Who Is Going to Risk a $13 Billion Aircraft Carrier in Combat?

The pricetag makes the carrier useless in peer-to-peer combat

Picture for a moment a scene from the next conflict. The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) has sustained a critical hit from a Chinese DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod-4) anti-ship missile.

Whether the Ford is lost entirely or merely removed from the fight, the U.S. Navy just lost a $13 billion asset in a matter of seconds.

The financial costs notwithstanding, 2,600 sailors have been put in mortal jeopardy and a massive blow is dealt to U.S. prestige and morale.

For a scenario like this to take place, a good deal must go wrong. The situation is predicated on the defensive ring of a carrier strike group failing to protect the central prize. However, missile defense is based on the unfortunate truth that not all defensive systems will catch all missiles. Simple saturation attacks can defeat even the most advanced systems. As such, it is by no means improbable that carriers will be targeted and hit in the next conflict.

With a range of 900 miles, the DF-21D Chinese missile is perhaps enough to cause second thoughts about the deployment and use of carriers in the South China Sea or the Western Pacific. Additionally, a carrier strike group must contend with the threat of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. One may conjecture that, given the rate of Chinese military modernization and advancement, the range of acceptable circumstances for a carrier strike group to operate will grow smaller. This leads to an uncomfortable conundrum for the U.S. Navy.

The carrier has been a symbol of naval prestige and U.S. power for nearly 70 years. It has become analogous to the Dreadnought or the battleship in the early 20th century. Yet, like the battleship, the naval meta does not acquiesce in the name of prestige. New technologies and tactics arise to counter these apex vessels, often before their owners become wise to the scheme.

In the Pacific war with Japan, the attack on Pearl Harbor assumed that a decapitation of the U.S. arsenal of battleships would give the Japanese a free hand in the Pacific. However, the U.S. carrier fleet largely remained intact and went on to be a decisive factor in the campaign against Japan, even when they retained the largest battleship put to sea, the IJN Yamato. Similarly, the Bismarck on the other side of the world was ultimately defeated by 16 Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers. The naval meta had shifted beyond the accepted battleship supremacy doctrine before the first shots of World War II.

The question remains if the current meta allows the existence of irresistibly tempting targets like the new Ford-class carrier or indeed any supercarrier. Given the advancement of anti-ship missile technology, saturation attack capability, and the opportunity to knock out a U.S. capital ship, carriers are becoming a liability in a peer-to-peer conflict. Moreover, the capability of submarines to bypass the defensive ring around a carrier as shown by the Swedish submarine HSMS Gotland’s exploits against the USS Ronald Reagan in 2005. While carriers retain unmatched power projection capabilities in conflicts such as the Iraq War or perhaps even a war with North Korea, in an increasingly likely confrontation with China, carriers are simply too big to lose.

By no means should the United States scrap its entire carrier fleet. After the initial salvos of the next conflict, one can predict a bloody war of attrition on the high seas before a clear superior force is established. It is only in this situation, where the surface fleet and the submarine force establish naval superiority and sufficiently suppress shore batteries, that the carrier can again operate with a free hand.

However, this means that the American surface fleet must again become the center of gravity for naval planning and strategy. Sufficient anti-ship missiles to replace the Harpoon, first introduced in 1977, must be pushed to the fleet as soon as possible. The long-range Tomahawk antiship missile is a step in the right direction, but naval procurement must ensure that the missile is pushed to the fleet efficiently and quickly. Next, the Navy should scale back its acquisition program of the new Ford-class carrier and instead allocate the resources toward a legitimate replacement for the aging Arleigh Burke–class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers.

Wunderwaffen such as the Zumwalt fall into the same trap as the carrier in which they are too expensive and valuable to be used in a manner justifying their exorbitant costs. Finally, and perhaps most radically, the U.S. Navy should reconsider the arsenal ship concept scrapped in the stagnant years of the 1990s. The arsenal ship concept consisted of a ship whose primary functional purpose was to carry missiles. In the original design, the ship would have up to 500 vertical launch cells. The estimated cost, adjusted for inflation, would be $740 million.

Contrasted with the $13 billion of a new carrier and the ability to project a massive amount of power ashore and at sea, the arsenal ship provides a viable substitute for frontline service where the carrier may be too vulnerable or risky. However, these are radical changes and run contrary to decades of doctrine and naval thinking.

In rebuttal, one could say that the world is undergoing a period of radical change that spurns traditional doctrine. Continuity should be recognized for the myth that it is, especially in the churning waters of naval history. As Admiral King wrote, “Nothing remains static in war or military weapons, and it is consequently often dangerous to rely on courses suggested by apparent similarities in the past.”He was met with great opposition to his reforms to outdated organization and bureaucracy. Nevertheless, King ultimately provided necessary challenges to the slow-moving process of adapting to changing times. This is not to compare these ideas to Admiral King’s, but rather evidence that challenging existing orthodoxies is invaluable no matter how controversial. One can hope that either the ideas presented here are dead wrong or that the U.S. Navy can adapt to the coming carrier identity crisis.


[1] T. B Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press), 2012.

  1. […] Read further at Anti-Empire […]

  2. CHUCKMAN says

    The headline is certainly accurate, but of course the US uses its aircraft carriers to intimidate countries which are not “combat peers.”

    It will be able to continue the bullying until the day that some of the best anti-ship missiles – Russia’s or China’s or good knock-offs – become available to such countries.

    Iran, too – quickly advancing impressively in missile technology – may develop a first-rate anti-ship missile that could be made available to vulnerable countries the way it seems to have shared technology with Yemen.

    Iran has an anti-ship missile, but we don’t know how good it is. It was thought enough of a potential threat recently for America to keep its carrier in the area a few hundred miles away from Iran’s missile-lined shores for a time.

    Technology does change everything.

    By the way, the cost of carriers is immensely more than just a contractor’s bill for building one.

    Necessary escort and supply ships ships plus the maintenance of a crew on the order of three to five thousand on one ship, a crew that makes them even more of a target.

  3. Genghis Gobi says

    The latest hypersonic missiles with terminal guidance means carriers can be effectively neutralised without any explosive being used at all – an Avangard (Russian) or Chinese equivalent can just use a solid titanium penetrator at twenty times the speed of sound to wreck a carrier from mere kinetic energy. That would also make it extremely politically difficult for Amerikastan to retaliate with nuclear weapons (which, of course, Russia and China also have). So basically Amerikastani admirals would be forced to keep their carriers, and other ships, out of missile range. That – given the range of said missiles – means that those ships might as well not exist.

  4. its Me says

    Wait a minute is this the same Admiral King’s, who did little or nothing when the outbreak of war came to the American shores? The German U-Boat commanders had a name for it “The Merry American Massacre.”

  5. magick727 says

    I believe that if a single US carrier were destroyed, the offending country would likewise be destroyed and the remaining fleet of US carriers would only engage once cleanup services were required. Right or wrong, the US assumes the right to use their AC’s against a perceived enemy and attacking the nuclear powered boat instead of the aircraft it sends, would have the same gravity as WW2 Pacific.

    1. its Me says

      Read “Guns of August.” The war to end all wars.

    2. Voyager says

      Gunboat bullying diplomacy is coming to an end, like it or not..

  6. Voyager says

    Of course the US will keep on with its gunboat diplomacy as long as China, Russia let it happen, but fortunately for defenseless countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen Afghanistan, Venezuela etc…etc.. this bullying by the US is coming to an end and fast …

    1. CHUCKMAN says

      We can only hope that America’s bullying is coming to an end, but I see little sign of things happening “fast.”

      Stubborn people possessing immensely powerful weapons can go on making misery for a long time.

      Witness America’s pointless ten-year holocaust in Vietnam.

      Or America’s pointless eighteen years of blowing up peasants in Afghanistan to no gain at all.

      As for China and Russia “not letting” America carry on gunboat diplomacy in relatively defenseless countries, I can’t agree.

      Neither of those sensible powers would I think risk major war with the US over such matters.

      But they will work with many different chess moves toward obstructing or blunting America, as we’ve seen in Venezuela and Syria and now, perhaps, Iraq.

  7. Brett Connor says

    If you consider how much money was spent and gained during WWII in it’s entirety “Trillions”. This topic is a mute point.
    When you print the money!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    There are no, 00000’s, comma’s, or $$$$$$$$ signs.
    Those are ONLY there, (to anesthetize the sheeple).

  8. Frank Williams says

    It’s the jews….

  9. Undecider says

    In the mention of Pearl Harbor, Japan and the United States collaborated on that one. There were no surprises, as far as the government (highest levels) was concerned.

  10. cechas vodobenikov says

    It seems that in modern warfare slow moving naval vessels r easy targets for advanced weapons, perhaps excepting submarines

  11. XRGRSF says

    Aircraft carriers, and arsenal ships are totally useless unless the U$ is determined to attack a helpless third world nation. In a peer to peer conflict, especially if it’s halfway around the world, the U$ navy surface fleet will be eradicated in minutes. I wonder if anyone in the MIC has ever figured out that by waging peace they could control costs, free up people for real work, and prosper the U$ ?

    1. tapatio says

      The US has clearly demonstrated its willingness to attack helpless third world nations. That is the purpose of these floating airbases, in addition to the profit for contractors, of course.

      Obviously, waging peace is more beneficial. War, however, offers the opportunity to make trillions of dollars vanish without a trace – over and above the trillions that the Fed and other organs of Empire already suck from taxpayers.

  12. David Chu says

    This guy is obviously still sleep walking in cheering for the glorious Yankee Genocidal Empire.

    $13 billion dollar? Try $23.3 trillion and accelerating!

    This article reminds me of a private conversation I had with a former USAF colonel who was involved with testing missiles and bombs for the USAF. At the end of his illustrious career, he was so shaken literally by the obvious pressures induced by these very high stress testing events, that he had to retire and sought out a less stressful job in the civilian sector in Houston, Texas. He was the hiring boss to my last job in the great United States of Death, Disease and Destruction.

    Anyways, we were talking about Iran (this was around the middle of 2008) and I said to him that if the US attacks Iran, the Iranians will sink the Yankee aircraft carrier(s) in the region. To which he replied without breaking stride, “We would then nuke Iran.”


    These intervening years have given me much pondering over this issue, especially in light of the assassination of Iran’s Qasem Soleiman:

    WHEN, not if, that first US “Death Star” aircraft carrier is sunk (or severly damaged) by whomever, the US dollar will be sunk concurrently. It and along with that US “toiletries” (all $23.3 trillions worth), they will be regarded as no more than toilet paper. And that’s what they should be regarded as today . . .

    1. cechas vodobenikov says

      I believe the colonel is an idiot—“nuke Iran”…his barbaric response only reflects his wishful thinking

      1. David Chu says

        No, he was deadly serious. That’s really how the Yankee military think . . .

        1. its Me says

          The problem with nukes they are a tactical weapon, not a strategic one. So to make it work you would have to nuke every square inch of Iran. And my guessing is Iran will attack enomical target, as they are our Achilles heel, such as our oil. Also I don’t think Russia and China will stand by as clouds of radiation go floating on by. When go into a nukes someone mode, plan to see riots of all shape and sizes happen, they will make what happen in the 60’s seems like a musical.

          1. David Chu says

            For Iran and for anyone else, if and when the US uses its nukes, regular or the mini ones, it will mean an escalation of the conflict into that unknown realm. Strategic or tactical has no real practical meaning.

            For Iran, there is no Yankee “neat” solution. Even the use of its conventional Tomahawk missiles would mean the engulfment of the entire Middle East into a mini WW3. THAT is WHY the Orange Clown stepped down. Many Yankee “mercenaries” were either seriously injured or maybe even killed during the Iranian missile attacks recently.


            And my guessing is Iran will attack enomical [sic] target, as they are our Achilles heel, such as our oil.

            Bingo! It’s not so much as “our oil” as it is the economics and finances tied to that petrodollar oil. Oil prices above $100 dollars per barrel will wake up the sleeping Yankee sheeple in a New York minute. A major war in the Middle East will drive oil prices to the stratosphere!

  13. CHUCKMAN says

    They say, generals always fight the last war.

  14. Wilhelm W. Kohl says

    You keep on building aircraft carriers because you are good at it – not because they are useful in peer to peer combat. And with the range of carrier based fighters decreasing without refueling, they are not much more than beautiful, but extremely expensive museum pieces

  15. CHUCKMAN says

    I cannot avoid the thought of the Polish General Staff maintaining its colorful 19th century horse cavalry and sending it against the invading Wehrmacht in 1939.

    1. Steve Naidamast says

      OK, hold on a minute here… 🙂 The actual history behind this myth, and that is all it is, is that a company of Polish mounted soldiers were doing reconnaissance against Wehrmacht units in the area. Suddenly they found themselves surrounded by German soldiers with no apparent way to escape. As a result, the took the most direct course of action, appearing to charge the German soldiers, which was the intent, to startle them into getting out of the way…

      This incident only happened once during conflict between Poland and Germany in 1939…

      The rest became the myth that we know today…

      1. its Me says

        The German infantry didn’t like Polish cavalry. With that being said, the way I heard it, the Polish cavalry was attacking a German infantry company, pushing them back, until a German tank company came to the rescue. I have a book written by a German author who wrote on cavalry in WWII. This gave high praise to the Polish cavalry.

      2. CHUCKMAN says

        Sorry, no, I don’t know of any myth on this subject.

        There was the incident of 1939. It is a memorable anecdote, and it serves I believe as a real lesson about generals and fighting the last war.

        The classic, horrifying large-scale example of the same military thinking is represented by the trench warfare in WWI.

        That was half a century after the same trench warfare was used in the American Civil War with ghastly consequences.

        1. Genghis Gobi says

          Steve is correct. The Poles had tanks and tankettes of their own and knew well enough not to charge armour with horses.

    2. Peter Williams says

      As much as as I slag the Poles, they weren’t cavalry, they were horse mounted anti-tank riflemen, and reasonably proficient. Only propaganda turned them into cavalry.

      1. Genghis Gobi says

        The USSR used cavalry in WWII and, as Alan Clark wrote in his history of the Eastern Front, “Barbarossa”, said cavalry was not an anachronism, but, being extremely mobile, of immense value.

    3. David Chu says

      Actually the French Maginot Line vs. the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg is more apropos.

  16. Godfree Roberts says

    “the unfortunate truth that not all defensive systems will catch all missiles. Simple saturation attacks can defeat even the most advanced systems. ”

    USNI says that 30% of ships on full alert for potential missile attacks are struck by missiles.

  17. Ilya says

    Who would risk it? Azteks, Abram..

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