The Era of Carriers Is Ending
by Eric Margolis: Welcome
to NATO’s New Colony, Libya
US Navy wont say so publicly, but its increasingly worried
by Chinas development of new anti-ship missiles. The chief
worry is Chinas new DF-21D whose primary target is Americas
huge aircraft carriers.
Chinese sources, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) has
recently become operational in limited numbers. Originally developed
for submarines, the DF-21D is said to have a range of 2,700km and
at least some capability to strike moving targets.
military is hard at work on satellites, long-range backscatter radar,
submarines, and drones that can identify moving naval targets up
to 3,000 km distance. These overlapping sensors will provide accurate,
real-time targeting data for the DF-21D and other shorter-ranged
sea, air and land-based anti-ship missiles.
The US Navy
insists its carriers are not threatened by any of Chinas new
missiles and retain their freedom of action off China. But the DF-21D
can cover the entire South China Sea, including Taiwan.
be extremely bad news for the US Navy, which deploys 11 aircraft
carrier groups that enable the US to project power around the globe.
DF-21Ds based safely inland may keep the US Navy far off Chinas
coasts, isolate Taiwan, and threaten US bases in Japan, Okinawa
and Guam. In fact, the mere existence of the DF-21Ds and their
deployment in sizeable numbers may be enough to keep US carriers
at least 2,000 km from Chinas coasts, thus beyond the useful
range of the carriers strike aircraft.
a writer on naval affairs, Ive long been convinced that big
attack aircraft carriers are going the way of the battleship. At
around 100,000 tons, they are huge targets, high in the water, easily
detected at long range by radar and infrared sensors. Each US attack
carrier carries close to one million gallons of aviation fuel plus
hundreds of tons of munitions.
The US Navy
made carrier operations into a high science during World War II.
The USN was famed for its brilliant damage-control techniques that
prevented the loss of many US warships during WWII.
missiles are lethal to carriers. Layered anti-ship missile defense
can stop small number of attacking missiles. But if enough high-speed
missiles are fired, and from different directions, at least one
or two will permeate carrier and escort defenses.
Just one missile,
filled with explosives and fuel, hitting a carrier will cause massive
damage and fires that will put the great capitol ship out of action.
I have joined numerous naval warfare simulations: in almost every
case, some anti-ship missiles fired by enemy aircraft and subs inevitably
leaked through layered defenses and hit the carriers. Each carrier
and its escorts costs over $25 billion (not including its aircraft).
They simply cannot be risked against relatively inexpensive Chinese
the US Navy denies claims its beloved carriers are increasingly
vulnerable. The Navys brass is dominated by former naval aviators,
just as the pre-war US Navy was run by battleship admirals. There
is huge institutional bias against abandoning big attack carriers,
just as there is bitter Navy and Air Force opposition to abandoning
manned fighter aircraft and relying on drones.
all the more amazing an article in the May 2011 issue of the US
Naval Institute Proceedings (for which Ive written) by
two Pentagon strategists urging an immediate end to building aircraft
carriers, Proceedings is the voice of the US naval establishment.
For this heresy
to be printed is a bombshell. But a needed one. Its time the
US Navy face facts and plan for the obsolescence of its attack carriers.
There will still be a role for smaller carriers carrying drones
and helicopters, but in wartime, the days of the mighty flattop
that won the epic WWII victories at Midway and the Marianas are
has recognized this by deploying a mid-sized carrier this month
that may be equipped with fixed-wing aircraft, drones, and helicopters.
It will be
hugely expensive for the near bankrupt US to develop new systems
that can counter Chinas naval missiles. This means the US
7th Fleet will have to patrol far offshore where its influence will
be sharply diminished, or even neutralized. The North Pacific will
no longer be an American lake.
him mail] is the author of War
at the Top of the World and the new book, American
Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the
West and the Muslim World. See his
© 2011 Eric Margolis
Best of Eric Margolis