Jerry Hendrix thinks it’s time the US Navy re-assesses its dependence on the aircraft carrier, specifically that the Navy needs to stop building aircraft carriers altogether:
This might seem like a radical change. After all, the aircraft carrier has been the dominant naval platform and the center of the Navy’s force structure for the past 70 years — an era marked by unprecedented peace on the oceans. In the past generation, aircraft have flown thousands of sorties from the decks of American carriers in support of the nation’s wars. For the first 54 days of the current round of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, the USS George H. W. Bush was the sole source of air power. But the economic, technological, and strategic developments of recent years indicate that the day of the carrier is over and, in fact, might have already passed a generation ago — a fact that has been obscured by the preponderance of U.S. power on the seas.
The carrier has been operating in low-threat, permissive environments almost continuously since World War II. At no time since 1946 has a carrier had to fend off attacks by enemy aircraft, surface ships, or submarines. No carrier has had to establish a sanctuary for operations and then defend it. More often than not, carriers have recently found themselves operating unmolested closer to enemy shores than previous Cold War–era doctrine permitted, secure in the knowledge that the chance of an attack ranged between unlikely and impossible.
Such confidence in the dominance of the carrier encouraged naval architects to put more capabilities into their design, going from the 30,000-ton Essex-class carrier in 1942 to the 94,000-ton Nimitz-class carrier in 1975. Crew size of a typical carrier went from 3,000 to 5,200 over the same period, a 73 percent increase. Costs similarly burgeoned, from $1.1 billion for the Essex to $5 billion for the Nimitz (all in adjusted 2014 dollars), owing to the increased technical complexity and sheer physical growth of the platforms in order to host the larger aircraft that operated at longer ranges during the Cold War. The lessons of World War II, in which several large fleet carriers were lost or badly damaged, convinced Navy leaders to pursue a goal of a 100,000-ton carrier that could support a 100,000-pound aircraft capable of carrying larger bomb payloads, including nuclear weapons, 2,000 miles or more to hit strategic targets, making the platform larger, more expensive, and manned with more of the Navy’s most valuable assets, its people. Today’s new class of carrier, the Ford, which will be placed into commission next year, displaces 100,000 tons of water, and has a crew of 4,800 and a price of $14 billion. The great cost of the Cold War–era “super-carriers” has resulted in a reduction of the carrier force, from over 30 fleet carriers in World War II to just ten carriers today. While the carrier of today is more capable, each of the ten can be in only one place at a time, limiting the Navy’s range of effectiveness.
And putting the case for continued dependence on the aircraft carrier as the key capital ship, Seth Cropsey and Bryan McGrath say that the situation favours the continued development and deployment of the carriers:
Hendrix invests 2,700-plus words in an argument for eliminating the aircraft carrier, yet undercuts himself effectively with only 32: “The same outside observer would also discern where the difficulty with the carrier design lies. The efficacy of the carrier lies not in the ship but in the capabilities of its planes.” This raises the question of whether Hendrix’s target is the aircraft carrier or the weapons system (airplanes) it employs. And while he wishes to ride the wave of notoriety as a notable carrier critic, his argument essentially boils down to this: “The airplanes the carrier employs require it to operate too close to danger. Therefore, we should get rid of carriers.”
This logic ignores seven decades of history and experience in which the airplanes assigned to the carrier have changed dramatically in response to the missions that were asked of the Navy. And while he quite rightly points to the current airwing’s lack of useful range as highly problematic, he fails to note this was itself a choice made by the Navy to reflect the threat environment. When the Berlin Wall fell, there was no power that could check the U.S. Navy at sea, and therefore the carrier could operate much closer to land. Aircraft range as an attribute was [de-emphasized]. Now that there is a rising threat of powers capable of more aggressively targeting the carrier, it will, in some scenarios, have to operate from farther away. If the Navy chooses to build the right airplanes, the carrier will remain central to U.S. power projection.
Keep in mind, though, that the carrier does not simply charge into the teeth of an aggressive targeting environment and disgorge itself of its strike aircraft from unending sanctuary. It fights as part of a larger combat system, that of the Joint Force. Elements of the enemy’s surveillance network would necessarily be targeted for destruction by precision weapons launched from submarines, other ships, or long-range bombers. An elaborate cyber campaign would also be key to blinding an opponent, creating a window of opportunity for the carrier to launch its strikes before relocating. As this process is repeated over time, the risks to the carrier dissipate, and it can move closer to the defended territory, thereby enabling higher-tempo strike operations.