Is the Era of Aircraft Carriers Coming to an End ?

Is the era of aircraft carriers coming to an end? Delve into the challenges facing these naval giants, including emerging technologies, strategic vulnerabilities, and alternatives in modern warfare.

The survivability of US aircraft carriers in the face of a potential conflict with China has raised concerns among some experts. These giants of the sea, a central pillar of US military strategy, represent the spearhead of naval power projection.

The underlying question is whether the trust placed in these naval behemoths is commensurate with the demands of a modern confrontation with powers like China and what adjustments should be considered to maintain American naval supremacy in such a scenario.

Looking to the naval future: Are aircraft carriers ready?

Is the Era of Aircraft Carriers Coming to an End ?
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71)

For the past eighty years, the aircraft carrier has dominated the seas as the centerpiece of the most formidable naval force on the planet. These true floating cities, capable of projecting air force on a global scale, exponentially expand naval military reach. However, technological advancement poses new challenges.

The increasing sophistication of submarines, which can now penetrate the defenses of aircraft carrier strike groups, highlights the vulnerability of these leviathans of the sea.

A telling example was the joint military exercise between the United States and France, where a French Rubis-class submarine managed to infiltrate and “sink” the USS Theodore Roosevelt in a drill, demonstrating the possibility that even the most formidable aircraft carriers could be compromised.

Added to this is the improved agility of surface ships and Chinese advancement in intermediate-range missiles, along with the development of hypersonic missiles, representing emerging threats to which the United States is still seeking effective responses.

Aircraft carriers, despite being more vulnerable, are not considered obsolete in most conflict scenarios, allowing the United States to project its power without significant global opposition.

However, the growing missile power, even of non-state actors such as the Houthis in Yemen, suggests that scenarios in the Indo-Pacific could require a strategic reassessment of reliance on supercarriers.

Toward a new naval strategy: The post-aircraft carrier era

Is the Era of Aircraft Carriers Coming to an End ?
USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) passes through the Atlantic Ocean on March 19, 2023. US Navy photo.

The challenges associated with the size and cost of aircraft carriers, such as the Gerald R. Ford, which costs $13.3 billion plus annual maintenance, raise questions about the sustainability of this naval strategy. The visibility and vulnerability of these enormous structures, added to the potential losses if compromised, suggest the need to explore alternatives.

National Interest analyst Brandon Weichert proposes a strategic shift toward an expanded fleet of smaller, more agile submarines and surface warships. This diversification of firepower would offer significant advantages in terms of costs, offensive flexibility and reduction in the risk of mass casualties. However, such a reorientation would mean sacrificing the ability to project the global air force from the sea, a pillar of US military strategy for decades.

This debate over the future of American naval strategy highlights the need to adapt to the realities of modern warfare, balancing tradition with innovation to maintain supremacy in an ever-evolving strategic environment.