Will the USS Gerald Ford be remembered as the doomed Yamato of the carrier era?
What matters most is not how lethal a carrier is, but what threats it can endure.
By Dan Nidess
Best Defense guest columnist
Commissioned by the Japanese in December of 1941, just over a week after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Yamato was the largest, most powerful battleship that had ever existed — a title that it still holds to this day, over 75 years later. With its nine 18.1-inch guns, it could fire 3,000 pound shells up to 26 miles away — so far that it required spotter aircraft to identify targets over the horizon. In comparison, the heaviest guns on U.S. battleships were 16 inches and limited to a maximum range of 20 miles. To paraphrase President Trump, it was truly a ship to make its enemies shake with fear.
While the Yamato was the pinnacle of the battleship era, the recently commissioned USS Gerald Ford represents the state of the art of what came next — the era of naval aviation and, crucially, the aircraft carrier. At 1,100 feet long and displacing over 100,000 tons, the Ford is a massive ship. However, while what distinguished the Yamato from its peers was the size of the ship and its cannons, what distinguishes the Ford are its technological improvements. Of roughly similar size and speed as the previous Nimitz class of supercarriers, Ford’s advantage comes, in part, from its increased efficiency. Advances in design allow it to launch 25 percent more sorties per day, greatly increasing its striking power. It also operates with at least 20 percent fewer crew members due to improved automation.
The Ford is adding to an existing fleet of 10 Nimitz class supercarriers. These are joined by an additional nine amphibious assault ships that, while much smaller and with more limited capabilities, are still capable of launching a range of helicopters and vertical takeoff and landing fixed wing aircraft. By comparison, the rest of the world’s major navies have one to two carriers either in service or under construction. The outlier is Japan with three. And almost all of these are closer in size and aircraft complement to our amphibious assault ships than to our supercarriers. In short, when it comes to the ability to project naval airpower, the United States so far outpaces the rest of the world that there is no comparison.
However, aircraft carriers are facing ever greater threats with each passing year. Everything from advances in technology, to tactics, to the changing environment of naval warfare is increasing the threat to our carrier fleet.
Part of the problem is technical and a natural progression of the same factors that led to the prominence of naval airpower over naval cannons. Just as the range of carrier-based fighters allowed them to engage battleships long before those battleships were in range of the carrier, anti-ship missile technology has greatly outpaced the range of carrier-based fighters. The other is the decreasing size of the threat. Part of the problem that battleships ran into was that they were optimized to strike large targets that were relatively few in numbers — other warships. Even though battleships on both sides were outfitted with anti-aircraft guns, they were only marginally effective at dealing with attacks by small, fast moving aircraft. While modern carriers and their escorts field a range of weapons to defend against conventional naval and air forces, the threat is again shrinking. The U.S. Navy is currently experimenting with miniature drones; unfortunately, so are the Chinese.
The second aspect of the threat is tactical. Part of the dilemma for battleships was not just that the size and the speed of fighters made them difficult to shoot down, but the sheer numbers that they faced overwhelmed their defenses, even though they often sported well over a hundred anti-aircraft guns each by the end of the war. Similarly, our carriers must anticipate a future threat environment that will be characterized by massive barrages, whether of cruise and ballistic missiles, swarms of micro-drones, subsurface drones, speedboat borne IEDs, or some combination — that seek to overwhelm escorts’ ability to engage. This will be made even more dangerous by the potential for coordinated cyberattacks to degrade or neutralize their tracking, targeting, and other operations.
Finally, all of this is compounded by the geography of modern naval conflict. “Blue water” engagements largely limit the number of missiles, torpedoes, launchers, and aircraft that a belligerent can bring to the fight and the number of ships that they have to mount them on. The U.S. Navy’s absolute dominance in this domain has led potential adversaries to mostly give up the idea of fighting us in the major oceans. This has pushed the location of potential naval conflicts much closer to our adversaries’ shores – to their advantage. Whether in the Straits of Hormuz or the South China Sea, the proximity to land gives our enemies the ability to offset their numerical inferiority in ships with large numbers of shore-based launchers, fighters, drones, and speedboats. These forces’ survivability is improved by hardening or mounting on small, mobile platforms. Drawing our naval forces into more confined waters also reduces a factor key to their survivability — the ability to evade detection and targeting.
Just as naval forces have developed increasingly effective countermeasures to aerial threats, our fleet is going to require new defenses for the 21st century. Weapons capable of tracking and targeting ever-smaller threats and engaging them in ever-greater numbers will be critical. Directed energy weapons, such as those already being deployed, are promising. Just as drones threaten to overwhelm conventional defenses, they may also be part of the solution. Networked swarms of miniature drones can serve as a modern, smart version of traditional flak – creating a cloud of interceptors in the path of anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, or drones. Electronic warfare will play a critical role in disrupting threats’ targeting and navigation.
Perhaps the most important measure will be aimed not so much at the survivability of carriers themselves, but at preserving their embarked air wing. Supercarriers offer tremendous economies of scale by allowing a large number of aircraft to be transported and operated from a single platform. However, that also inextricably links the survivability of the battle group’s entire air wing to the fate of a single ship. With the growing number of threats to carriers, it may make more sense to spread the air wing across two or three smaller carriers. This would ensure that an attack that successfully sinks or disables one of our carriers does not also cripple the entire air wing.
The Yamato embarked on her final voyage during the Battle of Okinawa — a one way mission to disrupt the American landings. Japan’s last real hope of delaying the U.S.’s inexorable advance toward the home islands rested with her ability to wreak havoc among the vulnerable transports and support ships of the invasion fleet. She never made it. As she steamed south nearly 300 U.S. Navy aircraft descended on the Yamato and her escorts. Less than two hours later the greatest battleship ever created, along with five of her nine escorts, was sunk and over 4,000 Japanese sailors were dead. American forces lost 10 planes and 12 crew.
What sank the battleship’s supremacy in naval combat wasn’t a lack of lethality, it was a lack of survivability. In the face of determined opposition by naval aviation, battleships could no longer survive long enough to bring the destructive capability of their weapons to bear. Battleships did not simply disappear after World War II, though they remained an important source of firepower against ground targets up through the Persian Gulf War.
Carriers will continue to play a critical role in our ability to project military power abroad as long as aircraft, manned and unmanned, remain an essential weapon of war. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge the rapidly changing threat environment and ensure that, in addition to building better carriers, we are also developing the tactics and technologies necessary to keep them in the fight.
Dan Nidess was a Marine artillery officer from 2005 to 2012, deploying to Iraq twice and then training new officers at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. After leaving the Marines he got his MBA from Harvard Business School and now works in Silicon Valley.
Image credit: Alexpl/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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