Navy Aircraft Carriers Might Just Be Unsinkable. Here’s Why.

Loren B. Thompson  |   The National Interest

Security,

That should make China nervous.

Navy Aircraft Carriers Might Just Be Unsinkable. Here’s Why.

The bottom line on aircraft carrier survivability is that only a handful of countries can credibly pose a threat to America’s most valuable warships, and short of using nuclear weapons none of those is likely to sink one.  Although the Navy has changed it tactics to deal with the proliferation of fast anti-ship missiles and the growing military power of China in the Western Pacific, large-deck aircraft carriers remain among the most secure and useful combat systems in America’s arsenal.  With the unlimited range and flexibility afforded by nuclear propulsion, there are few places they can’t go to enforce U.S. interests.  And at the rate the Navy is investing in new warfighting technologies, that is likely to remain true for many decades to come.

Large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are the signature expression of American military power.  No other combat system available to U.S. warfighters comes close to delivering so much offensive punch for months at a time without requiring land bases near the action.  As a result, the ten carriers in the current fleet are in continuous demand from regional commanders — so much so that extended overseas combat tours are becoming the norm.

Nobody really doubts the utility of large-deck carriers. There’s nothing else like them, and the United States is the only nation that operates a fleet big enough to keep three or more carriers continuously deployed at all times.  However, two issues have come up over and over again since the Cold War ended that have led at least some observers to question why carriers are the centerpiece of America’s naval fleet.  One concern is that they cost too much.  The other is that they are vulnerable to attack.

The cost issue is a canard.  It only costs a fraction of one-percent of the federal budget to build, operate and sustain all of the Navy’s carriers — and nobody has offered a credible alternative for accomplishing U.S. military objectives in their absence.  Critics say carriers are more expensive than they seem because an accurate accounting would include the cost of their escort vessels, but the truth of the matter is that the Navy would need a lot more of those warships if it had to fight conflicts without carriers.

The vulnerability issue is harder to address because putting 5,000 sailors and six dozen high-performance aircraft on a $10 billion warship creates what military experts refer to as a very “lucrative” target.  Taking one out would be a big achievement for America’s enemies, and a big setback for America’s military.  However, the likelihood of any adversary actually achieving that without using nuclear weapons is pretty close to zero.  It isn’t going to happen, and here are five big reasons why.

Large-deck carriers are fast and resilient:  

Nimitz-class carriers of the type that dominate the current fleet, like the Ford-class carriers that will replace them, are the biggest warships ever built.  They have 25 decks standing 250 feet in height, and displace 100,000 tons of water.  With hundreds of watertight compartments and thousands of tons of armor, no conventional torpedo or mine is likely to cause serious damage.  And because carriers are constantly moving when deployed at up to 35 miles per hour — fast enough to outrun submarines — finding and tracking them is difficult.  Within 30 minutes after a sighting by enemies, the area within which a carrier might be operating has grown to 700 square miles; after 90 minutes, it has expanded to 6,000 square miles.

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