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The End of the Aircraft Carrier

17 Oct

Since WW2, aircraft carriers have been the premier method of projecting power away from friendly shores. Bristling with weapons and boasting more planes than some countries have in their entire air forces, aircraft carriers can cost up to $15 billion to build and operate and are essentially massive floating fortresses. For decades the carrier has reigned as the undisputed master of the seas but now there are many factors that threaten it’s supremacy.

The first issue is the global financial crisis. Even though it seems like the worst is over, there is still a long recovery ahead before the world’s economic growth picks up. With austerity measures being put into place in several countries, defense spending is often the first expenditure on the chopping block. Carrier construction is a massive undertaking that is enough to bankrupt most countries and developed nations like the US, France, and the UK may soon have to decide between operating an expensive capital ship or paying bills.

The second issue is that no one country rules the seas anymore. The days of post-Cold War American dominance of the seas are almost at an end and new challengers are appearing. China, India, Russia, Brazil and others are in the process of constructing capable blue water navies, often employing advanced submarine fleets and missile ships, that may pose a serious danger to a lumbering carrier.

Another problem is that more effective counter-measures are being developed for the express purpose of limiting the effectiveness of carriers. The most notable counter-measure being China’s DF-21 missiles that can travel at low altitudes at supersonic speeds and can strike targets up to 900 miles away. This weapon was designed specifically for the purpose of checkmating American carrier groups in and around the East and South China Seas. As of now, there has yet be an effective way of combating the DF-21 and the US is check-mated for the time being. A $15 billion ship can be crippled or possibly even sunk by a missile that costs maybe $10 million at most.

What alternatives are there to hulking carriers? Simple. Less expensive helicopter carriers if you expect  a need for amphibious operations. A small carrier loaded up with cheaper helicopter gunships could prove devastating in engagements that allow short range aircraft. Combat drones have also proven their effectiveness on the battlefield. Mid-sized mother ships that dispense endless waves of attack drones seem much more frightening and practical than a carrier loaded with  a few dozen $120 million fighters. Sometimes sea-based aircraft aren’t even necessary. Look at Libya. Much of the naval force deployed was in the form of cruise missiles fired by submarines while sorties were flown from regional airbases with no real need for a carrier to be involved.

One could argue that the time of the carrier is not yet passed and that the numerous threats arising are just little bumps in the road. I agree that there will always be a need for a mobile platform that is able to provide an effective moving base of operations for aircraft but the risks of deploying these huge ships to unfriendly waters may soon outweigh the benefits. Unless counter-measures are found and implemented quickly and reliably as the new threats emerge then the fate of these titans of the sea remains murky.