Saturday, September 29, 2012

Projection Apples and Sea Control Oranges

The debate over the survivability of our large aircraft carriers is not a simple debate over whether they are more useful than they are vulnerable and expensive. They are both--depending on the mission.

So let's have another carrier debate:

Have aircraft carriers become obsolete? Since 1949, analysts have argued that some combination of strategic bombers and cheap anti-shipping weapons have rendered the aircraft carrier a relic. The latest round in the conversation over the continued viability of aircraft carriers was spurred by Robert Haddick’s Foreign Policy column suggesting that improvements in long range strategic airpower and ballistic missile technology could render the carrier irrelevant.

There’s no single answer as to why the carrier persists, but the experience of the last sixty-five years has helped give us a handle on the persistent utility of the flat deck aviation warship.

Carriers have responsibilities in two areas: power projection and sea control.

Power projection is what we've done with our carriers since world War II. Sail them off the coast of some country that doesn't possess a potent navy or air force, and use it as a floating air base. Without the need to fight for control of the sea, we exercise that control of the sea from the start of a conflict. We've done this a lot. And the carriers have performed superbly.

This history of power projection is what the defenders of carriers point to.

But what the anti-carrier side points to is usually the sea control mission. In this mission, by definition we face a nation with a navy and air force capable of fighting us for control of the seas--or at least denying us full control.

And for nations without carriers, advances in persistent surveillance and guided missiles give them a potent weapon to use against our big carriers.

Further, while defenders of carriers like to call them sovereign pieces of American real estate that can host our planes, unlike actual real estate, our carriers float and therefore can sink. Or just burn and become mission kills. Really.

We don't like to admit it and rarely practice what we do if a carrier goes down, but they can be sunk. They can be sunk by relatively cheap missiles. They can be sunk by relatively cheap missiles guided by relatively cheap surveillance assets.

We like to think of land warfare as casualty intensive and air and naval warfare as cheap in lives. But lose one carrier battle group in the middle of the ocean and we could lose more sailors in one day than we lost in the entire Iraq War on the ground over years.

So, our big deck carriers are very valuable in the power projection mission (or in peacetime disaster response where the disaster isn't shooting at us).

But we have to be careful using them in a sea control mission. Especially since the range of our carrier aircraft has bizarrely gone down over the decades, meaning we have more problems striking enemy assets that can target our carriers.

I wouldn't mothball our existing carriers. But I'd phase them out over decades and use the money saved for other naval platforms. They are platform-centric kings in an increasingly network-centric world. And look to alternatives to providing sea-based air power.

These are the factors to consider in the great carrier debate.