Eclipse of the Big Carrier
The 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.