The reactions to what appeared to be the confirmation last week that China has embarked on a program to build its own aircraft carrier were as varied as they were expected, ranging from alarmism to the usual dismissal of the large platforms as little more than hugely expensive boats for enemy target practice. While carriers do indeed have severe vulnerabilities, they are not without their uses, though those are a function of the role(s) they are expected to play.
The first role is more psychological than utilitarian.
That last sentence — a thousand times that.
A few weeks ago I meant to blog on a piece about America’s carrier force, but that post fell by the wayside. I’ve forgotten where I read it or who wrote it, but I remember being shocked that someone I knew well enough to respect had written something so plainly silly. They had argued that carriers were just too expensive and too vulnerable. Instead we should just build more SSGN submarines to get the job done.
Don’t get me wrong — our SSGN force is a thing of wonder. By treaty we had to eliminate some SSBN strategic nuclear missile boats from our submarine fleet. So we took four of those Ohio-class boats, stripped them of their Trident nuclear-tipped missiles, and inserted new missile tubes for a max load of 154 conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles. While we were at it, we took two of the old Trident tubes and rigged them for Special Forces. You know, so that we could send in the SEALs to really mess with you after the Tomahawks had done their thing.
“Hide with pride” became “Surprise, f******!”
So put me first in line when it comes to giving the SSGN the love and respect it deserves.
But it’s no replacement for an aircraft carrier.
Look, when a Nimitz-class carrier shows up on your coast, with all its attendant warships, you know it. When we sortie several of them, then you really know we mean business. A carrier task force send a message for all the world to see and it reads, “Knock it off, buster.”
An SSGN shows up and you won’t even know it until the missiles start flying.
In other words, the aircraft carrier is as much a diplomatic tool as it is a weapon of war. An SSGN is a very sneaky and very effective weapon (or SEAL insertion device) — but its utility pretty much stops there. A super-stealthy submarine can cause a lot of damage, but it lacks presence.
So why does China want carriers? I suspect for the same reason(s) we’ve been building them for a hundred years.