Key Point: Carriers aren’t unsinkable, but they aren’t dead yet either.
The 2019 iteration of the naval exercise Sea Breeze, which brought together nineteen nations (mostly from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and thirty-two ships, ended in the Ukrainian port of Odesa on July 12. The exercise was apparently conducted without incident. The Black Sea has indeed become fraught with tension since the November 2018 Kerch Strait skirmish, which witnessed Russia’s violent seizure of three Ukrainian vessels, whose crews remain in Russian captivity.
If some nationalists in Kyiv thought that crisis would cause Ukrainians to “rally round the flag” and support Petro Poroshenko’s continuing hard line regarding Russia and the fate of the Donbas, they were utterly mistaken. Now, if Moscow is serious about dealing constructively with the new administration in Kyiv, then Kremlin needs to cut the gamesmanship and release the captive crews and vessels as a gesture of goodwill.
Washington has not helped matters by “upping the ante” with Sea Breeze and such demonstrations of force on Russia’s doorstep. In the best case, such measures could be viewed as helping to give Kyiv the confidence to negotiate with Moscow. Yet, the risks of such maneuvers have not been adequately realized in Washington. To take but one example, it is asserted that no less than 18,000 mines left over from WWII still exist in the waters of the Sea of Azov and also along the Black Sea coasts. “They lie somewhere on the bottom and await their moment [Они где-то лежат на дне и ждут своего часа.].” It is actually not hard to imagine a U.S.-Russia war initiated by the accidental sinking of a NATO vessel participating in the Sea Breeze exercise with an unexploded mine in such hazardous waters. Remember the USS Maine?
In such a conflict, of course, NATO forces (excluding Turkey) in the Black Sea would constitute a mere “tripwire”—military parlance for a force with some political value at “phase zero,” but with little actual military significance. They would be wiped out in the first few hours of a war. Perhaps, it is fortunate, therefore, that the U.S. is forbidden to bring aircraft carriers through the Turkish Straits by the Montreux Convention. In a hypothetical situation in which they were allowed to transit the Straits, they would likely be rapidly destroyed by a robust combination of diesel submarines, shore-based mobile missile forces, and small but lethal Russian missile boats. All of this, of course, does not even mention land-based aircraft equipped with hypersonic anti-ship missiles, such as the new Kinzhal system.
If aircraft carriers have limited utility in a regrettably conceivable war over the future of Ukraine, what are the U.S. Navy’s capital ships actually good for in a conflict against Russia? It is true that many decades ago, America’s flattops faced off against the Soviet Navy in a significant naval stare down in the Eastern Mediterranean. Back in 1973, however, some U.S. Navy officers had serious misgivings about employing U.S. aircraft carriers against the Soviet Union’s so-called “Fifth Eskadra,” which even then was bristling with lethal anti-ship missiles.
A mid-July 2019 study in the Russian military newspaper Military Review [Военное Обозрение] takes up the following question in the headline “The future U.S. Navy: nuclear ‘super’ or light aircraft carriers [Будущее ВМС США: атомные ‘суперы’ или лёгкие авианосцы?]?” The piece is historically grounded and the Russian author understands that the value of aircraft carriers has been questioned since the dawn of the Atomic Age. Yet, it is explained that “American admirals categorically disagreed” with that skepticism. In U.S. military doctrine, it is assessed that airpower “always played first violin … and that command of the air has been viewed as an essential precondition for victory in war [всегда играли первую скрипку … господство в воздухе почиталось ими абсолютно необходимой предпосылкой для победы в войне.].”
A certain degree of envy is apparent in this analysis. A clear contrast is visible when this Russian analyst talks about the “rich experience” that the U.S. Navy gained in the Pacific War in the employment of aircraft carriers. Thus, even as the size and cost of aircraft carriers have increased precipitously, the Russian author maintains that American strategists “believed it to be criminal to economize on this critical system of naval armament [полагали преступным экономить на ключевой системе морских вооружений].” One can sense more than a little jealousy when the author reminds his readers that, after all, “America is a rich country.”
The U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier is briefly assessed. It is noted that the Gerald D. Ford aircraft carrier has electromagnetic catapults, an expanded aircraft capacity, and a smaller crew due to automation. Moreover, the Russian analysis notes both new nuclear reactor technology, as well as enhanced stealth. At the same time, it is realized that the vessel, as a first in its class, may suffer from certain “childhood illnesses [детскими болезнями],” and it remains unclear if these kinks can be resolved or are of a chronic character. What is beyond dispute, the author writes, is that the ship is “expensive. Very expensive.” Coming in at a cool $13 billion without counting the costs of the air wing or the escorts for the behemoth, “it makes sense in these conditions” that some in the U.S. are calling for smaller aircraft carriers that are less costly, according to the Russian analysis.
Much of the second half of the Russian article explores a RAND report on “Future Carrier Options.” It is explained that this study evaluated building either 70,000-ton, 40,000-ton, or 20,000-ton alternatives to the 100,000-ton supercarriers. For these smaller and cheaper ships, the Russian analyst notes, of course, that they would have “significantly limited combat potential [боевой потенциал существенно ограничен],” of course. Ultimately, it is concluded that the Americans are unlikely to sacrifice combat power in order to save money due to the admirals’ objections. The Russian analysis ends with a joke, wishing the Americans good luck with developing smaller carriers. It is explained that recent American experience shows that the U.S. Navy is likely “to receive ships 1.5 times smaller, two times less effective and three times more expensive as a result of efforts to make the carrier fleet less expensive.” [что в результате попытки удешевления авианосного флота ВМС США получат корабли в полтора раза меньше, в два раза хуже и втрое дороже существующих].
One could even be inclined to agree with the Russian strategist’s wry humor, and perhaps to even sympathize with the predicament of a Russian fleet that has seen some ups and perhaps more than its share of downs in recent decades. No doubt many Russian leaders still dream wistfully about gazing upon a shiny Ford-type supercarrier bearing the Russian naval ensign—the blue-cross flag of St. Andrew. Apparently, the idea is not quite dead, moreover, and may live on within a China-Russia partnership, although that “bilateral option” still seems rather far-fetched.
Nevertheless, the envy of other navies does not necessarily make the supercarrier the ideal capital ship for the U.S. Navy going forward. More than a few American naval strategists have pronounced the aircraft carrier to be obsolete for modern naval warfare. While reasonably useful in conflicts from the Korean War to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it must be said that these conflicts were notable in that they featured opponents lacking the means to contest the seas. It’s sad to say, but unfortunately even the smaller and more backward militaries of Iran or North Korea could have a chance of putting a flattop down these days. Never mind the determined efforts of both China and Russia, which have both been working energetically to solve this problem for now more than half a century.
Carrier advocates will often make the dubious claim that a couple of missiles or even a torpedo could not actually sink these hulking ships. Perhaps not, but please try to imagine the armada that would have to be assembled to rescue a disabled ship of this stature. To continue logically in this nightmare, now imagine the immense and vulnerable target that such a rescue operation would represent for an adversary. Such a scenario could result in the loss of a significant portion of the U.S. Navy. Regrettably, sometimes one must imagine a tragedy in order to prevent it.
Indeed, it is well past time to shelve the pervasive big deck culture that has persisted against all evidence and common sense within the U.S. Navy and Congress too. Let us instead act decisively to pursue a more rational naval force structure that strongly emphasizes undersea capabilities, along with unmanned and highly distributed networks of sensors.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Research Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. In addition to Chinese, he also speaks Russian and he is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI) at Naval War College. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.