Aircraft carriers are “100,000 tons of diplomacy”, as Henry Kissinger once said. They provide great political strength as mobile air bases since they allow for maritime supremacy and even strikes deep inside an enemy’s territory. And despite growing criticism of their real efficiency, and alleged vulnerability, maritime powers are more than ever betting on them, especially in Asia.
The foremost critic against them is their apparent unfitness for today’s asymmetric conflicts. A report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British military think-tank, pointed out last year that Western governments often find themselves “using $70 000-weapons fired from aircraft that cost $30 000-an hour to fly, (and projected from a $3bn-aircraft carrier), to destroy a Toyota pick-up that might be optimistically valued at $10 000”.
Then is the problem of their growing vulnerability. The same report claimed that nowadays a missile costing “much less than half a million ponds could at least disable a British £3bn aircraft carrier”. And such anti-ship capabilities are not only mastered by great powers: Iran’s Khalij Fars missiles for example, are thought capable of doing the job. The growing threat of Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons is making this even more relevant. Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s new undersecretary of defense for Research & Engineering, recently stated that “When the Chinese deploy a tactical or regional hypersonic system, they [will] hold at risk our carrier battle groups. They [will] hold at risk our entire surface fleet”.
So are aircraft carriers just not worth the risk anymore? Apparently not. “The aircraft carrier continues to be relevant”, US Secretary of the Navy Richard Spenser told Congress earlier this month. The US Navy is by far the world’s most powerful (it also has the world’s second largest air force, behind the USAF itself). In addition to the 11 aircraft carriers it currently operates (including the ten 88 000-tons Nimitz-class carriers, the world’s most massive), it’s currently procuring an additional four, brand-new 100 000-ton Gerald Ford-class. The US aircraft carriers, with the French one (and the Brazilian one, formerly operated by the French Navy), are the only CATOBAR-equipped (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) ones in service. All others are STOBAR-equipped (short take-off but arrested recovery, meaning no catapult but a ski-jump deck instead). France and the US are also the only navies operating nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers.
The US isn’t the only one that is still betting on such platforms. Virtually every traditional maritime power is looking into acquiring new carriers, or modernizing the ones they own. The UK for example, recently introduced the 65 000-tons HMS Queen Elizabeth into service and its HMS Prince of Wales should begin tests in 2019. In France, the Charles-de-Gaulle – currently undergoing planned maintenance – is supposed to stay in service until 2037, and possibly a few years more. As Admiral Prazuck – French Navy CoS – recently reminded Parliament: it took 19 years to build (and 17 years for the Queen Elizabeth) so it’s just about time to start thinking about a replacement. Bad news: talks toward a second platform, in addition to the 42 500-tons Charles de Gaulle, were cut short by President Macron – for now. Good news: the latest 2019-2025 future years defense law (LPM) has allocated around €1.8bn annually to define France’s “future major armament programs”, including studies relative to a future aircraft carrier that could enter service after 2030.
Russia also operates one single carrier, the Soviet-era 67 000-ton Admiral Kouznetsov, from which 420 aircraft interventions were recently carried in Syria, and is looking into plans for a future 90 000 to 100 000-tons carrier, dubbed project “23000E” or “Shtorm”, to be included in Russia’s 2019-2025 armament program, that could compete, by its weight and dimensions, with the American Ford-class ships.
In addition, emerging military powers also believe they are critical to their Navy’s efficiency. China of course, is the first of them. Beijing has made the modernization of its Navy a political priority, as recently reminded by Xi Jingping himself during the China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) parade, to which 1 000 soldiers, 48 ships and 76 aircraft took part on 12 April. Aircraft carriers are at the center of these modernization plans. As of today, China only operates one, the 67 000-ton Liaoning (CV-16), an Admiral Kouznetsov-class carrier, twin to Russia’s one, that was bought from Ukraine back in 1998.
But in March, Beijing launched an aircraft carrier manufacturing program to bring up to six the number of platforms operated by the PLAN, though very little detail was given about it. Work on the third ship has already begun and, according to Defense News, satellite observations suggest that it may be CATOBAR-equipped. Also surprising, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, which is in charge of the program, said they were also working on nuclear-propulsion technologies…
Many fear China’s ambition of becoming the undisputable regional leader in South-East Asia and its prime “blue water” Navy, especially its first regional rival: India. The Indian Navy has actually been operating aircraft carriers since the 1960s. It currently operates a reconstructed soviet-era Kiev class carrier, 45 000-ton INS Vikramaditya and will soon operate a second one, Indian-built, 40 000-ton INS Vikrant as of 2020. Another 65 000-ton Vikrant-class, INS Vishal, is expected in two decades (such a weight difference between two ships of the same class is indeed unusual).
According to rumors within the Indian Navy, this one could be CATOBAR-equipped and nuclear-propelled, but none of this is confirmed. Others China’s neighbors are wary enough by the Chinese Navy to go for amphibious ship, Japan for instance, which hasn’t operated any since World War II. Under a $3bn plan, Tokyo would convert two 248 metre Izumo-class helicopter carriers to handle US F-35B jump-jet fighters. The Royal Thai Navy has also been upgrading its carrier, 11 400-ton Spanish-built HTMS Chakri Naruebet, although it reportedly spends most of its time inactive due to high operational costs. It was sometime rumored that Singapore was looking into its own carrier plans. In 2001, its Changi Naval Base was upgraded, entirely at its expense, with a deep-draft pier that is capable of supporting USN aircraft carriers. Then in 2010 Singapore Technologies Marine unveiled its plans for a 14 500-ton “Endurance 160” warship, whose flight deck could allegedly also support F-35B jump-jet fighters, but these plans were never carried out at. In any case, the Asia-Pacific seems bound to be the main playground for navies’ big boys (or big toys) for the years to come.
Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.