Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Our next carrier will be the giant CVN-21. Aircraft carriers are wonderful weapons for fighting small nations without significant air or naval power. Afghanistan and Iraq are good examples of how this has worked well for us. North Korea would be another. Any little brush fire around the world would, too. The problem comes with fighting a country with significant air and naval power.

In addition, will UCAVs displacing manned aircraft mean we need large or even medium carriers to haul these smaller aircraft around? Will more smaller carriers work? Will we be able to scatter UCAVs on amphibious warfare carriers and even surface ships the way anti-ship missiles are now throughout the fleet? If we truly can fight networked, we will be able to mass effect from widely scattered assets unlike today's carriers which are the pinnacle of needing a single platform to mass effect.

Right now, our carriers with manned aircraft are still a tremendous asset. But as the years go by, cheap precision missiles will erode their value. Several decades in the future, carriers may be too big and expensive to risk entering an enemy's array of sensors that can detect and guide missiles to overwhelm a carrier's defensive systems. Since carriers last five decades or more, the carriers we have now could last through the period of their fighting value and phase out as their vulnerability becomes too great. Should we build large carriers anymore?

So as we contemplate our next generation of behemoth aircraft carriers, CVN-21, let us also recall the capabilities of 21st century submarines:

The U.S. Navy is being tight lipped about reports that, on October 26th, a Chinese Song class submarine got within missile range (8 kilometers) of the U.S. carrier Kitty Hawk. The Chinese sub was spotted when it surfaced. The American carrier is supposed to be protected from this sort of thing by anti-submarine helicopters, and an SSN (nuclear attack submarine.) The Song class boats are the most modern diesel-electric subs in Chinese service. Displacing about 2,000 tons on the surface, the 246 foot long, Songs carry anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. The first Song entered service nine years ago. The boats can be very quiet when moving underwater, even though the Chinese have not yet mastered the most recent
silencing techniques. Similar Australian subs have frequently gotten within attack range of American carriers. So have diesel-electric boats from other nations.

Or even late 20th century submarines. I know that we've comforted ourselves that the Russians are out of the carrier-hunting business and that while Australian-crewed Western-designed subs may be able to get close, surely we have nothing to worry about from poorly trained Chinese crews on inferior Soviet-era or Chinese-designed submarines.

It would be good to ask ourselves why we plan to have large expensive platform-centric aircraft carriers in a networked naval world.

I know our carriers are invaluable for fights against foes without any naval and air power, but why build expensive ships that are vulnerable to actual enemies? I mean, can't we beat the feeble enemies anyway?