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Ever since the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier has been the dominant naval combatant but are they still as dominant today?

We frequently hear talk about how they have become obsolete, they are expensive vanity projects or sitting ducks in the modern world of warfare. All of these are true but they are all just as false as it comes down to the nation itself that determines effectiveness of a carrier.

It goes without saying that the world leader in aircraft carriers is the USA with its fleet of 10 Nimitz class carriers and no one is a close second to that. Not only is she operating 8 more than most navies of the world but they are a class that dwarfs most other carriers and has no clear rival in the world.

In recent days we saw China launch her second carrier and the first that was domestically built but she is not a carrier that will strike fear into the US, Royal or Russian Navies. Yet that is likely to not be her purpose at all, I would wager that she is more a statement that China are joining this game, they will start making carriers and act as a training ship for the future of their navy. As they plan to have three battle carrier groups established by 2020 yet these carriers will come in at 50,000 tonnes displacement, half that of a Nimitz and carry half the plane load of a Nimitz.

If we were to just compare the numbers like aircraft load, range, displacement, crew, etc in almost every category a Nimitz will outclass the Chinese carriers. But it goes further than that just through simple design, as a simple picture will show you the Chinese are to operate STOBAR so launching the planes with a ski jump. Which at its most basic level limits the amount and variety of aircraft that you can operate as they would need to be launch-able on a short deck with the jump giving them the extra lift needed. But then they will have to make a choice on extra fuel or heavy weapons as they could not have both if they want to fly.

I could go on a list the drawbacks of the carrier design but that would miss the point, as these carriers are not being made to rival a Nimitz nor are they to intimidate the US Navy. China in simple military terms is a local/regional power, they are not a Superpower or Global-power even though that may be where their aspirations lie. If we look at their neighbours they have Japan, Vietnam, the Korea’s, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines and in this mix three of these carriers have a drastic impact. No one there alone could rival one let alone three carrier battle groups without help from America.

If we look at Russian and the rust bucket that is the Admiral Kutuzov they are going to invest large sums of money to refit and modernise her. But yet again she will never rival a Nimitz but we see again that, that is not her design. As firstly it is a simple matter of prestige for a Navy to be able to field aircraft carriers and battle groups. Unlike owning nuclear weapons carriers are assets that will be used and can be activated without enormous levels of escalation. They can be political statements, projection of power or reassurance to allies.

In recent times American carriers have been a constants in the south pacific region which freedom of navigation sailings through disputed waters of the South China Sea, deployment to the Korean Peninsula or anywhere with high tension levels. As when they go they  are not there to simply remind the nations about the conventions of the seas and freedom of navigation. But equally to remind that, a fleets worth of firepower can be brought to bare on that location.

Though I hear you say that is a carrier sailed to a war in the South China Sea, for example, it would be a sitting duck and not last too long. While a carrier will face a multitude of threats from torpedoes to aircraft launched anti-ship missiles to cruise missiles which are constantly evolving, the simple matter is we just don’t know what would happen if one hit as it is yet to happen.

The same would go for the countermeasures  as a carrier would have a very layered and protected bubble of defence ranging from early warning aircraft to submarines to counter enemy submarines and destroyers for air defence. But how these would hold up against a large or sustained attack is anyone’s guess as that situation is yet to arise.

Yet with all these threats and escalating costs it doesn’t seem to deter nations from building them as in the coming years we will see the launch of two Queen Elizabeth class carriers for the Royal Navy, the Gerald R Ford for the US Navy and more carriers for China.

50 COMMENTS

  1. Many would sya that the SSN is now the capital ship of a blue water navy – not that carriers aren’t still potent assets.

    • i’ve always wondered why the u.k. would build such big ships as the albion and bulwark without fitting such a large aset without an ASROC system,or anti air capability. the loss of one of these ships with 300 marines on board could be deemed as costly as a carrier.the opv’s could be armed as modern corvettes are,becomming war vessell in their own right

  2. Aircraft carriers prevent wars as much as end them. If the UK government had not been so reckless and under the influence of treasury mandarins and anti FAA elements in the MOD it is extremely likely the Falklands War would never have happened and that’s just for hypothetical starters. Ultimately Conqueror sinking the Belgrano and the USN shooting up Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan and others with cruise missiles have never stopped wars. Its helped to end wars but a big stick pitching up off your coast seems to do the trick quite often. They work and when properly equipped and supported happen to work a lot better than anything else.
    The UK should be easily able to support 2 fully equipped and supported CBGs. One in one out. Hopefully UK politicans are beginning to understand this. The relevance of aircraft carriers seem to understood by China, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, France, Thailand, Australia and of course the US. Maybe not everyone has a fixed wing yet but the capability is there if they want it.

  3. An Aircraft Carrier is imperative for Great Britain because we have overseas territories and treaty obligations that rely on us for defense. We’re still a global power and you cant be that without power projection and the aircraft carrier is still the ultimate power projection capability, it’s unrivaled.

    Air support will never ever become redundant, like artillery being used for the first time over 2000 years ago, it’s still important on the battlefield today and will be for another 2000 years, just like air support will be. And carriers can give air support anywhere in the world so in my eyes in an age where dispensable soldiers are a thing of the past, air strikes from carriers, overseas air bases etc have never been so important.

    There has always been big capital ships, galleons, battleships and now aircraft carriers, a lead ship in naval warfare will never be not relevant, it will only be replaced with the next technology, and you can be pretty sure that next technology will involve a big ship at the head of the line.

    These last few years of not having an operational aircraft carrier has been an absolute travesty for a country like ours, completely unforgivable from the people in power. Because at this moment in time our overseas territories are more or less defenseless, the idea of sending a task force to retake any of our territories now without carriers and aircraft protecting it from other aircraft is unthinkable, it would not happen.

    • having served in the falklands, i can say if we had had a proper carrier down there,it might have been that, the argentine air force would have struggled to launch, that being accepted a larger better equipped air capability may have meant the plane that took out sheffield may never have got close enough, the same applies for coventry,ardent and antelope and other hips hit in’bomb alley’ at san carlos i also think the type 42 destroyer should have been kept, modernised, and hulls in best condition retained in the fleet. it shows the ammaturish thinking at the M.O.D does not appear to have been influenced by the war 6 type 45’s is nowhere near enough to cover a carrier or amphibious group, imagine the loss of a n albion class with 300 troops aboard

  4. They are a vanity project. We can easily deploy our air assets all I’ve the world without them and if we hit another war with a enemy even vaguely up to speed their subs would make short work of the huge floating targets. We got lucky in the Falklands with technical problems with the argentine bombsrs /subs saving the carriers.

    The US has 10 carriers for the same reason we had battleships long after they were countered or had large cav regiments after invention of the machine gun, which is to fly the flag and show their home voters and their allies they are there, plus avoid admitting you have lost an advantage over your potential enemies. Is russia/China worried about the carriers, I suspect not.

      • Do they want to build them because of fear or own vanity?

        There is nothing wrong with expensive military assets used for PR purposes, floating a carrier into a contested area makes good news stories and I am sure we will see China with it’s carriers operating in areas that America consider their own area of influence, within the next decade, in a sort of you do it so we have to also. This just doesn’t change the problem with them being obsolete in a real war fighting situation

        There is an argument that ww2 and lessor extend ww1 indicated that surface warfare is obsolete in general.

    • You say we can deploy air assets all over the world yes? Tell me what if we get kicked of cyprus, what if relations with all Middle East nations decline so we can’t base any aircraft there and what if the argentines re take the Falklands?

    • Well said Harry, this guy has lost the plot.

      So Steve if the Falklands were
      Invaded again, where would you base our aircraft from? You said we can deploy aircraft from anywhere in the world so it should be easy for you to answer.

      But that’s not even the most silly point you made

      “There is an argument that ww2 and lessor extend ww1 indicated that surface warfare is obsolete in general”

      How wrong can you be thinking that, you do realise that 90% of the entire planets trade travels by sea!
      If there was a major war again shipping will be targeted, cutting off a countries ability to wage war is still and will always be a target in a major conflict. Thr sea is territory and naturally countries will try control it to give them advantage.

      • If the Falklands was invaded again, which is frankly insanely unlikely we would have to ask allies in the region for air bases. For Argentina to be capable of launching another attack, they would need to modernise their military, which would mean bombers that drop laser guided bombs and not ones based on clock work mechanics. Same for their subs. Put semi modern weapons in place in the first war and the carriers would have been sunk and the war lost. Switch Argentina with say Russia and the carriers would have no chance against their nuclear subs.

        The world is covered by sea but securing it in 2017 would be close to impossible. The combination of land based aircraft and modern subs just isn’t defendable, especially as sat comms can be tracked.

    • i understand your worries, but its often missed , the type 23 frigate as widely accepted as the premium anti submarine vessel in the world. that, along with the t45, would afford better escort capability than many believe.add the world class astute hunter killer and a t26(if they ever actually build one!).its own aircraft in a CAP role. i think would be enough

  5. The US really has 19 aircraft carriers; ten CVNs and 9 large amphibious assault ships. These through-deck amphibs will carry F35Bs as well as a multitude of helicopter types and Opreys. In fact, the USN wants to increase the number of fast jets on the amphibs to make them more like conventional carriers. Carriers are highly relevant. It’s subs that are becoming less relevant as asw technology, anti-missile technology and anti-torpedo technology becomes more and more sophisticated. Grenade rolled… Mike dropped…

    • They will be back up to 11 CVNs when the USS Gerald Ford is finally commissioned (the replacement for the USS Enterprise, which was decommissioned in 2013).

      The first two America class LHA carriers are designed for use with 20+ F35Bs if a CVN is not available/needed

    • mysolution to withdrawing ocean, would be a return to the past, remove the superstructure of a bay class and fit a full length flight deck. faster, heaper. just as flexible

    • good point an ocean replacement with its own single f 35b with asw could be cheaply produce by the removal of a bay class superstructure and the addition of a full deck and anti submarinemerlins asw choppers

  6. Interesting topic

    i happen to think that carriers in the future will be smaller but will be underwater, or airborne.

    concept designs of carriers are under way.

    however sticking to topic. it’s a two carrier world unless you are China or the US whom are looking for dominance with greater numbers.

    Our economy and foreign commitments requires that we need at least two

    but in my unprofessional opinion the breakup of the UK is under way and i predict spending commitment to be sluggish.

    Ireland will be united, Scotland will be independent and i’m not convinced Wales and England will remain a lasting union leaving a once historic armed forces and dominant power that is England with the financial and political means to have a voice.

    Yes “Now” we need a capable armed forces but for how long will they remain “UK” armed forces

    but with domestic politics so unstable shouldn’t our economies be banking it and preparing for an uncertain future at home?

    • Morning Steve-I am not convinced that the UK is going to beak up. The SNP’s power is on the wane-watch next months elections and there is still a healthy majority in NI in favour of the Union with a core of the population that would fight tooth and nail to remain British. In Wales-again ,Plaid have minority support and are not ‘hard core Nats’ like the SNP. Wales enjoys a strong sense of identity but within the UK( morning DadsArmy 🙂 )

      • i think in the not too distant future the navy and R.A.F maybe with the paras and royal marines/s.a.s and s.b.s to form a force along the lines of the u.s marine corps the country cannot afford the ones we have now,hence the parlous sizeof the navy.

      • the s.n.p are an irrelevant party led by a one trip leader if they want anotherreferendum, make them pay th 200 million thelast one cost thee english taxpayer

    • scotland signed the act of union without a gun to its head, giving them independence would show the word of scotland is not worth the paper it WAS written on, tell them all ship orders arecancelled close clyde or and let mrs. fish(sturgeon) tell the people why its happened. the loss of jobs, and income would hurt them deeply.

  7. People saying that carriers are irrelevant and going the way of the battleship are, in my view, making the mistake of thinking of a carrier primarily as a ship; it isn’t, a carrier is primarily an airfield that happens to be able to move. When taking that perspective its vulnerability to attack should be compared to a fixed airfield which can also be attacked by missiles and bombs (although admittedly not torpedoes). It is possible to place a carrier in an optimal position with respect to a target whereby some of its build costs begin to be recouped by reducing per-sortie costs, e.g. look at how much more efficient the French Libya sorties were operating off CdG vs the British flying out of Akrotiri.

  8. The days of the carrier are not over yet. The ability to deliver airpower over a large area without a friendly airbase or land facilities is always relevant in warfare.
    The carrier itself needs to be seen as a nucleus and as long as surrounded and adequately protected by its battle group, is still a weapon system 2nd to none.
    The future QE class if we had adequate numbers of f35b jets and osprey for air to air refuelling would provide a force of 5th generation strike fighters over the target more capable than most countries entire air force. I am talking about maximum surge capacity so 36+ F35bs, 8 merlin ASW, 4-5 merlin crowsnest+ 6-7 Ospreys.
    problem is we do not have the osprey, we are getting the f35b in sluggish numbers and no real force until after 2023 and the QE carriers do not have adequate protection to form a uk battlegroup. Inadequate numbers of escort warships and subs.
    Hopefully this will all change and HMG will wake up…but not holding my breath.

  9. Aircraft carriers allow you to deploy aircraft over large areas of ocean that normally your aircraft couldn’t operate over due to range limitations. They allow you to control seas lanes and shipping routes in time of war. We tend to think solely of airpower over land as the most decisive factor in a war, and in small scale localised conflict it is, but in a large scale global war the carrier secures your own sea lanes as well as allowing you to dominate your opponents navel forces. They allow you to deploy not only fast jets to hit ships but also helicopters to hunt subs.

    Parking one off someone’s coast line presents a pretty big target and whilst that has how they have been used since WW2 to intimidate other nations, its not really their strongest or best use.

    God forbid we ever end up in another global war, but if we do the carriers ability to secure lines of supply to drive the enemy fleet away from an area of interest and to dominate the seas will show just how important and relevant they still are. In todays world of localised conflict a carrier allows you to deploy advanced aircraft against a lesser enemy force, from a platform they cannot hit back at.

    They are as relevant today as they were during WW2

      • one wayto enlarge the R.N. wouldbe to purchase the u.s ticondaroga class cruisers as they are withdrawn,from the U.S.N. benefits faster into service than new builds,cheaper,already technologically current, they were designed for a service life of 35 years the current aerage in service length averages 22 years, so age should not be used as an excuse against themdesigned and used as a carrier escort and A.S,W ship, the main area of concern would be ,crew size approx 300 compared to a t45 crew of 250.

        • a rHAS to have a decent escort group around it, without it you can’t just expect 1x t45 and an ssn to be sufficient

    • The question is whether you can defend them against any opponent that is vaguely technologically advanced. When they do the sims/practices the subs almost always get through the anti sub net undetected and sink their target.

      If you can’t defend them, and due to their size it’s hard to hide them, being a airfield at the bottom of the ocean isn’t much use.

      No question they are an amazing platform, if allowed to operate uncontested.

    • when the u.k still relies on 82% of its imports coming by sea, the paltry size of the current R.N, shows that britain is still as voulnerable as its always been. airpower in its absence is of paramount importance

  10. Of course Carriers are relevant! Can dominate an area, project power onto land, and serve as a potent symbol of intent if one is parked off a countries coast.

    RN should prioritise 4 pillars.

    Carriers ( & Associated Airpower )
    SSN’s.
    Amphibious ships & RM.
    RFA.

    The fewer Type 45 and Type 26 should be put into 2 groups, one assigned to each carrier. So one is deployed, one carrier is in reserve, with its escorts on other tasks unless the second carrier is used, maybe to form an amphibious group in emergency.

    I’d also have a group dedicated to protecting the SSBN’s with 2 Type 26 working in concert with the P8, and a couple of Astutes. If not needed a 26 could act as the FRE for home waters.

    Could the 2 Carrier groups each look like this? The second group could double as an amphibious group with one or two Bays and an LPD added if the carrier is in reserve?

    Carrier.
    2 x Type 45.
    2 x Type 26.
    1 Mars.
    1 Tide.
    1 Astute.

    So 4 out of 6 Type 45 ready, 2 in reserve / refit.
    So 6 out of 8 Type 26 ready, 2 in reserve / refit.
    So 5 out of 7 Astute ready, 2 in reserve / refit.

    Are these readiness figures realistic? I have no idea.

    Then I’d like to see a group of cheaper vessels like Type 31, Rivers, or another type forming another group to undertake the flying the flag, anti piracy, anti drugs patrols we send billion pound 45’s to do. Ridiculous. These could be forward deployed on occasion which I believe 1SL had mentioned, for example in the Carribean, Gulf, Gibraltar, Cyprus, Diego Garcia, etc. This saves our core assets the 26’s and 45’s to form two decent carrier groups to make full use of the carriers we have spent a fortune on, to the detriment of much of the RN’s escort fleet.

    • as far as SSN numbers the u.k has the entire swiftsure class in mothballs at devonport and rosyth, plus th withdrawn conquerors and trafalgars.some of the swift sures saw action in the libya conflict firing tomahawks.which several had been fitted to carry.it seems the willpower or cost implication of recomissioning these ships is something that needs to be adressed

    • make the albion/bulwarks armed with as much fire power as possible, 70mm gun, phanx, asroc system , maybe a towed array and an asw merlin, its unbelievable the u.k. would build such big ships (and they are big) without the means to protect themselves. the o.p.v. could be fitted with a gun, the thai navy has done it to their KHRABI corvette and include them in their warship inventory, as we should too.

  11. Yeah, good devil’s advocate article I guess.

    Carriers are status, deterrent, mobile defence and attack for countries that have overseas territories or aspirations. Larger countries need them.

    The UK and France would be too small but for their histories though. In theory a collective such as the EU should run a couple, probably more like 5 or 6.

    (backs away grinning having mentioned the EU)

  12. Like the comment about the EU probably should have 5-6 carriers.
    That would be true if they spent 2-3% gdp to defence ratio. Unfortunately our European allies are nowhere near doing that. They would much rather rely on others to provide their defence at another countries expense.
    I think as the UK is renewing its nuclear deterrent and as other nations are protected by this strategic deterrent umbrella, as part of NATO, they should contribute to the strategic deterrents provided by uk, France and USA.
    Same could be said for lots of NATO capabilities really in that there is no joined up thinking with nations asked to contribute specialism to a NATO unified force structure.
    Netherlands could be asked to provide marines, amphibious landing and mine hunting.
    Norway air defence destroyers, artic warfare specialism
    Germany armoured divisions and attack helicopters+ more fighters (being land based ideally suited to defensive frontline forces)
    Italy antisubmarine frigates and ASW escort carriers cavour, garibaldi class ideally suited to this task especially when guarded by FREEM frigates.

  13. especially if the u. will foot the bill for operating BOTH of its carriers with a battle group made up from other e.u countries

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