“NO PIECE OF hardware better exemplifies America’s military might than an aircraft-carrier,” declare the memoirs of Ashton Carter, America’s defence secretary in 2015-17. Nor does any other piece of hardware so plainly exemplify what is wrong with America’s military thinking. Aircraft-carriers are the largest and most expensive machines in the history of warfare. A new American Ford-class ship costs $13bn—more than the annual defence budget of Poland or Pakistan. However, as precision missiles become faster, more accurate and more numerous, these beasts look increasingly like giant floating targets.
Although America has by far the world’s largest fleet of carriers—11 of the full-sized sort, plus half a dozen smaller ones—their appeal is global, and growing. China’s first domestically built carrier will be commissioned within months. Britain’s second modern carrier began its sea trials in September. Even pacifist Japan is converting two destroyers to carry jets, for the first time since the second world war.
Aircraft-carriers have proved their worth in recent years. Many armed forces watched admiringly as American naval jets did the lion’s share of bombing in the early months of war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 (and again in 2014). Land bases were often unavailable because of awkward geography or recalcitrant allies.
But the seas off enemy shores look ever less safe. Russia and China are both developing long-range missiles that are manoeuvrable and accurate enough to hit large ships at sea. China’s DF-21D, an anti-ship ballistic missile that can travel over 1,500km (950 miles), is already a threat. Several countries are building cheaper anti-ship cruise missiles, which fly shorter distances but can be launched from planes. Anti-ship missiles are growing in range, precision and number. By one estimate, an American naval force within 2,000km of China might have to parry 640 incoming weapons in a single salvo.
Though guiding such missiles onto a distant moving target is tricky, no navy will be keen on putting several billion dollars and thousands of sailors in peril. Carriers have become too big to fail. As a result, they will probably have to remain at least 1,000km away from shore, a distance that their warplanes cannot cross without refuelling. That could have grave implications for America’s ability to project power across the Pacific—and so for all its allies (see Briefing). Carriers will also have to be cocooned with destroyers and frigates, which will absorb most of the resources of smaller navies, like those of Britain and France.
Carriers are not entirely obsolete. Most wars will not be great-power clashes. They will remain useful against foes which lack modern missile systems. Even in intense conflicts, warships will require air power to protect them from the predations of enemy ships and aircraft. As long as navies have surface ships, they will want to be able to fly planes above them.
But what sort of planes? Even as missiles force carriers farther offshore, the average combat range of their air wings has shrunk, from 2,240km in 1956 to around 1,000km today. (Modern munitions travel farther, but do not make up the difference.) The obvious remedy is to use drones that can fly longer, riskier missions than human pilots, allowing their host carriers to keep a safe distance away. But the Pentagon unwisely scrapped its programme for such a drone in 2016, replacing it with one that would merely refuel inhabited planes.
Aircraft-carriers, like the warplanes on them, belong to a class of large, vastly expensive weapons that military types call “exquisite”. A more homely approach to military technology is warranted. Smaller, cheaper and, where possible, unmanned systems could be procured in larger numbers, dispersed more widely and used more daringly. Such forces may lack the prestige of massive warships. But they are better adapted to a world in which the projection of military power is growing ever harder.■