The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier

2 February 2011

Wednesday


In several posts (Sinking a Carrier: Precisification of Concept among them) I have characterized the aircraft carrier (in its material and doctrinal context) as the preeminent instrument of force projection in the world today. Why is the aircraft carrier dominant in force projection today? Because it can carry almost a hundred fighter jets to any place in the world with a coastline, fly them, maintain them, maintain their pilots, and fulfill all the roles of combat support for these fighters. The power that an aircraft carrier is projecting is the air arm that it carries. This is important. An aircraft carrier is not important because it mounts enormous naval guns like the Dreadnought class battleships of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An aircraft carrier doesn’t mount any big guns at all. An aircraft carrier is a force to reckoned with because it brings aircraft to the theater of operations in an age in which command of the air is crucial to all combat operations.

Sitting ducks? “Flat tops” can be larger than the pier they tie up to, and therefore constitute a large and tempting target.

At one time, the big guns of a battleship were important weapons. Battleships could carry enormous guns that could fire on shore batteries and on positions several miles inland, not to mention firing on other capital ships. This was a formidable military capacity. The technologies that began to emerge from our first industrialized war, World War I, and which were systematically implemented during the inter-war period, decisively changed the maritime combat equation. Submarines with torpedoes, airplanes with torpedoes, and airplanes configured as dive bombers rendered the battleship as vulnerable as a medieval knight in armor was vulnerable to a peasant with a firearm. The vulnerability of capital ships was not taken for granted. The early advocates of air power not only had to engage in extended polemics in order to make their point, but Billy Mitchell organized a famous demonstration in 1921 in which aircraft carrying bombs were used to disable German and US battleships from the First World War. This demonstration helped to overcome institutionalized resistance to change, but resistance there was, and the institutions were slow to change.

Ex-German battleship Ostfriesland takes a gigantic blow from a 2,000 lb. aerial bomb burst far enough below the surface that fountains of water erupt high above both sides of the ship. Minutes later, the target ship sank by the stern. This was the finale of Billy Mitchell's anti-ship bombing demonstration in July 1921. (from Wikipedia)

Not only were battleships vulnerable to new weapons systems, as Mitchell demonstrated, but they were also entering a death spiral of increased size, cost, and complexity. Mitchell’s concerns were the same concerns we have today: that money invested in outdated weapons systems will take money from the new weapons systems that will be vital in future conflicts. Moreover, the older weapons systems, as they mature, tend to grow disproportionately large and expensive. The Bismarck and the Tirpitz, the Yamato and the Musashi, consumed enormous resources, were extremely expensive to build, and were crewed by thousands. They were also vulnerable to smaller, cheaper, less manpower-intensive counter-measures. The Tirpitz, fully outfitted, cost 181.6 million Rm (the Bismarck cost more) and had a crew complement of 2,608; a type VII C U-boat cost 4.8 million Rm and had a crew complement of 52. For the price of one Tirpitz, you can have many U-boats, and this is exactly what Karl Dönitz did when he took charge. Perhaps if he had had the opportunity to act earlier on cheaper counter-measures, the Battle of the Atlantic might have had a different outcome.

Dreadnought class battleships were not only formidable weapons systems in their time, but also potent symbols of national prestige.

It is not that the fundamental (and perennial) calculus of maritime strategy has changed, but that the means to the end of this perennial calculus has changed:

“Two decades after the passing of the Grand and High Seas fleets, the age-old principle of maritime strategy was unchanged. The control of the seas remained the final objective, for the purpose of providing and denying the free movement of trade and military needs. But the means of exercising this control was vested as well, and within its ever-increasing range and power, in the aircraft, from shore or carrier.”

Richard Hough, Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship, 1965, p. 223

Whereas the very idea of an aircraft carrier once needed to be defended against vested interests who preferred to spend budgetary funds on battleships, now it is the turn of the carrier to be the large, complex, and expensive weapons system nearing the end of the its lifespan. And there is nothing new in the observation. I have written a couple of posts on this (Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept and The Political Context of Sinking a Carrier). When Mike Burleson was writing his New Wars blog he would publish a “Carrier Alternative Weekly” almost every week, examining alternatives to large and expensive carriers. Mike Burleson also wrote a lot of posts on the vulnerability of carriers to counter-measures. It is worthwhile to read through the archives of New Wars to review these.

The Nimitz class carrier is the backbone of the US carrier fleet.

Because there is nothing new in the idea of the terminal obsolescence of carriers, what I want to try to do today is to place this obsolescence in a larger context — historical context, technological context, intellectual context, tactical context, and strategic context. A few days ago in Technological Succession I argued for a distinction between perennial technologies and mature technologies. Because of the phenomenon of technological succession — a new technology taking over where an old technology leaves off — once a technology matures it invites rival technologies not yet matured to overtake its future incremental progress by the leapfrogging progress of a technology still capable of significant improvements.

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN78) is the future of the US carrier fleet, often called a supercarrier.

It would be over-simplifying matters to say that every technology has a limited lifespan, aircraft carriers included. This is painting with too broad a brush. Some technologies — perennial technologies — are limited by no lifespan and will always be present in response to perennial needs. Apart from perennial technologies, most technologies develop and succeed one another in a process that I call technological succession (by analogy with ecological succession).

Maritime technology generally speaking, and not tied to any particular maritime platform, is a perennial technology. There will always be ships. But the aircraft carrier is a particular instantiation of maritime technology, and the technology that it represents is a mature technology. As a mature technology, it is subject to technological succession when an alternative technology with advantages becomes available that serves the in same capacity as the established technology.

The aircraft carriers of today are not remarkably different from the aircraft carriers of the Second World War. Progress with this mature weapons system has been, and will continue to be, incremental, i.e., evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Thus an aircraft carrier is the paradigm case of a mature technology, not a perennial technology. What it does, it does very well, and incremental improvements can be expected to continue indefinitely, but as I argued in Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept the development of the aircraft carrier from the Second World War to today is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and this is the kind of change that is to be expected in the future: further evolutionary change, rather than revolutionary change, and at a slower rate of change because the technologies concerned have largely plateaued.

Innovations in SCRAM jet technology may provide reliable hypersonic flight in the not too distant future, and this will constitute a revolutionary advance that will outpace mature weapons systems that are advancing at an evolutionary pace, having already experienced their exponential growth and now leveled off to a plateau.

The mature technology of the aircraft carrier is in the process of being overtaken by newer technologies that will not be aircraft carriers, but will replace the role that is now filled by aircraft carriers. The weapons systems that will replace the role now filled by the aircraft carrier will be precision guided munitions, precision guided missiles, and both of the former launched from UCAVs and from supersonic and hypersonic manned aircraft from airbases, not from carriers. Improving hypersonic jet technology (such as SCRAM jets) will make is possible for a jet to be launched from an airbase on one side of the world, fly to the other side of the world within an hour’s time, hit targets, and return to base as quickly, for maintenance, fueling, and aircrew rest. The US defense establishment has already formulated this goal in what is called the Prompt Global Strike Initiative (PGS). I tried to give a sense of the possibilities of such a weapons system in A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat.

Many options are available for prompt global strike.

While PSG is not intended to replace carrier-based aviation, the long-term phenomenon of technological succession should be obvious. Once the technology is available, it will be cheaper and more effective to maintain aircraft at an airbase deep within secure territory as compared to doing so on an aircraft carrier. It will take many decades, and perhaps a war, to make the transition, but that the transition is coming should be obvious to all.

The role of a CVBG in power projection is inseparable from the air arm that it carries. When that air arm can be made available in-theater by other means, the justification for a CVBG disappears. There are some air assets that must be supplied and maintained close to the theater of operations, but these assets are not necessarily the air superiority fighters that are currently the focus of carrier aviation.

The fate of the aircraft carrier is inseparable from the fate of the air arm that it carries. If the equivalent of that air arm can be made available at any place or time that a carrier can make an equivalent force available, and it can be done cheaper or more effectively or efficiently, or at less risk to personnel and other assets, then that alternative will be pursued. Any peer competitor who fails to respond appropriately to this inevitable calculus will find themselves on the losing side of a battle of attrition.

However, the air arm carried by a contemporary CVBG is not the only air arm that needs to be made available in theater. The air arm of fixed wing aircraft with the capability of fifth generation fighters will, in the not distant future, be available from air bases within secure territory, but there is another transition that is coming, that is as inevitable as the obsolescence of carriers.

An Italian-made Agusta A129 Mangusta (Mongoose) helicopter gunship firing its chin mounted 20-mm M197 cannon.

Just as I have written that the aircraft carrier is the preeminent instrument of force projection in the world today, so the helicopter gunship is the preeminent weapons system of mobile fire in the world today. Helicopter technology was not available during the Second World War. During the Korean War and the Viet Nam War helicopters primarily played a support role in the insertion and removal of infantry. The development of the helicopter gunship is still quite recent, and it has mostly seen engagement in small wars like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or Russian operations in Chechnya. The helicopter gunship is capable of much more than this; there remains much untapped potential here.

A38 Eurocopter Tiger: the helicopter gunship is the preeminent form of mobile fire in the world today.

Mechanized armor is mobile, and far more mobile than infantry or cavalry, which were the only alternatives when mechanized armor was initially developed. Helicopter gunships are more mobile than mechanized armor. The logic of maneuver warfare that ultimately converged upon massed mechanized armor with close air support and infantry to exploit a breakthrough will, eventually, converge upon massed armored air assets — which means the helicopter gunship and fixed wing aircraft like the AC-130 gunship — with close ground support, and mechanized armor and infantry to exploit a breakthrough. The emphasis will shift from breakthrough on the ground to breakthrough in the air. (A tactical doctrine adequate to the helicopter gunship also suggests an interesting question: can a helicopter sink a carrier? If, as I have argued, flying boat swarms present a danger, certainly helicopter swarms also present a danger.)

AH-64 Apache attack helicopter: the helicopter gunship is the armored asset of the future.

Before this projected convergence is completed there will be a period of transition during which the armed forces that first employ this tactical doctrine for helicopter gunships — a tactical doctrine adequate to the potential of this technology of mobile fire — will have a disproportionate advantage in the battlespace, driving all before it in an aerial equivalent of Guderian’s Panzers or Liddell-Hart’s expanding torrent.

Russia's KA-52 attack helicopter: Western forces have no monopoly on innovative helicopter technology. The Russian KA-52 employs a contra-rotating co-axial rotor system.

The platform for the projection of this weapons system of mobile fire in theater will be the helicopter carrier. While fixed wing aircraft will be able to travel from secure air bases to the theater of operations within a timeframe appropriate to the exigencies of combat, helicopter gunships will not be able to do so. Therefore, as the age of the aircraft carrier draws to the close, the age of the helicopter carrier is only just dawning. And helicopter carriers can be much smaller and more mobile than a contemporary aircraft carrier, meaning that they are a more difficult target to hit, and therefore less vulnerable to cheap counter-measures.

HMS Ocean: the helicopter carrier will be the future platform for in-theater projection of massed armored air assets in the form of helicopter gunships.

Those armed forces that wish to dominate the battlespace of the mid- to late- twenty-first century should build helicopter carriers, and helicopter gunships to fill them, rather than building aircraft carriers.

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17 Responses to “The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier”

  1. A useful conceptual exercise. The fundamental technology is the same, but the “tactical” technology is ever shifting.

    I still see aircraft carriers as useful over the next decade or so, but your point about striking capability from over large distances combined with the need for mobility is well worth considering.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      I definitely see conventional aircraft carriers being useful for the next several decades, not only the next decade. It takes decades to get a new weapons system up and running in a robust fashion. In the meantime, the tried-and-true perennial technology of the conventional aircraft carrier will continue to be central to global power projection.

      My point is only that we can see the next stage in evolution at the far horizon, and we can foresee the eventual obsolescence — several decades, if not a century, hence — of the conventional aircraft carrier. However, we can also see the rising importance of the helicopter carrier, which will fulfill a vital role in future battlespaces even as the function of the conventional carrier is eclipsed by other weapons systems that can project the same assets more securely and at a lower cost.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  2. Wouldn’t these copters with the sound of many chariot wheels and the appearance of locusts fit the description given in Revelation by a man called John 2,000 years ago?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Deakin,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think that the comparison would only occur to someone who was already wedded to the notion of interpreting current events in terms of an eschatological conception of history. Since I have a very different perspective, for me the comparison sounds imaginative but not in the least intellectually compelling.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  3. Somebody said

    Aircraft carriers will be relevant for a long time yet, much longer than the “several decades” you predict. I’m sure helicopter gunships will one day be capable of sinking large warships, but I can’t conceivably see them taking over the role of fixed wing aircraft due to their shorter range and lower payload capacities. That seems akin to replacing your M40 sniper rifle with an M4 carbine.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Somebody,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I do not disagree with this: the several decades I postulated could well stretch to include the entire 21st century. But how much longer than that? How long do you predict that aircraft carriers in more or less their present form will continue to be the preeminent mode of force projection in the world? Even if you disagree with the scenario I outlined above, at some point changes in military technology will result in changes in weapons systems and doctrine that will make the combat environment unrecognizable in comparison to what it is today.

      Please note that I did not say that helicopter gunships would take over the role of fixed wing aircraft. I was very explicit in saying the fixed wing aircraft have a particular combat role to fulfill, but that in the future this role will be able to be fulfilled from airbases on the ground (even half way around the planet) when hypersonic fixed wing aircraft become available. Helicopter gunships have a different combat role to fulfill, but precisely for the reasons you cite — shorter range and lower payload capacities — they would need to be furnished in-theater by some means such as helicopter carriers.

      The reason I argue we will be able to dispense with fixed wing aircraft carriers in the future is due to the fact that future fixed wing aircraft will be able to arrive in theater without the need for basing them on fixed wing aircraft carriers, since it would be less expensive and less vulnerable to stage them at airbases. While the technology does not exist today to have a sufficient number of ground-based fixed winger fighters available in any theater of combat anywhere in the world in less than an hour, this technology is in the process of development, and eventually it will come to fruition in robust weapons systems.

      Very Respectfully Yours,

      Nick

  4. Dan Tice said

    I have a “Warships of the World” type of book from 1978 that makes the same sorts of claims with identical rationales. Several of the ships discussed in that book were sunk during the Falklands conflict, primarily due to the lack of true carriers on the part of the British. I keep it as a memento of the hubris of such predictions. In particular, they ignored the various missions that carriers undertake, such as sea control and convoy protection, in favor of the attack role.

    Drone-based aviation might well change the look and operation of carriers in the future, but the idea that long striking distances from land-based aircraft are the funeral chime of carriers misunderstands the multi-role character of the aircraft carrier.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Tice,

      Certainly at the time of the Falklands War carriers were relevant, they are still relevant today (indeed, I have here called them the preeminent form of force projection in the world today), and they will continue to be relevant tomorrow.

      But for how many tomorrows? Part of the problem of military futurism is that people talk at cross purposes because they fail to be sufficiently explicit in defining the time periods involved. For some people, ten years is a long term horizon, but for me ten years is a very short term horizon. When someone is discussing budgeting, ten years is a long horizon, and what lies beyond twenty or thirty years is still in research labs and is not yet anything in the pipeline for funding and deployment in active duty.

      It may well turn out to be that the promises of hypersonic jet travel will be like the promise of fusion power: always thirty or forty years in the future, as the engineering problem continues to elude the best technology. In such long term technological cycles it is much more likely that some other, unexpected technology will come out of the clear blue and precipitate unexpected changes. This is precisely what has happened with the rapid emergence of military drone aircraft, which already play a significant role in operations, but which change the picture of the role of aircraft carriers very little — in fact, drones probably enhance the role of aircraft carriers, since carriers would be a logic staging point for drones.

      However, if we assume a very long technological horizon, on the order of fifty or one hundred, or two hundred years, you must acknowledge at some point that no weapons system remains viable forever. This is as true of the aircraft carrier as it was true of the three-masted galleon mounting hundreds of broadside guns. These latter, too, had a multi-role character, but that multi-role character did not save them when steam replaced sail and turret replaced broadside.

      As you imply, sea control and convoy protection are important roles in which a carrier may play a unique part, but it is not outside the bounds of possibility that these roles, too, will change with time. This prediction isn’t hubris, it is inevitable.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  5. bryan said

    I think Aircraft carriers will be around for near a century. You made some great points (as have others ) and it’s clear there potentially sitting ducks because of their size compounded by cheep supersonic weapons . That being said there are ways of countering such threats that im sure the U.S. will employ. Aside from complex interceptor technologies there have been immense strides in laser and railgun technology each of which would be far superior to the threats posed. They are not far off (for the U.S) about a decade from initial deployment. The Us outspends it’s nearest competitor China by a factor of at least 7. If the difference was smaller a cheap economical approach would be appropriate . The U.S. however has the spending power to overwhelm what would be a very big logistical issue with super carriers. A very important measure that must be taken more seriously by the U.S. is to prevent china from stealing military secrets.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Bryan,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t disagree with anything that you are written. It seems entirely likely to me that aircraft carriers will be around another century in more or less their present form, although in their final decades they will be something of an anachronism.

      The most significant known unknown (to borrow an idea from Rumsfeld) is how quickly hypersonic fighters can be developed into a robust and reliable weapons system, and what the cost of an hypersonic fighter wing (based in the continental US and fulfilling the Pentagon’s prompt global strike initiative) will be in comparison to the cost of maintaining a fighter wing on an aircraft carrrier. If hypersonic fighters emerge rapidly, or the air is entirely given over the drones that don’t really need to land except for maintenance, this could hasten the obsolescence of fixsed wing aircraft carriers.

      Also note that I emphasized that the gradual phasing out of fixed wing aircraft carriers will not mean the end of all aircraft carriers, as there will be an increasing need for helicopter carriers.

      Sincerely,

      Nick

  6. Lyle Upson. said

    I think the MAD doctrine is a very powerful weapon that has shown itself as having a natural atrophy having peaked late last century, demonstrating that a clash of superpowers as robust as the cold war in the sense of force projection is not likely … many levels of the global security onion are not so pliable as they once were in the days when the limits were tested by the USSR and USA in follow to the conclusion of the second world war

    with this in mind, a long term political military utility in a future where there should not be a superpower clash seems to me to be aided by the reality of the likelihood of a similar number of sovereign nations today as there might be in one, two hundred years … this permits a long term deterrent use for military politics with the western nations expeditionary reach always being greater than any adversary reach. In this global configuration the modern carrier is effective. I can puzzle on what costs would present to an adversary attempting to break this global posture.

    the superpowers will continue to refine the product with better materials, firepower, and methods in a crazed technology race and played out in virtual battlegrounds. The political military utility will likely be the policing of the world of 200 nations, some stable and some stumbling. The situation between failed state, self-defended state, well armed state and the western military bloc seems set to last the time span being spoken. I kind of think the technology race is useful to, but not comprising, the strategic utility of policing the security balance across the spectrum of nation status. On one hand the technology race seems to create obsolescence of the carrier, on the other hand, the geopolitical nature of the 200-nation structure suggests a practical need – a need that is not the same as the destruction of an adversary’s capacity in a superpower arms race. It may be that the carrier cannot be removed any more than the ocean can be removed, even as the technology of the superpowers advance across the one or two centuries ahead … a dual path of global security; one-upmanship between superpowers, and policing of the 200-nation-state structure

    … in this view, i would suggest the situation of both self-defended and well armed states over the next two centuries will be the primary determinant for the effectiveness or lack of, with fixed wing aircraft based on a carrier platform

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  8. Caelin Sutch said

    I agree with your view. Helicopter carriers are the future of this world. This world is constantly getting new technology and aircraft carriers will soon become obsolete. All technology will eventually become outdated and in order to stay one of the superpowers of the world you have to be up to date with technology. I have one argument, aircraft carriers are very big and can easily be hit but they also launch the most advanced aircraft the world has ever seen. These aircraft are generation 5 and are advanced (almost) beyond compare. Aircraft carriers travel with other ships and can be defended by missiles and aircraft. The chance of a aircraft carrier being sunk is still pretty high but they do have a good defense themselves. Helicopter carriers are the future since helicopters are becoming more advanced but for now, let the navy build a few more carriers.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Sutch,

      Thanks for your comments.

      The fact is that all military hardware is vulnerable, but some hardware is more vulnerable than other assets. We don’t pull assets because they are vulnerable, but because we can do the same or better with a less vulnerable asset.

      I agree with you that we need to build a few more fixed wing carriers yet, and in fact competition in the Pacific and Indian Oceans may see an arms race of carriers in the 21st century as major powers contest with each other for control (or area denial) of sea lanes of trade and communication. But that does not change the long run (as the late 19th century and early 20th century saw an arms race of battleships).

      The long run is that fixed wing assets will not need to be based on carriers when we have robust and reliable hypersonic fighter aircraft — or ordinary fighters that have been transformed into drones and can stay aloft indefinitely as long as they can be fueled.

      The above post has been referenced in some online discussions, for which I am very grateful, though I often feel a bit puzzled as those who have cited me don’t seem to have carefully read what is written above. I have not said that fixed-wing fighter aircraft will be replaced in the battlespace by helicopters, or that carriers are not useful today, or that they will not be useful for tomorrow. Fixed wing assets will continue to be central to the maintenance of air superiority, but sometime in the next 100 years these can be based in more secure continental bases, Helicopters, when there is an adequate doctrine for their battlespace deployment, will become more important — not because they will replace fixed wing assets, but because they will supplement mobile armored assets on the ground. And helicopters cannot come to the battlefield from more secure continental bases because they cannot fly supersonically (much less hypersonically). So the helicopters in the battlespace will need to be based either on carriers or nearby airbases on land.

      Very Sincerely Yours,

      Nick

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