Three cheers for the Navy’s carriers

The US Navy is currently building its new class of aircraft carriers, and of course, the proponents of a weak defense have not spared it from their baseless, ridiculous attacks. They claim that aircraft carriers are almost useless, can be replaced by cruise missiles, and are easy to sink. Bloomberg reports that:

“The ships’ rising costs are drawing scrutiny from lawmakers at a time when the military faces cuts in personnel and funding for new weapons. Critics see the new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers as big targets for rival militaries expanding their arsenals of ballistic and cruise missiles, undersea mines, submarines, drones and cyber weapons.

“Our future adversaries are developing a set of capabilities specifically for the purpose of attacking our aircraft carriers,” Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an interview.

Although it’s still about five years from entering the fleet, the price tag for the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first carrier in the class being built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. (HII), based in Newport NewsVirginia, already has climbed about 18 percent in four years to $12.3 billion, according to Defense Department data. (…)

The Navy should have kept buying the proven Nimitz-class carriers, McCain said. The last carrier in the Nimitz class, the USS George H.W. Bush, was commissioned in 2009.

The number of aircraft regularly launched from the new carriers, or the sortie rate, will increase to 160 a day from 120 a day now on the Nimitz class, according to the Navy. The number of sorties can surge to 270 from 192 on the older carriers.

Sub-Launched Tomahawks

Dispatching more jets from a carrier doesn’t provide a tactical advantage in an age of precision-guided weapons and Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from submarines, according to Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and author who has been a consultant to secretaries of the Navy.

“Do we need a new class?” Polmar said in an interview. “The answer is absolutely not. You want to kill someone’s airfield, you launch 20, 30 Tomahawks, which go farther and are more accurate than planes, and you do not risk pilots.”

While a missile-armed submarine can move alone beneath the sea, a carrier must travel with a strike group that typically includes a guided-missile cruiser, two guided-missile destroyers, an attack sub and a combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship, according to a Navy fact sheet.


Some critics of the Ford class’s rising cost, including McCain, say carriers remain the invaluable, and virtually unsinkable, centerpiece of U.S. naval strategy.

Others say carriers, like wooden men-of-war and steel battleships before them, aren’t as useful as they once were. With the proliferation of drones and satellite imagery, carriers become easier to locate and thus potentially more vulnerable, according to Polmar.

While the Ford carriers are going to be “very formidable,” the ships “may not be able to get close enough to a future enemy that has precision-guided anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles,” Gunzinger said.

China is fielding DF-21 anti-ship missiles that may force U.S. carriers to operate 1,000 nautical miles or farther from an enemy’s coastline early in a conflict, according to Gunzinger. Carrier-based jets with a heavy load of weapons are designed to strike at about 300 nautical miles without refueling, Polmar said.

China also is developing weapons to attack satellites and computer networks, disrupting long-distance U.S. military sensors and communications networks, Gunzinger wrote in a report last year for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Iran’s arsenal includes ballistic missiles that can reach targets across the Persian Gulf region, Gunzinger wrote. Iranian officials have threatened to use anti-ship cruise missiles, smart mines that can sense their targets and swarms of small, fast-attack craft to exert their control over theStrait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf shipping lanes, he wrote. The strait is about 21 miles (34 kilometers) across at its narrowest point, with the shipping lane in either direction only two miles wide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Gunzinger said carriers should be equipped with stealth drones that can be launched undetected from greater distances to find and attack their targets.”

The critics are wrong, however. These claims about carriers are nothing new – critics have been claiming they’re too vulnerable and too easy targets for years – and they have already been refuted many times. However, critics unfortunately continue to restate their false claims no matter how many times they are refuted. So let’s refute their claims once again.

Firstly, Tomahawk missiles (or any other missiles for that matter) are no substitute for aircraft. Most of them are not stealthy, and they’re very expensive (one Tomahawk costs over a million dollars), so they cannot be used in large numbers, e.g. against large-sized or numerous targets. They can affordably be used only against a small number of highly-lucrative targets. Moreover, they cannot be used against fleeting targets, because they can’t track and follow them. If a target is mobile and easily relocatable, such as a mobile SAM or ballistic missile launcher, it can quickly relocate and the missile will miss its target.

Worst of all, cruise missiles cannot at all be used against buried or hardened targets due to the small sizes of their bodies and warheads. This relegates them solely to striking soft, static, immobile targets. To attack anything else, you need aircraft. There is no way to avoid this fact.

So dispatching aircraft DOES provide a significant advantage. Submarines and their cruise missiles are no substitute for flattops.

Secondly, carriers are not much more vulnerable or easier to locate than they were two decades ago. They are not easy targets at all. As Lexington’s Loren Thompson and Ronald O’Rourke of the CRS point out, tracking and sinking a carrier is a very difficult job, even today. To be able to attack it, you need not only to locate it, but to continually track it and guide your weapons accurately towards it. When a carrier is detected off your shores, you need to continually track it, relay the information up the chain of command, engagement decisions have to be made, and weapons have to be dispatched and guided towards the carrier. Meanwhile, the vessel is moving, and moving, and moving.

Thirdly, sinking it, even with China’s weapons, is not easy, although China’s military buildup, including its acquisition of anti-access/area-denial weapons, is a cause for serious concern. I’m not saying they can’t sink an aircraft carrier – just that it would be difficult. Cruise missiles could be intercepted by the carrier’s escort ships and the carrier’s own defense systems, including the Sea Sparrow and RAM missiles and the Phalanx CIWS. Submarines can be detected by SH-60 Seahawk helicopters and the escort ships’ towed sonars. Ballistic missiles could possibly be intercepted by the escort ships’ SM-3 ABM interceptors. (It is not known if they already possess this capability, but if they don’t, they likely could be adapted to do so.) Fighters pose the greatest danger, especially since they can carry large loads of cruise missiles of their own. However, while the Navy’s Super Bug fighters are clearly inferior to Chinese aircraft, the Navy will, later this decade, acquire the F-35C, which is and will be superior to any fighter China owns or is designing, including the J-20.

While the Navy’s current Super Bugs can strike targets only 390 nmi away without refueling, the F-35C’s unrefueled combat radius will be 650 nmi, making it the longest ranged fighter ever operated by any Navy.

These fighters will enable the Navy not only to strike distant targets, but also to meet incoming enemy fighters far from the carrier and shoot them down before they can launch their cruise missiles against the carrier. (China’s shore-based cruise missiles all have a range of less than 500 kms; most have a range less than 200 kms.) It will thus enable the Navy to kill both the archer and the arrows. The F-35C’s 650 nmi combat radius, which can be extended with aerial refueling, will also enable the Navy to destroy cruise missile launchers on the ground.

Attacks on satellites and communications’ networks would slightly degrade the carrier’s ability to gain information, but not impair its operations in any significant manner.

Moreover, while I support the development of long-range carrier-capable drones suggested by Gunzinger, it’s pointless to hide behind a naval Maginot line, whether 500 or 1000 nmi away from China’s shore. China’s longest-ranged anti-ship weapons – the DF-21D “carrier-killer” missile, nuclear submarines, and H-6K bombers armed with cruise missiles – can operate thousands of miles away from the shore. Nuclear subs can venture anywhere in the world, even to San Diego.

So hiding behind a naval Maginot line – staying outside the range of China’s anti-ship weapons – would effectively mean forfeiting Guam (and all of Asia) to China, withdrawing to Pearl Harbor, never daring to venture west of Hawaii, and foregoing any operations in the Western Pacific. That is exactly what China wants, but do Gunzinger and Polmar really want the USN to do so?

Let’s not kid ourselves. There is no alternative to operating in the Western Pacific – yes, within the range of many Chinese anti-ship weapons. The key here is to SURVIVE – to protect one’s own carriers against these weapons. Currently, the Navy does so very well, and will get even better at doing so in the future if the requisite investmens are made.


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