Updated: Oct 26
Are Aircraft Carriers obsolete? This question has been pondered upon for many decades, and still, no decisive answers have emerged. Whenever it was thought that the age of carriers was over, a new tech would extend the life of carriers. The US spends more than 13 billion dollars on each carrier, and yet they haven’t been deployed and tested in any actual war situation other than military exercises.
German Battleship Bismarck
The age of carriers began when battleships were displaced from the hierarchy of sea warfare. During the World War, aircraft carriers proved incredibly helpful in sinking battleships. Today aircraft carriers are used as a tool for power projection. With China’s rise, the subject of aircraft carriers requires critical rethinking.
A carrier always moves with its own fleet of vessels, including guided missile destroyers, missile cruisers, frigates, fuel tankers, anti-aircraft warships, and many more. Together they create a bubble where these dominate in the sea. All these fellow vessels are tasked to defend a carrier from missiles and submarines. An aircraft carrier strike group alone can overwhelm many countries’ entire navies and air forces, but how does it stack up against China? Ever since the third Taiwan Strait Crisis, when US carriers moved into the Taiwan Strait to diffuse tensions, China has heavily invested in anti-ship missile technology. What emerged after the Taiwan Strait Crisis was the Anti-Access Area Denial Strategy, where China invested in developing robust missile tech to control and dominate regions in the south China Sea. In the past few decades, China has also developed hypersonic missile systems that are more difficult to intercept by carrier strike groups. Though carrier strike groups can effectively defend against missiles, it would be difficult if the number of missiles is too huge that they overwhelm the defense systems. Carriers are also built to sustain damages from a few cruise missiles. But the latest in the line of missiles developed by China was the DF-21D and the DF-26 missiles, which could strike the aircraft carrier at speeds well above Mach 10. At terminal speeds like these, it is difficult to intercept or sustain these damages.
DF 21D, which is dubbed the carrier killer, has a range of more than 1000 miles, while the DF 26 missiles, dubbed the Guam Killer, has a range of more than 2000 miles. If the carriers are placed outside the range of these, then carrying out military operations would be near impossible, as the FA 18 hornets which are predominantly used by US carriers, have a limited combat radius of 700 km or 390nm. Here, there is the problem of operational capability in both close and distant quarters.
F/A-18 Super Hornets Block III (Graphical Representation)
If all these were aerial threats, there also lies the threat of submarines. Submarines are the real carrier hunters. They have grown more quieter with each passing decade, making it difficult to track them. They are so quiet that in 2009 the HMS Vanguard, a British submarine, and France’s Le Triomphant submarines even collided underwater. The threat of submarines has also been demonstrated in a naval exercise in 2005 involving the USS Ronald Raegan, where a cheaper Swedish Gotland class diesel-electric submarine sunk the USS Ronald Raegan. It was reported that the submarine ran many rounds around the carrier strike group without getting noticed and finally torpedoed the USS Ronald Raegan. (Naval exercise, not actual combat) In 2006, a Chinese song class submarine surfaced in the vicinity of the USS Kitty Hawk in the midst of an ongoing naval exercise. The submarine had somehow slipped through the carrier strike group’s defenses unnoticed and surfaced within torpedoing range. Several events like these have been recorded where Chinese submarines were tailing US and British carrier strike groups.
But does all this make a carrier obsolete? Whenever this question was raised, they were always followed by technological advancements. The US navy is currently developing NGAD (Next generation Air Dominance) aircraft, which would have a superior combat range than super hornets. This might allow carriers to be deployed beyond the second island Chain, out of range of many missiles, and still operate without any hindrance. The NGAD isn’t just one aircraft but a group of aircraft, which might even include stealth fuel tankers to refuel the primary aircraft mid-flight. This would minimize the threat posed by the Anti Access Areal Denial systems. When it comes to submarine threats, this could be partially mitigated by having a considerable fleet of their own submarines beneath the carrier strike to wade off and detect enemy subs. Carrier strike group warfare isn’t going to die so easily. It would probably take another 50 or 100 years for that. Even though aircraft carriers are lucrative targets, they serve as the primary tool for power projection. The US mainland is thousands of miles away from China, and the only way the US gets to mobilize a small air force at any given time in any given region is solely through aircraft carriers, and for these reasons, the aircraft carriers are not yet dead.