Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Defense: The Enduring Utility of the Aircraft Carrier

Source: ISN
The Enduring Utility of the Aircraft Carrier

While aircraft carriers remain attractive to established and emerging powers, do they actually represent good value for money? Not according to the CSS’ Prem Mahadevan. As he sees it, the perceived benefits of blue-water flattops are overrated.
By Prem Mahadevan for ISN 
Aircraft carriers have been an essential feature of sea power for just over a century. But how has the strategic rationale for flat-tops evolved over that time? 

Aircraft carriers were originally intended to act as support vessels for battleships, the heavily-armored men-of-war whose massive firepower could blast away any smaller ships. At the time carriers were first developed, in the early 20th century, the battleship was regarded as the capital ship of the day. Capital ships are a category of vessel that can decisively defeat any other type of vessel, while still being able to absorb significant levels of damage to itself. The aircraft carrier was meant to provide spotter planes that would locate the enemy fleet before it came over the horizon and buy time for one’s own battleships to line up in firing positions. Thereafter, the planes would direct the accuracy of ship-to-ship bombardment.

However, during the Second World War, it became clear that carrier-launched aircraft, if equipped with bombs and torpedoes, could send even a heavily armored vessel to the bottom of the ocean. Germany lost the Tirpitz and Japan lost the Yamato and Musashi. These were among the most powerful battleships ever built. Indeed, the Yamato and Musashi were considered virtually indestructible as far as any other surface combatant was concerned. Accordingly, the demise of these vessels signaled the emergence of the aircraft carrier as the new capital ship.

Since then, carriers have been reflexively regarded as a symbol of national power. US presidents are fond of using these ships for a new-age version of gunboat diplomacy. Indeed, sending an aircraft carrier into a crisis zone is an indication that the United States has a stake in local conflicts, and that all the warring parties would be well-advised to remember it.

Despite their enduring nature, aircraft carriers are regularly criticized for being too expensive. Is that really the case?
Yes, because the peacetime value of aircraft carriers considerably exceeds their combat value. While measuring cost-effectiveness, it really comes down to the question of what standard is adopted. Certainly, naval bureaucracies view the carrier as a sign of professional prowess. Witness China’s and the United Kingdom’s ongoing efforts to develop and rejuvenate their respective carrier capabilities. It takes considerable time to gain expertise in carrier operations. Once acquired, it has to be showcased even when a crisis does not fully justify its deployment.

Estimates suggest that almost 50% of the US Navy’s personnel are assigned to positions that are directly or indirectly linked to carrier operations. For a 286-ship force, allocating such a massive amount of manpower in the service of just 11 carriers seems a bit excessive. The arithmetic speaks against relying too heavily on these vessels. They project a limited amount of offensive power, given the inherent limitations of carrier-based aircraft, and require a great deal of effort and resources to protect them from aerial and missile counterattack. The escort and screening vessels that are assigned to protect a carrier find themselves tied to the operations of the tactical air component, which reduces their own room for maneuver in a naval engagement.

So far, carriers have looked like a justified strategic investment because they have not come up against serious opposition. Peacetime deployments or tactical air support to land operations do not count as naval battles. But this does not mean that they are worth the cost, especially as regards an inter-state conflict.

Aircraft carriers undoubtedly remain expensive and complex projects for emerging powers. Does that mean that the United States – with its 11 carriers – will remain the dominant maritime power for the foreseeable future despite perceptions that it is downsizing its role on the world stage? 

Let’s not forget that the United States is currently wondering about the future role of its carriers. For example, some commentators and observers advocate slowly shifting to a smaller number of flattops and investing more in destroyers and submarines. On the other hand, others suggest increasing the number of carriers but reducing costs by cutting down on ship size. There is little agreement on what represents the best way forward. Cost-cutting is at the root of these debates. The US wants to be a preeminent naval power, but does not want to get drawn into an arms race against itself.

No other country is presently a serious rival to the US, and there will be none for the foreseeable future. But this assessment only holds at the grand strategic level. Lower down, in the actual localities where conflict might break out, the picture is more nuanced. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), for example, is determined to turn the US’ carrier fixation into a liability, by using ballistic missiles to threaten carrier groups. The fact remains that American policymakers will likely think twice before risking a carrier in active combat where vital US interests are not threatened, and countries such as China know this. So the US will find itself in possession of more carriers than any other maritime power, but will have difficulty in leveraging these in an increasingly militarized context in the Asia-Pacific where the carrier is no longer a capital ship. Missiles, both surface and air-launched, as well as submarines will pose a serious risk to any carrier deployment that the US tries to push through against a determined regional power.

In terms of aircraft carrier development, what should we expect from emerging powers over the coming years? Will China’s carrier program, for example, prompt Japan to alter its constitution to redevelop aircraft carriers? 

It is hard to see why China’s carrier program, which is more about countering US influence in East Asia, should make Japan any more insecure than China’s already existing air and seapower. More pressing would be the need for Japan to step up surveillance flights using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, in order to signal to China that it will maintain its administration there, irrespective of Beijing’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Japan would certainly be interested in naval aviation as an instrument of intelligence gathering and potentially to support amphibious operations in the event of hostilities. But a fully-fledged aircraft carrier might not be necessary for these roles, especially since it would require altering the country’s constitution, which currently commits it to a pacifist defense posture. A watered-down carrier variant for UAVs or rotary wing aircraft might be sufficient.

India, on the other hand, is interested in developing a three-carrier navy: one carrier being committed to its western and eastern seaboards and the third held in maintenance. This may or may not be a wise use of the country’s limited resources. A single US aircraft carrier costs as much as ten nuclear submarines and twenty guided missile destroyers. India cannot afford a carrier of anywhere near the tonnage deployed by the Americans, and does not aim to either. But even so, its pursuit of a light carrier capability seems to be driven more by a desire to establish itself as a maritime power, than because such a capability would be an actual asset in combat against China or Pakistan.

This week we’re considering whether air or sea power is the predominant strategic doctrine for the 21st century. Now, bearing in mind ongoing efforts to increase the use of unmanned aerial vehicles on aircraft carriers, will such debates become increasingly irrelevant? Air and Sea power are mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive, right?
To some extent, yes. But it all depends on the specificities of the combat theater. Obviously, airpower would play a more dominant role against a continental adversary than seapower. As far as the US is concerned, being protected by its geography, airpower and seapower are indeed complementary, because the country needs both to project its influence worldwide. For other, lesser powers with resource constraints and proximate security threats, there might still be a trade-off involved. To take an example: China’s carrier program is basically a prestige project rather than a strategic game-changer in a narrow military sense. The fact that its territorial disputes are mostly in the maritime domain permit it to use its carrier capability as a signalling instrument. But in the event of a major conflict with either India or Vietnam, which actually do have land borders with China, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) airpower and ground forces would play at least as crucial a role as its seapower, if not more so.

Finally, the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War warns us even today that thinking in terms of clear-cut dichotomies is not helpful. Complementarities are much better in forging joint force synergies. The problem for resource-strapped nations is that they still have to make a choice between airpower and seapower, which have very different cost outlays.

Prem Mahadevan is a senior researcher with the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). He specializes in the study of intelligence systems and sub-state conflict, and is responsible at the CSS for tracking geopolitical trends and jihadist terrorism in the Indo-Pacific region.