When in doubt about grave questions, reach for the classics. What would the likes of Alfred Thayer Mahan or Julian Corbett say about the fate of the big-deck aircraft carrier or nuclear carrier (CVN)? I suspect their ghosts would voice skepticism. The shade of Mahan might ask whether the CVN remains a capital ship. Those casually acquainted with his works assume he had a fetish for big-gun battleships. Not really; they just happened to be the gold standard for his day. In The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897), the sea-power prophet defined capital ships in generic terms, deeming them “the vessels which, by due proportion of defensive and offensive powers, are capable of taking and giving hard knocks” in major fleet actions.
That sounds like one of the simple equations we social-science types joy in. Translating Mahan’s maxim into baby algebra, the value of a capital ship is a multiple of its combat punch (including, presumably, the striking range of its main battery) and its capacity to ward off or absorb battle damage and keep fighting. But today’s straitened circumstances warrant amending the Mahanian formula by inserting a cost variable. CVNs are what economists term “lumpy capital.” (Does that make them lumpy capital ships?) For instance, the new USS Gerald R. Ford reportedly will cost around $13.5 billion. However tough and hard-hitting, that’s a mighty big-ticket item to hazard in battle. Few presidents would lightly give the order to send carrier strike groups into harm’s way against a serious opponent.
But more is at work than dollars-and-cents calculations. Bear in mind that the United States depends on sea power for its superpower standing. Very generously speaking—after factoring in extended overhauls, routine upkeep, crew training and rest, and the normal rhythm of naval operations—commanders may have eight flattops at their disposal at any time. Losing, say, two carriers and their entourage of escorts and combat-logistics ships to enemy action would mark more than just a bad day in U.S. naval history. (That’s the size of the force dispatched to Taiwan’s vicinity in 1995–1996, in a bid to deter Chinese military action during the island’s presidential elections. That’s as good a benchmark as any.) Defeat would set America back as a world power while degrading the U.S. Navy’s image as a trustworthy steward of maritime security. Nor, with such a small inventory of CVNs, can Washington afford Pyrrhic victories. Many such triumphs and the American cause could be lost.
Thus the offensive hitting power, defensive resilience, and sheer cost of CVNs shape policymakers’ resolve to wage war at sea, even in a good cause. How many presidents will summon up the moxie to defend Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, or Scarborough Shoal, knowing they might cost America its geopolitical primacy in an afternoon?
Now let’s conjure up Sir Julian. In his masterwork Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911), Corbett despaired of naval analysts’ and practitioners’ foresight amid bewildering technological change. Fleets had reverted to a “structureless” state lacking well-defined ship classes and functions. Worse, mines and torpedoes had empowered the “flotilla” of small craft—formerly an afterthought in high-end naval warfare—to pummel capital ships. Commanders now fretted not just about dueling rival dreadnoughts but about defending against minelayers, torpedo-armed submarines, surface combatants, and other manifestly unsexy men-of-war. Even patrol boats packed a wallop once outfitted with the lethal new “fish.” How to arrange defensive screens to let the fleet close safely to gun range became an obsession with tacticians. Corbett’s lament: “The whole naval art has suffered a revolution beyond all previous experience, and it is possible the old practice is no longer a safe guide” to contemporary practice.
Corbett’s revolution has never passed—as anyone with even passing familiarity with today’s threat environment will attest. This is a milieu populated not just by adversary cruisers and destroyers, but by missile-toting subs and fast patrol craft. This is also an age of land-based sea power. Extended-range fire support has come a long way since the days of Corbett and Mahan, when a fort’s guns could clear enemy vessels out of a few miles of offshore waters, and that was it. Tactical aircraft flying from airfields ashore, batteries of antiship cruise missiles, and even an exotic antiship ballistic missile are among the weaponry with which U.S. Navy defenders must now contend. This latter-day, hybrid land/sea flotilla menaces not just CVNs but all surface forces that venture within its range.
In short, anti-access technology has turned the world upside down. Corbett partitions the navy into the battle fleet, which wrests command of the sea from enemy battle fleets, from the “cruisers” and flotilla. The latter are smaller, inexpensive ships that can be built in large numbers to exercise command once foes have been subdued. They can perform an array of missions in permissive surroundings, including landing ground forces and blockading enemy coasts. Ergo, if future commanders decline to risk CVNs in efforts to win command, they will have in effect displaced the flattop—the pride of the U.S. Navy, and a hugely expensive platform—from the battle fleet. It will have joined the cruiser/flotilla contingent, playing the same part played by lesser, unglamorous workhorse vessels. It will no longer qualify as a capital ship in the Mahanian sense.
Am I writing an elegy for these majestic vessels? Not an immediate one. I served in an Iowa-class battleship, a platform demoted from the Fleet’s center to its periphery. The battlewagons rendered good service during their brief modern lives in the 1980s and early 1990s. But it grew harder and harder to justify the steep costs of operating them for secondary functions such as naval gunfire support or surface warfare. They were luxury assets—nice to have, but inordinately expensive for the value they added.
Carriers started off as fleet auxiliaries a century ago, scouting and screening for the battle line, before taking their place as the chief repository of U.S. Navy striking power during World War II. The CVN could trace the same trajectory followed by the battleships—from capital ship, to expensive fleet auxiliary, and into eventual obsolescence and retirement. It’s straightforward to sell taxpayers on capital ships built to do battle with peer navies. People get that. It will take skillful salesmanship to convince the man on the street to fund behemoths that have to sit out the battle before doing their work.
Corbett and Mahan would nod knowingly at our plight.