A retired US Navy captain has produced an impressive - and thought-provoking - report on some implications of its carrier-centric strategy. Yahoo News reports:
Retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix ... makes the case that aircraft carriers have steadily lost their utility over the past two decades.
At fault for this are twin mistakes of the US Navy: a steady introduction of aircraft with decreasing flight ranges in addition to a failure to foresee rising military capabilities from countries like China that could target carriers.
"American power and permissive environments were assumed following the end of the Cold War, but the rise of new powers, including China and its pursuit of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies and capabilities to include the carrier-killing 1,000 nautical mile (nm) range Dong Feng-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, now threatens to push the Navy back beyond the range of its carrier air wings," Hendrix notes.
Essentially, any carrier that operates within 1,000 nautical miles of Chinese military placements could be open to a strike from an antiship ballistic missile. This would not be a problem, except that the average unrefueled combat range of US carrier air wings operates at half that distance.
And even that average combat range is a decrease from the height of the Cold War.
In 1956, for example, air wings had an average range of 1,210 nautical miles on internal fuel alone. This range was achieved even though the US Navy was using an older class of aircraft carriers that could support less aircraft than today's modern carriers.
The move to shrink the flight range of carrier air wings occurred following the fall of the Soviet Union and the Navy's decision to shift the strategic purpose of carriers away from long-range missions toward acting as platforms for faster and shorter-range sortie missions.
. . .
This lack of range, unless the Navy changes course, will continue to mean that the Navy will have little choice but to continue to operate in waters off potential enemy coasts.
And this means that carriers, for all their cost and high-tech capabilities, would either hypothetically fall within range of Chinese antiship ballistic missiles or would be forced to operate beyond the unrefueled range of their air wings.
There's more at the link. The complete report can be found here.
I think Captain Hendrix makes some very good points: but I'm surprised to see one that I consider even more important is not addressed at all. That's the advent of directed energy (i.e. beam) weapons, initially laser beams, but in due course extending to charged particle beams as well.
Such beams move at light speed. If you can see the target, you can hit it. No deflection whatsoever is necessary, because the target won't have time to move before the beam arrives at its position. An aircraft-carrier or other ship equipped with defensive beam weapons and sufficient generating capacity can conceivably blast out of the sky any number of missiles (cruise, ballistic or any other type). In the same way, an aircraft with a beam weapon can destroy any other aircraft, or surface ship, or other target that it gets in its sights. The destruction will be instantaneous, with no time needed for a weapon to cover the distance between attacker and target.
I think that's going to be the big game-changer over the next few decades, completely outweighing questions of aircraft range, etc. Such weapons are already in development, and have been successfully tested as anti-artillery and anti-missile devices. The USAF is sponsoring research to integrate laser turrets on combat aircraft, and the US Navy is developing beam weapons for its ships. When they become operational, will manned and unmanned aircraft be capable of functioning in the same roles they have today? Won't the latter be at risk of being destroyed before they even see their target, much less get close enough to attack it?
Interesting times . . .