Carrier Critics

April 8, 2013 4:55 AM - Updated: April 7, 2013 9:54 PM

CFF1Dec12Why does the United States maintain a fleet of aircraft carriers?

The answer to that question could appear self-evident. Or, based on much of the discussion over the past few years, one might think the Navy’s carrier fleet is the most expensive, most vulnerable and most foolish extravagance in modern history.

Carrier critics in the naval and general press seem to run the table in this aspect of the seapower debate. The anti-carrier cabal pops up everywhere nowadays, clearly relishing what it calls the vulnerability and wastefulness of the flattops, the way a child might secretly relish the pain of a loose tooth. Carriers have always been very costly and controversial but there’s a new problem tipping the balance: China’s much-feared, seldom-seen antiship missiles are going to sweep down from the heavens and smack the Navy’s carriers out of the water like toy boats from a bathtub, the skeptics now say.

The cost in life—enormous. America—impotent. The aircraft carrier—obsolete, having become the lumbering, irrelevant battleship it earlier eclipsed.

So where are the actual, real-life sailors or naval officers who’ve spent their careers flying or working on the Navy’s real-life, actual carriers? Why don’t they return fire? Maybe they reject the rhetoric of the anti-carrier cabal as beneath serious comment. Or maybe the true answer is too nuanced to articulate in response to bumper-sticker attacks.

Carrier partisans may have several problems affirming the importance of the Navy’s carrier orthodoxy. One is that the military and mainstream press loves novelty and counterintuition, so it naturally embraces authors or reports that say: “That thing you thought was true? It ain’t.” Less so with people making the case: “The status quo is swell.”

That goes double when anti-carrier troubadours imply or declare that there are serious vulnerabilities in the flagships of the modern Fleet, or that the United States is throwing away billions of dollars on foolish totems of hard power. There’s always some cheaper, lower-tech or higher-tech alternative that would be a panacea if the brass only would drop its blinders—or so the argument goes. More unmanned systems! Or, cruise missiles can do the job!

Another problem is that the Navy often has real trouble explaining itself in plain English. Its institutional voice can be so obtuse that often no one understands just what the hell it’s trying to say—if the service itself even knows. The Navy is definitely improving; just look at its embrace of blogging and Twitter today compared with, say, five years ago. But it can’t just focus on small-ball. It’s got to be able to get big hits too, or in this case, to field them successfully.

To be fair, part of this is bigger than the Navy, as people outside government in Washington often complain, “Nobody wants to say the C-word.” China is America’s biggest cyber-antagonist, but officials above a certain level seldom talk about that open secret. China’s military buildup has prompted the United States to “pivot,” or “rebalance” or “pirouette”—or whichever metaphor you like—and yet White House, State Department and Pentagon officials strenuously reject any connection between Beijing and the new U.S. Pacific focus. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force keep up the charade that their “Air-Sea Battle” doctrine has nothing to do with China—and shame on you for suggesting it does.

So no one can talk officially about what everyone knows. Add that to the traditional American strategic ambiguity about just what some of our policies are toward China, especially involving Taiwan, and it’s difficult to give any response. Would an American president in the 21st century send the Fleet within range of China’s new missiles in a repeat of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis? In the imaginary world of the carrier critics, yes, with disastrous consequences. In our actual world, in which the Navy is fully cognizant of the new potential threat, probably not.

What would the United States actually do? What are its goals and priorities? What kind of scenarios or campaigns has it actually planned? That’s not for us open-source habitués to know. That creates a vacuum, and the talk about vulnerability and waste fills it.

Which brings us to other realities and concessions that Big Navy might not be prepared to make for public consumption, especially given opponents’ eagerness to plop down scary cost figure after scary cost figure: Billions for the ships, hundreds of millions for the airplanes, millions per day to run it all. All up against Chinese weapons (or other threats) that cost mere peanuts—what a foolish waste of American treasure!

The politically difficult reality is that carriers aren’t really for full-scale “Red Storm Rising”-type scenarios. The jet-age U.S. Navy has never faced a peer competitor in wartime. It has operated with near total operational freedom in every conflict, often tasked not with denying an adversary the use of the sea lanes, or destroying his fleet, but supporting a land or air campaign from the sea. In short, the modern aircraft carrier’s mission is to act as a tool of power projection, or, put unkindly, of national bullying—not, for example, to square off against another aircraft carrier in a Battle of Midway-style engagement.

That reality is lost when commentators point to another favorite bugbear, China’s experimentation with naval aviation. That’s another favorite threat to the U.S. Navy much as China’s potential new antiship weapons make the Navy’s carriers are obsolete. China’s carrier isn’t built to fight the USS George Washington, forward-deployed to Japan; it’s built to dominate weaker neighbors, just as American carriers have succeeded brilliantly in dominating weaker enemies of the United States.

If it came to the actual World War III that no one wants, American commanders would send submarines to keep China’s fleet bottled up. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has even dropped a few hints about missions for the sub force beyond sea control or land attack, including using a submarine to suppress an enemy’s air defenses. But again, we don’t get to hear much more about that.

What’s the upshot of all this? Even supposing the anti-carrier cabal is 100 percent right about China’s ability to detect, track, target and destroy an American carrier, since when does a single vulnerability mean curtains for a classic platform?

Even when the U.S. did face an existential peer threat at sea, back in the bad old days, the architect of the nuclear Navy held few illusions that the growing fleet of carriers might play a long-term role in a nightmare scenario. Adm. Hyman G. Rickover was asked in a Senate hearing by Ohio’s Republican Robert Taft about how long the Navy’s carriers might last in a war with the Soviet Union. Rickover’s legendary response: “About two days.”

Most of the time, however, the Navy is not at war, and carriers aren’t in peril from futuristic new missiles or submarine attacks. They’re supporting combat ashore; delivering humanitarian aid; or just serving as the instruments of gunboat diplomacy, drawing huge crowds in places like Phuket, Thailand, or Perth, Australia. Yes, they’re fantastically expensive, but when a crisis compels the president to order the Navy into action off some distant coast, you probably won’t hear anyone in the government stand up and say, “What a waste it was to build that ship.”

Philip Ewing

Philip Ewing

Philip Ewing is a journalist in Washington D.C. specializing in coverage of national security and the naval services.

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