By Tim Holmgren
In 1941, when Japan staged a sneak attack on America at Pearl Harbor, the prevalent military thinking was that it was the battleship (or rather fleets of them) that would fight and win the next war of the seas. These floating fortresses were some of the largest ships of the ocean, and bristled with guns that fired unimaginably huge and devastating projectiles over distances of 25 miles or more. They were clad in thick belts of steel armor and housed thousands of men. The loss of even one or two was seen as a disaster for any navy, and every country measured their foes based on how many of these behemoths that foe could muster. Regardless of the fact that they were using aircraft carriers themselves to unleash the surprise attack, even the Japanese thought strongly that battleships were still the primary assets of any fleet, and they doggedly targeted the huge American ships in their sneak attack. Their surprise strike was counted as an overwhelming success because of the damage they wrought along “battleship row” – sinking or heavily damaging almost all of America’s prime battleships staged in the Pacific, and killing many of their crews.
Most historians agree, however, that the primary reason America was able to recover and retaliate in those early days of the Pacific war was because the aircraft carriers had been out to sea when the attack came, and thus avoided destruction. Those carriers – also huge ships which carried thousands of sailors -- would go on to fight and win the most influential sea battles of the next four years, and by the time the United States had achieved victory, virtually every forward-thinking strategist was convinced that the days of the battleship were over and the measure of a nation’s sea-borne power lay in her fleet of aircraft carriers.
Since that time, America has been, by far, the preeminent power to harness the deadly striking power of an aircraft carrier and its airplanes. No other nation on earth has even come close to fielding aircraft carriers of the size and in the numbers that the U.S. did. The entire US Navy became focused around the aircraft carrier, and its unprecedented ability to project power across the globe – giving America mobile and free-roaming floating airbases that could threaten virtually any foe with destruction.
As time went by, the carriers got bigger and they progressed to nuclear powered symbols of America’s ability to force its will on any other country around the globe. Only nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, either carried by submarines or housed in land-locked underground silos deep in the heartland, were considered a more lethal threat to our enemies, and the development and deployment of those Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles was the only way the “other” super-power of the late twentieth century – the Soviet Union – could possibly hope to match America in destructive reach and power. Even today, long after the Cold War, America relies on its fleet of aircraft carriers to act as both symbols and weapons – sending out either non-verbal threats of destruction by lurking off an enemy’s shore or launching actual attacks from their decks in support of our other armed forces. The modern day aircraft carrier is the pride of the American navy, and an unmistakable symbol of America’s strength and reach. No other country in the world has anything even remotely close to its fleet of gigantic sailing air bases, and America’s would-be enemies pay very careful attention to the location and movements of our various carrier battle groups.
One would argue, however, that the aircraft carriers of today are analogous to the battleships of yester-year – floating targets that represent such an investment in manpower and wealth that sinking one of them would be considered an enormous victory for any enemy of America, regardless of what it cost the attackers. These ships are fearsome war machines, to be sure, and they are protected not only by the aircraft they carry but by a ring of support ships and armed guardians – in the form of both submarines and versatile anti-aircraft cruisers and destroyers.
But as technology progresses, the aircraft carrier becomes more and more vulnerable to the various counter-weapons our would-be enemies have developed to fight them. Major nations like Russia and China are continuously developing new weapons and tactics that could strike at these symbols of American prowess from either beneath the sea, in the form of increasingly sophisticated submarines, or from overhead, in the form of salvos of super-sonic missiles carried by both ships and land-based aircraft. Even second-rank powers like North Korea or Iran have developed or purchased weapons specifically designed to overwhelm a carrier’s defensive shield using either stealth, speed, massive swarms of missiles, or all of the above. There is no doubt at all that if tensions between America and one of its enemies reaches the boiling point, American aircraft carriers will be a focal point from which to project its power as well as becoming hugely attractive primary targets for the enemy.
Imagine the blow America would suffer if one of its premier, state-of-the-line carriers were to be sunk, either by torpedo or missile. These ships carry crews that number upwards of 6,000 sailors each, and house close to one hundred aircraft. Every one of them represent an investment of billions of dollars, and more importantly, they represent the immense military power and prestige the United States holds over every other country on earth. Power that allows them to dictate, in broad strokes, the policies held regarding other nations, and power that could be used to punish those nations if they don’t behave themselves as they would like them to. It is this very fact: that the modern-day super-carrier of America’s navy is both a powerful symbol and the biggest stick in its armory that makes them such an attractive target. Sink one and you have given the American military not just a black eye, but a thundering declaration that you are no longer going to cower in the shadows cast by America’s long reach and overwhelming power – regardless of what that victory costs you. Even if your country is battered mercilessly by counter attacks in the aftermath of such a potential blow, you would still be seen around the world as the David who struck down Goliath with nothing but a sling. Many of America’s enemies might come to the conclusion that successfully sinking an American super-carrier – potentially killing over 5,000 sailors in one blow and depriving the U.S. of one of its finite crown-jewel weapons – might be worth suffering through whatever counter-attack America might launch.
Yes, the American military is very much in the same mind-set about its aircraft carriers today that it held about its fleet of gigantic battleships on the eve of World War Two. They were mighty, they were dangerous, and they were potent symbols of America’s might, but they were also huge, almost irresistible targets worthy of launching salvo after salvo of missiles, aircraft and submarines in order to destroy -- for their destruction would lay bare a glaring vulnerability in America’s force structure, and could concievably knock our nation off its perch atop the world’s food chain. If the United States lost even one carrier to the enemy, the harm it would cause would be incalculable. It might even be forced to use its arsenal of nuclear weapons in response – both out of anger and to try and send a message to any and all of its enemies – it would be as grim for America as the 9/11 attacks, at least (as well as being much more deadly) – and its navy would suddenly be faced with adopting a strategy of keeping its’ carriers far out to sea, presumably out of reach of another deadly strike. Thus cowed, the United States Navy would find it difficult in the extreme to continue to impose power, because the weapons these huge ships carry – fighter and fighter-bomber airplanes, would have to fly much farther to reach their target and exact revenge, and such a counter-strike would inevitably be significantly more difficult and dangerous the longer it got, thus risking the lives of even more American servicemen and women.
Furthermore, the capacity to destroy an aircraft carrier exists, even if the navy does not want to admit it. It is indisputable that as America’s potential enemies develop new carrier-killer weapons with the capacity to overwhelm or sneak through the carrier’s defenses, the calculus concerning such an attack is rapidly approaching the point that some countries just might try it – thus creating a twenty-first century Pearl Harbor-like disaster. Even with its compliment of deadly aircraft and powerful support ships, the difficulty of guiding even a single missile through the carrier’s defensive cordon is gradually diminished as our potential enemies develop speedier, stealthier, and more powerful missiles (which they would launch in huge swarms, knowing that even if MOST of those missiles were deflected or destroyed in flight, a few might get through). Some belligerent enemies might even resort to atomic weapons and ballistic missiles to do the job, and some of those countries already have developed and deployed such weapons.
The American navy should begin to wean itself off its reliance of these huge, floating targets, and instead begin building large and relatively simple ‘Arsenal Ships’ that could carry the same punch of a carrier in the form of either cruise missiles or ballistic missiles, and could concievably require a crew of only dozens of sailors, or perhaps be unmanned altogether and controlled from a distance, as drone aircraft are today. Such ships could be built for a fraction of the cost of the carrier it replaces, allowing the US Navy to produce and staff many more of them than we have super-carriers today. A fleet of these less expensive, faster to build Arsenal Ships could largely replace today’s super-carriers and carry many more deadly missiles than a carrier has airplanes. Their core mission would remain the same as a super-carrier – while holding two or three times the capacity to strike targets from the waters off an enemy’s coastline -- and they would deliver the same symbolic message as a super-carrier, even if they turned out to be somewhat more vulnerable to attack. By fielding dozens of these relatively uncomplicated and thus less expensive ships, the US Navy would reduce the pain of having any one of them destroyed, and we would still have the power to obliterate enemy targets around the world at a moment’s notice – perhaps even more so than we do today. Although this is, admittedly, a radical proposal from a civilian who obviously holds less information about America’s most powerful weapons than its military leaders have (and it’s also not a new idea), it is both a call to action and a warning. If America continues to field a blue-water navy centered around the gigantic targets aircraft carriers represent, it will eventually come to regret that it didn’t seek out a replacement for projecting force across the world’s oceans sooner, before it suffer a devastating loss of both manpower and respect that sinking an American super-carrier would cause.
Tim Holmgren is an award-winning journalist with a BA degree in Mass Media and History from Chadron State University in Nebraska.