The US Carrier Fleet Has Always Been Vulnerable Even Without China's New Missiles

"Where is the nearest carrier?"

Ever since 1975, when the first mighty Nimitz-class ships put to sea, that has usually been the first question asked by US Presidents when international tensions flare.

And it's not surprising. These goliaths remain warships nonpareil forty-years later. The largest combat vessels ever built, and some of the largest things ever made to move, a single Nimitz can bring to bear air power comparable to all but the world's most powerful national air forces.

Remember that big stick Teddy Roosevelt used to talk softly about?  Well this is it: sea-grey, a thousand feet long, the best part of 100,000 tonnes and home to 5,000. Awesome in every regard

Symbols of Uncle Sam's total post-war military hegemony, they still have no serious rivals. Britain's Queen Elizabeth class probably comes closest, but that's still in build, and in any case there'll only ever be two. There are already ten Nimitzes, more than all the world's strike carriers combined. And they are being replaced themselves by the even more capable Gerald Ford class, the first of which is nearly finished.

So, news that China has paraded a potentially 'carrier-killing' ballistic missile, the Dongfeng ('East Wind') 21D through the streets of Beijing as part of celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Second World War's end, has many commentators convinced that the strategic balance in the Pacific has shifted forever, and that the end of the supercarrier is nigh.

The wars the US has fought in its post-war pomp have flattered carrier doctrineWell, maybe, but perhaps even the giant Nimitzes have always been a little more vulnerable than they have sometimes seemed, and that strategic balance a little more equal.

The wars the U.S. has fought in its post-war pomp have flattered carrier doctrine. After all, none of its foes, from the Viet Cong through the Taliban and, now, ISIS, has had the capability to even set eyes on the vast ships from which their attackers set out, never mind the clout to track or destroy one.

Large aircraft carriers would face a much tougher time against any opponent with 'full spectrum capability' as the top of the range is known, than they do from insurgent armies. Indeed, there has always been a group of Cassandras in admiralties around the world, convinced that carriers were just too easy a target for a capable foe.

The Soviet Union tried and failed to match the Nimitizes, which served as a constant and irritating reminder to Moscow that the superpowers weren't created equal. The sheer expense was too much. But it did better with submarines which would certainly have seen U.S. carriers operating very gingerly indeed had the cold war ever heated up.

China is trying the same thing with Dongfeng. It can’t match the supercarriers either, so, like Soviet Moscow, it is trying to get around them.

Many nations, probably including China, have had the capability to track and sink a Nimitz for years, whether from submarines or from strike aircraft. Plenty of movies and novels of the Tom Clancy sort posit just such a sinking as the very epitome of the American nightmare - a supercarrier heading for the bottom. What this new missile does, assuming it can do what American strategists fear, is markedly increase an existing capability.

But in any case missile technology has moved a long way since 1975. As the British discovered to their cost when they fought Argentina at sea in 1982, even a second-division air force can sink the ships of a first-division navy.  And the Exocets Argentina used look like muzzle-loaders compared with what is out there now.

submarines can do the lot. And compared to an aircraft carrier they are invulnerableBut, like all symbols, be they never so powerful, the Nimitz class is really only one facet of American naval dominance.

Much of what used to be the carriers' exclusive preserve is now carried out by submarines. From landing special forces in secret, through precision strike with cruise missiles and on up to full nuclear assault, submarines can do the lot. And compared to an aircraft carrier they are invulnerable.

Indeed, in his fascinating look at naval tactics past and future, The Price of Admiralty, naval writer John Keegan pictures combat between advanced nations taking place all-but entirely below the waves- the surface entirely vacant, ironically calm.  Carriers and other surface vessels might well be consigned to port, or even kept deliberately as far away from the action as possible, too valuable to lose or, like America’s superbanks, Too Big to Fail.

Supercarriers will remain pre-eminent in what they are good at. Showing up near strategic trouble spots, deterring lesser air-forces from getting airborne and keeping vital sea lanes open.

But, East Wind or no East Wind, the call from a future White House is increasingly likely to be, "where is the nearest sub?"

More about the author

About the author

Born and raised in Swansea West, one of the safest Labour seats in the country, David is perhaps unsurprisingly a High-Tory, Euroskeptic Royalist Libertarian with an unhealthy adoration for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As a result he is seldom pleased by anything that ever happens, and always on the verge of quitting the whole jamboree. A former Special Writer at the Wall Street Journal, he knew the crash was coming when he saw a piece about Louis XVI reproduction furniture "for your Winnebago."

Follow David on Twitter.




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