Experts have been writing the aircraft carrier’s obituary for a century

Friday, June 10th, 2022

China already has a variety of ground-based radars, airborne sensors, and satellites that have made U.S. military planners apprehensive about sending aircraft carriers anywhere near Taiwan, but now, the South China Morning Post reports, a Chinese satellite equipped with artificial intelligence detected the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman during naval exercises off the coast of Long Island, New York, allowing China’s military to follow the ship’s movements:

Retired Navy. Capt. Jerry Hendrix said he has been worried about how U.S. aircraft carriers can be detected from space. Hendrix is a Navy expert who spent 26 years on active duty, during which he served on aircraft carriers and as a strategist on the Chief of Naval Operations staff.

Hendrix recounted to Task & Purpose how he read a news story years ago about an astronaut who spotted his former carrier while he was serving on a space station. From far above the Earth, the astronaut was still able to see the ship’s hull number through one of the station’s telescopes.

“It occurred to me that if a human astronaut in the space station was able to do this, that it probably is not that hard to look for aircraft carriers,” Hendrix said.

Indeed, there are not that many ships in the world that are as large, as fast, or that displace as much water as U.S. aircraft carriers, so Chinese satellites have plenty of clues to look for, Hendrix said. Even though super tankers are larger than aircraft carriers, they do not turn into the wind to launch aircraft.

“If you’re programming in through AI-specific attributes of an aircraft carrier that an aircraft carrier would do but a merchant ship of a similar size would not, then you’re able to make that detection from overhead imagery more quickly,” Hendrix said.

Artificial intelligence would also allow Chinese satellites to quickly distinguish an aircraft carrier’s electronic signature from background noise on the electromagnetic spectrum, he said.

[…]

There’s no doubt that threats against aircraft carriers are growing, but it’s also worth noting that experts have been writing the aircraft carrier’s obituary for a century. Indeed, the U.S. Naval Institute has compiled a list of articles from its “Proceedings” magazine going back to 1922 that debate the carrier’s worth.

One naysayer argued in 1925 that the Navy should use large dirigibles instead of ships to carry aircraft because airships can fly over both sea and land. A 1959 commentary questioned whether the Navy would get better use out of its money if it built more submarines instead of carrier strike groups. And one author wrote in 1999 that the cruise missile attacks on Al Qaeda in Sudan and Afghanistan the previous year marked the beginning of the end for aircraft carriers.

Comments

  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    A cruise missile is a form of autonomous guided weapon system.

    A P-51 with rocket pods strapped to the wings and a pilot strapped in the cockpit is also a form of autonomous guided weapon system.

    The basic dynamic at play is means of more accurately delivering more voluminous fires to valuable targets, and how exposed those means are to the enemies means, and vice-versa vice-versa, in an asymptotic feedback loop.

    The innovation of photolithographic planar process manufacturing techniques precipitated a sea change in military possibilities, and it was this that ultimately proved to be the most significant difference between their respective war powers.

    The ability to kill men randomly is not really effective power; the ability to kill men selectively in response to their behavior, that is the cement of kingdom. Integrated reconnaissance strike complexes, the ability to promptly discover and destroy enemy assets in general, and key agents in enemy organizations in particular, is what has given power in all ages, and this coming age is no different; victory goes to the parties most adept at participation in this dynamic.

  2. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    “Their respective war powers” being the cold war American and Soviet MiCs, that is.

  3. Kunning Druegger says:

    The aircraft carrier will not die until they are all gone, but the day someone puts an orbital strike platform up, permanently, is going to be the day they become battleships.

  4. Bob Sykes says:

    A carrier strike group built around a Ford class carrier will cost about $50 billion, or more. It evidently takes 10 years to build the carrier itself, and another 2 years to certify it for combat.

    In any large-scale war, neither the carriers, nor the aircraft, nor the crews can be replaced, so all the high tech weapons and their operators gradually disappear.

  5. Kunning Druegger says:

    Bob, how do you square that assertion with the carrier build up that occurred in the 1940s? Do you think it’s impossible for the construction process to be streamlined and shortened?

  6. Jim says:

    Pseudo-Chrysostom: “The ability to kill men randomly is not really effective power; the ability to kill men selectively in response to their behavior, that is the cement of kingdom. Integrated reconnaissance strike complexes, the ability to promptly discover and destroy enemy assets in general, and key agents in enemy organizations in particular, is what has given power in all ages, and this coming age is no different; victory goes to the parties most adept at participation in this dynamic.”

    Realistically, there are already hunter-killer robotic drones the size of a housefly or smaller, able to competently navigate the world, do facial recognition from a hundred yards, and deliver mortal payloads, and there have been for some time.

    But it doesn’t matter, because “the parties” are increasingly all-knowing, incomprehensible, and otherwise godlike supercomputers, fed by a Niagara firehose of electronic data and eclectic world sensors, and housed in ultra-secret facilities, most of them probably unbelievably deep underground.

    This is not just another movie scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRELLH86Edo

    In the end, the question of sovereignty becomes an NP-hard problem.

  7. Goober says:

    THe 2 things that all of these people saying the carrier is dead don’t realize, and have never realized, is:

    1.) Carriers have always been vulnerable, and therefore have never been “bleeding edge, tip of the spear” warfighting units. The carrier that survives war is the one that stays back at the very limit of it’s air arm’s range, as far from combat as possible. This was real in WWII and is just as real today

    2.) Carriers provide something that cannot be replaced with any other technology. Any time someone starts down the path of “x is done in warfare” it always turns out that they are wrong as soon as they realize that the reason X existed in the first place still exists. Tanks aren’t dead, because mobile, armored fire support is a need. Even if they are vulnerable. You just have to change tactics to rpotect them, but they are still neeeded.

    In the case of carriers, no change in tactics is even needed – our carrier tactic has always been “protect the carrier”. And a carrier that finds itself in contact with the enemy is likely going to be a dead carrier very shortly.

  8. roo_ster says:

    Kunning Druegger says:
    “Bob, how do you square that assertion with the carrier build up that occurred in the 1940s? Do you think it’s impossible for the construction process to be streamlined and shortened?”

    Not Bob, but even a streamlined process won’t produce new carriers (or most any other system such as a tank or fighter) fast enough to matter in the midst of a near-peer war.

    Take a gander at how long it took to develop new airplane/ship designs during WWII and then on through the Cold War and then to Post Cold War. The trend is toward much longer development cycles. It will all be over, carriers sunk, port & manufacturers’ facilities destroyed by missiles, and such long before an RFP gets into the draft stage.

    Several reasons why this is, but the bottom line is any large conflict between near peers will be “come as you are” and leave BOTH combatants vulnerable to any power who did NOT expend all/many of their munitions and systems.

    Example of Current System, No Development Time Required:
    Tell me again how many Javelins have we sent to Ukraine? How many did we have on hand before the Russo-Ukraine Not-War? How many does the USA have left on hand? How long do the makers estimate it will take to replenish those give to Ukraine?

  9. Goober says:

    Roo_ster, that’s something that a lot of people don’t seem to be able to wrap their minds around, which is that when it comes to war fighting, naval strategy is BUILT strategy. What this means is that you fight the war with what you’ve got, not what you plan to build.

    In short, I agree. Unless the war drags on for 5 years, you won’t see any new carriers completed in time to meaningfully effect the war.

    People always bring up WWII as an example of “fast-tracking” ship building, but that’s simply incorrect when it comes to capital ships, because they fail to remember two things:

    1.) WWII was a slow build up, and everyone involved was building up with the expectation of being at war shortly. We started the war with carriers we already had (Yorktown class, Lexington, etc), and then supplemented when the Essex class came on board (they started in 1938 and commissioned in 1942 through 1943 and 44. So 3 1/2 years even with expedited war productions) The Midway class, the successor to the Essex, was laid down in 42 but never saw service in the war, because they commissioned in September of 45. So, the point is, the reason we got so many more CVs in commission during WWII is because we started building them years before the war started because of the “slow boil” nature of the build up to that war. If that hadn’t happened, and we suddenly started laying down CVs in winter 41 spring 42 after Pearl harbor, based on production timelines, we realistically couldn’t have commissioned any of them until maybe spring of 45. So people saying “just ramp up war production” are misunderstanding the history around WWII naval combat, planning, and our war production effort vis a vis capital ships. In short, we ramped up waaaaay before we went to war. THe Iowas, which barely made commissioning in time to have much of anything to do in the war, started as I recall in 1937-ish. That might not happen today, because we might not have that warning.

    2.) Even the late WWII Midway class CV (which never saw WWII combat) was a tiny thing compared to a Ford class CVN. Realistically, we’re not going to be able to pump out a Ford class in 5 years, even if we do “super production war emergency” drills.

    But the thing nobody seems to understand is that has always been the constraint of being a naval power. The Royal Navy in WWII essentially fought the entire war with what ships it had at the start, and the few more it had started prior to the war kicking off that commissioned in time (mostly the King George the 5th battleships). Other than HMS Vanguard, the Royal Navy didn’t lay down any new capital ships during WWII at all.

    A war that lasts long enough for ships laid down during the war to actually see combat is going to be a BIG effing war. Like, bigger than any war in the history of mankind. And by that time, it would have gone nuclear and a Navy will be the least of everyone’s concern. Essentially, any war where our current batch of carriers isn’t enough will be an extinction level event and we won’t really give a shit about carriers at that point. We’ll be fighting desert nomad raider tribes for gasoline and non-radioactive water sources.

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