Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A Floating Wreck Is Bad, Too

I've long thought our carriers are a platform-centric relic in an increasingly network-centric world. Their ability to remain afloat even when hit does not nullify that reality.

When I started to read this post, I thought I'd have to radically rethink my position on aircraft carriers:

It turns out that American “super carriers” are more resistant to combat damage that most people think. Because of their size (100,000 tons) it's been possible to protect these ships much better than potential foes realize. ...

Carrier experts in the navy have been gradually modifying the design and protection of the large carriers for decades, taking into account what new generations of large anti-ship missiles (“carrier killers”) could do. These design tweaks and damage control measures have been kept quiet, and often secret, to deny the anti-ship missile developers knowledge that they can use to improve their designs.

Carriers are rarely employed for [sinking exercises (SINKEX) analysis] but a 1996 SINKEX was conducted using the retired 82,000 ton carrier USS America. This classified exercise was a test of the vulnerability of such large ships to modern anti-ship missiles. While the exercise details were secret, it did get out that carriers this size were very hard to sink.

I can believe that our big carriers are very hard to actually put at the bottom of the sea. But so too were the big ships of the line back in the 19th century.

Pound them into splinters and they just floated there. But they were mission kills, to be sure.

So while it is a pleasant surprise to me that our big carriers can't be sunk as easily as I thought, that is a factor to celebrate for crew survival and not for mission purposes.

How much damage can one of our big carriers endure and still be capable of flight operations and self defense? And will it really matter if these ships can be towed back to dry dock and repaired in 6 months while the rest of the fleet--smaller than it might be because of the costs of the big carriers--loses the fight?

Even if physically difficult to sink, the cost of these costly platform-centric ships makes them an investment in the past.

Mind you, I'll not deny their enormous value in power projection missions against foes like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are quite valuable for that mission--even if network centric warfare means non-carriers could do the job cheaper. The biggest problem for our big carriers is changing their mission to sea control in the face of an enemy capable of fighting us for that control. Don't conflate arguments for the former for arguments in defense of the latter.

I've long worried that the mythology of our carriers and their symbolic stature as a proxy for our national power could be a severe psychological blow if a carrier or two is sunk in the early days of a war. A carrier burning but not sinking does not erase my worry.