The aircraft carrier replaced the mighty battleship as the sea’s new capital ship during World War II. Because of its versatility, firepower and long reach, the aircraft carrier became the choice instrument for worldwide American military crisis response.
But just as the battleship was shipped off to obsolescence, new technology is challenging the dominance of the aircraft carrier.
The carrier’s strength is its ability to project firepower to a specific region while remaining out of harm’s way at sea. That ability is now threatened by new anti-ship missiles, which are growing increasingly deadly and cheaper to manufacture. China announced last year that they are developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which will have a range of about 1,600 miles and will be able to be loaded onto submarines, surface ships or launched from land.
Carriers will be forced to increase their distance between themselves and battle zones. It is problematic, for the F-35C, the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, will only have a combat radius of 615 nautical miles.
At about $4.5 billion per aircraft carrier — not mentioning operational costs — they are an expensive target. The U.S. Navy has 11 of these “supercarriers” in service. The new Gerald Ford-class carrier will cost between $12 to $14 billion to build. The Navy plans to build 7 Ford-class carriers over the next 30 years.
Don’t discount the aircraft carrier yet.
Along with the United States, China too is investing in the aircraft carrier. Last year, the head of China’s General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) confirmed that China’s first aircraft carrier was under construction.
But is the supercarrier the way to continue forward?
Capt. Henry J. Hendrix challenges the notion that big carriers should be the focus of naval power. The smaller carrier he has in mind is the America-class amphibious assault ship.
At about $3.4 billion, the America-class carriers can carry more than a thousand Marines, and the V-22 Osprey will ferry them to shore. Today’s assault ships carry about four or five Harrier jump jets and eventually the F-35B, the vertical-take off and landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter. The America is designed to carry up 30 fighters. Compare this to the 50 fighters that today’s supercarriers can haul.
The Navy could purchase about four America-class ships for every one Ford-class carrier. That way, the Navy could expand their presence around the globe, respond to remote crisis situations more quickly, and at smaller cost to risk ratio. Also, Hendrix argues, the U.S. will still, at times, need to make a show of force that only a supercarrier can provide.
With the increased risk to aircraft carriers, the Air Force, according to a Foreign Policy article, might need to step up in the crisis response role.
USAF long-range bombers have routinely flown intercontinental missions that have lasted over 30 hours. A B-1B bomber wing recently continuously maintained at least one aircraft in the air over Afghanistan during a six month deployment to southwest Asia. The B-1Bs responded to over 500 calls for close air support from troops in fire fights. B-52s and B-2s are also able to respond to any short notice crisis situation. In addition, the Air Force plans to develop a new “long-range strike plane”.
Plans never work out they way they are intended. How a vehicle of war translates from the engineer’s desk to the user always involves adaptation and versatility. The same is said regarding policy and military strategy. Flexibility will be the name of the game as America’s military responds to the other world powers in international politics.
Photos courtesy U.S. Navy
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