The Red Line
Episode 76. Are Aircraft Carriers Becoming Obsolete?
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The aircraft carrier has been the crown jewel of national fleets for nearly 80 years, with these steel giants being the decisive factor in many of the last centuries' pivotal battles. With their growth in importance though, came a growth in ship size, and the new supercarrier class has become such a monolith that the production of just one unit costs more than the entire military budget of most of the US's adversaries combined.
Is this a wise move, to build the greatest mobile fortress to every head to sea? Or will this new generation of Chinese submarines, stealth bombers and hypersonic missiles destroy decades of US progress in a single afternoon, for less than 1 per cent of the price?
Part 1: The Floating Fortress (6:46)
Drachinifel commences our discussion by orientating the role of aircraft carriers heading into WWII, noting the diminished opinion of these class of assets compared to battleships. This opinion was rapidly changed after the battles of Taranto and Pearl Harbour, where the United States was left with few remaining aircraft carriers but these ships were significantly more powerful and strategically important to project power at sea and long range land targets.
Drachinifel notes the rapid development of aircraft carriers as the crown jewels of most nations fleets in the decades after WWII. We discuss the Falklands War and the effective use of Exocet missiles against the British fleet as the beginning of open questions about the role of the aircraft carriers moving forward.
As technology has advanced, aircraft carriers has becoming significantly more advanced and powerful. This has corresponded with the rising cost of these ships and the aircraft that operate on them, creating a construction time that will take at least a half decade to complete.
We discuss how this has reduced the volume of ships available for battle, leading to a quasi-Dreadnought situation where these assets are too valuable to risk, reducing strategic options, and too vulnerable to modern anti-naval tactics such as next-gen hypersonic missiles.
Part 2: In Hot Water (30:23)
Sam Roggeveen notes that aircraft carriers have become more popular than ever, noting that China, Japan, India and South Korea have either launched or are in the process of commissioning aircraft carriers. He notes that these ships are strategically at risk in peer to peer conflict by comparitively cheap anti-ship weapons such as hypersonic missiles.
Roggeveen unpacks the paradox of China's investment and force structure commitment to building aircraft carriers, despite being the leading proponent of anti-naval weaponry. Roggeveen identifies the use of aircraft carriers as more 'constabulary' assets to be used against non-naval powers rather than peer to peer assets, akin to the United States effective use of carriers in recent decades.
Roggeveen notes the decreasing range of aircraft operating from these carriers, exemplified by the United States since the end of the Cold War. We discuss the pioneering of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as an alternative to piloted aircraft, allowing for larger sorties at significantly less cost.
We hypothesise about how China might approach the naval dimension of a military conflict in Taiwan and how China's air defence systems and submarines would affect any counter-attack by the United States or another military. We conclude by considering the US' perspective on the strategic utility of protecting its fleet and 'keeping the powder dry' in such a conflict.
Part 3: Eliminated by Economics (52:48)
Robert Farley notes that the military and strategic utility of aircraft carriers, allowing nations to project force around world, has been the source of the momentum for the development of carriers across international militaries.
We discuss why the United States doesn't prioritise closer strategic bases such as Guam or Okinawa, noting that it is much easier to target static airfields and that aircraft carriers offer unparalleled mobility and speed of strike capability.
Farley notes that while the extraordinary expense of aircraft carriers compared to submarines or hypersonic missiles is a threat, the required network of sensors and assets to make these assets operational is a significant hidden cost that should not be underestimated. We continue to hypothesise about the relative ability of Chinese submarines in a conflict against a foreign fleet.
We unpack the fact that an aircraft carrier is fundamentally an asset to project power from long geographical range away from home territories, and thus those who should be worried most about China's aircraft carrier fleet are India and other Indo-Pacific nations.
We conclude with a discussion about the next generation of hypersonic missiles, which reportedly are able to fly at Mach 27, and their cost being effectively a few per cent of the cost of an aircraft carrier. This raises significant questions about the future strategic direction of the place of aircraft carriers within military force structures.
Naval Strategic Expert, Historian and YouTuber
Widely regarded as one of the leading experts online when it comes to naval history and the development of naval tactics
His channel can be viewed here
Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program
Previously he served as Senior Strategic Analyst in Australia’s peak intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, where his work dealt mainly with North Asian strategic affairs, including nuclear strategy and Asian military forces.
Sam is also Director of Digital at the Lowy Institute and editor of the Lowy Institute Papers
Professor of Security and Diplomacy at the University of Kentucky
Author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (2014), and the Battleship Book (2016)
Dr. Farley is a frequently published commentator and is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money
The Red Line's Aircraft Carrier Reading List:
We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of naval power and aircraft carriers.
How to Build an Aircraft Carrier
Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans
James G. Stavridis
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Chad Hansen.