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Billions Wasted? Why the Aircraft Carrier Could Be a Giant Paper Tiger

Nimitz-Class Aircraft Carrier
A (Feb. 5, 2021) An F/A-18E Super Hornet, from the "Kestrels" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 137, rests on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) during a strait transit. Nimitz is part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and is deployed conducting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt/Released)

Why the US Navy aircraft carrier could end up being just as obsolete as the old battleships of decades past: The last “battleship battle” has gone down in history as a one-sided slaughter when the United States Navy destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy’s battleship Kirishima during the Battle of the Surigao Strait on October 25, 1944. As part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, that particular engagement marked the last battleship-to-battleship in history and was one of only such fights between the capital warships in the entire Pacific campaign of the Second World War.

While the battleship’s role in navies around the world for another fifty years, and it wasn’t until Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that marked the last time that U.S. Navy battleships fired their guns in anger when the USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin conducted standard naval artillery support.

One hundred years ago the battleship ruled the wave—but World War II proved what Gen. Billy Mitchell and other aviation supporters already knew: that the aircraft carrier would be the future. The United States had been a pioneer in naval aviation when a flight deck was erected on the forecastle of the cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-2), but the Royal Navy’s HMS Furious was the first warship to be refitted to operate as a carrier. The Japanese would subsequently launch the Hōshō, the first purpose-built aircraft carrier.

For one hundred years the carriers have gotten larger and more powerful—and are arguably far from obsolete.

Yet, there are reasons to question the long-term future of aircraft carriers. Interesting Engineering addressed the issue this month, highlighting the time and cost to build carriers. During World War II, the United States went from having just a handful of carriers to save the day during the Battle of Midway, to literally having a massive fleet of the flattops by war’s end.

It is not hyperbole to state that the U.S. Navy had more carriers than it knew what to do with—but today it still maintains eleven supercarriers, with talk of keeping some of the aging carriers around a bit longer than expected. The reasoning is that it takes a massive amount of time to build a carrier—upwards to five or six years but that is only to the commissioning. Sea trials take an additional two to three years. The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) took eight years to build.

Anti-Ship Weapons 

With the introduction of new warships, military thinkers sought ways of both protecting their ships but also ways to sink their enemy’s vessels. The battleship proved especially vulnerable to new weapons notably from the airplane—as the Royal Navy found out in the most horrific way in December 1941 when HMS Prince of Wales was sunk.

During the Cold War, the great threat to U.S. Navy carriers had been Soviet submarines, but today the aircraft carrier could face even more powerful threats including so-called carrier-killer missiles and nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Such weapons could mean that carriers would need to operate far from enemy waters and increasingly far from enemy territory.

Aircraft Carrier Sunset

020306-N-6492H-510
At sea aboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) Mar. 6, 2002 — The sun rises behind USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), as it prepares to turn over operations to the John F. Kennedy Battle Group. The Kennedy and her embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) are relieving the Roosevelt to conduct missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by PhotographerÕs Mate 1st Class Jim Hampshire. (RELEASED)

That could seriously limit a carrier’s effectiveness given the combat range of aircraft.

The Future Carrier 

The carrier likely won’t go away, but it may need to evolve to stay relevant. This could include a shift away from the massive supercarriers of the U.S. Navy and a move to smaller amphibious assault ships that can operate with short vertical takeoff and landing (SVTOL) aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Additionally, unmanned drones could be developed to operate from these smaller flattops. They would have the added benefit of being cheaper to build and can stay in the air for extended periods, Interesting Engineer noted. Moreover, unmanned aircraft don’t require added time in pilot training—and could address the military’s pilot shortage.

Aircraft Carrier Russia

200125-N-KB540-1134 PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 25, 2020) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Pacific Ocean Jan. 25, 2020. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Alexander Williams)

China

Explosive Ordnance Disposal 1st Class Christopher Courtney assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit Six (EODMU-6), Det. 16 assist his team members during Special Purpose Insertion Extraction (SPIE) training from an SH-60 Seahawk helicopter. The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) is deployed in support of Maritime Security Operations (MSO) and the global war on terrorism.

The carrier may evolve in other ways, and perhaps we could see a reconsideration of submersible aircraft carriers, which could surface to deploy those unmanned drones and then dive to avoid being targeted by an enemy’s hypersonic missiles.

Simply put, the carrier has to adapt for the changing world of the twenty-first century to remain relevant. Otherwise it risks sailing off into the sunset like the battleship or worse being an expensive target in a future conflict.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Written By

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. TenTribesOfTexas

    May 8, 2022 at 9:26 am

    Aircraft carriers are floating coffins.

    • Loop

      May 8, 2022 at 1:20 pm

      It actually made me think what happens after nuclear air carrier is sunk? Purely from enviroment side of things.

  2. Ollie

    May 8, 2022 at 12:17 pm

    China doesn’t seem to think so , it’s already building it’s third and fourth aircraft carriers , perhaps the US carriers will incorporate Rail guns and be stationed around hot spots to destroy hypersonic missiles , or be fitted with super Laser’s , with the aircraft carriers giant electrical power grids to power the giant laser systems they will not just burn through they will completely eliminate enemy plane’s , boat’s , Hypersonic whatever they can invent

  3. Tom Dolan

    May 8, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    The aircraft carrier serves a unique utility for a global power like the United States because it gives it the ability to project airpower from a mobile airfield thousands of miles from home. The US doesn’t need to depend on foreign basing with carriers. China has taken notice and is building similar capabilities so that they can project power to the Middle East oil region where they see a future strategic need. Hypersonic missiles are a countermeasure but not really a game changer.

  4. Joe Natola

    May 11, 2022 at 8:46 am

    Just a quick side note, the last battleship on battleship sea battle was at Surigao Strait during the Battle of Leyte Gulf but it was the Japanese battleship Yamashiro that was sunk not the battleship Kirishima. The Kirishima was sunk in November 1942 during one of the naval battles of Guadalcanal.

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