The Aircraft Carrier

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 07-31-2022

One of my astute readers raised an interesting, and much discussed, question the other day: are aircraft carriers really obsolete?

The question is a good one. And there are a host of articles out there - both pro and con. But one of the problems with many articles that attempt to answer this question is that they often miss two key points.

One: We need to understand what a great power navy is supposed to do.

To begin, great power navies have two real purposes that no one really discusses: strategic presence and strategic shaping, which really are opposite sides of the same coin. Strategic presence is the act of “being there,” of making your presence known, with the understanding that there is enough capability in that presence to keep would-be bad actors in line, and if they do cross some line, to push them back in line. That idea, the idea of a continued presence, and the real threat of a raid, some sort of material punishment, created the modern world, created the background in which global trade flourished for most of the last 300 years, courtesy of the Royal Navy and then the US Navy (and US Marines). These two Great Power navies kept nations in line, kept trade lanes open, and in the most fundamental sense, prevented wider and greater wars.

In fact, it might well be said that the real purpose of a great power navy is to prevent war. And from that it might well be said that modern strategic thought grew out of great power navies.

This is a point that most modern “strategic thinkers” don’t get: the investment in a Navy first and foremost is in prevention of war, not fighting it.

This, by the way, is the problem with the Department of Defense. The Department of Defense is an organization that grew out of the Department of the Army. Even though it was nominally the joining of the Army and the Navy, the Navy was subordinated to it, and lost its way. The Army, and its child, the Air Force, is designed and organized to fight wars. I have seen that chiseled into the stone at several Army buildings: “We fight our nation’s wars.” Just so. The Army and the Air Force, from an organizational perspective are trying to fight a war. Let them out of the garrison and, as with the carpenter with the hammer, looking for a nail, they are, in a very real sense, looking for a war. The Navy and Marines, on the other hand, steam around looking to play “whack-a-mole” with any potential bad actor: see if he needs hitting, if he doesn't, leave, if he does, hit him hard, then leave. So, when discussing what a Navy, a great power navy, needs to be able to do, we need to understand its first mission: strategic presence and shaping.

And while I have a good-natured sniping with my Air Force and Army friends about their services, we, the United States, need our Air Force and Army (and Space Force) focusing on the things they are intended to do. And while there are a whole host of arguments abut how the Army and Air Force might or might not fight a future war, for the sake of this discussion, let’s just assume that future wars, at least near future, will need some aircraft, though the specifics of type and whether manned or unmanned, etc., will be left to a future discussion.

Two: In a great power confrontation at sea it won’t matter what you lose, it will matter who wins.

Concepts such as naval superiority and naval supremacy, some sort of accounting of numbers of ships and submarines and aircraft and missiles and their respective capabilities really are not the point. The concepts that need to be addressed are the concepts of sea control and sea denial, as well as the air over the sea - air control and air denial. Control means that you can do what you want when you want, but it does not mean without losses. Denial means you cannot do what you want when you want, irrespective of losses, irrespective of what you are willing to spend to get it. 

One of the most important strategic computations the US Navy ever engaged in were those carried out by John Lehman when, as Secretary of the Navy he pushed the Navy to develop plans to take control of the Atlantic from the challenge of the Soviet Navy - in the event of war. The plan was, by virtually all modeling, expensive. Admirals blanched when various iterations of the models showed that the US Navy might lose 3 or 4 or 5 carrier battlegroups. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that at the end of that fight the US would have control of the Atlantic and would be able to resupply and reinforce Europe. 

As for carriers getting sunk by some tremendous barrage of missiles - yes that might happen if the commander of the fleet is less than competent. But carriers are hard to hit sometimes. What is a certainty is that, while carriers can be found even if they move, the bulk of airfields around the world move substantially less than aircraft carriers.  As best I can tell, every bomber base in the US is pretty much where it was yesterday. (For that matter, so are the Chinese bomber bases.) In fact, I would submit that, if you were going to plan anDefe attack on the US Air Force you wouldn’t do it with missiles or other aircraft first but would begin the attack  using a wide range of other options. It may well be that if there were wild flurry of shooting and other activities to start off a war with a great power, the only aircraft remaining to the US in any numbers would be the ones on aircraft carriers at sea.