Tag Archives: aircraft carrier

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.

China’s Impenetrable Island Fortress

12 Sep

In recent years, a secret military base operated primarily by the People’s Liberation Army Navy has been discovered by Western intelligence on Hainan Island near the city of Sanya, on the island’s southern point. The entire fortress complex is essentially one massive cavern capable of hiding up to 20 nuclear submarines while the harbor outside supports nuclear ballistic missile submarines and jetties long enough to moor an aircraft carrier. The only ways into the base are through the heavily defended submarine entrance or through 11 massive 60 ft high blast doors. It has been suggested that the base may be capable of withstanding multiple nuclear strikes.

The base is a mile stone for China’s mission of building up it’s ability to project force abroad. Current estimates by the US government have determined that China will have 5 Type-094 nuclear submarines by the beginning of 2011, each able to carry a payload of 12 intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles. The harbor has two 950 meter piers and 3 smaller ones capable of accommodating 2 carrier strike groups or amphibious assault ships.  There is also a demagnetization facility to remove the residual electronic fields from a submarine before it’s deployment. This interesting revelation may explain why Chinese subs have been able to occasionally avoid the radar and sonar systems of American vessels in the last few years.

The location of the base, near territory that is disputed with several other countries, has sparked tensions and raised fears about China’s growing assertiveness with its claims. Suspicion of Chinese motives on the part of other countries is well founded. The base is within easy striking distance of the Strait of Malacca, Straight of Sunda and Lombok Strait. These three locations see roughly 50% of all the world’s shipping. A blockade by a capable naval force could be crippling for East Asia, Oceania, and even the Americas.

While already large by military standards, the base is expected to go through a period of expansion as China is believed to be planning on building an additional 6 aircraft carriers and add to its submarine fleet. The Hainan region was chosen specifically for it’s proximity to regional flashpoints, but also due to the deep water just off the coast that exceeds 5,000 meters in  depth in some places, which greatly increases the difficulty in finding and tracking a submarine’s movements.

While China’s wish to defend its interests abroad and assert itself more aggressively is understandable in light of its recent success, its actions have already started a regional arms race with surrounding countries, most notably India. Both are competing to develop more advanced ICBMs and counter measures against each other’s missiles in order to maintain some semblance of a military balance. One thing is for sure, Hainan’s base will have an important role to play should any regional conflict break out.