The Carrier Debate: From 1922 to Now

June 27, 2013 4:30 AM - Updated: March 19, 2018 9:57 AM
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.”

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