The Navy’s next aircraft carrier will cost more than $12 billion.
But potential adversaries are developing weapons to destroy such a vessel for a lot less.
Therein lies the heart of a debate that continues to swirl around the Navy’s fleet of 11 carriers, its strategy in deploying them and the effort to build the next one.
“Why is it that we’re investing so much money and time and effort in a single enormous ship when the technology to exploit its vulnerabilities is much cheaper and more adaptable?” said Chris Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. That is the question that begs an answer, he said.
The super carrier has been a symbol of U.S. power around the globe for decades, but increasing costs and other factors have critics questioning the need for so many of the giant warships. Meanwhile, proponents insist there is no substitute for a carrier that can deliver dozens of aircraft and thousands of personnel anywhere in the world.
“If you take an aircraft carrier away, what else can do that mission? There aren’t so many alternatives right now,” said Eric Wertheim, naval analyst and author. “You can argue certain strengths and weaknesses of aircraft carriers, but there still isn’t anything that can take its place.”
At a Surface Navy Association conference in January, Naval consultant Norman Polmar argued that the military had many assets to perform the missions associated with a carrier. Operations such as long-range strike, air defense, anti-submarine warfare and tactical reconnaissance could be handled by methods involving satellites, drones, U-2s and offensive cyber-operations.
“Go back and look at the capabilities or reasons we used carriers 20 and 30 years ago and then look today,” Polmar said. “You’re going to reprogram a satellite — it’s cheaper, easier, faster.You’re going to send [an unmanned aerial vehicle], you’re going to dispatch a U-2 or you’re going to try to do it with cyber.”
The Navy has more than 50 submarines and more than 80 surface combatants that can launch Tomahawk missiles.
“I’m putting my money on surface combatants, not on aircraft carriers” when it comes to strike, air defense, ballistic missile defense and anti-submarine warfare, Polmar said.
The carrier’s survivability has always been tied to its ability to move. In the past, adversaries lacked the technology to track a carrier for purposes of pre-staging an attack. Today, though, there is continuous tracking by satellites and long-endurance drones, leaving the carrier with no place to hide, he said.
While Preble believes 11 is too many, he doesn’t necessarily buy into the idea that the heyday of the super carrier is over. Large numbers of relatively low-cost anti-ship missiles and quiet submarines can cause serious problems for an aircraft carrier task force, but these threats are not insurmountable, Preble said.
“There are some people who believe that subs are such a game-changing technology and the advantage so disproportionately in the subs’ favor that a carrier is a sitting duck. I don’t believe that,” Preble said. “They’re big and they’re targets, but we have other big targets. Yes, we’re investing a lot of resources and money and time and people in a really, really big vessel. And so we invest a lot in protecting that vessel. This is not a new phenomena. We did the same thing with battleships.”
For decades, critics have argued that the burden of protecting a carrier outstrips the offensive air power provided by them. But that isn’t necessarily so, Wertheim said. The F-14 fighter jets of the 1970s and 1980s have given way to F/A-18 Hornets and other weapons in today’s carrier battle group that are both offensive and defensive, he said. The next generation of jets will be even stealthier and able to get past anti-access threats.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has been able to project power overseas with relative ease. But this golden era may be coming to an end, according to a 2011 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments that details some of the challenges carriers would have operating in the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf.
Both China and Iran have learned their lessons and adopted strategies to keep the United States’ from striking targets on land using carrier-based aircraft. China has invested in weapons like the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile to keep U.S. carriers and their aircraft at a distance. Using the same philosophy, Iran has acquired large numbers of small fast-attack craft, anti-ship missiles, mines, subs and drones.
In the face of these threats, the Air Force and Navy are coming up with ideas to get around them. These concepts for what they call air-sea battle will require new long-range systems such as penetrating bombers and carrier-based unmanned aircraft, senior fellow Mark Gunzinger wrote in the CSBA report “Outside-In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access and Area-Denial Threats.”
Officials hope that an Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft will increase the reach of carrier air wings and their ability to operate persistently in areas where threats abound.
The Navy currently is putting two Northrop Grumman-built drones through demonstration tests at its air station in Patuxent River, Md. Officials are working out the technical details of how to get autonomous aircraft to take off from, land on and move about aircraft carriers. They are experimenting with launch systems, arresting gear and even a controller that can be worn on the arm and used to move the drone around after it has landed. The goal is to have a stealthy strike drone operating from a carrier in the 2018-2020 timeframe, said Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, program executive officer for unmanned systems and strike weapons.
In addition to the drone research, investments in the F/A-18, F-22 and F-35 will lead to a more survivable fighter force when airborne, though it will still be dependent on close-in bases or aircraft carriers, Gunzinger wrote.
He laid out in his report the importance of establishing early pockets of air superiority should the United States find itself conducting a campaign against Iran. It would be difficult to do this and for fighter jets to cover large portions of the battle space in the Persian Gulf if U.S. carriers can’t sail within a few hundred miles of Iran.
“You can’t do anything without air superiority. You can’t fight without air superiority,” Wertheim said.
While it may be difficult to sink a carrier, Iran has the anti-access tools to force U.S. forces into focusing more on defense than strike operations, Gunzinger wrote. The United States may have to set up staging locations on the periphery of the Middle East in the Horn of Africa, Indian Ocean, Southern and Eastern Europe or even the Black Sea region. A Navy carrier with UCLASS aircraft on board could operate from the Arabian Sea to strike targets. Virginia-class attack subs and Ohio-class guided-missile subs could complement these carrier strikes against fixed targets, Gunzinger suggested.
Critics have noted the escalating costs of the new Ford-class carrier, expected to be delivered in 2015. Some have predicted the total bill could come to as much as $18 billion. The Navy could buy six or seven Burke-class destroyers with that money, Preble said.
“It’s a question of trade-offs,” he said. ”Is the striking power you get from an aircraft carrier worth seven Burkes? I’m not sure.”
It certainly is, Wertheim said.
“When an aircraft carrier sails in an area, they know that’s 4.5 acres of sovereign U.S. territory,” he said. “Wherever we go with an aircraft carrier, we have the ability to completely dominate that region if we have to.”
Critics have suggested that carriers could be replaced by cruisers and destroyers standing off-port ready to launch missiles, but Wertheim said those configurations are more difficult to fuel and re-arm. They also can’t “patrol in a box” should troops need support, he explained.
“Fighter jets can patrol overhead and they can say, ‘If something goes wrong in this quadrant, if Marines on the ground need help, we’ll be right there,’” he said. “A Tomahawk cruise missile can’t do that so much.”
In addition to improved aircraft, technology aboard carriers only will improve with time. Jamming systems, decoys and new sensors will be added to the mix and will mitigate vulnerabilities, Wertheim said.
“What’s on them now is not necessarily going to be what’s on them in 50 years,” he said.
While Preble worries about the cost of the new carrier and the switch to a revolutionary electromagnetic catapult design that has never been tried, he said the issue ultimately is one of foreign policy. Instances in which conventional power projection is needed in a distant theater are rare, but having 11 large-deck carriers (and more than 20 other amphibious assault ships and flat-tops that also carry aircraft) has made it easier for the United States to engage in operations it might otherwise not, he said.
“If we didn’t have to send an airstrip to distant waters 8,000 miles away, who would be doing that instead of the U.S. Navy?” he said. “The answer is countries in the region, launching conventional aircraft on land strips in their own territory.”
The United States has to develop a sustainable strategy in conjunction with its carriers by sending them to specific places, but not everywhere, Preble said.
“Geographic proximity matters,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some hard choices about where we’re going to maintain a permanent forward presence.”
The decisions are made harder given the ongoing debate between true believers of carrier aviation and critics such as Polmar who say that the 100,000-ton ships are ghosts of their former selves. The carrier may have been the cornerstone of U.S. naval power for more than 70 years, “but the situation now has changed,” he said. “And I believe it has changed permanently and very dramatically.”
Skeptics such as Polmar will continue to question the heavy investments being made to maintain an 11-carrier fleet, and proponents have a responsibility to answer them, Preble said.
“I’m on the fence,” he said. “I’m willing to be convinced by either side.”