In a speech given aboard the newest American aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, last week, President Trump congratulated the crew and shipbuilders on their accomplishments and reaffirmed his stance on establishing a larger, more powerful Navy, with our aircraft carriers continuing to serve as the centerpiece of our ability to project power across the globe.

However, critics within the defense industry have long been railing against the U.S. policy of creating these behemoth ships as the center of our naval war strategy, as anti-ship technology has outpaced ship defense strategies in recent years.  The Gerald R. Ford is the most expensive naval vessel ever built, with the most advanced technology available and a more efficient design than previous carriers… but when facing a peer-level military opponent, it may just be a giant target.

In 2015, an allied combat exercise off the coast of Florida saw a small French nuclear submarine sneak around American defenses and “sink” the U.S. Aircraft Carrier Theodore Roosevelt along with half of its escort ships.  The Roosevelt is a Nimitz class aircraft carrier, the most advanced class of carrier on the planet prior to the development of the new Ford class.  The French Navy proudly reported their success on their own website, before quickly pulling the report back down for fear of embarrassing their U.S. allies.

The French submarine was not equipped with the latest in anti-ship technology, but was rather more than thirty years old and used traditional tactics to subvert anti-submarine defenses and position itself strategically near the carrier group until it received the command to fire.  There was no incredible cunning, no experimental weapons platforms to test, they simply chugged along into the fight, and decimated the best of the American navy before slinking away again without taking any serious damage from U.S. forces in the drill.  This test, dramatic as it may seem, is not the only time a Nimitz class carrier has failed in hypothetical battles – though the Navy keeps the results of such exercises classified, multiple reports have surfaced of similar outcomes in other trials.  In fact, according to Reuters, at least fourteen American or British aircraft carriers have been “sunk” in similar war games since 1980.

The United States prides itself on its extensive carrier fleet, with ten currently in service and our President announcing that he intends to field at least two more.  These carriers serve as an invaluable manner of force projection, allowing U.S. forces to place a floating airstrip nearly anywhere in the world to provide support for military operations.  Our current naval strategy relies on these ships to provide a significant military presence in just about every major waterway on the planet – but years of fighting against insurgent opponents may have numbed the American military to the idea of facing an enemy with the capability to engage and destroy our floating military installations – something potential opponents like China and Russia have already demonstrated the capacity to do.

These new anti-carrier weapons include land based ballistic missiles that were designed specifically to counter such a threat as American aircraft carriers.  China’s Dong Feng-21, for instance, has a claimed range of over 1,100 miles and travels at speeds in excess of ten times the speed of sound.  Other weapons are ship based, like both Chinese and Russian submarines that are designed to fire enough cruise missiles simultaneously to overwhelm a carrier’s anti-missile defense systems.  As a result, a report filed by the Rand Corporation entitled, “Chinese Threats to U.S. Surface Ships,” in 2015 determined that if war ever broke out, “the risks to U.S. carriers are substantial and rising.”

Senator John McCain, chair of the senate armed forces committee, and Ray Maybus, former secretary for the Navy, have both spoken out publicly about the USS Gerald R. Ford, calling it a “case study in why our acquisition system must be reformed,” and a “poster child for how not to build a ship,” respectively.  The new carrier has gone more than $2 billion over budget and offers no incentives to keep costs down to the ship builders.

So if our carriers are so susceptible to attack, why do we continue to invest billions of dollars into them?

In large part, because our carriers offer an unparalleled ability to relocate a large military force quickly and efficiently, serving as an invaluable extension of U.S. foreign policy in waterways throughout the globe.  When not under direct attack from a peer-level competitor, our carriers offer, according to President Trump’s recent speech, “4.5 acres of combat power and sovereign U.S. territory” anywhere in the world – and that capability is incredibly valuable in terms of maintaining a global military presence.

But that doesn’t change how vulnerable they are to attack if ever we were to go to war with an opponent like China or Russia – each of whom maintain only one aircraft carrier that can’t boast half of the technological capabilities of our own outdated Nimitz class carriers.  The fact of the matter is, they can build a lot more missiles than we can carriers – making the defense of such a large target incredibly difficult in today’s military climate.

The reality of the matter may be, the United States may be the first nation to face a need for two distinct military roles within its ranks: one intended as a means by which to expand the reach of our military for small clashes such as those we’ve faced in recent decades, and one intended for use in peer-level combat operations, where our carriers, for instance, may find themselves requiring more assets to defend than they can offer to the fight itself.  In such circumstances, smaller, more maneuverable and defensible aircraft launch vessels may be a better alternative.

If not, it seems likely that we’ll need to face the reality of losing a chunk of our carrier fleet, the largest and most advanced in the world, to traditional threats like anti-ship missiles from any opponent large enough to field a Navy – even if that Navy is comprised of thirty-plus year old warships.  The days of American superiority on every battle field may be numbered in the face of peer level combat operations – and America will need to adjust strategies, tactics, or equipment in order to adapt to such a threat.


Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy