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.