Celebrate the Facts!
The United States has 19 aircraft carriers including 12 large-deck aircraft carriers and seven smaller carriers. These are the lynchpin of the United States maritime policing system which was originally designed during World War II and operated ever since to project force to protect material supply lines, markets, and client states. But the lumbering behemoth aircraft carriers and associated ships necessary to protect them are sitting ducks in a new era of drone swarms and hypersonic missiles. A logical answer would be to retire these artifacts of a past war age and put the savings toward modern systems, but the United States military is doubling down and developing directed-energy weapons including lasers to protect them.
Large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers have over four acres of deck space, enough to support a carrier air wing of 75 or more aircraft, and are staffed by about 5,000 personnel. These nuclear-powered carriers have unlimited range, requiring refueling only once during their 50-year service lives. A carrier strike group includes two destroyers, a submarine, one cruiser, and one supply ship.
Each carrier deploys 70 aircraft of various models for different purposes with massive operating costs – the new F35 model, for instance, costs $115 million initially and over $40k per hour to operate. One estimate concluded it costs $6.5 million per day to operate a carrier strike group, a figure which includes paying for 6,700 sailors plus operating and capital costs.
Aircraft carriers under construction today may still be in the active fleet in 2050. That longevity, the gigantic operating costs, and the ambiguity of future threats in a period of rapid technological change make carrier construction and operation critical to consider now, not later.
There are several factors at play here that keep military strategies from evolving. One is the huge capital investment on aircraft carriers and associated equipment and the resultant organizational inertia to considering retirement of these artifacts of an aging military strategy. Rethinking current strategy and streamlining might eliminate those platforms along with the sinecures and associated bureaucracies and so entrenched personnel advocate to protect their organizations.
The Navy responds to comments about the vulnerability of aircraft carriers by saying they are mobile and so less vulnerable than land bases but that comparison reveals the embedded psychology of competition with other branches of the military. The fact is any military platform has vulnerabilities. Aircraft carrier groups look like sitting ducks and merely saying they offer advantages to land bases does not change that fact.
The Navy has habitually viewed manned aircraft and cruise missiles as the principal danger to its carriers but weaponry is evolving and modern threats are cheap, small-scale, and lethal. Responding to a swarm of several hundred cheap drones is costly and virtually impossible. But the bigger issue is hypersonic missiles, operating at a speed of Mach 5 and above, flying in indirect, darting motions, and so almost impossible to intercept with conventional weaponry.
The Navy is moving forward quickly to place directed-energy weapons into service as a major part of its air defense capabilities. They represent these weapons can reduce or eliminate the threat of multiple drones strikes and hypersonic weapons. Not surprisingly these representations counter the criticism of the vulnerabilities of these military antiques and keep the huge flotilla and attendant support enterprises employed.
Getting into the dross about technologies and discussion about specific platforms often obscures strategic examination of the purposes and outcomes. Directed-energy and laser weapon systems may be an upgrade to traditional ballistics (missiles and bullets), but they do have limitations and are an imperfect solution. Directed-energy weapons on Navy ships would be limited to about one mile. The energy can be adjusted for any atmospheric distortions on the way to its target. Normal ballistic considerations such as wind and gravity are not a factor.
Each shot of traditional weapons costs thousands or millions of dollars plus they are limited by supply. Directed-energy weapons require weighty upfront cost and reconstruction of existing ships to support them – including ways to generate and distribute the required electrical power. Advocates say the upfront cost is offset by the fact that the energy source, be it fuel oil or a nuclear reactor, is already paid for and the upfront cost would be countered by lower life-cycle costs.
These weapons, however, are ineffective during some weather conditions and as a result, are an ineffective defensive measure – the enemy could simply attack when it is raining.
An examination of the Department of Defense 2020 Defense Appropriations bill shows research and procurement of directed-energy weapons throughout all branches of the military. Implementation of this weaponry could be very useful in some circumstances and could ultimately be an effective tool in missile defense.
The crux of the debate however is missing from most boys-with-toys discussions:
A generic Navy argument for aircraft carriers is presented at https://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/aircraft-carrier-invulnerability.pdf. Information on aircraft carrier staffing is available at https://fas.org/irp/doddir/navy/rfs/part04.htm. The 2020 United States Defense Appropriations bill is available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/2968/text.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.