Earlier this week, Senators John McCain and Jack Reed, respectively the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer complaining that the Navy is postponing a key test on its expensive Ford-class aircraft carrier. The letter argued that the Navy’s decision to postpone the test would leave the new capital ship vulnerable. The Navy, for its part, has argued that the computer simulations it has run are sufficient to uncovering the carrier’s vulnerabilities.
In reporting on the letter, Anthony Capaccio of Bloomberg Business quoted a number of experts who bolstered the case that the shock test is essential and the computer simulation will not be sufficient. But does debate on the test ignore bigger threats to the Ford-class, and U.S. Navy carriers in general?
The same day Capaccio reported on McCain and Reed’s letter, Dave Majumdar penned an essay for The National Interest on the merits of aircraft carriers in today’s maritime operating environment. Majumdar interviewed Jerry Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security, a retired a Navy officer and whose views on carriers have been previously discussed here.[link] Citing threats to U.S. carriers from Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities—particularly long-range anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles and advanced air defenses to counter a carrier’s air wing—Hendrix argues that the Navy should save the money slated for the next Ford-class carrier, instead investing it in guided-missile submarines (SSGNs). From Majumdar’s piece:
These SSGNs are so capable that Hendrix suggests that the Navy cease building the new Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers after the two vessels currently under construction are completed. The Navy could buy numerous SSGNs for the price of a single new aircraft carrier—a new Ford-class carrier costs roughly nearly $13 billion without factoring in the price of the air wing.
Not everyone agrees with Hendrix though, and Majumdar also provides quotes from another Navy veteran and naval analyst, Bryan McGrath. McGrath, who has debated Hendrix on the carrier issue before, argues that submarines might have more utility in actual combat but carriers are still needed to deter war from occurring in the first place.
McGrath said that submarines simply do not project power well because friendly nations do not see a visible American presence—and neither does the enemy. “A big part of our strategy is to demonstrate commitment, to assure friends and allies by our presence and to deter through visible combat power,” McGrath said. “Submarines simply cannot do this very well.”
The idea that the very invisibility that makes submarines so potent in combat might also provide them with less utility for deterrence is debatable. In fact, a submarine’s stealth might contribute to deterrence. As Hendrix notes at the end of the piece, “What makes people worry about them is what they don’t know.”
But even taking it as a given that visibility matters for deterrence, it is still unclear whether carriers will be able to provide a visible presence in A2/AD environments. Even if anti-ship ballistic missiles, such as China’s DF-21D, cannot destroy an aircraft carrier, the threat might be enough. Some future president might see it as too risky to deploy a carrier in a crisis—even simply to provide a visible presence to reassure allies—if there is a chance it might lead to the loss of some six thousand sailors serving aboard should the crisis escalate. In such a scenario, what would the Navy have bought for its $13 billion?