On the night between 11 and 12 November 1940, 21 carrier-launched Royal Navy Swordfish biplanes armed with torpedoes dealt a heavy blow to the Italian Regia Marina. The aircraft carrier had suddenly replaced the battleship as the most powerful seaborne power projection platform.
A single carrier sailing 170 miles away from an unsuspecting Italian fleet, which was anchored at Taranto, disabled three Italian battleships, losing only two aircraft in the process. As the first carrier-launched aerial attack in history, it was studied carefully by the Japanese who, just a year later, surprised the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
As a consequence of the Taranto and Pearl Harbor raids, as well as the Pacific War, the aerial dimension of naval operations was catapulted to the forefront of naval warfare. Crucially, this seismic shift in practice, and the doctrine that followed, also spelt the end of the battleship as the undisputed capital ship in the world’s most advanced navies.
Not Yet Obsolete
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and it’s the aircraft carrier that is now being called obsolete by many observers, who point to increasingly effective guided missiles as a relatively cheap, but potentially deadly, threat to carriers. For instance, the Chinese DF21 and DF26 anti-ship ballistic missiles comfortably outrange the U.S. Navy’s FA/18 aircraft and, to a lesser extent, the new F-35B.
That’s not the only threat to the carrier’s hitherto unchallenged reign as a fleet’s focus: quiet and relatively cheap, diesel/electric submarines have repeatedly proven that they pose a substantial threat to even the most powerful and expensive aircraft carriers. In fact, in 2005 the U.S. Navy was worried to the point that it leased the Swedish submarine Gotland, including its crew, for two years in order to improve effectiveness against such threats. In one of the wargames in which it was involved, the Gotland and its crew were reported to have penetrated a carrier strike group’s defences and taken multiple photographs of the USS Ronald Raegan, before escaping undetected.
Australian and Italian diesel-electric subs have also been reported or rumoured to have “sunk” U.S. supercarriers in similar circumstances since the year 2000. To be sure, one must stress that such successes on the part of small subs in war games don’t necessarily compare to real-life ‘kills’. War games are carried out in predefined areas of operation where carriers may be unable to use their speed advantage to outrun diesel-electric subs. Furthermore, actually firing a torpedo would give away a submarine’s location, meaning that its captain might just think twice before engaging an entire carrier strike group at such close range.
A Tactical, Operational and Strategic Asset
Declaring the aircraft carrier obsolete because of its alleged weaknesses in modern combat against peers or near-peers fails to take into account its many uses, which are by no means limited to fleet-on-fleet engagements between well equipped navies. For instance, the horse as an instrument of the cavalry became obsolete during the First World War, yet it continued to be a valuable asset for armies for the transportation of troops, materiel, artillery, and supplies throughout World War 2.
Were the aircraft carrier to suffer the same fate as the war horse and prove itself utterly ineffective at the tactical level, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that it must be retired from service. A glance at carrier combat operations since after 1945 shows that virtually all (with the exception of the Falklands war in 1982) were carried out with almost total control of the sea and with the aim to provide air cover for amphibious and land operations and project air power on land in the absence of viable airfields.
Indeed, in recent decades, the aircraft carrier has almost exclusively played the role of an operational and strategic asset, in that it has allowed navies in its possession to support land and amphibious operations, and achieve political and diplomatic goals. Only in the Falklands has it been employed with the objective of gaining and maintaining partial control of the sea and the air space around a fleet in a contested space. Even then, despite the danger posed by Argentinian air-launched Exocet missiles, Britain’s two aircraft carriers (of modest size and capability by U.S. standards at the time), made the British task force’s successful attempt to retake the islands possible.
In recent decades, the aircraft carrier has almost exclusively played the role of an operational and strategic asset.
Observers defending the aircraft carrier often focus, like their opponents, on the ship’s increasing vulnerability to new technologies in scenarios where two navies are fighting over control of the sea. Yet, throughout the last 70+ years, the carrier has most often been used as a platform to launch amphibious forces and especially project air power on land, be it on the coast or in many cases well beyond.
The U.S. campaigns post-9/11 provide a perfect example: during operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, 72% of all combat sorties were completed by carrier-launched assets from the Arabian Sea because of a dearth of suitable bases close enough to the area of operations in Afghanistan. Similarly, naval aviation played a major role during Iraqi Freedom, just a few years later.
While it may well be more vulnerable than it once was to some comparatively cheap technologies, the aircraft carrier is by no means obsolete. The battleship was quickly replaced by the carrier because the latter was simply much better at everything the former was ultimately designed to do. Though guided missiles and submarines may one day prove to be more cost-effective weapons in fleet engagements, they cannot replace the aircraft carrier’s unmatched capability to project sustained airpower and air cover around the world while circumventing the operational and political limitations of having to station military assets in foreign countries.