It’s been seven decades since a single Japanese dive bomber pierced the wooden decks of the USS Princeton and exploded, leaving the Navy’s 23rd carrier with a fatal wound.
That was the last time a U.S. aircraft carrier sank due to enemy action.
Now, some 56 carriers later, after enjoying decades as the untouchable “big stick” of U.S. foreign policy, the Navy faces again the question of carrier fleet vulnerability.
China has built up the biggest arsenal of long-range non-nuclear missiles in the world precisely to counter U.S. carriers, with the DF-21D anti-ship missile sometimes dubbed the “carrier killer.”
To neutralize a carrier, these missiles don’t need to inflict a mortal blow, but simply maim the all-important flight deck.
Like the rest of the U.S. military, the Navy is reshaping to counter renewed “great power competition” with Russia, and, more significantly, with China.
That means addressing the thorny issue of the composition and size of the fleet—including the question of just what role carriers will play.
The Navy’s answer to that question keeps getting delayed.
Already postponed from last year, a sweeping Navy force-structure assessment has been bouncing around the corridors of the Pentagon for months, and now is expected to appear in the FY22 Pentagon budget request in the fall.
Before he resigned, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly indicated the review was looking at a fleet of potentially smaller boats, possibly with fewer carriers.
The United States has a fleet of 11 carriers, all nuclear-powered, the same number as the rest of the world combined.
A handful of analysts now regard carriers—which cost $13 billion apiece to manufacture—as floating gold bars waiting to be sunk.
A Viable Concern
Many military analysts, however, suggest that the increased risk to carriers is simply a return to the historic norm.
“From the time of World War II, they’ve been vulnerable to attack,” Bryan Clark, a senior analyst at the Hudson Institute, who also recently testified to Congress on issues around Navy fleet structure, told The Epoch Times. “We had kamikazes attack them. We had submarines attack them. We had Japanese aircraft with bombs and torpedoes attack them. So, they’re vulnerable to attack.”
The issue is not so much whether are carriers sunk easily, but whether they can be neutralized, said Clark.
“They are hard to sink: they’re very large, they’ve got a lot of compartments.
“So in a fight with China, the question is: can the U.S. carriers be effective, or are they going to be set upon by ballistic missiles with submunitions that damage their decks so that airplanes can’t land or take off, or are the airplanes themselves going to get damaged so they can’t be used? Are the carriers going to spend all their time driving around trying to avoid attacks such that they can’t do flight operations, and they’re kind of irrelevant?”
It’s a viable concern, Clark said, noting that the Chinese military planners have been very smart in their approach.
Sidharth Kaushal, a naval warfare analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said Chinese missiles contain numerous bomblets (submunitions).
“It breaks close to impact, and basically it distributes these bomblets on the carrier deck, cratering it,” he told The Epoch Times. “So the carrier’s still afloat, but it can’t launch planes anymore; it has to be taken back for refit, which can take a process of months.”
Russia’s air-launched long-range Kinzhal ballistic missile also could potentially achieve the same result.
Kaushal said that, in theory, carriers are losing their ability to project power ashore, that is, to be able to act as floating airfields from which fighters can strike inland at will.
“It’s a distinct possibility that the carrier could be rendered obsolete by these sorts of standoff capabilities,” Kaushal said, adding that this assessment only applies to direct conflicts on the doorsteps of rival great powers, that is, Russia and China.
“It’s certainly drawing a lot of oxygen and a lot of attention in the U.S. defense community—they take this possibility very seriously.”
But the range and capabilities of Chinese missiles are only one part of the story.
Hitting a ship moving at 30 knots from 1,000 miles away is hard. The technological eyes and ears that guide the missile to its target can be potentially blinded and deafened, and even if a missile can successfully lock on, it can still potentially be intercepted.
But the answer to exactly how the U.S. military intends to shield its carriers is “almost totally in classified channels,” a naval warfare analyst at the Heritage Foundation told The Epoch Times via email. “Every time it comes up at Congressional hearings, DOD leaders request a closed session to discuss.”
The analyst, a naval warfare and future technology senior research fellow at the think tank, said there are question marks over the reliability of Chinese anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles. “Bottom line, they require a high degree of positional tracking and communications among sensors and strike platforms. This means there are many gaps and seams in the Chinese strike system that make it a very challenging problem to attack at long-range a U.S. aircraft carrier.”
Clark thinks it’s getting harder to tackle the command and control structure or reconnaissance systems that the Chinese missiles rely on.
“Really what it comes down to is—can you shoot down the weapons as they come at you? The Navy’s got lots of good technologies that are in the pipeline, which will improve their capacity, including directed energy weapons and electronic warfare.”
The other solution is to increase the range of the carrier’s strike jets, Clark said, so they can operate beyond the useful range of Chinese missiles.
One shorter-term solution is to extend the range with unmanned air tankers. “The problem is the Navy’s only planning on buying four or five of those per airwing,” he said. “Each tanker can fuel two strike fighters for 2,000 miles.” That means only 10 out of the 44 strike fighters can be taken out beyond 1,000 miles, he said.
The other option, he said, is to replace some of the airplanes in the airwing with long-range upgrades.
“The problem is, it’s going to probably be really expensive because it’s a clean-sheet design,” Clark said, adding that there appears to be little appetite for that solution across the political spectrum. Instead, there’s a big push for unmanned solutions, he said.
Reviewing the Fleet
Current law binds the U.S. Navy to strive for 12 aircraft carriers.
That goal won’t actually be achieved until 2065 at current planning, Modly said in January.
He said that Navy planners were shifting their fleet requirements toward a long-mooted strategy: distributed operations.
Distributed operations mean moving away from reliance on a few large ships, and instead, distributing the firepower and forces (lethality), as well as surveillance, across many more platforms, including unmanned ships, with no single point of failure.
The Navy is currently locked into a 355-ship goal, which may hamstring a shift to a more distributed model or a reshaping of the force.
For those who assess the Navy’s prowess by counting ships, the distributed operations strategy complicates things further by throwing a number of unmanned vessels into the mix. Congress has indicated that it will not include these in its current way of counting, Modly said.
“The big question, I think at the top of the list, is the carrier,” he said. “What’s the future carrier going to look like, and what’s the future carrier mix going to look like? These are really, really expensive assets.”
“Of course, we’re developing all kinds of things to make it less vulnerable, but it’s still a big target,” he said. “And it doesn’t give you that distribution that I think we want.”
Many other navies have long since revamped their fleets and strategies to adjust.
Modly said that the United States needed to have a “national discussion” about the changes needed. “Congress obviously has interests; our shipbuilding industry does as well. We all do. We want to have a strong shipbuilding industry. We want to be able to continue to produce those carriers—they’re important.”
In addition to its large aircraft carriers, the United States also has nine “amphibious ships,” which can function as mini-aircraft carriers in conjunction with the F-35B and its vertical take-off and landing capability.
‘Skin in the Game’
Aircraft carriers have other strategic significance beyond their warfighting capability.
“The versatility, endurance, and strategic messaging these ships provide are not easily replaced,” said the naval analyst at Heritage. “As someone who has served in various military-diplomatic roles in the Western Pacific, I cannot understate the import an aircraft carrier plays in assuring allies and partners in the region. It really is a significant statement of ‘skin in the game.'”
Clark and Kaushal both say that the carrier is returning to a historical status quo, with the regular risks associated with facing near-peer adversaries.
“The way that we’ve used them in the Middle East has been more or less as extensions of cruise missiles,” said Clark. “We’ve been using carriers to do strikes against ground targets for the last 20 years in the Middle East. But it used to be carriers were primarily for sea control—the airplanes to go attack long-range, and kind of clear out areas of the ocean.
“The use of big carriers in strike warfare has skewed everybody’s vision.”
While it can no longer strut the globe with the same impunity as 20 years ago, the U.S. carrier fleet is still far from being directly rivaled by China and its two carriers, Kaushal said.
“Chinese carriers are extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks by the United States, and in many ways, they are the least usable bit of China’s maritime capability and in a warfighting scenario,” he said.
“If you had something like the Liaoning, which is a fairly light carrier, confront a U.S. carrier battle group on the blue water, there’s very little ambiguity about how that interaction would go.”