Carriers-Choice of a Weaker Navy
Here’s the thing: Does North Korea really need a “demonstration” of what a carrier strike group can do?
There isn’t a military commander anywhere on this planet who isn’t familiar with the destruction the U.S. can deliver from the sea. But as we’ve written before, there’s almost nothing you can do about North Korea short of a full-scale attack, and despite what you might read in the kookosphere, that is not in the offing. Conclusion: the North gets a free seapower show off its coast, but will that actually change its behavior?
Phil Ewing @ Scoop Deck blog questions “Who are the WestPac war games for?”
The submarine is often dubbed the weapon of choice for a weaker power. The reasons for this is submarines, at least the non-nuclear kind, are fairly cheap and available to almost any one with the money and a modicum of nautical expertise. Like the suicide bomber on land, a few subs can go a long way and tie down enemies ASW forces far in excess to its own capabilities and numbers. Some weakness.
In contrast is the perceived power of an aircraft carrier, with the US Navy being the supreme, really the only practitioner of this type of warfare on a grand scale. Any one of her magnificent and very expensive nuclear carriers are more powerful than all others in the world combined, and their presence on the world’s oceans gives comfort and security to allies, while reminding our enemies of her strength and determination.
As the cost of carriers mount, so have the enemies poised against them. Technology stands still for no nation as the British and French discovered in 1939. It could be we are in a “horse and tank” moment as well with the world’s most powerful navy increasingly burdened by a last century strategy, while so-called weaker navies not so bound to tradition grasps hold of the new technology to challenge us on the world stage. Here are several reasons why the aircraft carrier is increasingly an albatross strangling the future security of the nation:
- Gives the user very limited options. As pointed out above by Phil Ewing, the choices fall to “bomb or nothing”. In contrast, small patrol vessels such as sloops and corvettes might provide numerous options short of war. This was discovered during the Cuban Missile Crisis when President Kennedy used tin can destroyers to enforce a quarantine of Castro’s island, with carrier support far in the distance. Such actions allowed the US Navy to avoid a nuclear war over a very tiny Third World state. Shows of force such as Operation Invincible Challenge as a warning to North Korea has even the Stars and Stripes questioning “Message Accomplished“?
- Distracts from other navy missions. An example can be seen with the British Royal Navy, purchasing the most powerful warships in its history, the Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers, having to gut their fleet in order to afford. Given a semblance of great strength, they are forcing arguably the world’s second most powerful navy into a greater dependence on allies, like the Europeans for support. A great many Royal Navy frigates and destroyers, once a comfort to free nations overseas, are deploying less and less in order to pay for the prestige of carriers. With all the talk of the flexibility of carriers, there is a simultaneous realization with a smaller fleet the the navy can’t “be everywhere and do everything“.
- Drains the economy. Naval warships are far from the most efficient way for shipyards to occupy themselves. The US Navy now depends on a mere 6 yards, with another soon to close. Unable to compete with foreign manufacturing, and with little incentive to try, the shipyards are building fewer and fewer ships in order to accommodate a navy strategy unfriendly to a large fleet without need of sustained hulls.
- Are at risk from low cost countermeasures. Interestingly few navies have even attempted to build large decks since World War 2 to compete with the USN. The fact is, the large ships are very easily matched with the aforementioned submarines, and also long range airpower based on land. Add to this new nuclear boats which can outsail anything afloat, plus land based cruise missiles available on the open arms market, and even the lowliest of world powers can threaten the carrier under the right conditions.
- Requires equally expensive planes and escorts. If the $10 billion+ wasn’t enough for the cost of a modern flattop, there is the enormous expense of developing and purchasing advanced planes and ships to protect them. As we noted at the beginning that carriers can only be used under the most dire of circumstances, it has very little use short of warfare. Therefore, low tech navies sailing in the most modest combatant vessels pretty much have the run of the ocean, because the carrier navy emphasizes shows of force over real control. Admittedly a “really big shew”, but still mostly bluff.