Protect the supercarrier and protect the free world

Protect the supercarrier and protect the free world
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When global challenges rise to crisis levels, the president of the United States asks, “Where are the aircraft carriers?”

Thus, one key marker signaling a period of enduring decline in American power and influence around the globe will be the day the U.S. decides it can no longer bear the expense to sustain the current fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or the shore infrastructure to support them. 

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While tacitly ceding global leadership to a multi-polar world, leaders will suggest that the Pax Americana can be sustained without the expense to support a supercarrier fleet. They will suggest that it is a relic of a bygone era in a future defined by cyber, robotics and artificial intelligence. Defenders of the fleet will be accused of the same mental lethargy exhibited by battleship admirals at the advent of the aviation age. 

 

Regardless of the technologies employed, the ability to deter war for the foreseeable future will require physical presence and physical force, with human and material capital at risk. The supercarrier is well suited for that task and will be well into the future. Consider:

  • It has the size, weight and power to accommodate a vast array of warfare enablers;
  • It has a long service life with multiple opportunities for modular and incremental improvements to keep pace with ever-changing technology;
  • It does not require permission from foreign powers to operate within striking distance of the vast majority of the globe;
  • It can sustain itself for long periods of time that will be ever-increasing as technologies mature. 

Most importantly, the supercarrier is far more challenging to find, fix, target and destroy than any fixed site used to support other forces.

If an enemy can target and sink a mobile supercarrier in a vast sea, when the ship has the ability to manipulate its position and electronic signature, and if it can sink it despite significant armor and defensive systems; then fixed or distributed bases could easily be eliminated. 

The maneuverability, speed and endurance of a supercarrier minimizes the risk inherent in warfare much more effectively than any fixed site could, and it keeps deterrent combat capability close to a potential fight. 

The supercarrier is a platform that is also highly adaptable to modern changes in technology. Already, unmanned aerial systems have operated from their decks — catapulting into the air, accomplishing arrested landings and taxiing among manned aircraft. 

The supercarrier’s space and power generation capability can accommodate a host of networks, sensors and processors with cyberwarfare capability in addition to the fleet of aircraft and weapons systems they are already known to deploy.

Some suggest that lighter, conventionally powered aircraft carriers such as the retired Forrestal Class could replace a significant portion of the supercarrier fleet at much lower costs. However, these vessels have significantly higher lifecycle costs to crew and operate than a supercarrier, and they provide significantly less combat power, maneuverability, speed and endurance. 

They do not have the ammunition or fuel storage capacity onboard to both defend themselves while simultaneously conducting offensive missions for operationally significant periods against near-peer threats without close tether to a supercarrier or tanker fleet.

They do not support air wings with a full complement of enablers — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), airborne command and control (C2), air-to-air refueling, electronic attack, organic search and rescue, etc. 

They can’t be armored or defended to the same degree as supercarriers, and they do not have nearly the same capacity or power to support multi-spectrum operations.

Light carriers are very effective tools for landing and defending Marine amphibious forces and short-duration, small-scale power projection or deterrence missions, but do not come close to replacing the capacity or capability of supercarriers. 

The supercarrier is both a symbol of American military supremacy and an actual instrument of American hard power.  The ability to surge and amass the combat power provided by five or six supercarriers demonstrates such credible deterrence to potential adversaries that it is rarely necessary. 

With one-third of the supercarrier fleet in required maintenance or upgrades to combat systems, one-third in training and one-third in a full state of readiness or actually deployed; it is simple math to get to a required fleet size of around 12. 

More than that is certainly better but likely constrained by other defense and fiscal priorities. Fewer supercarriers than that is a decision to cede America’s global leadership to a multi-polar world that may not share our commitment to the rules-based global order that has ushered in and protected seven decades of unprecedented prosperity and relative peace.

Cmdr. Michael Nordeen, representing the U.S. Navy, is a national security affairs fellow for the academic year 20172018 at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Navy or Department of Defense.