The Future of Carriers

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.

USS Enterprise

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.

BrahMos II Hypersonic missile

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.

Background by spieriz at pixabay.

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.

Background by pexels at pixabay

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:

The author’s shameless self-promotion

*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

About EagleAye

I like looking at the serious subjects in the news and seeking the lighter side of the issue. I love satire and spoofs. I see the ridiculous side of things all the time, and my goal is to share that light-hearted view.
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30 Responses to The Future of Carriers

  1. Anonymous says:

    all I know is if the captain is good-looking, a little sarcastic, a risk-taker and has more guts than emotions…I’m in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Warcat says:

    I think you are on the right track, but not. Like you I believe that manned fighters are going to be obsolete very soon, for many reasons. You need highly trained pilots that will die too quickly and easily.

    HOWEVER, and this is where we diverge, I think a variant of “Aircraft” carrier is important. You mention HVG on Earth. I’m thinking beyond Earth, in space. Space is incredibly vast. It is MASSIVE. HUGE. The human mind cannot understand the distances except as numbers on a screen and with advanced math.

    I believe that carriers will evolve. Half battleship (with rail guns, particle beams, etc) and squadrons of drone fighters. The drone fighters can be controlled by a human (via VR or telementry, much like current Predator drones) OR they can be switched over to automatic and use programming. This allows a ship to project power at longer ranges (limited mostly by fuel and communications).

    Drones to replace manned fighters have many advantages. They can maneuver harder, they can suicide, the loss of a drone is the loss of equipment, not people, and drones can respond faster than a human can in some situations. (not to mention drones don’t need life support or rescue ships).

    The range of such drone squadrons can be extended through the use of command and control ‘boats’. Essentially a smaller ship that is closer and allows better control of the drone squadron. This can become very versatile in many ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    • EagleAye says:

      My reasoning in considering earth-bound carriers is to point out why carriers may fall out of favor and be replaced in the force projection role with missiles, and this is the start why we wouldn’t see attack carriers in space for quite a while. A lot would depend on developing technology and how it can be exploited.

      So yes, future drones are the most likely parasite vessels in a future carrier. A C3 boat to handle distantly operated drones is a good idea. Though, this would have to manned. As a mere relay you would still be saddled with long-range comms lag. So with a “Space Boss” on a C3 boat, you could have better positive control. Of course there’s a downside to that (there’s always a downside). Just like now with airborne AWACS planes, they become a juicy target. China now has long-range missiles specifically designed to attack AWACS aircraft. So, in the future you’d have the same problem. Perhaps drones could cover it in an anti-missile role.

      For me, I’m not a fan of the hybrid Battleship/Carrier concept. Hybrids end up not being very good at anything. Even battlecruisers are an attempt between a cruiser and a battleship and battlecruisers have a poor history in combat.

      We’ll have to see whether combat in space is conducted with drones or missiles or both. Drones could be force-multipliers by extending the range of missiles. (alternatively, you could make just a longer-ranged missile). Missile-laden drones could launch from beyond the range of enemy lasers, preventing the carrier from having to sail into harm’s way. In such case, you would just need a carrier, but it would have to be fast in order to keep the range open. Or, with longer-ranged missiles, you’d just need a battleship, and you could charge into the fray.

      A lot depends on the ranges of various weapons.

      Like

      • Warcat says:

        The Earth bound battle ship concept is dead. In space though a battleship can launch attacks against “stationary” targets such as space stations, space bases, or planetary targets. Heavy railguns or other heavy missiles that travel at high speeds and strike at distant targets, like HVG’s but without the expense.

        A space borne battleship would not be using broadsides, might have a spinal mounted weapon or three and might be really good at hitting slow moving targets (and let the ship align the nose on target). The fighters would be more for faster moving targets, recon, screening, precision strikes security, missile interception, etc. Close in fighters would be swatted out of the sky by any halfway decent automated turret system.

        Firing tungsten rods at distant targets can be much cheaper than smart missiles (even if those missiles are 3d printed).

        Liked by 1 person

      • EagleAye says:

        Not a fan of firing tungsten rods at ships. Stationary targets or ones with predictable orbits, yes. Just not ships. Heck, it’s hard to hit a maneuvering ship with a light-speed laser. I don’t see the utility of railguns in the ship-to-ship role.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Warcat says:

        I’m working on another book like “Writing Military Science Fiction: Infantry” that will cover space. Just. . . a lot more research has to go into it. Also, if you are not familiar with Isaac Aurthur’s podcasts I would recommend checking out his section on space warfare. The atomic rocket has some great articles on stealth in space.

        One thing I have learned studying the evolution of weapons and war.

        At the end of the day what it really boils down to is the technology available. Technology and the availability of that technology dictates tactics. Since the dawn of time when swords replaced clubs which replaced fists. All the greatest tech, the awesome and most expensive weapons systems are nothing compared to a knife at the right time in the right throat.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Sam says:

      What about ECM or just straight up hacking. You can have your drones potentially attacking its own mothership and escorts if any. Also what about time lag for communications between ship and handler?

      Like

      • John Steiner says:

        Signal and cyber warfare are two reason why having a human override is a must in any battlespace. That one and two person crews can’t take more than 10 Gs, and that they need added support and protection, is an acceptable cost to not losing an asset because your virus protection isn’t up to date with your aggressor’s hacking program.

        Like

      • Warcat says:

        Technically, you could have a manned vessel attack an allied ship. Alter the identification friend/foe of their missiles when they launch, maybe even explode inside their tube. Have the automated defense weapons target other ships, turn off the ships engines, life support or computers.

        ECM can jam communications but then it comes down to programming and AI. ECM isn’t some magical technology.

        I do computers for a living. While it is theoretically possible to hack a hardened system, it is not easy, or quick. That is where spies and espionage come in (and that is likely to be a one shot trick). You must have codes, which can change every second, there are certificates and many different ways to secure communication.

        Time lag can become a big problem but if you program the drones to lock onto a ship, go out attack it and then come back, or suicide against it, lag isn’t such a big deal.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. John Steiner says:

    I foresee two varieties of carriers:

    1. Larger platforms not meant to move often, and act like airbases. They’ll be double duty as “assault” ship but not have to get as close as modern assault ships do, and provide their own air cover, strategic range strikes [more than long range is today], and be regional command and control.

    2. Small, fast, hard to find, and mostly deploying UAVs and UCAVs. Some ships might not be built as carriers but remodulation will allow for external docking so that many small sources of aircraft will be harder to detect and counter than singular large ones.

    Software will always have its limits, so crewed ships and fighters won’t be eliminated entirely. However, you’re right about the standoff ranges growing ever longer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • EagleAye says:

      I’d say both are possible, but I would vote for #2 as the more likely. Each has downsides. In #1, if it’s large and slow, it’ll be a sad day if the enemy finds it. It’s a case of building a powerful weapon, but needing a huge cloud of defensive weapons just to support it. In #2, you have the advantage of mobility. A lot would depend on the range of the UAVs. Is the combat radius sufficient to keep the carrier away form the fight? Out of range of missiles and beam weapons. Hard to say until we’re there. I’m still trying to imagine if such a small carrier might use UAVs as a missile defense, sort of like a CAP. ( CSP – Combat Space Patrol?). In such a case, the carrier might lose some of its strike ability.

      Like

      • John Steiner says:

        Large and slow is acceptable in an area with low risk, which is why I couched the description into more of a mobile base than an actual ship of the line.

        Like

  4. List of X says:

    There is a risk that carriers may become obsolete much sooner than HGVs fully mature. If an enemy has missiles that can accurately hit and sink large ships from thousands of miles away, a carrier isn’t so much a projection of force as a prize target that has to be protected.
    They can still terrify the weaker countries that don’t have these missiles yet, but what’s the point of spending tens of billions on a naval force that doesn’t scare any of the potential enemies?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Warcat says:

      Excellent point and extremely valid. Also consider that smaller countries (Iran or Ethopia perhaps) may be given such missiles. Aircraft carriers (especially with large crews) will go the way of the battleship.

      This does not mean carriers will become obsolete in space though. It can be easier to see incoming missiles and shoot them down. There is no horizon to hide behind, no bad weather, and nowhere to hide.

      Tactics in space will revolve around the ability to maneuver, fuel and lag in both sight and communication. (The light from the sun for instance is 8 minutes old by the time it reaches Earth.) Predicting a target becomes difficult if that target is light seconds out since they can maneuver. Smart weapons, able to change course become critical when you have such lag.

      It is very difficult to hide anything in space once you have been seen. Stealth in space is mostly a myth but technology dictates tactics.

      Liked by 1 person

      • EagleAye says:

        Interesting that you bring up the ranges in space. I have another post discussing that very point:
        https://momusnews.wordpress.com/2019/12/26/maximum-effective-laser-rang/

        About your thoughts on stealth in space, I would very much like to hear more of your thoughts on that. Low-observable shapes and radar-absorbent materials should still work the same, yes? But I wonder how IR detection would work in a vacuum.

        Like

      • List of X says:

        It’s also very hard to see anything in space. For example, if you can get a missile to travel at near light speed, it’s not going to be seen or detected by any radar until it’s basically right at the target – since any light or radiation will travel at the same speed.
        Unlike that in the air, you could have tiny missiles that move at really high speed, and thanks to its velocity could cause more damage than a today’s nuclear bomb. If my math is right, a 9-gram bullet traveling at half light speed would have kinetic energy comparable to the bomb in Hiroshima. Even at more realistic speeds of few hundred kilometers per second, a those bullets could do a lot of damage, and, due to the small size, would be much harder to detect and destroy than large missiles.

        Liked by 1 person

    • EagleAye says:

      It seems you are talking about the present, and if so, I would beg to disagree. Perhaps you are considering China’s Dong Feng 21 (DF-21 or CSS-5), a ballistic ship-killer missile. Arguably a very dangerous weapon. But if we’re considering the present, I would say carrier battle groups have many layers of defenses. There’s aircraft on CAP station, SM-6 missiles from Tico and Arleigh Burke support ships, and even CIWS and RAM short range missiles. There’s a lot of defenses. When China or any other foe can commit hundreds of missiles on a single target then we’ll see a decline in the use of carriers. I do think this is inevitable, because you don’t just build a carrier, you build all those support ships (cruisers, destroyers, frigates) to sail along and defend the carrier. That’s a whole ton of money build all that. Eventually, sea-skimming hypersonic weapons will make carrier defenses problematic, just not right now.

      Like

      • List of X says:

        But all those layers of defense are also ships that could be sunk by a few missiles, and missiles are much cheaper than ships. However, if they can make successful laser (or other weapon that shoots at or near light speed – maybe microwave radiation, maybe a directed EMP) that could take down missiles from miles away, we’re may be back to the point where a naval group would be protected from a missile attack – however, if the enemy has these lasers too, they could just use them against the aircraft attacking from a carrier, which kind of, again, makes a carrier obsolete. 🙂
        A carrier – at sea or in space – would still make sense if it (and it’s escort ships and aircraft and the missiles or other weapons they carry) can basically swarm enemy’s defense in a given area.

        Liked by 1 person

      • EagleAye says:

        We’ll have to see how weapons evolve. A laser could engage hypersonic weapons, but at what range? If they can engage from hundreds of miles away and destroy inbound hypersonics, then carriers aren’t going to fade. But, burning through hundreds of miles of sea-level atmosphere is going to be a real challenge. Can they do it? We shall see. And you also bring up microwave weapons. Those are intriguing. They could be used on a missile, they could also be used on a carrier battlegroup. What about hypersonic missiles armed with microwave warheads?

        Like

  5. John Steiner says:

    Another thing that I suspect is being missed here is the definition of firing ranges. In space that will be measured not just by distance, but by report time. So the time it takes for a weapon to hit a target will determine it’s optimum and maximum ranges. That’s why I think railguns and other means of firing dumb projectiles will still have a role in certain forms of ship-to-ship combat. Also, unlike directed energy weapons, dumb-fire projectiles are very energy efficient. Half of their kinetic energy will materialize as recoil in the weapon platform, and the other half straight into the round itself. That’s orders of magnitude better than any laser or particle weapon currently within the realm of realism.

    Like

    • As far as I understand the physics, it’s a lot easier to deliver energy to a target with a kinetic projectile (especially with a bursting charge) than by laser. The figures I’ve seen for sidearms, for instance, put standard rifle efficiency at around 80 percent; and a 5.56mm round delivers approx 3.3 kilojoules of energy to a typical target. By contrast, lasers run to about 12.5 percent efficiency, so to deliver 3.3 kilojoules to a target would also waste about 26.4 kilojoules which would somehow have to be dissipated by the gun. So I don’t see lasers taking the place of common or garden kinetic projectiles any time soon. That’s likely going to be true in space as much as on Earth.

      Like

      • John Steiner says:

        Laser efficiency is a lot lower than 12.5% because of how little becomes the beam when generating it. Then there’s the other side of that. Imagine a pistol magazine’s round detonating and compare that to a handheld laser’s battery going up.

        Like

      • I got the figure of 12.5 percent from the Project Rho site, representing the amount of useful energy in the beam vs the amount actually put into the laser device to produce it (most of which is then dissipated as heat). To an extent the actual percentage depends on the design of the machinery along with the selected frequency of the emitted light. On the ‘detonation’ ability of the power pack, I always thought it interesting that one of the episodes of the original Trek series, ‘The Conscience of the King’, included a sequence where a hand-held ‘phaser’ ended up on overload inside the Enterprise with the risk, if it ‘blew’, that it might destroy several decks of the ship. I thought that was a quite nice piece of ‘hard’ sci-fi in a mainstream TV show. Usually that stuff gets hand-waved or ignored in that medium.

        Like

      • John Steiner says:

        The one of few instances where solid science made its way into Star Trek, to be sure. Granted, when I wrote a hard sci-fi series is was borne out of disappointment with Star Trek Enterprise. The whole adage of, “If you don’t like it write your own,” so I did. A lot of what I described here went into that and much more.

        Rewrote the SETI Protocols for the 22nd century. Tactical scale particle accelerator firing protocols on par with ballistic missiles submarines. A nine page “encyclopedia” entry for an alien species and civilization. Also a set of rules for Global Chess played on a sphere.

        Like

    • EagleAye says:

      When it comes to railgun rounds, the ranges are very important. Your enemy is almost certainly maneuvering to avoid being hit. Can they detect it and evade in time? The longer the range, the more likely that becomes. I expect no ship in combat in space is going to sail in a straight line. So even if they don’t detect the round, will round and target ship still meet at the same point? To me, the shorter the range, the more successful a railgun will be. But, as I have seen throughout history, weapons are continually designed to strike from longer and longer ranges. What we will have to see is at what range will space combat occur. I think, that early space combat will have quite short ranges and there, railguns will hold a significant place. But as ships become faster and more powerful, railgun rounds will be too slow to be effective.

      Like

      • John Steiner says:

        The time to react is what dictates a useful range. Anything under a tenth of a second is too quick for a person to react. Combat flight software can react much faster, but it will always have limits.

        Like

  6. I think the ‘aircraft carrier in space’ question is interesting, because it forces us to think about the way that technologies evolve. From a purely entertainment perspective I can see why Hollywood adopted them in certain sci-fi movies and TV shows: it’s something an audience knows about and can identify with. But yeah, the way technology changes – who says that carriers will even be supreme on the oceans in a century? As for space? Well, the First World War style dogfighting turned into sci-fi- trope by Mr Lucas only works if you ignore certain well-known laws of physics. In any case, as you say, future tech will almost certainly be able to achieve hits on anything it can see. Even the 2004-era Galactica probably under-played that one (which ship, incidentally, I always looked on less as an ‘aircraft carrier’ than a space analog of an old line-of-battle ship from the age of sail with its dozens of cannons, despite its hangar decks and Vipers). So yeah, I agree – no future ‘aircraft carrier’ analogs in space. And, realistically, we’re also likely to see the ocean-borne variety vanish after the current generation reach their expected max service life in the 2070s. They’re expensive, technology is moving fast, and force-projection by AI drone and hypersonic missile is only in its infancy. Over the 50-year service life of the newest carriers, that’ll mature – and I’m sure future governments will think twice about the cost of a new carrier force. There might be another generation of them after that – who can tell? But sooner or later, technology will overtake the aircraft carrier, just as it overtook the old age-of-sail line-of-battle ships, the ironclads, and the steel dreadnoughts that replaced them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. EagleAye says:

    I liked how in Galactica, energy weapons “exploded” in bursts much like ww2 flak around fighters pressing the attack. A familiar effect, but unlikely to happen. Carriers might be in space, and they might not. I think initially, not. Getting weapons working on ships will be challenging enough as it is. The first space battles may be as unrefined as the first battles in the air, when pilots of recon aircraft fired at each other with shotguns and deer rifles. A lot will depend on the available weapons. How big will lasers be, and what is their energy requirement? How big will a vessel need to be to maneuver and still fire the laser (or particle beam). How big will missiles be, and what do they need to be fired properly? During the “carrier age” we’ve seen weapons designed around what parasite aircraft need. If this age of carriers comes to an end and conflict moves into space will weaponry still be designed around the needs of parasite aircraft? Unlikely, and that’s why we would not see carriers with fighters and (missileers) from some time in space.

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