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Aircraft Carriers and Chinese Missiles: Time to Rethink U.S. Naval Doctrine

The symbol of American power, the aircraft carrier, is at risk; at least that's what some recent reports suggest. In a current article in Defense News, U.S. Vice Admiral Jack Dorsett, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, states:

The technology that the Chinese have developed and are employing in their DF-21 D missile system has increased their probability of being able to employ a salvo of missiles to be able to hit a maneuvering target.

Dorsett consented that the U.S. Navy underestimated the capacity of the Chinese military to develop a land-based anti-ship ballistic missile that could penetrate the layered defense of an aircraft carrier group. The sinking of a single carrier will cost the lives of thousands of young Americans, not to mention the symbolism of such a disaster amidst talks of American decline and cuts in defense spending.

For students of warfare, this development is nothing new. The Chinese military eventually developed countermeasures to deter the most formidable threat (i.e., the aircraft carrier) in a future crisis over Taiwan. It is a classic example of a cost imposing strategy--a strategy in which the adversary is incentivized to spend substantially more money and resources on defense than the attacker spends on offense.

It works like this. The Chinese military essentially is exploiting the strict adherence of the United States to a naval doctrine based on the carrier by indirectly imposing costs, i.e., costs that the United States Navy is imposing on itself to retain supremacy. Whether a missile like the DF-21 D can penetrate carrier defenses (over which there is some controversy) misses a key point: The mere presence of anti-ship missiles imposes a heavy cost on U.S. Navy offensive capabilities as well as on its budget.

Aircraft carriers will be in service at least until 2050 and constitute the main U.S. instrument with which to project global power. In a sense, its defense is tantamount to defending U.S. global hegemony. They are as much of a political symbol of U.S. dominance as they are an actual means used to project American power around the world. Scrapping the carrier fleet is therefore out of the question.

Hence, the U.S. Navy is forced to deploy an enormous defensive perimeter built around the carrier. Today, each aircraft carrier group fields 24-long range fighter interceptors supported by four early warning radar aircraft, four jamming aircraft, four tanker aircraft, between two and four Ticonderoga (CG-47) or Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) destroyers, cruisers, a SSN-688 class submarine as an underwater escort, and 16 planes scanning the area for enemy submarine threats to counter anti-ship missiles. Out of 90 aircrafts, only 34 remain for actual offensive capabilities--not a very cost efficient way of doing business.

With the ongoing advancement of missile technology, it will become increasingly more expensive and difficult to destroy any missiles before they are launched. For example, the cost of modernizing 84 Aegis cruisers and destroyers to counter missiles such as the DF-21 D will be about $10 billion according to Congressional testimonies. China and Russia are developing jointly an improved missile system with an increased range of 200 km, making it impossible to destroy the missile before it is launched in both the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Taiwan (the two main hotspots for a future naval confrontation involving carriers) because of the inability of current U.S. defense systems to react in time.

In the future, defending a carrier group will lead to an increase in marginal costs in terms of launching air strikes, a decrease of operational mobility due to over-cautious protection, and a diversion of resources from offensive to defensive capabilities. China and Iran certainly anticipate rapid countermeasures and currently are trying to diversify their weapons portfolio. Even if the United States succeeds in countering the DF-21 D, however, its adversaries already will have succeeded in imposing tremendous extra costs on the United States Navy and scored a victory of sorts.

How can the United States Navy reduce extra costs? One idea would be that a reduction in size of the aircraft carrier battle groups as well as outsourcing certain duties (i.e., air strikes) to submarines and cruise missiles would reduce the exposure of carriers. For example, the capacity of 34 combat aircrafts available for sorties in an aircraft carrier strike force certainly could be matched by an Ohio class Trident nuclear submarine and its 154 cruise missiles. A doctrinal shift away from the aircraft carrier also would potentially discourage U.S. competitors to continue working on single carrier counter measures such as anti-ship missiles and split their resources to build adequate cruise missile defenses, for example.

The institutional focus and infrastructural outlays devoted to maintaining the elaborate Great Wall protecting America's carrier fleet is ultimately an ill-fated extension of an encrusted Maginot Line. The United States as the dominant power must apply various strategies and weapons systems to retain its global standing whereas China as the ostensibly weaker player only has to channel its resources towards very specific objectives, deterring U.S. naval forces in East Asia. What these different strategies imply for the overall strategic situations remains to be seen. However one thing is certain: for the U.S. to continue defending the aircraft carrier is not only detrimental in terms of monetary and other resources but will also allow other nations to catch up faster with U.S. military might.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a defense analyst. He works for the EastWest Institute