Are aircraft carriers becoming obsolete?
For decades, aircraft carriers have been the tool-of-choice for crisis response. Policymakers in Washington and four-star commanders in the field invariably have turned to carriers when they needed to signal U.S. intentions, quickly reinforce military power, or provide decision-makers with options during a predicament. The Navy has responded to the enduring demands of these customers by making the aircraft carrier strike group the prime organizing feature of the Navy’s surface and aviation forces, thereby drawing the biggest share of the service’s manpower, budget, support, and training resources. And until recently, the Air Force seemed happy to cede this crisis-response role, because then it could focus on its own priorities.
However, new and disruptive weapons and technologies will soon upset long-standing assumptions and cozy inter-service arrangements. In particular, the spread of long-range anti-ship missiles threatens the ability of aircraft carriers to perform their traditional missions. What’s more, these disruptions are occurring at the moment when U.S. policymakers are under pressure to find cheaper ways of performing essential military missions. And the Air Force could develop the technology and the long-range platforms to carry out many of the carrier’s missions at less cost. All these factors could force planners to rethink air power from first principles, leading to stormy times for aircraft carriers and inter-service harmony.
The aircraft carrier’s combat debut in the Pacific theater in 1941 instantly made the battleship obsolete. Aircraft carriers delivered more firepower, over longer ranges, with more speed and flexibility, over a wider variety of targets at sea and ashore. After World War II, the power of U.S. aircraft carriers forced adversaries to focus their naval spending on submarines rather than major surface ships, a trend still visible today. Without enemy surface ships to sink, the Navy’s carrier pilots focused on projecting air power ashore, which they did against North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.
Over the past half-century, the Navy’s carriers also became well-suited to crisis response. Carrier strike groups could typically arrive at trouble spots within days and without the need for tedious negotiations with host countries over permissions and basing rights. The Air Force was fine with this arrangement because, although its tactical fighter wings could theoretically perform a similar role, the service’s doctrine called for large, well-established, and well-supplied bases from which it could reliably generate a high sortie rate. Such ponderous guidance could not deal well with fleeting contingencies, many of which occurred in austere locations.
But the proliferation of cheap but deadly long-range anti-ship missiles promises to upset these assumptions and arrangements. For example, China is putting anti-ship missiles on submarines, patrol boats, surface ships, aircraft, and trucks, giving it the ability to dominate its nearby seas. For the price of a single major warship, China can buy hundreds or even thousands of anti-ship missiles. And as it perfects its own reconnaissance drones, China will be able to thoroughly patrol neighborhood waters, identifying targets for these missiles.
The Navy’s aircraft carriers will come under pressure to retreat from this missile zone. However, there is a limit to how far they can retreat while still remaining in the game. As large as U.S. aircraft carriers are, they can only launch relatively small short-range fighter-bomber aircraft. For example, the F-35C, the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, has a combat radius of just 615 miles. Mid-air refueling can extend this range. But refueling is not possible in hostile air space, and even with it, small fighters are constrained by the physiological limits of their single pilot.
The Air Force’s long-range bombers, by contrast, with two pilots and room inside to stretch, have routinely flown intercontinental missions lasting over 30 hours. Recently, an Air Force B-1 bomber wing continuously maintained at least one of its big bombers over Afghanistan during a six-month deployment to a base in southwest Asia. While on station over Afghanistan, the B-1s responded to over 500 requests for close air support from troops in fire fights.
Ironically, just as the value and utility of its long-range bomber forces was increasing, the Air Force has spent the past decade focused on its F-22 and F-35 fighters, which, like the Navy’s carrier aircraft, have to operate from vulnerable close-in bases and whose combat ranges are too short for the Asia-Pacific theater’s vast expanses. But, after much bureaucratic resistance and delay, the Air Force is finally moving ahead with a new stealthy long-range bomber to supplement and eventually replace the legacy fleet that has withered over the past decade.
The arrival of the new bomber, when combined with the anti-ship missile threat and budget austerity, could force Pentagon planners to reassess the nature of air support, especially during crisis response in missile-contested war zones. That would be unhappy news to Navy and Air Force officials who have become comfortable with long-existing arrangements. If the missile threat in the western Pacific or the around the Persian Gulf becomes too great, policymakers and planners may conclude that too much prestige may be at risk with the deployment of a carrier strike group in response to a crisis. Diplomatic or tactical objections may similarly rule out an Air Force fighter deployment. That would leave long-range bombers as the only usable crisis-response tool and raise questions about the investments in more aircraft carriers and short-range fighters.
But beyond crisis response, Air Force bombers could redefine close air support as well. Until recently, supporting infantrymen in battle was assumed to be the job of small fighters. With precision-guided bombs, that is no longer true — during their deployment in southwest Asia, the B-1s dropped bombs just 300 meters from friendly forces. By providing a continuous presence, troops on patrol always had air power overhead — and very likely at a cheaper price than the cost of building, stocking, operating, and protecting air bases for fighters inside the combat zone.
There is another alternative. In a recent article in Proceedings, defense analyst Daniel Goure articulated a vision of aircraft carriers equipped with unmanned reconnaissance-strike drones, which, with mid-air refueling, could fly far longer and farther than jets with a human crew. Assuming the Navy could work out the considerable threats to their communications links (a problem the Air Force must also solve), drones could keep aircraft carriers in the fight even if they had been pushed back by anti-ship missiles. The Navy’s carrier drone program is very active and well ahead of the Air Force’s new bomber program. But even that success could backfire for carriers. If the Navy can perfect long-range drone missions, why not intercontinental drone missions? And if that’s the case, a land base would work just fine. All of which could set up a new round of inter-service brawling inside the Pentagon.