The Continuing Relevance of Aircraft Carriers for the U.S. Navy

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A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter lifts off from the flight deck of USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). Image: U.S. Navy

A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter lifts off from the flight deck of USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). Image: U.S. Navy

In times of austerity, when governments are seeking to rein in spending, critics tend to target the expensive carriers as prime candidates for defense budget cuts. However, it would be a mistake for the United States to reduce its aircraft carrier capability and create a naval power vacuum for others to fill. Aircraft carriers have been central to American diplomacy, foreign policy, and military strategy for decades. The development of asymmetric capabilities by potential rivals and the increasing effectiveness of anti-access capabilities does not mean that the United States should turn to creating an over-the-horizon navy that withdraws the U.S. presence from key areas. Carriers are expensive, but their ability to act as a diplomatic tool and as a deterrent means that they will remain a vital part of America’s power projection capabilities.

In recent years, there has been growing debate over the relevance of U.S. aircraft carriers and their usefulness as the leading response option for policymakers in a crisis. For example, Captain Henry J. Hendrix and Lieutenant Colonel J. Noel Williams argue that “the march of technology is bringing the supercarrier era to an end.”[1] Robert Haddick, a contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command, also asserts that carriers are becoming obsolete and that it is time for the Pentagon to consider shifting towards intercontinental bombers and drones.[2] On the contrary, Robert Farley, a scholar specializing in military diffusion and American national security, defends carriers and argued that “the carrier’s primary virtue” is in its “flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances.”[3]

Indeed, carriers will continue to remain a key strategic asset for decades to come. The ability to deploy carriers to a troubled region without seeking landing rights from neighbouring countries offers a level of flexibility that other platforms cannot match. Countries will continue to build aircraft carriers—despite their expense—as their sheer size and power projection capabilities offer a level of prestige, power, and diplomatic influence that will remain vital to policymakers. A carrier is more than just an expensive piece of military hardware; in addition to offering a response to emergencies and humanitarian assistance, a visiting aircraft carrier can also act as a diplomatic tool to demonstrate American solidarity with allies. For example, the ability of carriers to offer a reassuring presence to allies and a deterrent to potential foes can be seen with Singapore’s Changi naval base that was developed specifically to accommodate an aircraft carrier, which demonstrates Singapore’s continuing desire to accommodate and actively encourage a U.S. naval presence. Australia also wishes to encourage a U.S. military commitment to the pacific region, which remains at the heart of Australia’s foreign policy.

In fact, there is a growing demand for aircraft carriers within the Asia-Pacific region in general. India has re-fitted an ex-Soviet carrier, currently undergoing sea trials as the INS Vikramaditya. It is also developing a new domestic variant—named the Vikrant-class—that is due to be commissioned in 2018.[4] The development of an indigenous carrier would be a significant step forward for India’s naval capabilities. Nevertheless, the biggest threat to the United States is posed by China, which is likely to be a long-term potential rival to U.S. naval power within the Pacific region.

The Shenyang, a Chinese naval ship, participates in the Joint Sea 2013 Drill with Russia in Peter the Great Gulf near Vladivostok. Image: Ministry of National Defense, The People's Republic of China

The Shenyang, a Chinese naval ship, participates in the Joint Sea 2013 Drill with Russia in Peter the Great Gulf near Vladivostok. Image: Ministry of National Defense, The People’s Republic of China

Given China’s rise to power, it is only natural that a country heavily reliant on economic growth for domestic stability tends to start focusing on naval capabilities in order to protect its maritime interests. Increasing dependence on shipping for economic growth, raw materials, and fuel imports may mean that China will not want to free-ride on U.S. protection of sea lanes for much longer. China’s development of an ex-Soviet carrier into the Liaoning aircraft carrier demonstrates its commitment to developing a modern blue-water navy. Reports also suggest that China, like India, is seeking to develop a domestically built carrier as well.[5] Coupled with the new indigenous J-15 fighter, China is showing a significant step forward in its naval capabilities. A new domestic built fighter and a potential carrier demonstrates China’s ability to develop sophisticated technology and move away from decades of reliance on old Soviet technology.

For the foreseeable future, at least, the development of Chinese aircraft carriers does not pose a significant threat to the United States. In order for carriers to be effective power projection tools, they must be coupled with a task force for escorts and logistics, something the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy of China has yet to develop. As an RUSI analysis concludes, “At a modest 60,000 tonnes, China’s newest warship will be dwarfed by every one of the United States’s eleven Nimitz-class nuclear-powered super-carriers.”[6] An aircraft carrier is also dependent on a highly trained crew with experience, and compared to the United States, which has decades of experience with sophisticated carrier operations, China will lag behind for a very long time to come. Nevertheless, the problem is that China is likely to use the Liaoning as a training ship and seek to develop its own indigenous carriers. Reports suggest China may already be seeking to develop a nuclear power carrier,[7] and the Xinhua official news service has reported that “China will have more than one aircraft carrier,” with the next aircraft carrier likely to be larger and able to carry more aircrafts.[8] Given the development and build time of aircraft carriers, China’s carrier capability remains hypothetical, but there is no doubt that China is serious about improving its capabilities and seeking to expand its potential naval power.

For the United States, the greatest concern is not China’s growing maritime presence, but the development of China’s anti-access capabilities. China’s development of the DF-21D[iv] missile, dubbed the “carrier killer”, shows a significant step forward for China’s ability to threaten naval forces in the Pacific region. With a range of a 1,000 miles, it could prove a significant counter to American power; as Kailash K. Prasad observes in the National Interest, “considering [that] even the next generation of naval fighter aircraft will lack the range to return to their carriers if launched further than six hundred miles from their intended target,” the ability to deny “potential adversaries access to a significant portion of the Western Pacific looks possible.”[9] During the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, President Clinton was able to respond to Chinese military exercises in the region by deploying two aircraft carriers to the region in a show of solidarity with Taiwan, this displaying American power projection.[10] However, with the development of China’s “carrier killer” missile, such a move would be unlikely in any future potential crisis without an almost suicidal risk to the carrier task force.

The development of such asymmetric capabilities suggests that America’s carriers could become like the British Royal Navy in World War One: too expensive to risk, and kept out of harms way. However, the development of ballistic missiles does not negate the use of carriers; the U.S. Navy is well aware of ballistic missile threats and is seeking to find defenses. In addition to signal jamming these missiles’ guidance systems, the Navy is also developing lasers to counter incoming missiles.[11]

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Image: U.S. Navy

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Image: U.S. Navy

One of the primary benefits of a carrier is that it can work as a platform even when the technologies for air-wings, missiles, and electronics have moved on. As one report in Foreign Policy argues, “unlike other classes of ships, the aircraft carrier does not need to be retired when its primary weapons system becomes obsolete. Similarly, defensive systems are more easily upgraded aboard an aircraft carrier than any other ship.”[12] For example, fighters launched from carriers act as defensive perimeters, and with the pace of drone technological developments, this task could soon be done by unmanned drones, which can operate for far longer and without risk to pilots’ lives. This suggests that far from reducing the navy’s reliance on carriers, there should be a broader re-assessment of the F-35 aircraft, which is intended to be the primary naval air-wing for the next few decades. As the most expensive procurement project in Pentagon history,[13] the flaws of the F-35 program demonstrate that the biggest concern should not be the role of a carrier, but the ability of its primary weapons to fulfil their mission at a reasonable cost.

Critics of carriers have advocated moving towards long-range intercontinental forces and long-distance bombers, but relying purely on these options would limit the responses available to policy makers in a crisis and potentially increase the chances of violence escalation. The deployment of carriers, however, shows a willingness to use force without escalating into an armed conflict. A British naval think tank acknowledges the deterrent ability of carriers by pointing to the Iranian threat to close the straits of Hormuz. The report notes that “the immediate reaction of the United States Navy was to send a carrier battle group into the Arabian Gulf and to position a second carrier battle group in the Gulf of Oman.” The threat of force and the deterrent ability of carriers “persuaded the Iranian Government that their threat to blockade the Hormuz Strait would not be tolerated and they rapidly suggested a return to the negotiating table.”[14] There will always be the need for rapidly deployable forces that can offer flexibility and power projection, which only aircraft carriers can provide.

According to Robert D. Kaplan, while the twentieth century focused on the landscape of Europe, the twenty-first century will focus on the “seascape” of East Asia.[15] Although it remains too early to contemplate a struggle for hegemony in the Western Pacific, the rise of China and the shifting of power to the East will require a U.S. commitment to engagement in the region, in which a visible naval presence will play a key part. Strategists may seek alternatives to the carrier, but the simple fact that other powers are desperately seeking carrier capabilities demonstrates that they are still relevant tools for policy makers and military strategists. While anti-access capabilities are a growing concern for U.S. strategists, they offer no use or purpose as a diplomatic or political tool. Anti-carrier ballistic missiles will only sit and wait until they are ready to be used, whereas a carrier may last a lifetime without being fired upon. Asymmetric technology poses a challenge for carriers, but it is far from impossible to overcome these new threats.

Despite recent controversies over the relevance of carriers, there is no doubt that aircraft carriers can continue to be at the heart of America’s naval presence. While there will always be technological and fiscal challenges to their continued use, no other class of naval vessel is able to offer the flexibility, deterrent ability, power projection, and capabilities of aircraft carriers. It is for this reason, that aircraft carriers will remain a leading option for both strategists and policy makers. Carriers have been at the heart of the U.S. navy for decades, and instead of dismissing the utility of carriers, there needs to be a further development of defence technology and armaments, along with new strategic planning for the use of carriers. The development of new carriers by potential rivals demonstrates the continuing relevance of aircraft carriers for major powers, including the United States.


[1] Captain Henry J. Hendrix & Colonel J. Noel Williams, “Twilight of the Superfluous Carrier,” Proceedings Magazine, USNI, Vol. 137/5/1, (May 2011): 299.

[2] Robert Haddick, “Shipping Out: Are Aircraft Carriers Becoming Obsolete?” Foreign Policy, 31 August 2012, Internet, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/08/31/shipping_out.

[3] Robert Farley, “Aircraft Carriers: RIP?,” The Diplomat, 14 March 2013, Internet, http://thediplomat.com/flashpoints-blog/2013/03/14/aircraft-carriers-r-i-p/

[4] Editorial, “Indian Navy’s first Vikrant-class Aircraft Carrier to be Launched in August” Strategic Defence Intelligence, 25 June 2013, Internet,  http://www.strategicdefenceintelligence.com/article/ph0Iptxfgk/2013/06/25/indian_navys_first_vikrant-class_aircraft_carrier_to_be_laun/

[5] Pete Sweeney, “China to Build Second, Larger Carrier,” Reuters, 23 April 2013, Internet, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/24/us-china-navy-carrier-idUSBRE93N00Q20130424

[6] Shashank Joshi, “Troubled Waters: the Implications of China’s First Aircraft Carrier,” RUSI, 16 August 16 2011, Internet, http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4E4A591E49661/#.Ue2BK4Umw7A

[7] John Reed, “Is China Working on a Nuclear Reactor for Aircraft Carriers?,” Foreign Policy, 25 February  2013, Internet,  http://killerapps.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/25/is_china_working_on_a_nuclear_reactor_for_aircraft_carriers

[8] Pete Sweeney, “China to Build Second, Larger Carrier” Reuters, 23 April 2013, Internet, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/24/us-china-navy-carrier-idUSBRE93N00Q20130424

[9] Kailash K. Prasad, “China’s Blue-Water Ambitions,” The National Interest, 6 July 2012, Internet, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/chinas-blue-water-ambitions-7157

[10] Robert Ross, “Navigating the Taiwan Strait,” Chinese Security Policy, (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), 156.

[11] Spencer Ackerman, “How to Kill China’s ‘Carrier-Killer’ Missile: Jam, Spoof and Shoot,” Wired, 16 March 2012, Internet, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/03/killing-chinas-carrier-killer/

[12] David H. Buss, William F. Moran & Thomas J. Moore, “Why America Still Needs Aircraft Carriers,” Foreign Policy, 26 April 2013, Internet, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/04/26/why_america_still_needs_aircraft_carriers

[13] Winslow Wheeler, “The Jet That Ate the Pentagon,” Foreign Policy, 26 April 2012, Internet, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/26/the_jet_that_ate_the_pentagon?wp_login_redirect=0

[14] Nigel Ward, Steve George, David Hobbs & Michael Clapp, “Why Does Britain Need Aircraft Carriers?,” The Phoenix Think Tank, 2012, Internet, http://www.phoenixthinktank.org/2012/03/why-does-britain-need-aircraft-carriers/

[15] Robert D. Kaplan, “The South China Sea is the Future of Conflict,” Foreign Policy, September 2011, Internet, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/08/15/the_south_china_sea_is_the_future_of_conflict?page=full

 

 

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Kevin Blachford is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the University of Winchester. His research interests include security studies, international relations theory, the Cold War, American and British politics, and the rise of China. Mr. Blachford holds a B.A. in American Studies from Winchester University, an MSc in Global Politics from Southampton University, and an M.Phil. in Global Politics from Winchester University.

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