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Has the Aircraft Carrier Had its Day?

Just this month I was surprised to see a piece in Vanity Fair titled “‘Floating Pointlessness’: Is This the End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier?”

The question has been asked again and again for decades — indeed, since the end of the Second World War when the atom bomb and guided missiles cast doubt on the value of nearly every kind of weapons platform then in existence.

Still, the matter is rarely raised in such a forum as Vanity Fair — a fact reflecting its increasing salience, for three reasons:

1. The extent to which more states that had, due to economic constraints and the post-Cold War mood, limited their investment in long-range power projection systems, are now pouring money into them. (Thus Japan has bought buying four heli-carriers, and converted two of them into F-35-carrying attack carriers. Meanwhile Germany seems to be taking an interest.)

2. The resurgence of great power conflict — which means that rather than those carriers simply being used in environments and actions where the opposition had little capability to threaten them (as with every war in which the U.S. has used such carriers since 1945) there is a rising prospect of violent clashes between major navies which may possess significant means foe threatening or even neutralizing carriers.

3. The advent of new anti-shipping weapons that may significantly increase the risk to carriers. These include land and air-based Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles, against which such ships may be without effective defense ( with Russia and China at the forefront of the development). They also include the advent of quieter conventional submarines that may be quite able to slip past the most robust anti-sub protection.

All of this, of course, would seem to be coming to a head in the sharp escalation of conflict between Russia and the West in the wake of open, full-blown interstate war between Russia and Ukraine in a manner that may have no precise parallel since 1945 (even when one includes the break-up of Yugoslavia, which so much of the media seems to have totally forgot about). This is all the more the case for two incidents during that conflict:

1. The first combat use of hypersonic missiles (even if it has been solely against land targets, so far, with questions raised about the weapons’ accuracy).

2. The incident foregrounded in the Vanity Fair article, namely the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva — the single biggest warship loss since at least the 1982 Falklands conflict, and if one excludes the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in that conflict, the biggest since 1945. This is particularly significant because, at least to go by the version of the incident standard in the American press, the Ukrainian navy accomplished the feat with a pair of Neptune anti-ship missiles — relatively short-range, subsonic missiles far less threatening than any working hypersonic weapon, which still proved effective against a ship bristling with anti-air sensors and weapons (including ten surface-to-air missile launchers firing navalized versions of the SA-8 and SA-10 SAMs, and a half dozen close-in weapons systems). The result is that even in the absence of cutting-edge ASBMs, hypersonic cruise missiles and the like large vessels seem to already be more vulnerable than has generally been acknowledged.

Considering the matter I find myself referring back to George Friedman’s discussion of the issue in The Future of War, when considering the viability of carriers and other such systems in the age of the guided missiles. He wrote of them as senile rather than obsolescent — which is to say that these systems, ever more endangered, required ever more protection and so yielded, in striking power and other ways, less return on investment, as seen when one considers the extent to which carrier air wings are devoted to fending off threats to the carrier rather than attacking, and the necessity of large numbers of very heavily equipped, sophisticated escorts to make them survivable in a hostile environment. In 2022 the carrier would seem to be that much further along that trajectory — albeit, without any real substitute available. (As yet ship-launched cruise missiles, at least when conventionally equipped, still fall far short of the striking power of a supercarrier’s air wing.) The result is a reminder of just how much more unbelievably costly and dangerous modern war keeps on getting, so much so that even more than Friedman Ivan Bloch is, once more, a better guide than he to where we have found ourselves in this regard.

Just don’t expect anyone abiding by the conventional wisdom to take the lesson.

Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.