I’ve been thinking a lot about aircraft carriers, and their future. With nations developing HGVes (Hypersonic Glide Vehicles), capable of striking anywhere in the world, I wonder how long the reign of supercarriers like Ford-class will continue. Several decades more, I expect, until HGVes mature as a technology.
Carriers have dominated the military/political scene for many reasons, but one in particular catches my attention: they can strike at a distance from their home nation. As military and political hot spots arise in the world, carriers are able to arrive within days to make their nation’s will felt. Often, a carrier’s aircraft need do nothing. Just the presence of the capital ship does the job, and for good reason.
Force Projection at a Distance
It’s their ability to project force at a distance that makes carriers so powerful. What happens when another weapon system can do the same job? When HGVes become a matured, proven technology, they will also project force at a distance. Even better, they can do it much faster and at less cost than a supercarrier. Allow me to remind people, carriers never operate alone. Their battle groups include cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and submarines. Building a carrier isn’t the total cost. You must build a group of other ship types to sail along with it. A 13-billion dollar carrier requires yet billions of more dollars in support ships for just one battlegroup.
As wise heads have pointed out to me, carriers fulfill many roles. Humanitarian aid comes to mind immediately. No missile can do that. I expect the smaller LHAs like the America-class carriers will never quite disappear. They’re simply too useful in too many ways. When it comes to super-expensive supercarriers, and tight military budgets, I believe their time is fading.
Carriers in the Near Future
During World War Two, aircraft carriers dominated the Pacific seas. For a ship to bring down an attacking airplane, it took a lot of anti-aircraft rounds. According to http://www.history.navy.mil, it took 11,143 rounds to bring down a single airplane with .50cal guns. 1,713 Bofors 40mm rounds raced up to bring a bird down*. The bigger the gun, the fewer rounds it took, but that just proves how much faster smaller guns could throw lead up. In general, a LOT of guns had to fire a LOT of rounds to shoot down an aircraft, leaving ample time for an attacker to strike. This made a well-piloted aircraft deadly to a ship, and thereby, made carriers useful.
Arrive at the present day, and the huge swaths of gun batteries have disappeared from ship decks. Anti-aircraft missiles can engage strike aircraft well outside the range where unguided bombs can be dropped. Attackers must deliver standoff missiles or be destroyed well short of the target ship.
Move ahead several decades from now, and maybe ships are threatening your assets on the other side of the planet. You needn’t move expensive combatant ships into the area, you needn’t risk a highly-trained pilot on a near-suicidal attack. You simply launch an HGV from a satellite, or safely launch into low orbit from within the borders of friendly airspace, and the target is eliminated within minutes. With the primary threat neutralized, you can move to reclaim territory in relative safety. Who needs aircraft? Who needs aircraft carriers?
Carriers in Science Fiction
When I began writing the Springbok Chronicles and authored, The Huralon incident , I had decided there would be no carriers. By this time, hundreds of years in the future, missiles are the primary death-dealers in a ship’s arsenal. For this reason, every ship is also armed to destroy inbound missiles. Ship-killer missiles would be small, fast, and maneuverable. They would have to be to survive long enough to attack. Small fighters attacking ships wouldn’t exist because, inevitably they’d be bigger than ship-to-ship missiles. Because of their greater mass, they wouldn’t be as maneuverable nor as fast. And if these ships were manned, every attribute would be even worse because of all the weight gained by loading the equipment needed to keep a human pilot alive.
While watching science fiction movies, I was as entertained as anyone else to see small manned ships. As they raced a hundred meters over the hull of a huge ship, I devoured handfuls of popcorn and watched the shuttles blasting away at targets. Even then, I wondered how did they get so close? If now, aircraft can scarcely get close to a big ship, how did these futuristic ships manage it? My answer: they didn’t. It simply wouldn’t happen. In the future, automatic weapons, like the existing Phanlanx CIWS (Sea-Wiz), would be far better at destroying small targets. Without slow human response-times interfering, such weapons would be absolutely deadly. As visually exciting as attacking manned ships would be, it simply would not happen. So, no carriers in my universe.
Now that the second book in the Springbok Chronicles, “The Madrid Solution,” is written and going through edits/beta-reviews, there are still no carriers. Still, as I said earlier, I’ve thought a lot about how it could work. After much thought, I think it can. Yep, I’m changing my mind. Sue me. The solution is maintaining a range from enemies. When aircraft carriers first began, attacking at a distance was their first line of defense. So it would be in the future. I still would not have small shuttles moving in close. That’s just not believable. No, they would have to attack in a certain way, with many technical considerations, and I have outlined it in an upcoming short story, “Seize The High Ground.” Look for it in about a month (July 2020) on Amazon.
What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of carriers. Have I got it right, or did I miss something? Let me know.
If you haven’t already read my book, The Huralon Incident, give it a look today. You can get it right here:
*Performance of anti-aircraft guns during World War Two: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/a/antiaircraft-action-summary.html#II