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Eclipse of the Big Carrier

January 27, 2009

carrier1The naval savvy among you may recognize the above title as a variation of a work by author David Brown titled ECLIPSE OF THE BIG GUN, which details the rise and fall of the much-loved battleship era during the first-half of the 20th Century. Professor James Holmes of the Naval War College makes the same analogy, declaring the aircraft carrier is swiftly headed toward a like fate:


While the surface fleet still has its uses, its staying power in a fleet engagement in Asia – the most likely theater for a high-intensity fight – is increasingly in doubt.

Why the bleak prophecy? In the 1890s, Alfred Thayer Mahan, father of the modern U.S. Navy, described “capital ships” – those comprising the heart of the battle fleet – as “the vessels which, by due proportion of defensive and offensive powers, are capable of taking and giving hard knocks.” Battleships were capital ships for Mahan. But, just as air power rendered battleships more or less moot, new technologies appear to be overtaking carriers like the Bush.

China’s People’s Liberation Army is assembling an arsenal of weaponry designed specifically to hold off U.S. carriers and their escorts. One example is a revolutionary, shore-based “antiship ballistic missile” reportedly able to target ships hundreds of miles away.By my back-of-the-envelope calculations (and assuming the antiship ballistic missile pans out), PLA missile forces will soon be able to strike at U.S. ships at the extreme range of cruise missiles and carrier-based aircraft.


I would also point at that numerous other forces are also rising to challenge the carrier’s supremacy at sea, and not all these are weapons. The astonishing cost to field, protect, and support the gigantic vessels is becoming increasingly untenable by even the world’s last superpower, with costs of ship, planes, and escort more than the entire defense budget of medium powers like Canada or Brazil.

Considering that the price of a single American flattop is 100 times that of its World War 2 ancestor( $40 million versus $4 billion or more), you would also think the ship was many times more effective at controlling the sealanes. Yet the Navy often bemoans the fact that it doesn’t have 12 in service, and would likely be glad to have the 15 from the 1980s back!

Finally, the writer calls for a renewed fleet for a new century. To me the following would be a perfect composition:


To me, a robust undersea fleet founded on nuclear submarines meets Mahan’s standard better than one founded on surface vessels. Missile- and torpedo-armed boats can mete out tremendous punishment. And while they are no more sturdily built than carriers, they can cruise underwater almost indefinitely, eluding seagoing adversaries.

For lesser missions like battling pirates, interdicting contraband or rendering humanitarian assistance, surface vessels likely will remain the implements of choice. They are bigger, can carry more cargo and can survive in less threatening surroundings.

If you look at the current makeup of the US Navy which consists of billion dollar aircraft carriers, billion dollar escort cruisers and destroyers, billion dollar submarines and amphibious ships, you get the picture of an over-abundance of modern battleship types. The fleet could certainly maintain its clear dominance by building only a single type of capital ship, and as the article details, this should be the highly survivable and evolutionary attack submarine. Then would funds be readily available for procuring smaller littoral craft, hopefully in the larger numbers needed in case of war.


15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2009 3:51 am

    This air power though is only really effective when used in support of ground operations; and yes the US marines have not conducted an offensive operation – but remember the Royal Navy had to the moment they were about to sell up and get out of it. This leads into you pointing what has happened to british defence – but as is pointed by many of us over here the British Forces have been underfunded over the last 20 years to almost the same extent as the US forces have been overfunded. The problem with Britian is that they have kept economists in charge and they only see the bottom line – This is not always a bad thing in that Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals can run away with themselves, but it has meant that we are now having to spend huge amounts of money on major projects that we should have been building over a period of time.

    If you note my earlier argument I am just as unimpressed with the Billion dollar, for want of a better term, ‘Gunboats’ of the Zumwalt class as you – look at my recent blog entry on destroyers.

    Precision warfare is useful, precision support is brilliant, precision strike is pointless – that is what I was saying. Often quoted example of strike is Libya – where cruise missiles and smart bombs were used to take out Radars – these were rebuilt and fully operation in 24hrs.

    As for the terms about the ‘second army’, well the Royal Marines are a brigade formation, they use Vikings as their main vehicle, and would love to have some MBTs attached if the Army can spare them. They are a lighter force; but they still need the larger platform – for the simple reason of logistics – you can carry more equipment, for a wider range of operations in a LPD, than you can in a LCS – in fact in the case of the American LCSs which are tiny in size compared to it; but the Royal Navy’s LPDs cost the same price!

    UAVs are very good, they will provide in the future a large measure of support, but you seem to have forgotten how large they are aswell – the ones that carry weapons are actually pretty much the same size as world war II fighter aircraft – any ship supporting them is not going to be that small.

    Finnally you have the problem of helicopters – you need a large number of them, and large covered space to maintain them; this is the principle purpose of the LHDs of the USN, and of HMS Ocean the Royal Navy’s LPH (much small, cheaper, and does almost the same job). This means that these ships, are unlikely to get much smaller, in fact some would say that the LHD or Commando Carriers are the future big ships of the fleet; I think myself that could be the way, after all the Queen Elizabeth II Class will be able to carry about 400 – 800 Royal Marines; Whilst the Ford class will carry none as far as I currently understand it; well none for amphibious operations at least; only those required for shipboard duties.

    Finally we get to corvettes, and again if I knew how there would be a link to my blog, but I don’t, so there isn’t. In small ships, capable of deploying UAVs and fighting on there own these are the best; the German K130 Braunschweig class. The next class of corvette the K134s (no name as of yet) will carry the type 53 modular VLS as well, providing a huge amount of firepower – but still cheaper than nearest American equivalents the LCS. There is a simple reason this is the case, and that is the American Navy has tried to be to clever and to all conquering with this design – it is supposed to do everything and has ended up; unlike the JSF, as to expensive to really do anything.

    Small mass produced armoured cars are going to be important in future wars, if they are like afghanistan; however I would like to point that most useful vehicles – barring helicopters, that commanders keeping asking for more of, again and again, are the Bradley and Warrior APCs; this are best all terrain, best armoured, best firepower available in Infantry Combat vehicles. Whilst being very impressed with the US Army’s Shikenski (not sure if spelled right) modern fighting concept; personnally I think it will be the ICVs that are most important in the future; and whether they will be wheeled or not will be the really big decision.

    Submarines are not the perfect stealth platforms – which the USN has started finding out in the pacific; where china has been laying a lot of hydrophones recently. They are good, they are better than a lot of others – but nothing is every purfect – everything man made has a man made counter. After all it was an SA-2 which apparently managed to knock out of the sky an F117 Nighthawk in the Kosovo conflict.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 30, 2009 8:03 pm

    At first I thought you were repeating my argument. The idea that precision warfare is “very useless” denies reality, such as American airpower increasing 1000% during the Surge. When precision is used, civilian casualties decline as it is much easier to target your enemy, even when they hide among the populace. Precision weapons are the new “longbows” and “muskets” in warfare, which will change the way land armies and naval forces go to war just as the latter revolutionary type arms defeated the old medieval armies.

    Your point on amphibious warfare disguises the fact that the US has conducted no large scale amphibious landing against a defended beach in 60 years. In its one opportunity in recent times during the first Gulf War, the USMC afloat shied away from Kuwait under orders like Jellicoe did from chasing the German fleet at Jutland. Only the Brits provide us with any modern amphibious landings, yet a few more Exocets at San Carlos might have turned the tide to the Argentinians.

    Which brings me to my point. The future of warfare is with the robot weapons such as uavs, cruise missiles, precision bombs, and so on. They do not need giant gold plated platforms with every innovation imaginable added, which make them too costly to afford in numbers and riddled with defects the ones that do enter service. They just need a ride to the target. In the future these will be small armored cars which can be quickly massed produced as we have seen in the Iraq conflict, submarines which are the perfect stealth platforms, small attack boats whose very size and numbers will defeat the billion-dollar missile battleships the admirals love so well, and motherships which will support the smaller craft in littoral seas, launch uavs in close air support, and carry marine landing forces which themselves will be lighter and more mobile than the heavily armed “second army” now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Otherwise, this is where we are headed.

  3. January 30, 2009 3:19 pm

    ah, thats the big problem – take kosovo for instance thousand of tonnes of bombs dropped over weeks – and only 9 armoured vehicles – including one ambulance destroyed.

    also you have to remember that large carriers = large air groups and you need the airgroup – whole terminology of Large Deck is wrong; only a very small amount of the deck is used for operations.

    another thing, the Royal Navy is building two 65,000ton carriers for £1.1billion each, so I do not know why 80,000tons would cost about 3 or 4 times that amount; unless of course it is requirement to have gold plated toilet seats. Now I know this does not include air group cost of about a further £1.26billion. I am not sure if your figures included air group.

    The whole point of the air group in reality now is not air strikes – because they just rebuild, but support of operations in the littoral; whether they be command raids, intelligence extraction, or full blown amphibious invasions.

    Even this though negates the more integral value of an aircraft carrier; the threat its airgroup poses will always make a very useful diplomatic tool.

    oh, and precision warfare is very good, very modern, and very useless. the best form of air defence/superiority is a battalion of your own soldiers occupying the enemy airfield; the same for ports and the sea. The trick is getting them there. Amphibious warfare is the best method of doing this (without the assistance of an allies airfield and a lot of very expensive aircraft and fuel – per ton it cost 15* as much to move by air rather than sea); you will require carriers to provide the air support. Though possibly the ‘white elephants’ of the Zumwalt class will not be required.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 30, 2009 1:45 pm

    If 80,000 tons, $6-$8 billion dollars is now considered “cost effective” we are in trouble. I can’t imagine how we can fight a sustained conventional battle without going nuclear, if this is what it costs to fight these brush-fire wars. I think we can do better, and must. I also don’t see why we need a large deck carrier in the age of precision warfare, where multiple bomb strikes are no longer required.

  5. January 30, 2009 8:21 am

    Mike in reply, 90% of all tactical air support came from USN carriers in Afghanistan, 60% of it in the recent Gulf War, and about 55% of the air support in Kosovo.

    finnally, there is the fact that you do need the carriers provide the level of air security – but personally I think a maximum of 80,000tons is probably the most cost effective. With escorts, the LCS was supposed to be the naval version of the JFS – i.e. cheap and able to do everything. Unfortunately it isn’t – in fact the best value for money escort currently being built (in my humble opinion) is the Arleigh Burke Class Flight IIa – the best weapons mix and capability for operations.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 30, 2009 7:55 am

    First-off Alex. Thank you for verifying my suspicions on the purpose SM-3. Pretty soon the escorts are going to cost more than the ship they are defending.

    Next, I have to wonder the reasoning behind why we need offshore airpower so much that is based on wars with non-naval powers since WW 2. The fact is, the USN has little experience dealing with a jet attack the magnitude of the Kamikaze strikes, not to mention a mass attack by cruise missiles. So we are building high value weapons to defeat low value threats, but we say they are for conventional battles? It doesn’t make sense, either fiscally or tactically.

  7. January 30, 2009 4:19 am

    okey, sorry to knit-pick, but that chinese weapon is still untested, and even it does start becoming successful that is what the next generation Aegis systems SM-3/SM-6 are built to counter, added this there is the trouble of actually finding the carrier – I know you will point to satelites, but these are becoming increasingly vulnerable, even to those same missiles I have just mentioned. The fact remains that as long as aircraft are important to conduct of war, and as long as those aircraft need to be rearmed and serviced Carriers are going to remain the most cost effective airbase – because they can move region to region, can be unpdated/upgrade in a home port with no risk of loosing that technology to a foreign power, and no one can ever say ‘no’ to your using them – as to quote the USN poster 44acres of soverign US soil anywhere you want it.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 27, 2009 9:12 pm

    In that case, why don’t we still have battleships around? BECAUSE WE CAN’T AFFORD THEM! Ships were built to fight, not just scare your enemy. If our ships get any scarier, we will be priced down to a Navy of One!

  9. January 27, 2009 4:35 pm

    Intimidation with RESPECT

  10. January 27, 2009 4:33 pm

    one more thought on last comment size does sometimes matter I dont think I would get rid of all my biggest assets ,firepower isnt everything intimidation can a long way .some times the biggest win is the fight you did NOT have

  11. January 27, 2009 4:00 pm

    seams to me that would be close to the best of most worlds ,but then I do see Live from what most people would call a shelterd live or at lest limited experceine

  12. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 27, 2009 3:24 pm

    Maybe we need not replace old platforms, but make them smaller, less costly, and more numerous!

  13. January 27, 2009 7:50 am

    I would never put all my cards in one basket. one thing history has told us, what seams like the right weapon today is not tomorrow .at the cost to replace any of these platforms should we get rid of it would be much more than it it cost the frist time to build .and the man power knowlegde is even harder to replace


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