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The Mighty Aircraft Carrier: Now Just a Floating Graveyard?

Russia Admiral Kuznetsov
Russia's Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

If aircraft carriers are obsolete, then why do so many countries continue to build and buy them?

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The question goes to the core of modern naval procurement, and not just in the United States. The People’s Liberation Army has assembled a vast array of systems designed to destroy aircraft carriers and thus deter them from entering contested waters. At the same time, the PLAN is in the process of fitting out its third (and largest) carrier, with additional vessels apparently on the way.

And China is hardly alone; in the last decade, the United Kingdom has built and commissioned two large carriers, Japan has modified two existing flat-decked aviation ships to operate modern fighters, and India has acquired a refurbished Russian carrier and built one of its own. South Korea is strongly considering its own carrier program, despite living in a neighborhood with plenty of terrestrial threats.

So to reiterate: When every new analysis seems to indicate that carriers can be found by satellites and killed by missiles, why do navies continue to acquire carriers? The fact that countries continue to build them does not necessarily prove the enduring military relevance of carriers because, of course, navies continued to build battleships well into World War II, after it became clear that they could not offer a good return on investment. Two answers are worth considering.

Aircraft Carrier: The Utility

The first answer is that they believe aircraft carriers to remain militarily useful.

The anti-access/area defense system-of-systems (A2/AD) developed by China may not be nearly as lethal in operation as it is in principle, and in any case, there are many targets softer than the littoral of the PRC. Aircraft carriers still provide mobile airfields that are arguably more survivable than static facilities. Even if carriers are at risk in specific high-intensity combat scenarios, they remain effective in dozens of other conceivable military operations.

Part of the story is the availability of the F-35B, a fifth-generation fighter that can operate from the decks of small, affordable aircraft carriers. While the fighter itself is expensive and has a necessarily limited customer base (due to US technology controls), it does offer a small carrier an unprecedented opportunity to contest air superiority and to conduct medium-range strike operations. The fighter fleets of British, Italian, and Japanese naval aviation depend entirely on the F-35B. Spain, Turkey, and Australia all operate ships that could carry F-35Bs, although fiscal, legal, and organizational issues respectively have prevented the acquisition of the jets.

Prestige

The second answer is that operating an aircraft carrier is a moment of great prestige for a navy and for a country.

There’s crossover logic with the utility-based answer here, because the supercarrier (and big amphibs) of the United States Navy are indeed helpful in their “showing the flag” role as they visit ports around the globe. The People’s Liberation Army Navy certainly relishes showing off its carriers, even if they would have relatively limited relevance for operations such as the conquest of Taiwan. Russia took the trouble of sending its creaky carrier all the way to Syria for no other reason than to demonstrate that it could.

For a country like the United States, the United Kingdom, or even Russia, an aircraft carrier conveys the appearance of military might and continued global relevance. For China and India, aircraft carriers convey modernity and demonstrate great power status. While the price these countries are paying may appear very high, such demonstrations have long been part of great power defense statecraft.

Final Shots

Not everyone is enamored with aircraft carriers.

On the negative side of the ledger, Russia seems likely to opt-out of the naval aviation game for the foreseeable future, as the Admiral Kuznetsov does not appear likely to return to service soon and the cadre of naval aviators capable of operating from carriers is rapidly disappearing. Brazilian naval aviation does not seem to have survived the failed effort to rehabilitate the Sao Paulo (the former French Foch), although Brazil’s acquisition of the former HMS Ocean means that a helicopter platform is still available. Russia and Brazil have determined that the cost of building (or buying) and maintaining an aircraft carrier is too high for the likely return in power and prestige. However, many other countries continue to come to the opposite conclusion, and that should give the analysts who’ve been predicting the impending demise of the carrier since 1945 some pause.

Ford-Class

From 2017 – The aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) pulls into Naval Station Norfolk for the first time. The first-of-class ship – the first new U.S. aircraft carrier design in 40 years – spent several days conducting builder’s sea trails, a comprehensive test of many of the ship’s key systems and technologies. (U.S. Navy photo by Matt Hildreth courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries/Released)

F-35

PHILIPPINE SEA (May. 13, 2022) An F-35C Lightning II assigned to the “Black Knights” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 launches from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability through alliances and partnerships while serving as a ready-response force in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Singley) 220513-N-MM912-1002

Russian Aircraft Carrier

Russia dreamed of the Ulyanovsk aircraft carrier. Instead they built this conventionally powered carrier.

Aircraft Carrier

Image of U.S. Navy Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Editor’s Note: We have fixed a typo in the headline. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. John Sutherland

    January 17, 2023 at 9:40 am

    It’s hard to say carriers are obsolete because they cannot be protected in a full on war. Considering 90%+ of a carrier’s life is operating in non-war environments, they are purpose built for that 90% non-war purpose.
    The ability to rapidly establish such a powerful military presence in any part of the world is a massive deterrent, and contributes heavily to any political dialog occurring with foreign nations. This value must be factored in when looking at the price tag of a new carrier group. It’s probably prevented 10x as many wars than any carrier has ever engaged in directly.

  2. Curmudgeon

    January 19, 2023 at 12:10 pm

    There is no “deterrent” with an aircraft carrier, it is a false projection of power. It is an open threat to other countries. The Chinese have had “Sunburn” missiles, which can easily sink carriers, for more than a decade. If China is building carriers, it would be as much an employment project as a military one.

  3. Bilejones

    January 19, 2023 at 12:46 pm

    And the third real answer is grift.

  4. Adam Northfield

    January 19, 2023 at 7:55 pm

    Pork, Government subsidies to industry, and the development and retention of a skilled workforce.

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