The great sea battles of the 21st century don't take place in the ocean. They take place online, and in the professional journals of today's naval thinkers, and they usually involve attacks upon or defenses of the great white whale of American naval power: The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Just today, in fact, some of the Web's top commodores of thought have been squaring off over the roles and futures of aircraft carriers, a never-ending debate in the saltier quarters of the national security world.
Today's opening salvo was fired by Thomas P.M. Barnett at Time's Battleland blog. He quotes a piece in the new edition of the Naval Institute's Proceedings in which the authors argue that the era of the supercarrier is over. China has a super mega lightning-bolt death missile, you see, that can damage or sink an American carrier anywhere it tries to operate in the Western Pacific, and as such the ship is basically useless in a World War III scenario. That, plus carriers' high costs and tomorrow's profusion of unmanned naval aircraft, means the U.S. Navy should stop building carriers and start building more big-deck amphibious ships like the USS Makin Island, which can field F-35B Lightning IIs (we hope) as well as Marine helicopters, theoretical UAVs, and a whole bunch of Marines and their green gear.
Bryan McGrath, responding at Information Dissemination, disagrees: Why are gators any less vulnerable than carriers? he asks. Why is it a carrier's fault that the Navy doesn't have the right kind of long-range, stealthy aircraft you'd need for a China scenario? Doesn't it make sense that in a UAV future, carriers are even more important, given how flexible they can be about handling both fixed and rotary-wing, piloted and pilotless, aircraft?
It's terrific sport -- both posts are worth reading.
Here's another quick point: Military thinkers often assume that the carrier-killer missile immediately knocks all ships out of play the first time, every time, so they conclude the carrier is obsolete. But even if the weapon works as feared, this is like saying that the helicopter gunship made the tank obsolete, or the submarine made the surface ship obsolete. Innovations like these changed the game, but they didn't change the basic need for heavy vehicles with treads and big guns, or fast warships that can patrol for pirates. Assuming the death missile is all it's cracked up to be, it would mean commanders need to reevaluate how they use carriers and their air wings, not that they might as well be scrapped. There'll still be plenty of peacetime and wartime uses for aircraft carriers for as long as they're around.
What do you think?