Report: U.S. aircraft carriers could become ineffective

Story highlights

  • A new report on the future of aircraft carriers raises questions about the choices the Navy has made about these mobile airfields
  • The rise of new powers now threatens to push the Navy farther from shore and beyond the range of the aircraft the carriers hold

(CNN)Calling the U.S. aircraft carrier the "backbone" of America's global military presence, the Navy's top brass highlighted the risks of failing to maintain a big enough fleet during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

But a new report on the future of aircraft carriers suggests that the Navy's problems run deeper than the number of ships or planes on these mobile airfields.
The Pentagon's focus on developing a "jack of all trades, master of none" aircraft, while rival countries build technology capable of sinking American carriers, could make these expensive warships ineffective in the coming years, according to the naval expert who authored the report.
    The rise of new powers now threatens to push the Navy farther from shore and beyond the range of the aircraft the carriers hold, according to the report written by naval expert Jerry Hendrix of the Center for New American Security. "This push back would limit the service's ability to project power and thus undermine the credibility of the United States."
    The U.S. carrier fleet and its air wings, or the aircraft on board, have been considered the foundation of American naval power since the end of World War II.
    Over the last 70 years, the Pentagon has expanded and upgraded its fleet of aircraft carriers and the planes they carry; the staggering sums involved -- each carrier costs roughly $12 billion -- has been an investment that has allowed the U.S. Navy to project a consistent, military presence across the globe.
    But the report charges that a misguided decision over the past 20 years to prioritize short-range, light attack aircraft -- rather than those with deep-strike capabilities and longer range -- coupled with the development of new, anti-ship missile technology by several unfriendly nations, jeopardizes the safety of the American vessels.
    "Today's carriers and their accompanying air wings, with their shrinking ability to project mass power at great distance, represent 25 years of actively forgetting critical historical lessons," said Hendrix.
    According to Hendrix's report, the loss of seven aircraft carriers during World War II led the Navy to initially prioritize the development of aircraft that could travel long distances to hit land-based targets and allow the carrier to stay further away from enemy territory.
    But given the U.S. Navy's uncontested access to the world's oceans after the fall of the Soviet Union, aviation development has been refocused toward short-range, light-attack aircraft, over the last two decades, Hendrix said.
    The light-attack, multi-role planes currently being used and developed tend to have lower maintenance costs and can be launched from an aircraft carrier more quickly than the specialized long-range aircraft of the past.
    While the U.S. Navy and its air wing are still largely considered the most powerful in the world, Hendrix said the shift in capabilities coupled with the rise of new world powers, specifically China and its acquisition of a long-range carrier-killer missile, could hinder the U.S. carrier fleets.
    These missiles "seek to take advantage of the United States' decision to cede range and the deep strike mission capability and push American ships and aircraft back beyond their operating ranges," Hedrix said.
    That hurts U.S. power projection and its ability to contemplate regime change strategies that have dominated many modern American wars.
    Russia, North Korea and Iran are also investing in similar anti-ship technology in an effort to re-impose the strict naval territories that existed in the decades prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, he added.
    But the Navy said it is confident in the capabilities of its air wing and that the aircraft carrier will remain relevant despite the efforts of rival nations.
    "A carrier is the only maritime force capable of executing the full range of military operations necessary to protect our national interests," Navy spokesman Cmdr. William Marks told CNN.
    "The Navy remains committed to maintaining a carrier force, and associated carrier air wings, that provide unparalleled responsiveness and flexibility to operational commanders across the full range of military options," he added.
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    To counter the emerging threat posed by advanced anti-ship missile systems, the Navy has outfitted its newest destroyers and cruisers with advanced ballistic missile defense systems and is modernizing its ships and planes to include sensors and targeting systems that allow commanders, pilots and ship crews to share data with one another in real time.
    The systems allow the group to "detect, track and destroy an approaching target from distances hundreds of miles over the horizon," Marks said.
    But Hendrix contended that upgraded defense capabilities may not be enough, suggesting the Navy reassess the types of planes it plans to buy and restore more balance to its air wing by investing in alternatives that have more range.
    "New capabilities in the areas of unmanned systems, stealth, directed energy, and hypersonics could be combined to provide the range required to perform deep strike missions," said Hendrix.
    Another recent report, this one by the Hudson Institute's Center for American Sea Power, also said the Navy must increase the striking range of its planes in order to protect aircraft carriers in an increasingly dangerous environment.
    This group of researchers also concluded that the emerging threats posed by evolving anti-ship technology only increase the need to invest in aircraft carriers, provided they have the proper enhancements in capability.
    Dakota Wood, who served in the U.S. Marines and is a defense expert with the D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, agreed with Hendrix's assessment that the U.S. Navy must adjust its thinking about aircraft carriers as the anti-ship capabilities of rival nations improve.
    However, any argument that aircraft carriers are no longer viable is premature, he said, as only a few countries currently possess weaponry precise enough to pose a lethal threat to carrier fleets.
    "I think aircraft carriers will exist in their current form for several more years," Wood said.