William Stoecker / September 14, 2015

How Many Carriers?

If we end our undeclared (and hence unconstitutional) foreign wars and bring our troops home from the many, many countries where we have sent them, if we cease to function as the world’s policeman and the UN’s bully boy, we can restructure our entire defense establishment for our real defense needs and get by with far fewer ground troops. But we will still need strong air, ICBM, and naval forces and we need to think seriously about how these forces should be configured. Leftists throw other people’s money at real or perceived problems like poverty, racism, etc. We patriots will be no wiser than they if we merely throw money at perceived military weaknesses without a thought as to how that money should be spent.

The US Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, in 1922, and during WWII carriers replaced big gun battleships as the primary ships of the line. Today, the US has ten huge “super carriers” and nine smaller ones which are classified as “amphibious assault ships,” but even these smaller carriers can launch and recover vertical take-off or landing (VTOL) aircraft or short take off or vertical landing planes (STOVL). Each super carrier has its own carrier battle group (CVBG), now generally referred to as a carrier strike group (CSG), which typically includes one or two guided missile cruisers, primarily for air defense, two Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) ships for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and surface warfare, and one or two ASW frigates or destroyers (frigates are slightly smaller than destroyers, which are slightly smaller than cruisers), and a supply ship carrying fuel, ammunition, and other supplies. Sometimes one or two submarines will be included. These ships protect the carrier from enemy aircraft, submarines, and surface ships.

Some of our carriers are nuclear powered, giving them virtually limitless range, and can carry up to ninety aircraft, including the primary fighter bombers, the F/A-18 Hornet and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet. They also carry EA6B Prowlers, an Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) aircraft and the E-2 Hawkeye Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane. The carrier’s own radars can detect enemy aircraft and some ships out to 200 miles or more, but Hawkeyes can extend that much further in any desired direction, and guide the carrier’s planes to their targets. Carriers use steam catapults to launch their planes, but the new Ford class carriers will use an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). The military loves acronyms. Carrier planes can carry nuclear or conventional weapons to attack enemy ships, planes, and land targets. They are ideal for keeping the sea lanes open and for force projection; these will probably always be vital missions.

Critics of the carrier have pointed out that they can be very vulnerable, and amount to putting a lot of eggs in one basket. Also, they require the CSG ships for protection, tying up (critics argue) scarce resources. However, we should note that the carrier protects the escorts as much as they protect it, and the escorts can also perform in an offensive role. Critics also point to the advent of nuclear weapons and precision guided weapons, including long range anti-ship missiles. The nuclear argument is a strong one, for one Hiroshima-size fission bomb detonating within a few hundred yards of a carrier can destroy it and at least some of its escort vessels. Defenders of the carrier say that carriers are not as vulnerable as they seem, and point to their excellent damage control that has saved many carriers even when they were on fire and seemingly damaged beyond the point of no return. But of course a carrier need not be totally destroyed to take it and its planes out of the battle; holes in the deck and damage to the elevators, and planes burning and exploding on deck can take it out of commission for days or even months. And when planes are armed and fueled on deck (which they must be during combat operations) such a disaster is easily arranged. Also, China has now developed a medium range ballistic missile with terminal guidance, the Dong Feng 21D. This weapon is specifically designed to destroy US carriers even with a conventional warhead (and there is no reason why it could not be equipped with a nuclear warhead). There is some doubt as to how accurate it will be; precision guidance is difficult to attain at speeds of around Mach 10. Also, our carriers and other surface ships have multiple layers of defense against enemy aircraft and missiles, including the Phalanx radar guided 20 mm Gatling gun. Perhaps these could stop the Dong Feng, but the Chinese would fire many missiles at each of our carriers.

Another argument against carriers is the fact that the capabilities of cruisers and destroyers, with helicopters, drones, and precision guided missiles, including long range cruise missiles, are much greater than in the past, and these ships also can carry nuclear weapons. In fact, they can now do many of the things that used to be possible only with carriers.

So where does all of this leave us? I would suggest that the carriers are too versatile and useful to scrap, but that, due to their increasing vulnerability and expense, perhaps we should reduce the size of our carrier fleet. If we reduced it by half to five carriers, we could still keep two or three in reserve in US waters and send two or three to strike or threaten enemies. An added benefit is that then each carrier could have twice as many escorts, allowing them to be placed at a greater distance in case of nuclear attack, while still maintaining a secure “fence” around the carrier. And since, as noted above, the escorts can also take the offensive, the overall power of each group would be greater.

Certainly we have been taking too much for granted, and it is at least time for an honest, open debate about our defense needs and how best to meet those needs.

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