By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
During a visit to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, then-President Bill Clinton remarked, “When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: ‘Where’s the nearest carrier?’”
It’s noteworthy that Clinton made the remark aboard a ship named after Roosevelt, who previously served as Undersecretary of the Navy. Roosevelt also wrote the classic “The Naval War of 1812.”
Roosevelt was a contemporary of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval strategist and the author of “The Influence of Sea Power upon History,” an important and transformative work that is still relevant today. Mahan and Roosevelt might not have considered the use of aircraft in naval strategy when they penned their famous works.
However, it is safe to say that both would have immediately recognized the value of the modern aircraft carrier, or supercarrier as Nimitz and Ford class carriers are often called. Some contemporary strategists, however, argue that the aircraft carrier is, or soon will be, obsolete.
This argument is hardly novel. It has come up once or twice a decade for the past 30 years.
So it is not an argument that we can easily dismiss. For instance, the new USS Gerald R. Ford has been heavily criticized for cost overruns and numerous untested technologies.
Aircraft Carriers Are Large, Easily Engaged Targets in Combat
When it comes to combat use, carriers are lamented as large, easily engaged targets. Indeed, the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) by several U.S. adversaries – including China – has led some naval authorities to question whether carriers would be effective in combat, given their huge size as well as the scope of China’s anti-access and area denial approach to the East and South China Seas. Furthermore, critics argue, small-deck carriers similar to amphibious assault ships would allow the Navy to station more vessels in more places.
Although these are sound arguments, the modern U.S. supercarrier remains unmatched by any adversarial navy. In fact, China launched just its second aircraft carrier in April 2017. That vessel was constructed based on an inadequate design that was rendered obsolete nearly 40 years ago. By comparison, it would take three carriers of the China design to match the power capabilities of one U.S. supercarrier.
Writing in The Cipher Brief, Admiral James Winnefeld, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the current U.S. carriers by dispelling some myths about targeting. He also deftly handled other criticisms of the program.
US Aircraft Carriers Can Stay on Station Longer than Proposed Light Carriers
Perhaps the most notable point of Winnefeld’s article is the ability of a U.S. carrier to stay on station longer than any proposed light carrier model. It also can protect more aircraft with munitions and maintain a higher operational speed.
Winnefeld goes on to assert that due to an aircraft carrier’s deck size, it “can generate more wind over the deck in calm conditions” as opposed to smaller vessels. As a result, it is easier for heavier aircraft carrying more fuel and ordnance to fly off current carriers, while amphibious assault ships, light carriers and helicopter carriers can’t come close to matching that capability.
Winnefeld addressed the alleged vulnerability of the Nimitz and Ford class aircraft carriers by saying that both classes have active and passive defensive measures that continually improve. In most instances, these carriers also have escorts that cover a substantial array of threats over equally impressive large bodies of water.
Carriers also can operate far from their aircrafts’ targets. In other words, they can detect a missile launch early enough to move out of the way of several different types of ASBMs. When their movement is insufficient, the carriers have modern missile defenses.
Majority of Operation Iraqi Freedom Defense Sorties Used Aircraft Carriers
To put this standoff distance in perspective, over 90% of the sorties flown in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom were launched from carriers. More recently, the initial airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria were launched at sea.
Large carriers are also difficult to spot and target. Their ability to operate from such long standoff distances only adds to this capability. Unlike smaller, conventionally powered carriers, U.S. supercarriers need less-frequent refueling and do not need a flotilla of support ships. It’s also worth noting, however, that large groups of naval vessels are easier to locate.
Aircraft Carriers Unlikely to Become Obsolete
All told, the U.S. has a large investment in the current Nimitz and Ford carrier classes. It is therefore unlikely that the Pentagon will shift gears by replacing these assets. All of the perceived vulnerabilities and high costs of the current carrier classes can be offset over time.
Indeed, modern aircraft carriers are expected to last 12 presidential administrations. These carriers have demonstrated an impressive ability to adapt not only to new threats, but also to successive changes in policy.