Warship Worship Part 2
By design the aircraft carrier is the ultimate expression of the “mothership concept“. Unlike the dreadnought battleship which was a weapons platform unto itself, here was a base vessel for projecting naval power at sea, in the air, and onto the land in support of other platforms. Most importantly was its airwing, which usually consisted of about 100 planes geared toward fighter, attack, and patrol missions. Her escorting forces of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines were geared toward anti-surface, anti-air, and anti-submarine warfare. Amphibious forces, including Marines with their own specialized landing vehicles allowed the carrier fleets to take and hold land bases as required.
Eventually, because of the rising menace of bombers, surface ships, and submarines equipped with highly accurate and hard to spot cruise missiles, the carriers’ offensive power has slowly decreased while costly defensive hardware have greatly increased. In order to maintain the relevance of ship-borne airpower in the missile age, expensive Aegis anti-missile systems are now carried on all USN escort warships, which now have reached the $2 billion mark. The navy currently has about 80 of these very costly and large warships which are often likened to modern battleships.
Since the 1970s, essential replacement aircraft have been put off until now only a single new high performance jet flies from the decks of US carriers, the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Another is not planned until the next decade. Recently the S-3 Viking anti-sub patrol plane was retired, remarkably without a planned replacement! Meanwhile the USN has been mostly ignoring the capabilities and unique qualities of unmanned aerial vehicles operating from their warships, unlike the other services.
A further drain on the fighting forces, is a dramatic decrease in shipbuilding in recent years. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, only a single class of surface combatant, the Aegis equipped Burke class has been built, currently totaling 62 ships on order. Other than this, a handful of patrol ship have been built, with submarine production totaling about 1 every two or three years (though this is planned to increase to 2 per year). The 33 amphibious ships in service can only ferry about 1% out of the 200,000 total US Marines at a time!
While aircraft carriers are still mandatory in modern war, the cost of these ships come at the expense of various new warfighting tools which may perform the same functions without busting the shipbuilding budget. These would include long range bombers, missiles fired from submarines, land based aircraft armed with precision bombs, even land and naval artillery. While keeping some form of carrier aviation intact, the US Navy should aggressively experiment and introduce new concepts in sea power lest it fall into the trap of having the wrong warship for the next war at sea.