Thursday, 26 May 2011

Are The Aircraft Carriers Obsolete?

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This is a debate which has been raging for couple of years now. The question is in the modern world are the mammoth super-carriers obsolete. Do they have any real value in modern warfare or are they just a juicy target waiting to be hit.

The question divides the naval community right down the middle. each of the group have their own supporting arguments. In this article we will look into some arguments against having an aircraft carrier. We will also discuss the counter points if any.


The days of unlimited spending are long gone and all major military power with the exception of China is facing major economic hurdles. Thus it is difficult not only to build but maintain an aircraft carrier, because it may be a single ship yet it always moves in a group called Carrier Strike Group(CSG) or Carrier Battle Group(CBG). The composition of each one of these groups may wary from country to country but the general organisation is

1 Aircraft Carrier, 2 Guided Missile Cruisers, 2 Anti Aircraft Warships, 1-2 Anti Submarine Destroyers or Frigates,one attack submarine and one supply ship.

Each of these super-carriers has a crew of 6,000 sea-men and air-men. Add another 1,500-2,000 crew on the supporting ship.The current cost of acquiring one of these ships comes to around USD 25 billion for super-carriers, between 5-10 billion for standard aircraft carrier and 2-3 billion USD for light aircraft carrier. Then you will have to add the cost of the air wing. the aircrafts used on such carrier are not the normal one, they are customized for the type of landing facility on the carrier.

These costs are only for acquiring the beast, so you can imagine the amount required to maintain the ship with its supporting vessels,advanced fighters,training,ammunition, maintainance, research etc may run into few billions. For example in 2009 USS George Bush was launched at a cost of 6.7 billion USD, INS Vikramaditya will cost India 3 Billion USD. Even the new INS Vikrant being built in India will cost USD 750 million without any arms or aircraft.

While the navies procure these floating fortresses the actual size of the navy may reduce due to budget restrictions, navy will buy one of these against buying many ships.

Anti-Ship Missiles

Now comes the real issue. When the news came that China has developed a cruise missile tailor made to hit ships, it sent a shiver down most naval strategist.This news has the ability to disturb the current power balance. First lets look at what are these missiles and why are they such a danger.

Dong-Feng21(DF21 or CSS5) are intermediate range ballistic missile with a range of 2000 kilometer and a speed of nearly Mach 10. Thus it can reach any target within 12 minutes and has a range big enough to cover most of the hot spots for the Chinese navy.This missile can carry a big enough warhead to obliterate any target.

This ASBM employs a complex guidance system, low radar signature and a maneuverability that makes its flight path unpredictable making it very difficult if not impossible for it to be tracked by defense systems that it can evade tracking systems.With the help of AWAC's, UAV's and satellites the Chinese could locate,track and target these giants and use the data to guide the missile home.

If operational as is believed, the system marks the first time a ballistic missile has been successfully developed to attack vessels at sea. Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.

The seriousness of this threat can be identified by the following statement by Robert Gates to the Navy on May 3 that U.S. enemies are “investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages, to deny our military freedom of action while potentially threatening America's primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.”
“We know other nations are working on asymmetric ways to thwart the reach and striking power of the U.S. battle fleet,” he said.
The higher end of what Gates called the “access-denial spectrum” is the effort to erode what has been a virtual monopoly by the United States on precision guided weapons. These include “long-range, accurate anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that can potentially strike from over the horizon,” he said, without mentioning that the main developer of these weapons is China.

Currently no aircraft-carrier or any other ship for that matter has any Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Defense.Developing a defense for such kind of missiles is another huge investment in R&D  with an increase in production and maintainance cost.


This is a concept being put into practice by the Iranian navy. Thy have a large number of small but fast gunboats which can carry missiles and rockets. Individually they are useless against a whole CSG but used in a pack in a narrow area, they can be deadly. The same strategy at a lower level without proper arms and gunboats is being used by the Somali pirates. If the aircraft carrier is attacked by a swarm of missiles and rockets, the possibility of few getting through the defenses are much higher.

To destroy a aircraft carrier you don't have to actually sink it, Just damage the deck or the catapult or the support ship which provide fuel and munition can be enough to render the whole CSG defunct.


The bigger they are the harder they fall" is a principle that doesn't just work in heavyweight boxing; it also applies to nuclear-powered aircraft carriers faced with swarms of attacking diesel-powered submarines.
Slowly even the submarines have evolved into a more deadly war equipment. Air Independent Submarines-Modern diesel subs, of the kind built by Germany, France, and Russia are sold around the world and come equipped with new AIP technology allowing them to remain undetected for weeks. Such weapons can easily come into the possession of rogue states such as Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, and perhaps already are. Diesel boats are also far quieter than nuclear subs, and there are more than 400 built or building in the world today.
A Song-class Chinese submarine equipped with wake-homing torpedos and anti-ship cruise missiles surfaced within five miles of the USS Kitty Hawk in waters near Okinawa on Oct. 26 in what U.S. defense officials said was a provocative act. Defense officials believe the Chinese submarine was practicing for tracking and targeting carriers. 

Adm. Fallon said that the Kitty Hawk and escorting warships were conducting exercises at the time of the incident, but the maneuvers did not include anti-submarine activities. "But if they had been, and this Chinese submarine happened to come in the middle of this, then this could well have escalated into something that was very unforeseen." He did not elaborate.

American military chiefs have been left dumbstruck by an undetected Chinese submarine popping up at the heart of a recent Pacific exercise and close to the vast U.S.S. Kitty Hawk - a 1,000ft supercarrier with 4,500 personnel on board.By the time it surfaced the 160ft Song Class diesel-electric attack submarine is understood to have sailed within viable range for launching torpedoes or missiles at the carrier.According to senior Nato officials the incident caused consternation in the U.S. Navy.
The Americans had no idea China's fast-growing submarine fleet had reached such a level of sophistication, or that it posed such a threat.One Nato figure said the effect was "as big a shock as the Russians launching Sputnik" - a reference to the Soviet Union's first orbiting satellite in 1957 which marked the start of the space age.The incident, which took place in the ocean between southern Japan and Taiwan, is a major embarrassment for the Pentagon.

It was not the first time the Kitty Hawk was shadowed by a Chinese submarine, and the Navy's relatively timid response contrasts sharply with its reaction to a 1994 encounter. For two days in October 1994, aircraft from the Kitty Hawk chased a Chinese nuclear submarine to within three miles of the Chinese coast after the submarine was detected shadowing the carrier battle group about 200 miles away in the Yellow Sea. China responded by threatening to shoot down the U.S. anti-submarine warfare aircraft and flew its fighters in the direction of the carrier.
"It was quite upsetting to me when I read of a Chinese sub tracking our fleet in the Pacific and we didn't even know it. That's bothers me a lot," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

Diesel powered, Kilo-type subs cannot stay at see indefinitely and they lack the range of the nuclear-powered subs of the U.S. British and Russian navies of sailing anywhere in the world without refueling and still having full operational capabilities. But given a base a few hundred or even a thousand miles form their operational areas they are formidable weapons and China has invested big in them. In 2006, China built 14 diesel-powered subs while the United States built only a single nuclear one.

Wake-homing torpedoes are guided by sensors that detect the turbulence of a ship’s wake. The torpedo snakes from side to side within the cone of the wake and follows it to the ship’s stern before detonation.

Many navies today, including those of China, North Korea and Iran, arm their submarines with wake-homing torpedoes.

The most effective way to avoid the torpedo is not to get within range of the submarine,” said Capt. Randy Hill, director of training for Fleet Antisubmarine Warfare Command in San Diego. “Many of the procedures and tactics are still valid, even from World War II, but the added technology proliferating out there presents the additional challenge.” 

Hill said the Navy has tactics to defeat wake-homing torpedoes, but stressed that the focus of antisubmarine tactics is to avoid submarines so as to “not get shot at” before the submarine can be attacked. 

Shkval torpedo-This Russian weapon utilizes super-cavitation technology giving it an astounding underwater speed of 200 knots. The Navy has stated “Fitted with a nuclear warhead, Shkval could obliterate entire US naval battle groups and abruptly blow a hole in the USA’s carrier based air superiority doctrine”. Iran is said to possess a version called the "Hoot"

According to an officer aboard the USS Russell,
anti-submarine warfare is probably the most challenging mission a ship or strike group can perform, especially when done well. It involves nearly every asset and tactic you can imagine, as ships and aircraft perform a thorough and sustained search by listening with passive sensors and probing with active sensors, both electromagnetic and acoustic. From a ship’s perspective, it also involves frequent aggressive maneuvering to prevent an adversary from developing a firing solution, and the maneuvering must be done without jeopardizing the towed array sonar and torpedo countermeasures trailing thousands of feet behind the ship.


The question arises how to replace these ships and still carry on the work intended like power-projection, sea-denial,protection of commerce etc Answer may lie in small platforms which have distributed fire power and the ability to be deployed swiftly and independently. Most of these new age weapons have already started surfacing. Some of them are  the stealth warships and the nuclear powered guided missile submarines.The Submarines with a crew of just about 150-160 can carry Tomahawk land attack missile for a fraction of cost. These are imperious to ant-ship ballistic missiles or swarm tactics of smaller navies. It is very hard to detect them too.

Thus in all probability the day of smaller faster and stealthier ships are here and our beloved Aircraft carriers might be riding into the sunset.
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If readers have a counter point please be kind enough to email me on or give your views as comments. If you would like to write an article to counter the above mentioned views or support it please let me know and I will be happy to publish it.


abhis said...

I think air craft carriers are more for power projection than for the real naval battle.It just adds one more dimension in a battle zone.Air craft carriers can always be effective with a complete battle group.A single aircraft carrier in isolation can be great target.

Anonymous said...

Yes and no. For sea control they are sitting ducks. They should hide among island groups far from the action until sea control is established. Let the aircraft and subs clear the seas and destroy enemy missile bases first. Then if you plan on invading, bring in the carriers to support that. All this is covered in the book at

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