Key Point: Aircraft carriers are instruments of geopolitical influence--for the moment.
As long as they serve usefully in that role, nations will seek means to neutralize them. The aircraft-carrier form has proven remarkably flexibly, serving in one way or another for nearly a hundred years. From the USS Forrestal on, the U.S. Navy supercarrier has existed in basically the same form since the 1950s, and is expected to continue operating into the latter half of the twenty-first century. At some point, the game will be up; carriers will no longer pack the offensive punch necessary to justify their vulnerability. It’s not obvious when that day will come, however; we may only find out after the destruction of one of the Navy’s prize possessions.
We know how to kill aircraft carriers—or at least we know how best to try to kill aircraft carriers. Submarine-launched torpedoes, cruise missiles fired from a variety of platforms and ballistic missiles can all give an aircraft carrier a very bad day. Of course, modern carriers have ways of defending themselves from all of these avenues of attack, and we don’t yet have any good evidence of the real balance between offensive and defensive systems.
But what of the future? How will we plan to kill carriers thirty years from now? Here are several of the problems that the next generation of aircraft-carrier architects will need to worry about.
Undersea Unmanned Vehicles
Submarines have long posed the deadliest threat to aircraft carriers. In World War II, every major carrier fleet suffered losses to submarines; in the Cold War, the U.S. Navy viewed Soviet subs as a critical problem. Against modern antisubmarine warfare capabilities, the biggest difficulties faced by a submarine involve finding a carrier, then getting into firing position (with either missiles or torpedoes) before the carrier’s aircraft and escorts can detect and kill the sub. If the boat’s commander isn’t suicidal, finding a potential avenue for escape is also an issue.