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Why the (Almost) Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier Is Not Obsolete

"Where are our carriers?" is, at least apocryphally, the first question any U.S. president asks when a crisis erupts almost anywhere in the world. As tensions mounted with Iran last week as the mullahs' regime upped its attacks around the Middle East, President Trump apparently asked that question and immediately ordered the massive USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and its escort ships to the region. And as the Associated Press correctly noted, the dispatch of the Lincoln is an accurate "barometer of tensions" between Washington and Tehran.

According to some, however, the aircraft carrier is or is about to become obsolete. National Interest felt the need last month to re-publish a lengthy 2015 piece by David W. Wise headlined: "As Obsolete as a Battleship: Why Is the U.S. Navy Still Building Aircraft Carriers?" Back in March, Thomas Knapp advocated that we "Give obsolete aircraft carriers burial at sea." And last fall, D.M. McCauley asked, "Has China Made Aircraft Carriers Obsolete?"

All three articles address a growing danger which didn't exist when the U.S. Navy's Essex-class carriers* ruled the Pacific during the last half of World War II: Land-based anti-ship missiles. If the Navy still believes, the thinking goes, that in a future war they can park an aircraft carrier off the coast of China and fight from there with impunity, then we're going to start losing ships and men in a big, bad way. And ever-more dangerous missiles are proliferating to terror-sponsoring nations like Iran. Surely, then the carrier's days must be numbered.

ASIDE: There's also the threat of submarine-launched anti ship missiles, but until the Russians and Chinese start building much quieter subs, the threat probably remains more theoretical than real.

I'm not convinced. Neither is the Navy. Because the one question all three gentlemen failed to address is the one so obvious I haven't once seen anyone ask it: If China has made the carrier obsolete, then why is China embarked on a huge carrier-building program? Beijing isn't just building smaller helicopter carriers akin to our amphibious assault ships or Japan's "helicopter destroyer" baby carriers, they're also operating two (and building more) 65,000-ton CVs.

It seems not even China is convinced that China has made carriers obsolete.

Loren Thompson wrote earlier this week, although I suspect he might have been engaging in a bit of hyperbole, that a "U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Is One Of The Safest Places To Be In A War." I'd hate to have to put that to the test, but Thompson is spot-on when he notes that knowing there's an aircraft carrier out there somewhere, and actually sinking it, are two entirely different things. He writes:

Deployed carriers are always moving. And they are moving fast—fast enough, in fact, to outrun most submarines. Because they can sustain speeds of 35 miles per hour, the Nimitz-class carriers populating the current fleet can move to anywhere within a 700-square mile area within 30 minutes. After 90 minutes, that area grows to over 6,000 square miles. So finding a carrier isn’t the same thing for enemies as successfully targeting it. By the time their weapons arrive, it will likely be gone.

Thompson also says that "nuclear power enables the carriers to execute deceptive maneuvers in any direction for any duration, far exceeding the range of most hostile forces struggling to find them."

Operationally it would be insane to send carriers close in to shore (and all those missiles) as Wise, Knapp, and McCauley all noted. But why would we do that? As threats change, so do operations -- and maybe we can glean a bit of the future by peering at the past.

In WWII, Japan had a yuge naval fortress on Truk Island, strategically located in the heart of the Pacific. At Truk the Japanese could protect and repair warships, and control the skies with the island's multiple airstrips. Rather than try to take the island, Admiral Raymond Spruance conceived and commanded Operation Hailstone to neutralize it instead. With nine carriers at his service (five fleet-size, four light), Hailstone was, in essence, a drive-by shooting. Task Force 58's ships barely paused while 500+ carrier-based planes put the island fortress out of business for the rest of the war. TF58 was too mobile, too fast for the Japanese forces at Truk to do much more than suffer the blows.

China is building something similar to Truk out in the South China Sea. But instead of fortifying an existing island with big guns and such, China is building its own islands and fortifying them with missiles. But the more I read of China's SCS effort, the more I think of Spruance and Hailstone. Only instead of sending carriers to get sunk by all those deadly missiles, we'd flatten China's bases with submarine-launched missiles. Then, and only then, would our carriers seek to engage in the area.

Why have carriers at all if the subs are there to kick in the door, as it were? Because a 100,000-ton supercarrier can engage in something a submarine never could: Sustained operations. A sub shoots off its missiles, then must return to base for a reload. That can take days or even weeks -- time for the enemy to recover. A carrier replenishes at sea, and its air wings can rotate in and out to give crews and planes a chance to rest and repair.

As noted by the AP above, a carrier also indicates seriousness. Not just because of its inherent combat power, which is unmatched at sea, but because of its nature as a strategic asset. Nobody, not even Iran's mullahs, is crazy enough to seriously try and mess with one of those without risking the wrath of the entire U.S. Navy and whatever else we could throw their way.

Finally, it's just damn useful to have 4.5 acres (times eleven!) of flattop at the nation's disposal. You can do a lot more than just launch and recover fighter jets with all that fast-moving real estate.

Yes, our carriers do face serious new threats. But with the kinks being worked out of the new Ford-class of CVNs (too slowly, but still), and the Navy's F-35C strike fighter becoming combat ready, our carrier force has never been more dangerous. And with the Marines starting to stack the decks of their nine amphibious assault ships with F-35Bs, we're gaining an unprecedented capability, as the Navy calls it, for "distributed lethality." Armed with an ever-growing fleet of stealth fighters and the world's most advanced electronic warfare jets (the EA-18G "Growler"), and partnered with nearly-invisible attack subs able to eliminate land threats, the aircraft carrier has never been more dangerous, and perhaps never more survivable, either.

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*We built an unprecedented (and to this day unparalleled) 24 Essex-class carriers during WWII. All two dozen fought hard against the Japanese, and not a single one was lost to enemy action. (The Franklin was put out of commission for the rest of the war in March of '45 by kamikaze attack, but would have been repaired and brought back into service had the war lasted into 1946.). To me, those things make the Essex-class the most successful capital ship of all time. Change my mind.