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The Carrier Debate: From 1922 to Now

USS George Washington (CVN-73) in 2001.

USS George Washington (CVN-73) in 2001.

Even years before its launch, the U.S. Navy’s new class of ships — the aircraft carrier — was dismissed by some critics as an exorbitantly expensive folly that was already obsolete due to advances in modern warfare.

Although this argument has often been levied at USS Gerald R Ford (CVN-78) currently under construction, it was also said about the nation’s first purpose-built carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) in the early 1930s. In the century since the Navy first started experimenting with shipboard takeoffs and landings, analysts have debated the merits versus the weaknesses of aircraft carriers.

Detractors maintain that carriers are too costly and too vulnerable, while proponents have held that the big flattops have consistently proven their worth and will remain the key to sea power well into the future. This battle over carriers has been raging in the pages of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine for decades:

Developing the Aircraft Carrier
September, 1922

“All the principal admiralties of the world are paying marked attention to the provision of aircraft carriers, a type which is now regarded as only second in importance to the capital ship, some naval experts both here and in the United States believing it to be even more indispensable.” – Naval and Military Record, 19 July 1922

Seagoing Aircraft
November, 1924

“At the time of the Washington Conference the only aircraft carriers afloat were a few experimental craft converted from other types. Had that gathering been a disarmament conference, as it is so persistently regarded, the simple and logical thing to do would have been to scrap the few carriers already built and forbid more. It was recognized that air warfare is more susceptible of barbarous abuse than submarine warfare.”

Strategic Value of the Aircraft Carrier
January, 1925

“The arrival of the aircraft carrier offers material for speculation as to its spheres of usefulness. There is scarcely any room for doubt that is has definitely arrived, as a formidable weapon of offense and defense; there has been no spectacular debut, such as established the submarine as a commerce destroyer, because, of course, there has been no set of circumstances to render its rapid development an imperative necessity for national preservation.”

Airplane Carriers
May, 1925

The cover of the May 1942 issue of Popular Mechanics.

The cover of the May 1942 issue of Popular Mechanics.

“The naval carriers of airplanes are limited in operations to navigable waters. The carrier airships would not be limited by sea or land. The naval carriers are subject to land, sea, or air attack. The airships would be subject only to air attack.” “But there is a need of economy and efficiency in providing for the national defense. If airships are better than naval vessels for carrying airplanes, they should be used.”

Aircraft Carriers – An American Viewpoint
August, 1928

“In effectiveness there must be little to choose between the airplane carrier Lexington, which has just broken speed records on a run from California to Honolulu, and her sister ship, the Saratoga. Each of these carriers has accommodations for seventy-six planes. British critics have said that this is putting too many eggs in on basket. Theoretically that may be so, since it is as easy to bomb a carrier as any other large ship of war. But two things would favor the Lexington: the great number of planes she could use to defend herself, and her high speed.”

Covered Wagons of the Sea
November, 1931

“The airplane carrier has become an indispensable type of vessel to any fleet. With its brood of planes and its high speeds it has the greatest potential strength of any fighting ship in the world.”

The Need for Additional Aircraft Carriers
July, 1932

USS Saratoga (CV-3) landing planes in 1935. US Navy Photo

USS Saratoga (CV-3) landing planes in 1935. US Navy Photo

“The aircraft carrier, a sort of floating nest for winged guns, is a craft of comparatively recent development, and we are only just beginning to realize how valuable these ships can be. At the time of the Washington naval conference so little was known regarding their usefulness that it was believed that 135,000 tons of these ships would be all that any nation would need or would ever build. The potency of the modern airplane has since shown how wrong that estimate was.”

Let’s Try a New Weapon
May, 1941

“The aircraft carrier, which is the Navy’s primary means of exerting air power at sea, imposes further restrictions upon the performance characteristics of the planes which must operate from them. The lack of space for landing and take-off is compensated for by other means, but the relatively unhampered shore-based landplane enjoys a considerable superiority over is carrier-based counterpart in almost every respect. The desirability of operating higher performance aircraft at sea is obvious. But how are we to get them there? This is clearly the role for the rigid airship. It alone can satisfy the desirable but not quite attainable conditions unfulfilled in the problem of exerting air power at sea by other approaches.”

Aircraft Carriers, Dive Bombers, and Torpedo Planes
October, 1942

“[The] thesis that with the increasing range of land-based army bombers aircraft carriers will become obsolete as they are forced to operate within that range will simply not hold water. They are already operating practically with impunity where land-based bombers can and have reached them. As fighter aircraft become more and more effective the carrier will have stronger and stronger aerial protection and the job for the attacking bombers will become harder and harder. Our large carrier building program is sound indeed and will give us complete control of the oceans of the world.”

The Aircraft Carrier – The Backbone of Aero-Sea Warfare
December, 1942

U.S. Third Fleet aircraft carriers at anchor in Ulithi Atoll, 8 December 1944

U.S. Third Fleet aircraft carriers at anchor in Ulithi Atoll, 8 December 1944

“[T]he war was started with all the world’s navies thinking in terms of Jutland and the battleship as the principal weapon – the aircraft carrier was an untried weapon. It is an untried weapon no longer and the Navy that is going to win this war is the Navy that thinks in terms of Midway and the aircraft carrier. Air power had not displaced sea power – air power is sea power.”

“In Any Operation” – Aircraft Carriers
March, 1955

US Navy rigid airship K-69 over USS Mindoro in 1950. US Navy Photo

US Navy non-rigid airship K-69 over USS Mindoro (CVE-120) in 1950. US Navy Photo

“The recent development of the H-bomb has cause many well-intentioned persons with limited naval or air experience to advise us, in effect, to abandon control of the sea. Actually the advent of the H-bomb should make the fast carrier task force even more effective. While carrier aircraft can use the H-bomb in attacking fixed shore targets with greater destructiveness than ever, the task force has only to use wider dispersions to minimize the damaging effect of the H-bomb and mobility and speed to avoid radio-active fall-out. The relative gain appears to be on the side of the mobile base of unpredeterminable position, the aircraft carrier.”

A Case for the Attack Carrier in the Missile Age
July, 1958

“The fact that the USSR has no aircraft carrier does not militate against the value; for the Soviets would be hard pressed to operate carriers from their land- and sometimes ice-locked bases. It may be, realizing the potency of this weapon, that Russia fears to lend credibility to it be embarking on such a venture at this time in history.” “The aircraft carrier has been attacked as a bad investment because of it alleged vulnerability in the missile age, a vulnerability which precludes spending large sums of money. First of all, nothing is absolutely invulnerable. Everything is, under certain conditions. Of course carriers can be sunk, if they can be found, fought, and hit directly. Men can be killed; yet we do not argue that, ipso facto, we should not out money into training a soldier. Aircraft can be shot down, but we do not advocate abandonment of all aircraft.”

Future of the Carrier?
August, 1959

“It would seem to me that for the attack carrier to be effective in time of nuclear unlimited war, our country would have to keep prohibitive number of carrier task forces on, or near, station. How many missile submarines could be kept on patrol for the same amount of money?”

The Attack Carrier – Mobile Might
May, 1961

“Mobile, flexible and versatile – these are the words that Navy proponents apply to the modern attack aircraft carrier. Obsolete, vulnerable and exorbitantly expensive are adjectives that are applied on occasions by others. Perhaps no single weapon system or element of military strength has been the subject of as much controversy and dispute as have aircraft carriers in the nearly 40 years they have been part of our seapower.”

Lone Carriers…Fact or Fancy?
April, 1962

“Some iconoclastic ideas of carrier operation may allow full realization of the potential of the nuclear-powered Enterprise and her combat air group never before available to any navy. It is feasible to operate the carrier independently as a single ship? And how effective would this utilization be? The mere statement of such a suggestion may, of course, cause some professional navy readers to stop reading at this point. New concepts must necessarily involve some shattering of old ones.”

Diminishing Returns in the CVA
August, 1964

USS Enterprise (CVN-65) USS Long Beach (CGN-9) and USS Bainbridge (CGN-25) in 1964.

USS Enterprise (CVN-65) USS Long Beach (CGN-9) and USS Bainbridge (DLGN-25) in 1964.

“In our carriers, there is a never-ending battle for space. Our advertising, ever-changing technology continues to create shortcomings in the availability of support and maintenance equipment and the attendant space requirements. The jet/missile/electronic revolution as applied to carrier-based aircraft, points up the many facets of this problem. The sophistication and complexity attained is gradually creating a loss of efficiency in maintaining these combat aircraft. Furthermore, future requirements indicate an even greater need for space.”

Carrier Air and Vietnam…an assessment
October, 1967

“Not too many years or even months ago, it was a popular pastime for amateur military strategists to speak and write words that questioned the U.S. investment in in aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy. These capital ships, termed “supercarriers” in the press, were considered to be great white elephants, vulnerable to whatever force an enemy chose to throw at them; costly dinosaurs that plodded the seas at 30 knots in an era when air speeds above a thousand knots were commonplace.” “Today, as the continuous pounding from the three attack carriers at ‘Yankee Station’ grinds on, this criticism is seldom heard. Instead, there are repeated requests for more carriers on the line, and expressions of approbation from quarters once opposed to the carrier weapon system.”

Carriers Sail On
June, 1989

“Navies also offer reach into otherwise inaccessible areas, putting fighters, strike aircraft, and accompanying escorts into positions to mount offensive operations. Because public opposition to some types of weapons is growing, carriers may even become the only available home for some necessary elements of the deterrent arsenal. Fleets with their own air cover and offensive capability will also continue to carry the capability to confront an opponent with the threat of a protracted war. Without carriers, U. S. leaders would, for the foreseeable future, have only the options of nuclear escalation or surrender and isolation in response to any successful Soviet conventional probe on the Eurasian rimland. Carriers would not only be essential to maintain forward-based forces in a long war, but if the early stages of that war were lost those carriers and SAC remain the only way of holding the ring and taking the war to the aggressor.”

The Last Days of Carrier-Based Aviation?
January, 1999

“The bell-tolls announcing the slow death of carrier-based aviation were sounded on 20 August 1998 by the 75 Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched against terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. In terms of naval history, the 20th century has been the era of the aircraft carrier. The carrier spearheaded the victory in the Pacific during World War II, played decisive roles during Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, and has long been the hallmark of America’s prowess on the high seas. As we enter the new millennium it will become more and more obvious, however, that technology that earlier favored the aircraft carrier will dictate its demise.”

Get the Carriers!
September, 2007

“There’s a misconceived belief among them that the need for air power is on the wane. One basic line of argument is that surface ships with missiles can replace carriers in littoral attack. Branching out, critics contend that since the revolution in strike warfare increased precision strike capacity by an order of magnitude, then micro-air wings on small carriers can do the job. It’s all framed in lurking suspicions about the vulnerability of carriers and a vague desire not to put all the eggs in one basket.”

Opportunity at Hand: New Roles for Carriers
June, 2008

Artists concept of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78).

Artists concept of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78).

“The carrier debate should not be related to that of its historic battleship predecessor, nor should it devolve into an inter-service domain supremacy or roles-and-mission budget battle. It should be viewed simply as an opportunity to collaborate on leveraging extant joint force capabilities to enhance strategic agility, thus providing the joint force commanders with more options to successfully meet growing operational challenges”

It Takes a Carrier: Naval Aviation and the Hybrid Fight
September, 2009

“The final argument in favor of continued aircraft carrier construction might be the fact that everybody else seems to be building them. Last November, an official in China’s Ministry of National Defense mentioned for the first time in a public venue the possibility of his nation acquiring aircraft carriers. Around the same time, Admiral Hu Yanlin, former political commissar of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, stated ‘China has the capability to build aircraft carriers, and should do so.’ His country has already purchased three carriers built by the former Soviet Union and one built by Australia. It has also been reported that, since 1987, China has been training PLA pilots to one day command aircraft carriers. The United Kingdom, Russia, and India have all shown a keen interest in building carriers.

Fortress at Sea? The Carrier Invulnerability Myth
January, 2010

“The recently renewed debate over aircraft carrier requirements has focused mainly on the factors of cost and utility. These issues notwithstanding, analysts often overlook or understate the carriers’ inherent vulnerabilities. Regardless of the number of carriers national leadership decides to maintain, because they remain the U.S. Navy’s preeminent capital ship and a symbol of American global power and prestige, they are a potential key target for both unconventional and conventional adversaries. Carrier proponents, however, universally seem to accept on faith alone the premise that a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN) is essentially invulnerable.”

Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier
May, 2011

“Continuing to invest in platforms such as the supercarrier—which are expensive to build, cost-prohibitive to operate, and increasingly vulnerable in anti-access/area denied environments—is to repeat the mistakes of the battleship admirals who failed to recognize air power’s potential in the 1930s.”

‘Responsive and Relevant’
February, 2014

“If value is defined as worth, importance, or usefulness, then it can be argued that over the course of the past 100 years no single asset in the U.S. military arsenal has provided more value than the aircraft carrier—nuclear-powered (CVN) for the last 50 years—and its embarked air wing (CVW). The integrated CVN/CVW remains the most effective instrument for shaping the national military strategy, with proven applicability across the range of military operations from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) to high-end maritime strike warfare.”

Too Big to Sink
May, 2017

“The aircraft carrier has had a long and illustrious history, but it cannot continue forever. Instead of waiting for budgetary challenges or an enemy combat success to force it to radically change its structure, the U.S. Navy should begin the transition on its own terms today. By building larger numbers of smaller combatants, relying more on missiles and less on expensive aircraft, and acknowledging trends in scouting technology, the Navy can take advantage of carriers’ many attributes without being completely dependent on them. The alternative is for the Navy to continue to rely on a ship so vital that it has become too big to sink.”

  • Peter

    i think that the “Carrier Debate” is too vague, selecting one topic and one ship and not going into details (because is that classified?). What I mean is…cost, size, expense, surely understandable, but what REALLY bugs these critics? Is it that one cheap missile could sink one very expensive and manned carrier? Well, obviously that is how warfare is with one cheap bullet, one cheaper SAM, one cheaper tank shell, one cheaper torpedo and one cheaper missile able to bring down one man, one expensive airplane, one expensive tank, and one expensive ship.

    So is the debate over the old-fashioned design? Is the debate over the lack of self-protection? Is the debate over too many crew members? Is the debate over the poor management and lengthy build times, costing billions? Is the debate over how the U.S. Navy cannot seem to think of or build anything else? Is the debate over how low a number we have of supercarriers? Is the debate over how the carriers cannot defend themselves against subs and missiles properly? After all, warfare has proved time and again that cheaper and smaller weapons kill and destroy larger and more expensive vehicles.

    What would be interesting is an article showcasing how supercarriers have kept the peace for over 60 years in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Where supercarriers appeared, their airpower has contributed to a settling of crisis and conflicts: no-fly zones, CAS, “show the flag,” exercises, port visits, responding to hot spots, evacuations, disaster relief, etc. Not many articles have been written of the entire life, missions, and service history of the U.S. Navy aircraft carriers…at least not in the blogs.

    • TheTruth

      I would argue cost but the carriers in the 1920’s were nearly 4% of the defense budget whereas the carriers of today are less than 3%. I think overall its the entire budget and the cost of the DD(X), LCS, F35, B2 and other cost intensive defense programs that have taken a big chunk out of the revenue stream because of the new and emerging technology. Being that the carriers cost the most and probably most to operate, it may make the most sense to talk about cutting them.

      I personally believe that it should be looked into how to reduce the number of carriers on active service and maybe bring the count down to 10 or maybe 9 but eliminating them entirely is foolhardy. The carrier is the superior psychological weapon system and it does not make illegitimate leaders comfortable. New technology does make systems more efficient (such as the EMCAT) but expensive but do we seriously want to engage an enemy force that has better technology than us?

      And we must remember that the US Navy is a system. We do not have an “all in one” ship. It’s that way for a reason and carriers should always be apart of that system.

  • tachyonzero

    Seriously, current aircraft carriers are the apex of flexibility and mobility than fixed airfield can offer, also least vulnerable.

    • TheTruth

      Least vulnerable when in the CSG. A running back has half a dozen linemen protecting him, a carrier has at-least six ships protecting her. Can’t current ESSM and EW systems defeat the DF-21 ASM’s?

      • tachyonzero

        You mean CBG (Carrier Battle Group). A carrier is not meant to be a single ship to go into battle. If you have not notice, a carrier traveling with a minimum escort like a destroyer and a must “Submarine”.

        DF-21 ASM is not an all in one package like launch and forget. China is building up its GPS equivalent — “The Compass” to improve CEP against movable target, using lots of support satellites and other communications to quickly updating target location in real-time . ESSM and EW are not the only system to defeat an anti-ship weapons. Supported by AEGIS system(design against Ballistic missiles) to intercept incoming Ballistics like the DF-21, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RIM-161_Standard_missile_SM-3 (RIM-161) is the premier weapons against ballistic missiles.

        If a single DF-21 is armed with nuclear weapon and destroyed a battle group. There is no question at all of China’s cities will have similar fate and same for the US cities. China knows that, and its relying more on conventional weapons.

        • Billy G

          “If a single DF-21 is armed with nuclear weapon and destroyed a battle group. There is no question at all of China’s cities will have similar fate and same for the US cities.”
          That may be a price China’s Communist Party is willing to pay. Under the belief of 300 million dead Chinese still means there are a billion more, China will continue on. 300 million dead Americans leaves very few by comparison. Given the lack of value of human life the Communist Parts shows, this may seem a good trade to them.

          • tachyonzero

            “That may be a price China’s Communist Party is willing to pay. Under the belief of 300 million dead Chinese still means there are a billion more, China will continue on.”

            Totally absurd, do you think that the United States will assumes a 300 million american is worth 300 million Chinese?!
            Do you think China’s core territories in its east coast are just throw away to the equivalent of US West coast?! No Chinese will ever trade living in the Himalayas or to the lifeless Xinjiang region.

            If you ever think CCP traits is the lack of value in human life then why are China’s people is on the economic rise. I’m not claiming in general.

  • Jack Kalpakian

    Load them with UCAV drones and lot more of them than the current 60-70 planes. Reduce the crew, because the air wing wont be there anymore and load it with combat electronics and operators instead. Look at descendants of the arsenal ship and the littoral combat vessel to form the battle group.

  • RRBunn

    About 16 years ago, one of the papers I wrote for the Naval War College non-resident program S&P class has to do with revolutions in military affairs. In that paper I did a cost analysis of CVN life cycle costs for delivery of one ton of bombs on target in anger (not including training) I included aquisition costs for the CV Battle Group ships (circa 1997), and Aircraft, I made a stab at life cycle support costs over a 30 year period. Then made some assumptions on amount of ordance delivered over that 30 years in conflict. Much of the numbers were SWAGs but alternatives included SSGN (then not a fact), and other technology. I cannot find a copy of the paper or the spreadsheets, but as I recall the SSGN appraoch was much more cost effective per ton of bombs on target. Sure we need to show the flag and there are times when we need close air support and other missions, but we need to look at technology before our CVNs become totally ineffective in near peer engagements.

  • James Bowen

    There is no question about whether we still need aircraft carriers (we do). 71% of the world’s airspace is over the ocean, therefore the Navy is responsible for guarding that 71%. The question is whether or not our giant supercarriers are a viable means of maintaining that naval airpower. They are very large, expensive, and there are not very many of them. This would tend to make them high priority targets, and the loss of just one would be a severe blow to the Navy’s fighting strength. They might be able to hold their own against massed anti-ship missile or even, with the deployment of new countermeasures, anti-ship ballistic missile attack. However, they and their battle groups are no match for modern submarines. Instead of a few large carriers, we need many small carriers that carry perhaps 30 aircraft. That way, their sheer numbers would make them less vulnerable and the loss of one or a few would have less impact on the overall strength of the Navy.

  • admrilbubba

    I was 17 when I walked off hello onto the flight deck of Big John, JFK CVA later CV67,I was with 2 others. The 1stClass that escorted us his 1st words to us was ‘Welcome aboard Big John, Dill–o of the 6th fleet!’ All 3 of said nothing as we searched and processed in and someone from or new work area greeted us and escorted us to our new billets. The attitude of the Navy, the JFK made it difficult to shake the concept uttered by the 1st Class that 1st day! Even after the collision with the Belknap attitudes didn’t change, but seem to get worse. As I got older I realized more and more the privilege it was to be on a Carrier. Until the Nimitz came out JFK was as big as they get. Every thing was huge! Going from one place to another you could get lost! That is how a sailor,new to the ship, lost his life during the collision, he got lost trying to get away from the fire.I remember going into a shaft ally for a safety inspection. I had to go through a round hatch, then I went 50 feet down a ladder, a very straight bulkhead hugging ladder to a catwalk platform and 10 feet below me was the shaft as it exited the hull were some 25 feet more was a prop 1 of 4.Standing on the flight deck looking down at the cars some 7 stories below! They look like matchbox cars! I worked with 2 of the 8 1200# boilers that supplied 900 degree steam for everything, depending on the need the steam could be supplied at 600psi,150psi, or 50 psi. Nothing moved, heated, cooked, distilled, or shot off the deck with catapults unless those boilers were up and cooking! Those boilers cooked the water with atomized ND(Navy Distillate fuel),after the JFK the new bird farms would use nuc power. The Kennedy was suppose to be nuc but money was lacking so they placed conventional fired boilers in it instead. To work in the Main Machinrey Room, there were 4 MMR you were ethier a Machienist mate or Boiler Technetium working a least 2- 4 hour watches and a 8 hour work day.

  • Packard Day

    Much like the Japanese sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse on December 10, 1941, the unquestioned power of the modern day aircraft carrier will continue right up until the moment of a major naval disaster involving one of our multi billion dollar behemoths. .

    Once an enemy demonstrates that one of our “invincible” carriers is no longer invincible, look for the lusty days of Chester Nimitz and friends to end. I might add, it will in all probability, and if history is any judge, end rather abruptly.

    The real question is, what then? Here’s to hoping that someone in the USN is now preparing for the next war. A war that may not involve carriers.

  • muzzleloader

    If the carrier is on the cusp of obsolete and irrelevent, why did the Chinese spend the tons of capital ressurecting the Russian carrrier Varyag, and why are they planning to build 4 more CV’s? And why are the Russians doing the same thing?

    • Jon


    • David J Gill

      Not obsolete and irrelevant, but increasingly vulnerable and while at the same the future of warfare and the nature of security threats is more challenging to predict than ever before.

      Why do China and Russian plan to build carriers? Because they have had none or only one. The effectiveness of carriers is uncertain, not at an end; betting against carriers entirely is as foolish as blind faith in their invulnerability.

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  • David J Gill

    The use and misuse of historical precedent is at issue. As with the Russian threat to Ukraine, Putin’s stated right to protect oppressed Russian minorities in neighboring countries and the ominous parallels with Hitler’s similar statement before WWII and the Sudaten Crisis of 1938, we have to wonder if the aircraft carrier’s role will follow the battleship’s path to obsolescence or if that is just too easy as an assumption.