is the aircraft carrier really obsolete?

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Indian Navy's aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya

"The role of carriers, then would become analogous to that of guided missile destroyers, cruiser and submarines at present—namely a supporting arm of a central strike platform."

by Sidharth Kaushal

One of the great conceits of admirals in the interwar years was their dogmatic embrace of the nostrum that battleships won naval wars. Officers such as those of the Imperial Japanese navy proved particularly susceptible to this dogma, a thought process that found itself manifested in so called super battleships such as the IJN Yamato, which one Japanese commentator ranked alongside the pyramids and the great wall of China as one of history’s great white elephants. Indeed, even after British carrier borne aircraft had demonstrated their value against the Italian navy at Taranto and Japan’s own carrier wing had achieved a spectacular tactical success at Pearl Harbor, Japanese admirals held firm to the view that the sheer firepower of a battleship would be the decisive arm of any navy.

This is not to say that Japan’s admirals of the interwar years were entirely dismissive of carriers. Rather, they saw the carriers proper role as a supporting unit—acting as scouts and spotters for naval gunfire and laying smokescreens for big gun battleships as well as protecting them from land- and carrier-based aircraft. While attacking surface vessels was considered as a role, it was auxiliary insofar as Japan’s naval planners felt that aircraft could augment but not supplement large calibre fire.

Where Japan’s admirals erred was failing to recognise that the carrier in fact illustrated one of their own navy’s cherished principles—namely that range mattered more than firepower. While a battleship did deliver more firepower than an aircraft carrier, it could not get within range of a carrier in order to deliver this firepower before being targeted by carrier-based aircraft. Moreover, the anti-aircraft guns placed aboard ships were woefully inadequate for the task of intercepting waves of incoming aircraft.

A series of technological trends, however, have upended this dynamic and raise a question of whether the Japanese model of carrier employment may be coming into its own seventy years after the fact. Firstly, range no longer favours the aircraft carrier in its interactions with surface vessels. Anti-ship cruise missiles such as the hypersonic Russian Zircon could evolve to hold carriers at risk over a distance of over five hundred nautical miles—beyond the reach of carrier-based aircraft. Moreover, cruise missiles are being joined in the category of ranged weapons by tools such as the electromagnetic railgun, which relies on opposing charged electromagnetic rails to fire high-velocity projectiles at a rate of ten rounds per minute over long distances that may, in due time, extend as far as two hundred nautical miles.

Moreover the carrier’s second great advantage—the fact that ship based anti aircraft fire was in its infancy, is also waning. The SM-6 missiles based on board the vertical launch system of a Ticonderoga class destroyer can in principle intercept aircraft at a 240 km range while Chinese and Russian platforms such as the Luzhou and Kirov class destroyers host the S-300 FM missile capable of operating at similar ranges similar punch. Even relatively modest vessels such as frigates now carry increasingly sophisticated air defences. Compounding the issue further, the extended reach of shore based anti aircraft batteries such as the S-400 means that carrier based aircraft might also find itself within the range of shore based batteries if it finds itself confronting an opponent within the four hundred kilometres of a platform such as the S-400, for example.

Instead, the idea of a super-battleship such as the Yamato, ludicrous in its own time, may well be coming into its own. Navies have long experimented with the idea of arsenal ships, relatively small platforms capable of holding up to sixty-four vertical launch cells and launching large stocks of cruise missiles for some time now. In principle, however, the number of cells a ship can hold is a function of its size and capacity for power generation. A battleship the size of the Yamato with a length along the waterline of 263 meters could in principle hold substantially more cells carrying mixed loads of offensive missiles and defensive interceptors. Recent reports of the addition by China of a railgun to one of its amphibious landing craft and the nascent interest in ship-based lasers raises the prospect of new additions to this conceptual craft. Finally, the size of such a ship could allow navies to reintroduce naval armour without sacrificing other capabilities. Given that many anti-ship weapons such shore based ballistic missiles rely on high explosive warheads with limited armour-piercing capabilities, such a vessel would be optimal for an A2/AD environment. While the size of such a behemoth might seem to work against it, this very size may aid it in the capacity for power generation at levels needed to support the electromagnetic railgun and, should nascent technology bear fruit, ship based antimissile lasers.

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Additionally, the sheer number of vertical launch cells such a ship could carry would mean that it would have coverage against missile attacks greater than that which is provided by the guided-missile destroyers accompanying a carrier. Moreover, as the nuclear powered Gerald R. Ford-class carriers have illustrated, generating the power to sustain enormous vessels with on board nuclear reactors such as the A1B which powers the Gerald Ford. If brought to fruition, such a vessel may have the same transformative role that the dreadnought and carrier did in their day.

That being said, mothballing carriers may well be a bit premature. Many of the tools which threaten a carrier are arguably only operable in conjunction with organic air support. Cruise missiles such as the zircon can fly distances of up to five hundred nautical miles but the platforms that host them cannot spot targets over these distances. A ship-based radar such as the U.S. AN/SPY1 typically has a range of one hundred nautical miles while submarines have even shorter range radar. While space-based assets could extend a navy’s line of sight over the horizon, coordinating these assets with fielded forces in the face of invariable attempts at disruption promises to be a nightmare for most navies.

A range of air-based assets, however, can reliably provide a platform with targeting information over long distances and, moreover, can be produced at relatively low costs. Kratos Corporation’s QX222 drone for example, would have had an operational radius of over fifteen hundred miles, which would be more sufficient than providing reconnaissance and spotting to a modern battleship. Alternatively, light aircraft such as Saab’s Sea Gripen can provide the modern equivalent of laying smoke screens by operating in their specialised role as electronic-warfare platforms. Finally, of course, carrier-based fighters can augment ship-based air defences to provide additional air cover to a battleship fleet.

It may be then that the carrier is not being rendered obsolete but is evolving (or regressing) into the role that interwar strategists had in mind for it—a platform geared towards spotting and perhaps providing fighter cover for a twenty-first century variant of the battleship.

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Within this context, the carriers of the future may well be relatively small vessels capable of hosting drones and fighter and electronic-warfare-optimised aircraft but not the heavier strike platforms that the carriers of today sustain. Rather than being the centrepiece of a fleet carriers could well play a role analogous to the destroyers of today—supporting a nucleus of super-battleships. Purchases such as the Chinese Liaoning, which does not have the STOBAR launch system to carry heavy-strike aircraft but can carry fighter aircraft such as the J-15 and can conceivable carry drones in due time may be more compatible with a twenty-first century combat environment than is sometimes assumed. Instead of larger CATOBAR equipped strike platforms, the carrier of tomorrow may be smaller cheaper STOBAR equipped platforms geared towards providing cover, targeting data and air and ASW support to battleships.

The role of carriers, then would become analogous to that of guided missile destroyers, cruiser and submarines at present—namely a supporting arm of a central strike platform. Within this context carriers would perform the function that interwar tacticians had in mind for them that is, providing fire control and cover for the capital ships of the twenty-first century.

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