Since China unveiled its brand new anti-ship missile, a missile that has the destruction of aircraft carriers as its sole real purpose, a few people have been wondering if aircraft carriers are really still relevent in the modern navies of the world.
The common argument goes that this:
which costs 6.2 Billion and takes 8 years to build, can get taken down by one of these (or its equivalents):
which cost $720,000 and take not that long to build.
Not very cost-effective is it? Of course, firing just one of those missiles is unlikely to sink a Carrier (the goalkeeper systems onboard these behemoths is something to see) but you could fire hundreds and still be getting more bang for your buck. Only one of them has to get through.
The opposing argument is that the missile defence system on most Carriers is more than enough to stop any missile, that missile attacks are inaccurate and unreliable in the best of circumstance, and that no other military vehicle today has the range, reach, carrying capacity, weaponry and general badassness of an aircraft carrier. They get your troops and your planes to where you need them and no-one (if they’resmart) will try to stop you.
Moreover, people have been saying this kind of thing for years. Ever since the invention of the torpedo boat over a century ago, theorists have been predicting the end of large surface ships. Every new revolution – dreadnoughts, aircraft, dive-bombers, subs, nukes – has brought the same prediction.
And yet the Carrier survives.
But the weakness of the ship is obvious. You can take down any boat with a single missile, but the fact that carriers are so expensive, carry so much equipment and personnel, make them a prime target (debate wise) of those who would prefer smaller fleets. Why spend billions on a fleet of carriers, when you can spend half the amount on missile ships? An option that might make you more effective offensively? For example, one of my lecturers pointed out the advantages of the (largely) missile ship based navy of Israel. A single Israeli missile ship could destroy the entire Irish Navy, within hours, without ever actually coming within sight of a single ship.
But the Irish Navy dosen’t have an Aircraft Carrier.
Carriers have other benefits then the carrying of aircraft. They’re the best example of naval force projection. They can undertake an offensive and defensive role. They can assist humanitarian efforts and do large-scale operations other ships can’t. They are still the symbol of power at sea, a morale booster for any Navy lucky to have them (only 10 do, most of them with just one).
But they are expensive. And a tempting target.
I feel that within 30-50 years this debate will be academic. We are ,whether the fly-boys want to acknowledge it or not, heading into the last generation of manned fighter aircraft. By the end of our lifetimes, every military that isn’t a god-awful mess will be using drone Air Forces.
They don’t need as much room as jets. They don’t need big boats to fly. In fact, they might not need boats at all, considering their range.
Carriers are here to stay but the next line of them, once the ‘Supercarrier’ is done, will be smaller, designed to facilitate the launch of unmanned craft. The larger carrier, with its immense service period, will still be useful but it won’t be the queen of the seas anymore. Arguably, that title has already passed to the missile ship.
But, of course, it’ll take an actual war (and by that I mean something bigger then an Iraq or Afghanistan) to truly test that theory. All of these theories. The Chinese think they can get through the anti-missile screen? The USS George H. W. Bush disagrees?
They both sizzle. It’ll be an interesting day when we see who has the steak. That day will be the next in a long line of days. Days like Salamis. Like Lepanto. Like Gravelines. Like Hampton Roads, Tsuishima and Pearl Harbour. Days that shape naval warfare.