By Nathan Barton
An interesting article was posted at The American Conservative once again proclaiming the death of the American fleet carrier.
To many of us, that comes as no news at all. The vulnerability of flattops has been known for decades. Military planners and officers have studied and addressed it and possible tactics to counter it since at least the 1970s.
This vulnerability – and the incredible cost AND impact of losing one (or more) has been obvious, but few feasible solutions have emerged. Indeed, that may be a major factor in the decision of other major powers (particularly the UK, France, Russia, China, and India) to have a token one or two of the monster (targets) for prestige and training purposes, but to avoid even a modest fleet of them.
So why does the US Navy still have them – and so many of them? Thank the military-industrial complex for one. These things are huge money-makers and budget-busters/enhancers. And (like school lunch programs) they keep on giving and giving – the contractors get to keep on selling goods and services to keep them floating and “carrying out their mission.” So thank the Congress of the United States for pork and more pork and prestige and fame – especially since we are now naming the monsters not just for dead presidents and admirals but living presidents and Congress critturs. We also have the “thinking in a rut” that navy types have always exhibited. It goes back to giving up oars and rowers in the 1400s. Throw in the reluctance to give up sails for steam in the 1800s. And then giving up wooden vessels for ironclads and then actual steel. And finally, the glorious stupidity of the “battleship admirals” in the late 1930s and the beginning of WW2. Today it is the “carrier admirals” that refuse to give up 70+ years of glory-hounding.
But it is not all stupidity, by any means. There are some very good reasons that the USN still has and uses carriers. For one thing, the USN isn’t sent by the Prez or Congress to go beat up on technologically-advanced countries very much. They haven’t intentionally fired a shot or launched a strike against Russia, China, France, UK, Spain or India. Or even Iran or North Korea. The carriers are great for bullying the likes of Libya and Yemen and Iraq and even Syria and Afghanistan, who don’t (or didn’t) have the technology, skills, and guts to take on the USN’s carriers. And carriers are big, scary beasties, intimidating and very good at scaring even the likes of Venezuelan or Cuba or South African types. And they CAN deliver a lot of tons on target, as seen as far back as Korea and Vietnam, and as recently as Bosnia and Mesopotamia. Sure, Russia or China might be able to build AND deploy 1200 anti-ship missiles, but not the likes of Lebanon or Yemen or even Pakistan.
But it is not just the carriers themselves that are scary and overwhelming. There are few if any “minor” irritants (a few thousand dead or floating survivors and a couple of billion dollars in smashed hardware) more likely to be avenged by the FedGov with a MIRV or GLCM multi-kiloton strike than sinking a carrier. Anyone wanting to take down the Reagan or Bush or Stennis is deterred by the incredibly high price in their own dead and the destruction of real estate they would pay from the football in the hands of the latest madman in the White House. (Not just a W or The Donald – even the last squatter might have done such a deed.) Anyone deciding to take out an Ami carrier will very definitely have their back to the wall to start that chain of events.
But there are more factors, as well. First, the limited range of ship-carried aircraft (500-550 nautical miles) is offset by the aircraft carrying cruise missiles and other stand-off weapons, adding hundreds more miles of range. Second, the USN and USAF do have a fairly-well-developed combined arms operational doctrine. The carriers are backed by long-range bombers from key bases around the world, with their own stand-off weapons. And to that can be added the cruise missiles of the USN’s submarine fleet. Even now, the destruction of an American aircraft carrier would not be such a one-sided affair as the article suggests. The increased deployment of armed drones and ship-launched cruise missiles extends their power and range, and provides yet another layer of defense. It is also important to keep in mind that in dire straits, more than one American military aviator has flown missions in which it was NOT possible to return to their carrier. From the Doolittle Raid on, crews have sacrificed themselves to carry out a mission, even if there are no friendly bases, the attack range doubles.
One more item should be taken into account. Arrogant and set in their ways as the carrier admirals and their military-industrial complex partners are, they are not completely stupid. The vulnerability of the huge carriers IS recognized by them and they are seeking solutions. One major effort is apparently nearing success. The development of laser and maser, speed-of-light weapons which offer tremendous potential to deal with swarms of hundreds, even thousands, of incoming, jinking anti-ship missiles. (For readers of science fiction, these laser weapons are the forerunner of such in the Honorverse and other military space opera stories.) Combined with electronic counter-measures, the survivability of the big fat floating targets might improve significantly over the next few years.
That said, however, the arrogance and inflexibility of Congress, the White House, and the military bureaucracy is a threat to the security and safety of the Fifty States, and carriers are a significant and dangerous part of that threat. Especially since (despite the military truism that “the best defense is a good offense”) carriers are essentially offensive weapons and provide little defensive value for their cost. The USN (and the Pentagon and Congress) have put far too many eggs in too few baskets, and refused to seriously consider alternatives which are both smaller, more agile, and more easily defended while being harder to hit. All of the advantages I discuss above can be done as well or better without the dinosaurs carriers have become in the 21st Century.
Mama’s Note: And these carriers, as well as most of the rest of the military hardware and vast standing armies, have no part at all in the stated goal of America. Trade with all, and entangling alliances with none. Free trade, individual liberty and minding one’s own business… still the only way to peace and prosperity for everyone.