of Escort and Light carriers in the war.
Japan lost 15 aircraft carriers of all types between 1942 and 1945.
The British also took heavy carrier losses starting in 1939 with the sinking of the Courageous, 1940 with the destruction of the Glorious, 1942 with the devastating loss of the Ark Royal and in 1942 and with the additional losses of the Eagle and Hermes. Britain also lost three escort carriers in the war.
If World War II gives any clue, it is that aircraft carriers in major wars are vulnerable to enemy attack.
The same would seem to be true today, perhaps even more so because without anti-ballistic missile defenses, aircraft carriers face a very uncertain future.
While aircraft carrier technology continues to advance in certain respects, can we protect the carriers both from missiles and from underwater attack? As of 2014 the US had no plan to build a ballistic missile defense system (BMD) focused on the Chinese missile threat. While the US does have Aegis cruisers equipped with SM-3 missiles and capable radars, these platforms probably can’t successfully intercept and destroy the DF-21D. The question needs to be asked, why invest so much in carriers if we are not going to spend to defend them?
It may be that the role of aircraft carriers is mostly to do power protection against weak countries that cause trouble in places, as in the Middle East. But, as we have noted, even that could change overnight if China starts exporting the DF-21D or the Russians start supplying stealth aircraft to countries of concern,particularly Iran. Already the Russians have supplied quiet and dangerous diesel-electric submarines to Iran in the form of 4,000 ton Kilo class submarines. And they are selling the S-300 anti aircraft missile system to the Iranians, a threat to carrier based aircraft. With Iran on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, the Russians will have to keep feeding the beast, and it is likely they will do so both willingly and profitably.
While the aircraft carrier remains the pride of the American fleet, its future is uncertain and, to a degree, threatened. Its usefulness in big wars and even in sensitive areas such as the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean, today is in doubt.