New Naval Race Much Like the Old
As with the nautical marvels of 100 years ago, the Dreadnought battleship, a new naval race is brewing in the world today, this time with the building of large deck aircraft carriers. We wonder if the past rivalries on the oceans that eventually led to a century of destructive warfare, might also be repeating itself as precious funds are summoned from more useful exertions to enhance the prestige of rising and traditional seapowers.
There are currently 21 aircraft carriers and numerous aviation capable ships in the navies of the world today, with more than half belonging to the US Navy. There are also 7 such vessels under construction, with China, Russia, and India expressing interest in acquiring up to 6 for their respective fleets. In future decades America intends to replace the 10-strong Nimitz class with 10 similar Ford class aircraft carriers, the first of which is already under construction. Recently Japan has commissioned a new “helicopter destroyer” that some claim could also operate V/STOL aircraft at some future date, causing surrounding nations such as South Korea to plan such ships for themselves.
This new rivalry between nations couldn’t come at a worse time, with ongoing wars in the Middle East and the rising asymmetrical threats at sea with piracy. Both of these more immediate concerns do not require large and intimidating new battleships, and these very costly to operate, maintain, and protect vessels are actually hurting the effort to bring about peace. Just as the dreadnoughts of the last century drained precious funds for the war effort in the First World War, so do the aircraft carriers drain scarce moneys for new equipment from the “boots on the Ground” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Concerning the first naval race, Lisle A. Rose writes in “Power at Sea” that:
Ironically Britain had almost lost the war because of these crude leviathans; they required so many escorts to protect them that it proved impossible for the Admiralty to supply sufficient destroyers to convoy merchant shipping.
Even more bizarre, the New Naval Race of the 21st century, this time with aircraft carriers instead of gun-armed battleships, is again affecting Great Britain. After its recent apparent failure in Iraq, and an ongoing struggle in Afghanistan, the Army is in dire straits, and needlessly so, according to this opinion article from the UK Times:
It is clear enough what Iraq needed and Afghanistan needs: more men, more helicopters, better armoured protection – the same as in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. But what of future war?…War among the people, whether inter-state or counter-insurgency, needs, above all, state-of-the art intelligence and general purpose infantrymen; it needs the type of aircraft that can support them – helicopters not more Eurofighters; it needs ships able to control coastal waters in the way that troops control the streets – frigates not Leviathan aircraft carriers.
Britain, having once before discarded her World War 2 era flattops for smaller carriers in the 1970’s, is seeing the handwriting on the wall, and has delayed her 2 giant ships to cut costs. Still the aircraft carrier, like the battleship of a bygone age, is a symbol of national power and the sign of a modern navy. As a symbol their giant bulk can be very intimidating, but also tempting to a rising navy wishing to make a name for itself. As such awesome harbingers of force, they themselves have become targets of destruction. Thus, instead of decreasing the likelihood of war, the possession of such fearsome weapons actually increases the risk of conflict.
Ships which we never have enough of, frigates, coastal corvettes, patrol craft, even submarines would be more useful and less intimidating to other navies. In our recent land wars, COIN experts will insist that “the lightest, most indirect and least intrusive form of intervention…will achieve the necessary effect.” So would these smaller “Influence Squadrons” also be less intimidating, more effective, and certainly less a drain on strained defense budgets.