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Prokhor Tebin

PhD in Political Science, RIAC expert

Supercarriers are surely the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of the United States Navy. Since the Second World War, aircraft carriers have remained the foundation of the U.S. Navy and a key tool for national security policy. Despite this, there is constant debate in the American expert community about the role and place of aircraft carriers in today’s world and about the need to maintain the fleet of aircraft carriers in its current form.

Supercarriers are surely the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of the United States Navy. Since the Second World War, aircraft carriers have remained the foundation of the U.S. Navy and a key tool for national security policy. Despite this, there is constant debate in the American expert community about the role and place of aircraft carriers in today’s world and about the need to maintain the fleet of aircraft carriers in its current form.

Current state of the carrier components of the U.S. Navy

Today, the United States Navy has 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers (CVN) with a displacement of 100,000 tons each – 10 Nimitz-class carriers and one-of-a-kind Enterprise-class carrier. The last U.S. non-nuclear supercarrier Kitty Hawk (CV-63) was decommissioned in 2009. The number of U.S. aircraft carriers fell from 12 to 11 in 2007, when the supercarrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) was withdrawn from the fleet.

The relevant Act of the U.S. Congress (10 U.S.C. 5062(b)) requires the United States Navy to maintain a force of not less than 11 operational aircraft carriers. The Act will be suspended from the end of 2012 – when the nuclear-powered supercarrier Enterprise (CVN-65), built more than half a century ago, will be decommissioned – to the end of 2015, when the fleet is expected to get the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) – the lead ship in a new class of U.S. Navy carriers.

One or two aircraft carriers are usually under a general overhaul, while combat-ready nuclear-powered supercarriers are attached to one of the carrier strike groups (CSG). The composition of CSG may vary, but in addition to nuclear-powered supercarriers, it usually includes 1 cruiser, 2 destroyers, 1 nuclear-powered submarine and 1 supply ship. The composition of a modern carrier wing may also vary substantially, but usually it consists of 60 to 75 aircrafts, including 40 to 50 fighter-bombers, 4 long-range radar detection (LRD) aircrafts, 4 electronic warfare (EW) aircrafts, 2 transport aircrafts and 10 to 12 transport and anti-submarine helicopters.

Act of the U.S. Congress requires the United States Navy to maintain a force of not less than 11 operational aircraft carriers.

After disbanding CSG-7 in late 2011, the Navy was left with a fleet of only 9 operational carrier strike groups: 4 – on the Atlantic coast, 4 – on the Pacific coast, and 1 CSG is regularly posted in Japan at a naval base in Yokosuka.

Two to three carrier strike groups are usually in combat service in the oceans. Current operational requirements require the constant presence of two CSGs in the Gulf region and one CSG – in the Pacific Ocean. The other carriers are engaged in combat training or are under maintenance. In accordance with the Fleet Response Plan, the U.S. Navy may, when necessary, deploy 6 CSGs within 30 days and another CSG within 90 days to the oceans.

Photo: www.atomic-energy.ru
Supercarrier "Enterprise"

Aircraft carriers have been actively used in almost all military conflicts involving the United States such as in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. The constant presence of carriers in key regions of the world can deter Washington’s opponents, it provides substantial support for American diplomacy, and ensures a quick response in case of a crisis or conflict. Aircraft carriers are primarily a tool of “hard power”, but they can also be used in the policy of “soft power” and they perform a variety of non-military functions. For example, nuclear-powered supercarriers played an important role during the relief operations after floods in Indonesia in 2005 (Operation Unified Assistance) and in Japan in 2011 (Operation Tomodachi). Nuclear-powered supercarriers are also actively used in building cooperation between Washington and its allies and partners – as a proof of U.S. status as a global naval power.

“Great debate” about the future of U.S. aircraft carriers

The constant presence of carriers in key regions of the world can deter Washington’s opponents, it provides substantial support for American diplomacy, and ensures a quick response in case of a crisis or conflict.

There are two key phases of the “great carrier debate”.

The first phase was in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s. One of the key elements of Ronald Reagan’s policy on imposing a global military confrontation on the Soviet Union was the building of a “600-ship Navy”, which included increasing the number of aircraft carriers from 12 to 15. Back then, the plan was subjected to considerable criticism. After the Cold War, with larger budget deficits and the need to improve the economy, maintaining even 12 aircraft carriers became a doubt.

The experience of the First Gulf War demonstrated that under the changed international situation, aircraft carriers are an integral part of the American military power. The United States fleet won the first phase of the “great debate” and kept 12 aircraft carriers.

The global economic crisis and the inordinate increase in the U.S. government debt led to the second stage of the debate, which began in the late 2000s. Barack Obama launched a program on reducing the defense budget by nearly USD 500 billion over ten years. There was a real threat of downsizing or cutting back on existing programs on building new aircraft carriers. In particular, the adequacy of the structure of the Navy was challenged by the previous U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The idea of reducing the aircraft carrier fleet attracted sharp condemnation from the Republican Party. The inadmissibility of weakening the naval power was enshrined in the electoral program of M. Romney – Obama’s main rival in the struggle for the presidency.

The second phase of the “great debate” once again ended in victory for the Navy. On January 12, 2012, the new U.S. Secretary of Defense L. Panetta on board the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) announced that the Pentagon will not reduce the number of aircraft carriers, except for the period 2012 to 2015.

“White Elephants” and “Paper Tigers”?

Critics of aircraft carriers overlook the fact that up till now, the problem of determining the exact coordinates of an aircraft carrier moving at a great distance from the shore, and target designation support has not yet been solved.

Surprisingly, but for the twenty years that have passed between the two phases of the “great debate”, the arguments of opponents of supercarriers virtually remain unchanged. They boil down to the definition given in 1990 by David Isenberg, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information. In his paper entitled The Illusion of Power, he called supercarriers “white elephants” and “paper tigers”. According to him, the power of these ships is greatly exaggerated, while their cost is ruinous to the budget.

Indeed, the cost of nuclear-powered supercarriers is very high even for the U.S. defense budget. The construction of the supercarrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) – the lead ship in a new class of U.S. Navy carriers – will cost USD 12.3 billion, of which USD 3.3 billion will be spent on research and development. The cost of the first and second series of this type of nuclear-powered supercarrier will be, adjusted for inflation, USD 11.4 billion and USD 13.9 respectivel. Costs for the fifty-year life cycle of these nuclear-powered supercarriers are estimated at about USD 32 billion (in 2012 prices).

The spread of modern anti-ship missiles, air defense systems and submarines give reasons for some experts to talk about the high vulnerability of supercarriers and their air wing. According to them, a particular threat comes from China’s ballistic missile DF-21D with a range of over 1,500 km, which was dubbed the “carrier-killer” missile. Typically, critics of aircraft carriers overlook the fact that up till now, the problem of determining the exact coordinates of an aircraft carrier moving at a great distance from the shore, and target designation support has not yet been solved. Lack of information on successful test launches places China’s ability to hit a U.S. aircraft carrier in the event of a conflict to a doubt.

Photo: www.armybase.us
USS-Theodore-Roosevelt-CVN-71

Statements that submarines armed with sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) can fully perform the strike functions of an aircraft carrier cannot also stand serious criticism. The SLCM Tomahawk, especially Tactical Tomahawk, plays a key role in U.S. fleet operations “against the shore” but have several disadvantages in comparison with the air wings of nuclear-powered supercarriers.

First, in contrast with SLCMs, fighter-bombers are capable of effectively hitting moving targets and efficiently assessing the changing situation. Secondly, the wing of a nuclear-powered supercarrier can deliver by far more ammunition to a target than SLCMs. For example, in 2001–2002, during the operations in Afghanistan, the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) spent 153 days in the sea. Its air wing supported more than 10,000 sorties and delivered 770 tons of ammunition to the target, which is equivalent to 1,700 Tomahawk SLCMs. The experience of the First Gulf War also showed that the aircraft carrier air wing is capable of delivering more than 110 tons of ammunition per day to the target at maximum effort. Thirdly, naval aircrafts play a key role in the fight against enemy aircraft and in enforcing the regime of no-fly zones.

Thus, supercarriers are the key to carrying out Washington’s major military operations almost anywhere in the world.

There is no alternative

Under the policy of refocusing on the Asia-Pacific region (http://www.defense.gov/news/Defense_Strategic_Guidance.pdf), maintaining and strengthening the fleet of supercarriers will be an indispensable condition for the United States to maintain its status as a global power.

As an alternative to the current aircraft carriers, there are proposals to build light aircraft carriers (LAC), intended for aircrafts of short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL). An example of such carriers is the first two America-class amphibious assault ships with a displacement of about 45,000 tons, which can carry up to 20 STOVL fighters F-35B. Given the difference in the cost of constructing nuclear-powered supercarriers and amphibious assault ships, some experts believe that instead of one supercarrier, three or four of these amphibious assault ships could be built.

The conflict in Libya became the first major U.S. military operation in which supercarriers were not used. The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) served as an aircraft carrier in this conflict. It was therefore declared that “Kearsarge had departed her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, as an amphibious assault ship; she returned in May as a de facto light aircraft carrier”.

However, as practice shows, STOVL carriers cannot replace supercarriers. First of all, this is due to significant restrictions on the take-off weight and range of STOVL aircrafts. During the operation in Afghanistan, U.S. supercarriers demonstrated the ability to support the constant operations of deck-based aircraft at ranges of up to 1,350 km. For LACs, the similar figure is unattainable.

The sizes of flight decks and the number of wings limit the number of sorties, which is one of the key indicators of the efficiency of an aircraft carrier. LAC can support about 30 sorties per day, while the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carrier can support 120 sorties per day. New class nuclear-powered supercarriers will be able to support more than 150 sorties per day. Furthermore, LACs cannot carry state-of-the-art EW aircrafts and LRD aircrafts – the “eyes” of the fleet.

Finally, the sizes of LACs make it impractical to equip them with a nuclear power plant. This significantly limits the ship’s autonomy and generating capacity. Thus, despite the substantial difference in cost, nuclear-powered supercarriers have a superior quality over LAC virtually in all areas, and the construction of even three or four such ships cannot replace the decommissioning of one U.S. supercarrier.

Real threat

It is premature to talk about the decline of the era of supercarriers. Under the policy of refocusing on the Asia-Pacific region, maintaining and strengthening the fleet of supercarriers will be an indispensable condition for the United States to maintain its status as a global power. A powerful Navy is needed by the United States to conduct an independent policy that does not depend on allies and foreign military bases.

In the period 2010–2020, the U.S. monopoly in the construction of aircraft carriers will be weakened. It is assumed that by 2025, China’s Navy will have up to five aircraft carriers, including, possibly two nuclear-powered supercarriers. The Indian Navy by that time will get 3 modern aircraft carriers. There are constant statements that Russia should similarly start constructing these ships for its navy.

Supercarriers are not completely invulnerable to weapons and they need support from other surface ships and submarines. Technological advances, especially the construction of the fifth generation carrier-based fighter F-35C and perspective deck and reconnaissance drone attacks, can significantly increase the power of the U.S. supercarriers. However, one of the key threats to the U.S. naval power lies precisely here.

Reduction in military spending, which in the case of sequestration of the federal budget, could reach USD 1 trillion, is able to inflict a devastating blow to the carrier-based aircrafts of the United States Navy. Delays and closing of programs on creating new aircrafts and upgrading existing ones would lead to a reduction in the number of carrier-based aircrafts and their aging. Aircraft carriers without a wing are not more useful than a gun without bullets. It is reduction in military spending and not the much talked-about Chinese DF-21D that can be a real “carrier-killer” and herald the end of the U.S. dominance in the oceans.

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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
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     27 (26%)
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