This seems to be a boom time for carriers. The first Chinese carrier, the Liaoning, is running operational trials and has recently demonstrated the ability to launch and recover its supersonic fighters. The Indian Vikramaditya, that country’s first new carrier for several decades, is running delivery trials. Japan and Korea are both operating air- capable ships which, although they are rated to operate helicopters, are surely potential short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) carriers. The British are building two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers larger than any the Royal Navy has previously operated or even ordered. The STOVL version of the F-35 is to equip the British carriers and also U.S. helicopter assault ships. The U.S. Navy is building the Gerald R. Ford, the first of a class to replace the existing Nimitz class.
Are the new U.S. carriers dinosaurs bought by a backward-looking naval leadership, the modern equivalents of the “battleship admirals” who are said to have hobbled the Navy of the interwar period? Or is the carrier still viable, and still the central element of sea power?
At the same time, opponents of carriers are becoming more vociferous. They point to the Chinese DF-21D ballistic missile, which is advertised as a carrier-killer, capable of maneuvering into position above a carrier and showering it with bomblets capable of sweeping aircraft from its flight deck. A single DF-21D is clearly far less expensive than a carrier, so some have argued that the Chinese can easily cancel U.S. carrier-centered sea power with less expensive asymmetric weapons. Some may see the U.S. Navy’s agreement with the U.S. Air Force to join in an Air-Sea Battle Concept as admission that the carrier battle groups cannot survive without considerable assistance. What is going on here? Are the new U.S. carriers dinosaurs bought by a backward-looking naval leadership, the modern equivalents of the “battleship admirals” who are said to have hobbled the Navy of the interwar period? Or is the carrier still viable, and still the central element of sea power?
The question is not whether a carrier can be sunk by a sufficiently determined enemy. Of course it can. The question is: What does a carrier do that is unique enough that it is worth protecting? The great advantage of a carrier is that it brings tactical aircraft close to a target. If the role is close air support, the aircraft can spend a lot more of their limited time in the air where they are needed. Their pilots are not exhausted by long flights from land bases whose locations generally reflect political agreements rather than tactical needs. Because they are nearby, the airplanes from the carrier can fly again and again in the time it takes a more distant airplane to fly out and return to base for another load.
Targets are increasingly designated by coordinates, on the basis of intelligence gathered by satellites or by UAVs. It may be argued that cruise missiles can strike the same targets as carrier aircraft. The difference is that the carrier aircraft return to strike again and again, so that a carrier can deliver a lot more ordnance per ton of ship. Moreover, it is a lot easier to replenish a carrier at sea, so that she can keep striking. Modern vertical launch systems for missiles are nearly impossible to replenish at sea. Typically a missile shooter fires all of her cruise missiles, then retires to port, or at the least, to a very calm area, to replenish laboriously. A carrier replenishes much more rapidly, and under much rougher conditions. If you think of the carrier as an intermediate stage in a pipeline of weapons from the United States to a distant target area, you understand that it is uniquely well suited to that role.
The question is not whether a carrier can be sunk by a sufficiently determined enemy. Of course it can. The question is: What does a carrier do that is unique enough that it is worth protecting?
This sort of advantage apparently convinced the British government to go ahead with its carrier program. When NATO forces became engaged in Libya, the British contribution was Tornado strike aircraft flying from the United Kingdom, because there was no closer British base. On paper, the Tornados had the requisite range. Had they been assigned to fly out and strike preassigned targets, which is typical in many air campaigns, that might have been enough. However, the NATO aircraft supporting the rebels in Libya had to hit targets that presented themselves suddenly – targets such as Libyan tanks emerging and firing at the rebels. What was needed was continuous air presence over Libya. An airplane flying to the limit of its range could not orbit over Libya for long. Aircraft from closer NATO bases did a lot better. Suddenly the British government was forced to confront the difference between range and endurance at a given range – and the latter was what mattered.
That is aside from the advantage a carrier gains from her mobility. During the NATO operations over Kosovo, a small British carrier in the Adriatic regularly delivered more sorties than large air bases in Italy, because the weather often closed those bases down. The carrier could move out of unflyable weather. This experience seems to have been key in convincing the British government to approve a carrier program in the first place; the Libyan experience made it much more urgent.
Mobility also confers a degree of protection. Before a carrier can be attacked, she must be detected and tracked. A great deal depends on how cooperative the carrier is. If she constantly radiates uniquely recognizable signals, and if she steams a consistent straight course, she will be found relatively easily. In the early 1960s, the Soviets began to fly reconnaissance bombers directly over U.S. carriers without searching for them, and the U.S. Navy realized that it was being tracked. Radio emissions were the main culprit. The Navy learned to shut down its transmitters, and it also learned tricks of evasion and deception. With the end of the Cold War, much of that experience has been forgotten. It is probably time to relearn it. Admittedly, we are now far more dependent on computer links of various kinds, and it will take ingenuity to shut them down or make them difficult to intercept or to reroute them deceptively, but it would be foolish to imagine that it cannot be done.
That leads back to DF-21D. Is it the end of carriers? It has not really been tested, and the Chinese have been forced to say that it is developmental at best. The U.S. Navy already has a tested anti-ballistic missile in its SM-3. The recently announced laser self- defense weapon would seem ideally designed to deal with the bomblets DF-21D is designed to deliver.1 More importantly, DF-21D is toothless unless other Chinese systems can detect and accurately track carriers. That is not at all easy, despite claims that everything on Earth can be seen and tracked on a 24/7 basis – satellites looking down do not really do anything like that.
The Chinese are caught in a difficult bind. They want to dominate East Asia, and for that they have to replace the U.S. Navy as the major seaborne power in a maritime theater of operations.
The Chinese are caught in a difficult bind. They want to dominate East Asia, and for that they have to replace the U.S. Navy as the major seaborne power in a maritime theater of operations. They are following two separate tracks to get there. One is to denigrate the value of the U.S. carrier force, to convince countries in East Asia that the U.S. carriers cannot protect them. That certainly applies to Taiwan; the Chinese remember a 1996 crisis in which the sudden appearance of the carriers vastly relieved the Taiwanese.
The Chinese have invested in a variety of more conventional anti-carrier weapons, such as supersonic fighter-bombers carrying high-speed missiles and even license-built Backfire bombers (the kind the Soviets planned to use against U.S. carriers in the ’80s). Whether or not they would be successful in wartime, in peacetime they lack the shock value to convince governments. Something much more dramatic was needed. Hence the much-touted DF-21D, which has had its own U.S. advocates. Again, those same governments are unlikely to ask whether DF-21D has or will have sufficient reconnaissance backing. This is a battle of images, not realities.
The other Chinese track is to gain prestige through greater sea power. The Chinese leadership knows what visible sea power means: capital ships – carriers. Hence the expensive Liaoning and projects for further carriers. The Chinese leadership is well aware of what the United States achieves when its supercarriers turn up in Asian waters.
It is not clear that anyone in Beijing has appreciated the extent to which the two tracks contradict each other. If carriers are really obsolete because of new Chinese technology (the DF-21D), then it is unlikely that China can or will maintain a monopoly on it. Surely the United States, which is far more advanced than China, can easily put together an equivalent. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is already testing hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, which are probably more effective than a ballistic anti-carrier missile. Moreover, Chinese shipboard defenses are unlikely to approach those of a U.S. carrier battle group. Two can play at the anti-carrier prestige game.
The other major Asian navies seem to be betting that the United States is right.
If carriers really are not obsolete (which is the current U.S. position), then DF-21D is exposed as an expensive stunt, and it is money wasted.
The other major Asian navies seem to be betting that the United States is right. Japan now has two small carriers (19,000 tons fully loaded) that it calls, for political reasons, helicopter destroyers. They are actually comparable to the British Invincibles, which performed effectively for years equipped with STOVL Sea Harriers. It was one of these carriers that outperformed the NATO air bases in Italy during the Kosovo war. Two larger ships (24,000 tons fully loaded) are under construction.
In theory, all of these ships are to be equipped solely with helicopters, and they are justified by the need to protect Japanese sea lanes 1,000 nautical miles (nm) from Japan, where land-based aircraft are less effective. However, should the STOVL F-35B survive into large-scale production, it would obviously be able to operate from the large, flat decks of these ships. Successive Japanese governments have, moreover, pressed for changes in law and practice that would allow the Japanese self-defense forces to operate more preemptively. Missile threats raised by North Korea would make strike carriers attractive, and changing Japanese public opinion (due largely to North Korean aggressiveness and testing) might find them quite acceptable. In addition to the “destroyers,” Japan has three full-deck amphibious ships, but they are relatively small to operate F-35s.
There is no current Korean program to build a carrier, but from time to time it is reported that the Koreans want to build one or more, as part of a shift from a coastal to a truly oceanic fleet. The large Korean shipbuilding industry is surely capable of such a project.
In recent years, South Korea has been building a large modern fleet, including Aegis destroyers that might seem well-adapted to escorting a carrier. At present there is no carrier project, but there is a program to build two and possibly three flat-deck amphibious ships (nearly 19,000 tons fully loaded), and the option for the third is for a 24,000-tonner. These ships are in the small carrier category. None of them is currently considered STOVL-capable, but the U.S. Marines are testing the STOVL F-35B on board USS Wasp, and in that way they are showing that large amphibious ships are partly carriers-in-waiting.2 There is no current Korean program to build a carrier, but from time to time it is reported that the Koreans want to build one or more, as part of a shift from a coastal to a truly oceanic fleet. The large Korean shipbuilding industry is surely capable of such a project.