Debunking Aircraft Carrier Myths Pt 4
Carrier Myth: Land Bases are Undependable
SIR – The ash cloud could not have come at a more appropriate time. With defence policy in the balance, the clear evidence that fixed airfields can deny aircraft basic mobility can only lead to one conclusion. Mobile airfields – that is to say, aircraft carriers – are essential for air power to be effective in all circumstances.
Professor of Naval History
University of Salford
Seeing that volcanoes are not mobile, I was curious how much more effective naval airpower would be instead of land based air in such a circumstance as pointed out by Professor Grove. This is especially true since the sea-borne aircraft might keep itself out of range of such natural disasters, it would have been no more help to those in the path of the cloud than the planes in area, as we soon discovered.
One of the claims the Navy often uses for continued dependence on the shrinking number of large decks, is the possibility that land bases would be unavailable in wartime for various reasons. This is not an unlikely scenario as was pointed out above when the ash cloud covering Europe shut down numerous airports, stranding thousands of passengers for days. Also, with forward bases such as Okinawa constantly protested against because of the US presence there, many airports are now vulnerable politically, as we also remember with Turkey refusing American access during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
The idea then is prevalent that we must endure enormous drain on shrinking budgets, plus deploy giant warships which we are warned continuously are at risk from cheaper weapons, and the potential loss of life of thousands of crewman in such a situation. As we pointed out early in the week, you don’t even need to sink a carrier to disable it, and with so much depending on the 11 aircraft carriers in the fleet, only a handful of well-placed attacks would be sufficient in crippling a huge portion of our capability. A single attack was enough to end the reign of the battleship in US service in 1941.
Our presumed dependence only on 100,000 ton strike carriers with 80-90 warplanes loaded takes a lot for granted, that there will never be bases available. As we note the possibility, it is not inevitable. As we learned in World War 2, after being completely thrown out of the Pacific, the primary task of the carriers which survived was not to substitute for land bases, but to support amphibious landings so they there were more airbases to utilize in the destruction of Japan. The titanic struggles against Kamikaze’s for the islands of Iwo Jim and Okinawa, was not to get the carriers closer to Japan, but for bomber bases. Likewise did the British Royal Navy carriers in the Atlantic prove essential in supporting “unsinkable aircraft carriers” like Malta.
Bringing up another point, that aircraft carriers, with their tons of fuel, ammunition, and vulnerable flight decks, they are not so easily replaced when sunk, or repaired when damaged. In contrast, land airbases have proved extremely durable, as noted with the Axis devastation of Malta, the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal, or the German airfields later in the war, which finally had to be physically seized by the Army in the closing months of the war.
Again I concede the possibility that we could lose some or many airbases in major conflict, just not the inevitability. Also, if this possibility is so dire, why does the Navy only concentrate airpower on a handful of large decks, and these growing fewer overtime? It seems to ensure that the mobile airfields would outlive the fixed bases, you would use a great many carriers, dispersing them so some would survive, and be on the scene in a crisis. In this you can see the navy ignoring advances in technology such as precision airpower, which promises one-bomb one-hit, or the amazing reliability of modern jet planes.
Using such technology, then you could deploy fewer planes on smaller decks, without losing capability. By holding on to tradition and insisting on a few very large, expensive and vulnerable decks, the Navy is actually contributing to the carrier’s obsolescence. So nation’s which cannot afford Big Decks, that the admirals insist is the only way to deploy manned naval airpower effectively, are finding low cost alternatives, which are more practical, and not concentrated in obsolete hulls.
This is yet another reason the fear of losing airbases should be no hindrance to reducing the number of large decks. The Tomahawk missile, which also can claim the ability to ensure long-range strike from the sea, is already deployed on numerous smaller hulls, over 130 in the US Fleet alone, plus also on Royal Navy submarines. The missile, while not able to perform repeat sorties, is more practical for the reason, that in most cases a single sortie would be enough in the precision age, plus because the versatility allows much smaller and affordable submarines and surface ships to carry them. Though the guided missile has yet to match the versatility of manned jet bombers, its ability for dispersal, and the likelihood it will get through to the target, makes it far more sensible.
Finally, as someone pointed out in the comments, even the few carrier versus carrier battles of World War 2 were for the purpose of securing land bases. For instance, the Battle of Midway was hardly fought over ships but the Marine airstrip on the island, which Japan hoped to secure for the purpose of negating another base at Pearl Harbor. So you can see the carriers are crucial in capturing and supporting land bases, but in themselves cannot be a substitute. We always had and always will have some type of land base, including the requirement to defend and sustain them.
Aircraft carriers on the other hand, like the dreadnought battleship that preceded it, is not so indispensable.