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The challenge for future US Navy aircraft carriers is much closer to home than China's missiles

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The challenge for future US Navy aircraft carriers is much closer to home than China's missiles
Courtney Mabeus
September 16 2021

  • The US Navy's new aircraft carriers have been criticized for their technical problems and their high cost.
  • Those problems and China's rapid development of anti-ship weapons have raised doubts about the carrier's utility.
  • Carriers still have value, but the way they're designed and used needs to be reassessed, experts and officials say.
When China released footage of its "carrier killer" ballistic missiles being tested two years ago, the US Navy's top admiral fired back, calling the aircraft carrier "the most survivable airfield within the field of fire."

China's missile arsenal has only gotten bigger, but the Navy's flattops may now face another challenge closer to home.

At a Brookings Institute event last month, Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that while carriers are still important to US defense, their high cost could prompt a reassessment of their utility.

"The one big thing going into the aircraft carrier would be the $12 billion price tag." Smith said. "Are there other ways to get closer to the fight, to get unmanned systems closer to the fight, that don't cost $12 billion?"


A DF-21D missile on parade in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, September 3, 2015. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

The carrier has long been both a symbol and a tool, reflecting the US's ability to project power. But the struggles of the Navy's new Ford-class carriers, including delays and cost overruns caused by unproven technologies, have made the program a target.

Following a 2017 visit to the carrier, President Donald Trump demanded it revert to "goddammed steam" to power its catapults instead of using its new electromagnetic aircraft launching system.

In 2019, one lawmaker, frustrated by ongoing delays, likened the carrier to a "floating barge that's not deployable."

Some have questioned if technological advances, including China's DF-21D missiles have made carriers obsolete. Those missiles and others in China's arsenal can reach most of the Western Pacific, where US carriers often deploy.

Experts on naval warfare and on China's capabilities see carriers as having an evolving role but remaining vital.

Thomas Shugart, a retired Navy captain and a defense fellow at the Center for New American Security, said while China's missiles may force a carrier to stay farther from the frontlines, it would be no less vulnerable than other major air bases nearby.

Shugart told lawmakers in March that it appeared China's military was testing warheads that could target high-value aircraft at those bases.

"You still have to do things differently than if that missile didn't exist," Shugart said of the "carrier killer."

China's military capabilities are only growing and could soon include hundreds of anti-ship ballistic missiles, allowing Beijing to expand from focus on carriers to a ship-killer mission, targeting smaller warships, like destroyers.

"You have to generate tactical airpower somehow within the region," Shugart said. "You think the carrier is going to be part of that answer? Probably."

Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said carriers offer a flexible platform for different environments and missions, but there are alternatives that can work with tighter budgets, including lighter, less sophisticated flattops.

Allies and partners can also play a complimentary role in countering China, and some are showing more interest in doing so, Funaiole said.

"The US doesn't need to do everything alone [and] probably in a lot of cases shouldn't do everything alone," Funaiole told Insider.

Not all about China

DF-26 missiles, which have a longer range than the DF-21D, on parade in Beijing, September 3, 2015. Xinhua/Cha Chunming via Getty Images

Smith, Funaiole, and Shugart pointed out that if carriers were obsolete, China wouldn't be building its own fleet of them.

"Question is, how do we use them going forward?" Smith told Insider. "What are the scenarios? How do we make that work?"

The Pentagon is currently reviewing the US military's footprint across the globe. Smith said a more "in-depth cost analysis" must be done before determining the role of aircraft carriers in the overall picture.

The National Defense Strategy will help in that analysis, and lessons learned during the construction of Ford will help avoid cost overruns in future Ford-class ships, Smith added.

"I think we can build aircraft carriers in a much more cost-effective way," Smith said, adding that the US also needs to think about how those ships can "exist in a more contested environment."

Survivable information and communications platforms, and developing long-range fighters, unmanned systems, and new missiles, are elements of that, Smith said.

"Maybe we have to have the stealth aircraft and develop ways to refuel them to get to the target," Smith said. "Maybe we use a more distributed force with more expendable unmanned systems."

Shugart has argued the US should build carriers equipped only with unmanned aerial vehicles.

"The role for the aircraft carrier in this is probably to be able to, just like it always has, deliver aircraft from a standoff position that doesn't require those aircraft to take off from [the continental US] or an existing military base, like in Japan," Smith said. "That is incredibly useful. If you go up against a peer adversary, as China is rapidly becoming, then that changes the equation for every single system that we have."

The US has named China as its "pacing threat," but Russia, North Korea, and Iran are still foes, and an aircraft carrier remains an imposing presence.

"I don't think China's capabilities have made the carriers obsolete, in large part, because we're not just worried about China," Smith said.

 

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