One of the most persistent fashions in military circles is predicting the demise of the aircraft carrier. It has become an article of faith among many analysts that the world’s biggest warships can’t hide in an era of precision-guided missiles and reconnaissance satellites, and it’s just a matter of time before some upstart military power like China proves the point. The more colorful accounts of why carriers will be a waning factor in warfare describe a “line of death” in the seas near China that can’t be crossed without courting catastrophe.
No doubt about it, carriers and the other warships that accompany them in a strike group constitute a lucrative target set. Losing even one of the Navy’s ten carriers would be a national trauma. However, these concerns have been around for a long time; Donald Rumsfeld was talking about them during his first run as defense secretary in the 1970s. There hasn’t been much hard evidence during the intervening decades that carrier vulnerability is increasing. The Navy invests heavily in applying cutting-edge technology to the defense of its carrier strike groups — making them among the most densely defended assets in the world.
What is increasing is the utility of carriers in responding to a growing array of global challenges. Roughly 80% of the world’s population lives within a hundred miles of the sea, so having a fleet of floating air bases that can destroy hundreds of targets per day for months at a time without requiring access to land facilities is useful. In fact, large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are the signature combat systems of the U.S. military — a capability uniquely suited to America’s global security role.
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This isn’t just rhetoric: the Chief of Naval Operations testified last week before Congress that his carriers can barely keep up with the tempo of demand from combatant commanders in places like the Middle East and Western Pacific. He figures carrier deployments should last about seven months to be sustainable, but they’ve actually been averaging nine months — which is wearing out both the ships and their crews. So if demand signals are any indication, reports of the carrier’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Here are five reasons why the Navy’s flattops will become more important to U.S. security in the future, rather than gradually relinquishing their role.