This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Navy’s carrier fleet will be spared in the latest round of budget cuts. Needless to say, the Navy was very pleased.
However, removing carriers from the chopping block could be a misstep in more ways than one. Carriers are exorbitantly expensive. The new Gerald R. Ford–class carriers cost about $13.5 billion dollars each, and the Navy plans on buying 11 of them.
In addition, since carriers use nuclear power, they must go through a complex overhaul at least once in their lifetime, which can cost around $2.3 billion.
The carriers also require a number of escort and support vessels, which massively increase their cost. American carriers house 90 additional, expensive aircraft. In total, a Carrier Support Group (CSG) costs $6.5 million a day just to operate.
However, cost is not the only problem. Carriers are also increasingly vulnerable. The Chinese Government has announced that they built a ballistic missile capable of hitting ships, the DF-21D (commonly referred to as the “carrier killer”). Since the missile flies at hypersonic speeds, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for missile defense systems to shoot down. The United States Naval Institute (USNI) has stated that there is currently “no defense against it” if it works as theorized.
Carrier proponents argue that a missile travelling at Mach 10 would have a very difficult time hitting a carrier because it is a relatively small moving target that can take evasive action.
However, Chinese forces can overcome this obstacle by launching huge numbers of missiles. Since missiles are cheaper than carriers, Captain Henry J. Henrix, Ph.D, estimates that China could build 1,277 DF-21Ds for every one carrier. Thus, even if 99.9 percent of the missiles missed, at least one would hit its target. The USNI estimates that one hit is enough to destroy a carrier.
Cruise missiles are also a major threat to carriers. During the Falklands War, a single Argentinian cruise missile was able to sink a British destroyer, even though the warhead failed to detonate.
Carriers are particularly vulnerable because they pack large amounts of jet fuel and munitions. In 1967, an accidental rocket launch started a chain reaction on the USS Forrestal that killed 134 sailors and put the ship in dry dock for months. Adjusted for inflation, the damage was a massive $504 million.
While damage control practices have improved in wake of the accident, the Forrestal had an armored flight deck that Ford-classes lack. Furthermore, the rocket that did the damage weighed less than 100 pounds. Many anti-ship missiles (ASMs) weigh over a thousand pounds.
Realistically, a ship’s radar can detect a cruise missile when it is only 10 miles away. While airborne radar can triple that range, most cruise missiles travel at nine miles a minute, giving a ship about three minutes of reaction time. Since sailors are not at their battle station nor are missile defense systems armed 24/7 (sailors need rest and missile defense systems will shoot at anything that moves when armed), three minutes hardly seems time enough.
The Russian Sunburn missile travels at supersonic speeds, reducing potential reaction time to 30 seconds. The Sizzler missile also reduces reaction time by travelling subsonic most of the way and then accelerating to supersonic speeds within 12 miles of the target. Sizzlers can also make evasive maneuvers, further complicating missile defense. China has both missiles and Iran might obtain the Sizzler.
Furthermore, it is possible to overwhelm a missile defense system by firing large numbers of cruise missiles. As mentioned earlier, a thousand missiles can be built for the cost of one carrier, virtually ensuring enough supplies for a hit. Decoys can further overload missile defenses. Just as carriers overshadowed battleships, long-range ASMs may overshadow carriers.
Thus, the Navy should shed three of its four CSGs. This would save tens of billions of dollars while leaving a significant carrier force of seven or eight (to put this in perspective, China has one).
The United States should replace these CSGs with additional cruise missiles, as well as submarines. Submarines can remain undetected and are thus far less vulnerable to ASMs. They can also strike farther than carrier-based planes, as Tomahawk missiles have twice the range of F-18s.
The military should also place anti-ship cruise missiles on aircraft. Any aircraft can easily carry them. B-1s can carry 24 cruise missiles per load. Operating from bases in Hawaii or California that are far out of range of Chinese surface-to-surface missiles, just ten B-1 bombers could devastate an enemy fleet.
Additionally the US should add more strategic bombers. The Air Force could reconstitute mothballed B-1s and B-52s. An alternative would be to modify civilian airliners like 737s into bombers. They can carry more cruise missiles (35 or more) and would be difficult to distinguish from civilian planes. They can also be bought cheaply from airlines that are bankrupt or transitioning to newer passenger planes.
All of these could be paid for with the money saved by decommissioning CSGs. A single carrier could pay for 3,000 cruise missiles, twenty reconstituted B-1s, and two Virginia–class attack submarines without exceeding the budget.
Are carriers obsolete? The short answer is no. Just as the advent of carriers did not mean the immediate end of battleships (the US Navy used battleships until the 1990s for shore bombardment and some say they should still be used in that role), carriers will still be useful for the foreseeable future. Carriers are the only platforms capable of bringing fighters and strike aircraft to areas where land-based airfields do not exist.
However, like post-1941 battleships, carriers should no longer be the backbone of the U.S Navy. While carriers will be important weapons for a long time, the military should start looking into cheaper, less vulnerable alternatives for power projection, especially when facing enemies with advanced ASMs.