In March 2020, the now-former U.S. acting Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), Thomas Modly, established the “Future Carrier 2030 Task Force” (FC-2030). The task force aimed to commission a six-month study on the aircraft carrier's future viability (CV) and carrier-based aviation (CVA) concepts. The FC-2030 ran parallel to another study commissioned by the then Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist on the USN’s “Future Fleet Platform Architecture” (FFPA).
The establishment of the FC-2030 and FFPA came amid an organization-wide transformative effort by the U.S. Navy (USN) and U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) to prepare for a future great-power conflict against the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Indo-Pacific region. As such, both sought to complement the USN’s “Distributed Maritime Operations” (DMO) and the USMC’s “Expeditionary Advance Base Operations” (EABO) concepts, as General David Berger explained in a recent “Commandant Planning Guidance” report.
As a result of the unprecedented studies of naval force structure noted above, the outgoing Trump Administration waited four years to come up with a 30-year shipbuilding plan to increase the size of the fleet. As detailed elsewhere, the latest “plan calls for a whopping $27 billion shipbuilding budget in 2022, a huge increase from the $19 billion requested in 2021, and a top line of $33 billion by 2026. All that extra cash would build 82 new ships between 2022 and 2026, at the cost of $147 billion — a staggering increase from the Navy's previous plan to build 44 new ships between 2021 through 2025 at a price tag of $102 billion." This plan is also supposed to be coupled with the long-awaited Unmanned Campaign Plan and Navigation Plan expected for release sometime this month by the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Mike Gilday. In support of the shipbuilding plan, the latter plans intend to act as the general guidance to the fleet.
Yet, with the last administration having dumped the shipbuilding plan on the Pentagon’s doorstep as the moving vans started to pull up to the White House, the incoming Biden administration will be the one responsible for their implementation. The presumptive Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd Austin recently wrote recently that he would review the studies and the ambitious shipbuilding plan in detail. While some might be relieved about the arrival of an ambitious shipbuilding budget in view of a harrowing study recently published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which “found that it would take many years to replace current inventories, even at surge production rates,” this coming review may also be interpreted as a potential move or return of a structural resurgence against the aircraft carrier concept.
The ostensibly anti-aircraft carrier resistance is not solely exclusive to the United States’s “first-tier navy” but can be found with other first-tier navies, too. For instance, across the Atlantic Ocean on the European continent, the French had their own heated internal debate over whether the Marine Nationale should acquire a second nuclear or conventional-powered aircraft carrier (so-called Porte-avions de nouvelle génération (PANG) program) as recommended by the 2008 and 2013 French “Livres Blancs" ("white papers"); both white papers describe the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as a multiplatform instrument that satisfies the five strategic functions: intelligence & anticipation, deterrence, protection, prevention, and intervention.
In light of the enduring systematic objection to the aircraft carrier concept, this article seeks to revisit the answer towards the underpinning question that initially led to the formation of the various task forces in multiple navies across the globe: What are the core arguments against the aircraft carrier concept for the era of great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific region? The article then briefly cross-examines the arguments most commonly forwarded to showcase the fragility of the aircraft carrier, carrier-based aviation, and carrier strike group concepts. The opposing arguments may be categorized into four groups: exorbitant costs, structural and defense vulnerabilities, redundancy, and self-imposed strategic and operational limitations.
The first argument against the aircraft carrier is the exorbitant, rising purchasing and operating costs. In a preceding report, Henry Hendrix wrote that "carrier strike groups are expensive to buy and to operate. Factoring in the total life-cycle costs of an associated carrier air wing, five surface combatants, and one fast-attack submarine, plus the nearly 6,700 men and women to crew them, it costs about $6.5 million per day to operate each strike group." In recent estimates, the costs have gotten higher since the cap for the aircraft carrier cost rose from $10 to $15 billion by 2020.
However, these figures can be seriously misleading considering that calculating the costs of the aircraft carrier ultimately comes down to the set of assumptions adopted, “like the number of days deployed, the rate at which expendables are consumed, and what expenses the joint force might incur if it tried to accomplish missions without using aircraft carriers.” Using his own set of assumptions, the renowned French Admiral Edouard Guillaud wrote, "In fifty years of life, an aircraft carrier knows three successive generations of fighter-attack aircraft and several generations of electric and cyber systems. Calculated in tonnage, it can be estimated that one frigate costs two times more while a submarine costs four times more….” Moreover, beyond the costs of the day-to-day naval operational and maintenance costs, the primary role of the aircraft carrier is not merely to win a “high-intensity great-power war” but also to prevent one from commencing in the first instance. The question that therefore follows: How does one tabulate the cost of avoiding such calamity? Looking at other figures, between Fiscal Years (FY) 2001 and 2019, the U.S. war spending in Afghanistan alone cost the American taxpayer approximately two trillion dollars, which the aforementioned aircraft carrier “total life-cycle costs” pale in comparison.
Structural and Defense Vulnerabilities
The second argument presented for the reduction or removal of the aircraft carrier from future fleet platform architectures is the perennial structural vulnerability of aircraft carriers (especially large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVN)) and increasing defense vulnerability of the Carrier Strike Group (CSG). The concerns over the aircraft carrier's structural vulnerabilities are far from new, starting at early as the 1949 “Revolt of the Admirals.” This article does not depart from this position. Unlike other naval platforms, the aircraft carrier is structurally incapable of stealth (nor should it necessarily seek to be) due to the “big, flat deck” that inescapably allow “strategic competitor” radars and satellites to register its relative position on the seas. In an effort to mitigate the all too real structural vulnerabilities of the aircraft carrier design, fleet platform planners in various navies have historically elected to use the CSG configuration.
Yet, criticisms of the aircraft carrier’s structural vulnerability must not be conflated with those of the increasing defense vulnerabilities or decreasing defense mitigations of the CSG configuration. At a lecture held at the Hudson Institute in 2018, Bryan McGrath argued that, beyond the fact that the structural vulnerability of the aircraft carrier has always been present in one form or another, the supposed apparent vulnerabilities of the aircraft carrier are indeed conflated with the defense vulnerabilities of other naval platforms, like the aircraft carrier air wing (CVW) or surface vessels. As an example, the common trope that the “supercarriers” are unserviceable in a war against China due to its limited offensive firepower is more a criticism of the reduced amount of accompanying surface vessels around the aircraft carrier than of the aircraft carrier concept itself. As Henry Hendrix noted, at the end of the Cold War, the USN CSG could field roughly 646 missile tubes, whereas contemporary CSG can only field 230 missile tubes. As a consequence, the modern-day U.S. aircraft carriers are required to provide much of the defense capabilities necessary to operate in high-intensity great-power war environments, sapping much of their historical offensive capabilities.
At the 2019 Aspen Forum, Chris Brose, the former staff director for the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, confirming as much on the increasing defense vulnerabilities, suggested that in case of war between the United States and China, the Chinese PLA Rocket Force (formerly the “Second Artillery Corps”) would seek to overwhelm the defense systems of the U.S. CSG by launching large volumes of precision weapons, notably high-speed anti-ship ballistic “carrier-killers" (e.g., Dong Feng-21D and Dong Feng-26) and cruise (e.g., YJ-12B) missiles. As a result of China’s fast-developing radar and satellite detection and ballistic missile capabilities, the USN is required to operate at ever increasing ranges from the Chinese mainland.
In order to assess the structural vulnerability or “survivability” of the aircraft carrier, the USN extended the pre-existing “kill-chain” model onto potential adversaries’ competencies to mitigate the aircraft carrier group defense capabilities, requiring the enemy to successfully carry-out five incremental steps without breaking a link in the chain: (1) discovery of the aircraft carrier, (2) getting its fixed position, (3) continuously tracking its fixed position, (4) engaging at the said position, and (5) assessing the results of said engagement. In practice, each of the steps requires the satisfaction of a series of subsidiary tasks. With this model on hand, the USN believes the concerns of the “carrier killer” missiles are somewhat overstated as U.S. armed forces will be able to interdict against many of the subsidiary tasks in the kill chain (i.e., crippling the missiles target detection systems). In other words, the position adopted by the USN is that, while the structural vulnerabilities will remain for the foreseeable future, there are ways nonetheless of increasing the defense mitigation effects. Ones that might even perhaps arrive through a "new combination of operational concepts and defensive systems,” as suggested the CNO John Richardson at a Brookings Institute lecture.
The third argument against the aircraft carrier is redundancy with land bases and land-based aircraft. As the influential maritime strategist Geoffrey Till penned, “land-based air can deliver the same or more powerful payloads rather more cost-effectively, and there are levels and types of air attack for which carrier aircraft are simply unsuitable,” like massive long-range strategic bombing campaigns.
However, these instances of redundancy are far outweighed by the instances without redundancy. For all of their documented advantages, land bases and land-based aircraft are still heavily dependent on geographic or political availability. As the United Kingdom’s Operation Jaguar demonstrated in Oman during the Dhofar Rebellion of 1971, it took months for land-based aircraft to arrive on scene and provide the necessary air support. Beyond this specific situation, an essential part in the delay is that “land use accords” must be drawn with respective states, diminishing the power and momentum from the germane armed forces. In turn, an aircraft carrier can arrive long before a land base that holds similar capabilities can be established. It is the aircraft carrier and not land bases that have historically shown to be "the tool of the 'first to arrive' to deal with the most urgent issues, as it has also been the tool of the 'last to leave' to allow for a safe disengagement from land."
In the context of the Indo-Pacific region, the issue may not necessarily be time delays but general effectiveness, as “[l]and-based tactical air forces are also unlikely to be effective owing to their limited range and basing vulnerabilities. Long-range bombers arriving from distant locations [like Guam] are too few in number to sustain a high-intensity air campaign against China in response to aggression.” Moreover, landed bases are much more vulnerable to disabling attacks due to their lack of mobility and adaptability.
Finally, even if redundancy was extant, in the event that U.S. land bases in Japan and elsewhere along the “first island chain” are precipitously destroyed before an effective response can be mustered, as some wargames and models have forecasted, then the redundancy between aircraft carriers and land bases will surely be welcomed by the U.S. governmental establishment.
Self-Imposed Strategic and Operational Limitations
The final argument is the self-imposed strategic and operational limitations brought about by a theoretical U.S. president refusing to risk the “queen of the American fleet” due to external political considerations outside of the military context at-hand. Over a seventy-year history, in the domestic audience's view, the aircraft carrier has gradually become a symbol of American political and military power abroad. As a consequence, U.S. presidents may refrain from risking their imagined prestige for purposes outside of the current military realities. This cautionary tale has already been historically recorded with India (INS Vikrant) during the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971 and the United Kingdom (HMS Hermes and Invincible) and Argentina (ARA Veinticinco de Mayo) during the Falklands Campaign/Guerra de las Malvinas in 1982. In all three cases, the fear of an adversary possessing an inferior number of submarines armed with anti-ship cruise missiles led to reduced roles for the respective aircraft carriers.
In part hoping to reduce this self-imposed strategic and operational limitation, future fleet platform planners at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) have proposed that the USN acquire “smaller conventionally powered light aircraft carriers (CVLs) of 40,000 to 60,000 tons that would be incorporated into amphibious ready groups (ARGs) as part of the ‘Deterrence Force.’” With these acquisitions, the larger CVNs would strictly focus on high-end integrated multi-carrier operations as part of the “Manoeuvre Force.”
Similarly, a recently released internal Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) assessment call recommended a similar loosely-defined middle-ground position to the aircraft carrier concept in an effort to reduce the self-imposed strategic and operational limitations. It concluded that the USN should cut two aircraft carriers from its fleet in an effort to "begin de-emphasizing aircraft carriers as the centerpiece of the Navy’s force projection and put more emphasis on unmanned technologies that can be more easily sacrificed in a conflict and can achieve their missions more affordably.”
This shift towards a middle ground position is important and beneficial, albeit contentiously challenges certain conclusions borne in an earlier study conducted by the RAND Corporation, in view that it eases the political capital costs and provides space for a future U.S. President to risk the “centerpiece” in the USN’s fleet platform architecture.
The four categories of argument – exorbitant costs, structural and defense vulnerabilities, redundancy, and self-imposed strategic and operational limitations – against the aircraft carrier, carrier-based aviation and carrier strike group concepts are informative but not necessarily definitive. The lack of definitiveness will make it arduous for any anti-aircraft carrier resistance movement inside the Biden administration to remove wholesale the queens of the respective navies from the varied fleet architectures. Therefore, until such time when the strategic environment shifts by upending the four categories, the aircraft carrier and aircraft carrier group concept are likely to remain a visible and powerful presence in the Indo-Pacific region well into the next decades.
Hadrien T. Saperstein is a Researcher at the Asia Centre think tank, France, specializing in maritime strategic thought and strategic foresight analysis in the Indo-Pacific region. His articles have previously appeared in Strife Journal, Future Directions International, Asia Centre, New Mandala, 9DashLine, The Geopolitics, East Asia Forum, and The Interpreter at the Lowy Institute.