The US Navy's Aircraft-Carrier Nightmare
NEWPORT, RI—Fisticuffs broke out in the Naval War College’s legendary Mahan Reading Room last Wednesday. The cause: an argument over whether history shows that aircraft carriers are survivable in combat. Base police responded. The combatants were taken to Newport Hospital for treatment of wounds and kept overnight for observation.
Well, in reality these were verbal fisticuffs. And, this being a bout between academics and has-been pugilists—namely myself and fellow former naval officer Bryan McGrath—its ferocity evoked pattycake more than Fight Club. We squared off before ringside spectators attending this year’s EMC Chair Symposium on Maritime Power and International Security, at a panel I was chairing on the prospects for power projection in this age when high tech intersects with great-power politics. Tongue was implanted firmly in cheek.
Levity aside, serious matters were broached. Though not in so many words, Bryan channeled the great Mark Twain: reports of the aircraft carrier’s death have been not just frequent but greatly exaggerated. Flattops proved their mettle time and again against the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) during the Pacific War, absorbing the worst IJN gunners and airmen could throw at them. Their descendants appeared equal to the Soviet challenge during the Cold War, furthermore, even though East and West never put their naval rivalry to the test of the sword.
How a U.S.-Soviet high-seas clash would have unfolded must remain in the realm of conjecture. But—quoth I—how closely can we map World War II, the strategic competition that didn’t remain hypothetical, to China’s effort to erect anti-access defenses today? Not as closely as you might think. Indeed, the differences between then and now may be more instructive than the obvious likenesses. Chief among them: Communist China is shaping up to be a deadlier competitor than Imperial Japan ever was.
Yes, we’ve all seen Victory at Sea. IJN carrier and surface task forces, shore-based warplanes, and the occasional submarine pelted U.S. Pacific Fleet forces with gunfire, bombs, and torpedoes in an effort to turn back the fleet’s westward advance. Failing that, Japanese access denial sought to drive up the costs of forcible entry into regional waters—measured in lives, naval hardware, and national treasure—so high that Washington would abandon its Central and South Pacific offensives. Tokyo’s campaign remains worth mining for lessons.
But using Imperial Japan as the benchmark for present-day China understates China’s material capacity while overstating Beijing’s strategic rashness. A Japan that exercised self-restraint—rather than hurling itself into regional conquest with reckless abandon—would make a better yardstick. Rather than run wild—rather than send armies and armadas forth in an attempt to conquer continental and maritime Asia simultaneously—a Japanese leadership less given to excesses would have refrained from seeking more than the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army could reasonably be expected to seize and defend.
A prudent Japan, in other words, would have kept ends in sync with ways and means. Tokyo may have set big political goals, but it would have refused to demand more than soldiers, sailors, and airmen could deliver given the island state’s very finite resources. Declining to inscribe an outer defense perimeter enclosing half the Pacific Ocean would have helped. Japan’s military was far too modest in numbers and capability to police the umpteen square miles of ocean within that perimeter while at the same time trying to subdue China and Southeast Asia in their vastness. Tokyo established war aims of staggering scope.
By doing less, though, Tokyo may have accomplished more. For instance, the army and navy could have staged anti-access defenses along the first island chain plus a modest buffer east of the islands. An inner defense line may have proved defensible for armed forces squaring off against not just Japan’s Asian neighbors but against an enemy, the United States, whose economy—and thus military potential—dwarfed Japan’s (by some fivefold at the onset of war in 1941). America could marshal overpowering armed might given time and political resolve. That outmatched Japanese defenders could hold a long, distended perimeter against such a foe constituted little more than a fantasy.
It’s safer by far not to assume that prospective adversaries like China inhabit dreamworlds. Beijing in 2015 is not Tokyo in 1931, or 1937, or 1941. Prudent opponents will refrain from egregiously overextending their armed forces. Nor will they resort to desperation tactics in the early phases of a conflict. The images that form the U.S. Navy’s corporate memory of carrier aviation in the Pacific—images of kamikaze pilots plunging toward warships, much like precision-guided missiles with human brains for guidance systems—come from late in the war, when Japan stood at the brink of defeat. A saner Japan may never have let matters degenerate that far. For one thing, it never would have fought as far forward as it did. A fresh IJN occupying sound defensive positions would have cut loose with full force against U.S. carrier task forces encroaching on the Western Pacific.
So an alternative-history Japan that exercises self-restraint, refusing to let its goals outstrip its military means, represents a truer benchmark for Chinese anti-access than the actual, self-defeating Japan from World War II. China’s economy stacks up against America’s far better than Japan’s did in 1941. Its relative military potential vastly exceeds Imperial Japan’s. It has not embarked on a career of land conquest, dispersing forces willy-nilly across the map the way Japan did. Rather, it has established an access-denial zone running roughly along the first island chain while confining its energies to making regional waters and skies an offshore preserve. Limited means beget limited aims for wise competitors.
Bottom line, U.S. Navy carrier strike groups will face off against a China that has kept its political and strategic ambitions in check while backing them with resources more abundant than Tokyo ever could have amassed. China, then, represents a far more lethal adversary than Japan—and poses a stiffer challenge to the survivability of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. And it can focus its defensive efforts on fewer carriers. Dozens of U.S. flattops (25 from the state-of-the-art Essex class alone) rode the waves by World War II’s end. You almost—almost—have to sympathize with Tokyo’s strategic plight. By contrast, the U.S. Navy operates only 10 carriers today. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) weaponeers thus have the luxury of concentrating their fire on whatever fraction of that fleet appears in Asian waters.
So again, by all means let’s revisit the Pacific War when evaluating the PLA’s potential vis-à-vis U.S. carriers. We have no better historical databank to consult. But let’s do so bearing in mind that Imperial Japan furnishes an easy case by comparison with Communist China. Sterner challenges to carrier aviation—not to mention American sea power writ large—await.