There’s this old joke that the crews manning US Navy submarines keep repeating. It goes “There are only two types of ships in the modern Navy: those that are under the water and those that soon will be.”
I remember some of the criticism that was leveled against the Reagan administration over defense budgets. One big issue was the role of aircraft carriers. Critics said that they were too big, too expensive, too vulnerable. They were outmoded technology, sure to be sunk in an instant if hostilities ever flared up between the superpowers. Anecdotes about pictures taken through attack sub periscopes of oblivious carriers were presented as proof that a flattop’s time had come and gone. I even read a paper authored by a defense analyst that said the only reason more carriers were being built, the sole justification for spending all of that taxpayer money, was so retiring admirals could command a big ship before they trotted off to pasture.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. The critics were wrong.
Oh, they might have had a point when it came to a carrier’s survivability during a war between superpowers. I wouldn’t want to bet on their chances if we had to fight a USSR armed with a vast fleet of attack subs, the largest air force in the world, and space based surveillance satellites that would pinpoint a carrier group’s position. But the unavoidable fact of the matter is that this never happened. Considering how Russia’s military circa 1980 had rotted away to a shadow of its WWII glory days, I’d have to say that the carriers wouldn’t have faced as deadly a threat as was assumed at the time.
When the Soviet Union came apart under it’s own inept Communist weight, the US suddenly found itself facing a shockingly new defense landscape. The supposedly monolithic block of iron-fisted Communist dictatorships unraveled with the collapse of their former master, and after the Iron Curtain came crashing down the huckster that had built the Wizard was revealed. Instead of a gleaming worker’s utopia, it turned out to be a collection of technologically backwards countries that were all bankrupt, or nearly so. It was as if Kirk yelled “Energize!” and Scotty transported huge sections of the 3rd World into Europe’s backyard.
So there wasn’t going to be a conventional military struggle between the Free World and the Evil Empire. The visions of huge armadas of bombers streaming overhead with the Soviet star on their wings, the nightmare of thousands of anti-ship missiles wiping the seas clean of our fleets, was all proven to be false. The new threats were going to be diffuse, spread out, springing up wholly formed from unexpected quarters. We were going to have to be everywhere at once, and carriers were the only way we could project power over the entire globe without assuming that unreliable “allies” would always be there to grant us basing rights. Suddenly what had seemed a flight of nostalgic fancy from a senile ex-actor looked an awful lot like a prophetic vision from America’s most successful Cold Warrior.
I’m going over all of this for a two reasons. First off is this article that I found on the Jane’s Defence server, which states that the US is going ahead with plans to build some new carriers based on an advanced experimental design. The new warships will be cheaper to operate, as well as being able to launch and recover more planes in a day, than the current Nimitz class carriers. This means that the new ships will be able to project more power than anything else afloat, which is the main reason why someone builds and operates carriers in the first place.
The second reason is this post over at The Ministry of Minor Perfidy. The author, Buckethead, discusses why he thinks that building new carriers is a mistake. His reasoning is sound so far as it goes, and he’s produced an enjoyable and thought-provoking read that I highly recommend. I just don’t agree with most of his conclusions.
It appears to me that BH claims that large surface warships are soon to become obsolete because of a variety of reasons. (I hope the author will correct me if I’ve missed his point.) The most significant is that precision missile technology is becoming ever less expensive while the costs of defenses and countermeasures are spiraling out of control. Robot kamikazes will soon be so cheap that anyone that nurses a grudge with the US can stock up on thousands of them, so many that it would be absurd to think that any countermeasure will be effective. The future of naval warfare lies with small stealthy ships and submarines. (BH also mentions floating barges laden with thousands of cruise missiles, but it’s very unclear to me why we couldn’t just launch such missiles from the US instead of a barge.)
All of this leads BH to the conclusion that aircraft carriers are on the verge of obsolescence, and they’re a waste of money. In fact, building any large and expensive surface warship is a mistake. Instead we should be constructing small and virtually disposable ships, and use the money we save to develop space-based capabilities. The only Navy left should be a fleet of submarines and a few surface ships on par with Coast Guard cutters.
I have a few reservations about Buckethead’s conclusions. The first is that they appear to be built on a great many unproven assumptions, the largest two being that brilliant anti-ship missiles will become common and cheap while countermeasures to protect against same will be expensive and rare. This is odd, since it assumes that missile technology will advance while developments in other weapon systems remain frozen in place. This is unlikely to happen.
As an example of what I’m talking about, consider that the new DD-21 class of destroyers (otherwise known as the DD-X)is designed to accommodate a rail gun even though such a weapon is not yet ready to be fielded. When it does come online it will allow our warships to launch solid darts at unimaginable velocity. These projectiles will be going so fast that anything peeking above the horizon will be almost instantly destroyed, smashed into oblivion by a dirt-cheap iron spike moving at such speeds that it would be impossible to dodge. Anti-ship missiles might very well become so cheap that any tin pot dictator will be able to afford a few hundred, but they still would be wasted money if launched against a ship equipped with a rail gun.
The smaller ships that Buckethead advocates would also be a waste, since it would take large power plants to operate rail guns. It could very well come to pass that larger, nuclear powered ship will come to rule the world’s oceans. Build the mast as tall as possible and mount a rail gun up there to increase line-of-sight lethality. Even the space based weapons that BH mentions wouldn’t last very long, since rail gun projectiles are moving so fast that they can easily reach out into orbit.
Think of that, dear reader, for just a moment. A weapon so efficient and cheap that it allows a destroyer to shoot down satellites, and smash ICBM warheads long before they can threaten peaceful civilian cities.
So all of Buckethead’s projections will fail with the introduction of a single variable. Build reliable rail guns, something that the Navy thinks is inevitable, and sophisticated missiles will have to be as common as 9mm cartridges before they could overwhelm on-board defenses. At the same time, the very technology that BH claims will sound the end of carriers could very well ring in a continued age of flattop dominance. Cheap missiles with enough on-board computing power to be called “brilliant” means even cheaper UAV’s and UUV’s with the same silicon brains. Why can’t the carriers maintain a CAP consisting of thousands of robot planes armed with anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down any threat, while deep below unmanned craft untiringly hunt for attack subs? You’d need some awfully big ships to maintain, fuel and transport a swarm like that. It wouldn’t surprise me if we would need to build even bigger carriers to accommodate it all.
What I’m trying to get at in my rather long and torturous way is that the reasons to build new carriers right now are rather compelling, while the arguments against aren’t. It’s certainly possible that new technological breakthroughs will mean that we’re wasting time and money, but it’s much more likely that these craft will be extremely useful for decades to come. If the US is to maintain the overwhelming naval superiority it now enjoys we’re going to have to get cracking and build a few ships. That’s a good enough reason for me.
(After looking over the rather long post above, it’s apparent that I’ve been bitten by the same Muse that used to gnaw on Steven den Beste. I just wish I could write as well as he can.)