Articles

Do We Still Need Aircraft Carriers?

September 6, 2019


The aircraft carrier – an iconic symbol of
naval might for the last 75 years. In essence a mobile airfield, aircraft carriers
can bring to bear the firepower of a small air force onto any enemy with, or near a coastline. Yet with new weapons such as hypersonic missiles
being developed by nations around the world, is the aircraft carrier being made obsolete? That’s what we’ll find out today, in this
episode of The Infographics Show- Do we still need aircraft carriers? A modern aircraft carrier is equipped with
up to 90 aircraft, ranging from fighters, strike aircraft, air tankers, airborne early
warning and control aircraft, anti-submarine helicopters, and electronic warfare aircraft. This represents a formidable amount of firepower
in just one platform, but also a potentially crippling liability- with crews of up to 6,000
personnel, the loss of just a single aircraft carrier would represent double the casualties
of the entire American war in Afghanistan. But how did carriers get their start, and
how exactly did they come to trump Battleships as the flagships of a modern navy? The first prototype aircraft carrier was developed
by today’s carrier-superpower: the United States of America. During its Civil War of 1861-1865, both the
Union and the rebel Confederates used observation balloons to conduct reconnaissance of enemy
positions. The Chief aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon
Corps, Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, oversaw the conversion of a coal barge into a floating
dock for hot-air balloons. From this barge, the professor launched the
first water-borne aerial sortie in history by ascending, and then returning, on his hot
air balloon. His success would go on to see the development
of balloon carriers around the world, with ten of these vessels seeing service across
the militaries of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Sweden. Tasked with aerial reconnaissance, the balloon
carriers had practically no offensive capabilities. World War I would see the first use of airplanes
launched from ships in combat; with the development of the seaplane in 1910, navies around the
world converted their balloon carriers to seaplane carriers. Lowered to the water via a crane, the seaplane
would then take off and land back in open water, be scooped back up via crane and stored
aboard its home ship. Initially these aircraft were also used for
reconnaissance and for spotting fire for other ships, helping guide the guns of battleships
and destroyers closer on-target. In september 1914 though, during the Battle
of Tsingtao, the Imperial Japanese Navy became the first military in the world to conduct
a successful naval-launched air raid. Launching four seaplanes from the Wakamiya,
the planes bombarded German forces and returned to be retrieved. Two months later, the tactic was copied by
the British, who had been present at the Battle of Tsingtao, when they launched twelve seaplanes
against the German Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven. While not as numerous as seaplane carriers,
the first flat-decks, true forerunners of today’s iconic supercarriers, also saw service
during World War I. The United States was the first nation to
launch and land an airplane directly from a naval ship. These first true aircraft carriers were limited
to small, light aircraft with few armaments, and as such were mostly used for scouting,
spotting fire for allied ships, and attacks on vulnerable zeppelins which were in wide
use throughout the war. It was World War II however, that would see
the carrier usurp the large-gun Battleship as the premier naval combatant. After the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor
in 1941, American officials feared that the Pacific fleet had been hopelessly crippled,
with all of America’s Pacific-based battleships sunk or damaged. Yet the Japanese attack had neither destroyed
nor damaged a single American carrier, and six months later, the Battle of Midway showed
the world that the battleship was in essence, obsolete, and the Americans quickly reversed
course on reconstructing their battleship fleet to creating new aircraft carriers. With their complement of air power, the aircraft
carrier has unmatched firepower, situational awareness, and accuracy, and for over 75 years,
has reigned supreme in navies around the world. Yet today many defense industry analysts and
military leaders are questioning the wisdom of continuing to operate these behemoth ships-
why? The biggest nail in the carrier’s coffin is
the steady march of technology, most notably in the realm of anti-ship hypersonic and ballistic
missiles. AEGIS-equipped escort ships such as the American
Arleigh-Burke destroyers are the first line of defense against both these threats. An Arleigh-Burke destroyer is equipped with
AN/SPY-1 search and tracking radar and AN/SPG-62 fire control radar, used to identify, track,
and hone defensive missiles on-target. An attacker would fire missiles programmed
to fly low to the water, and use the curvature of the earth to avoid AEGIS’ radar, though
they would have to occasionally pop up and activate their own radars to locate their
targets and fix their trajectory. These occasional pop-ups would give plenty
of warning to AEGIS of an incoming attack, but by keeping their flight path low and close
to the water, AEGIS’ AN/SPY-1 radar would not be able to achieve an intercept lock until
the incoming missiles crossed the radar horizon 15 miles away (25 km). At this time, the AEGIS vessel would launch
its first wave of interceptors. The hypersonic anti-ship missiles moving at
Mach 2-3 would reach their target in about 33 seconds, but as most attack missiles are
programmed to conduct erratic maneuvers to try and shake off interceptors, this would
add a few seconds to interception time. American Arleigh-Burke destroyers are equipped
with the MK-41 vertical launch cell system, allowing them a firing rate of 10 missiles
every 10 seconds; with each incoming missile being assigned two interceptors, each AEGIS
vessel could at best try to intercept 15 missiles. This represents a serious problem for aircraft
carriers, as an enemy air attack of 16-20 strike aircraft could very quickly overwhelm
a carrier group’s AEGIS defense network with volleys of 4 missiles per aircraft for a total
of 64-80 missiles. Ballistic missiles provide a different, but
equally deadly threat. While a carrier could protect itself from
anti-ship hypersonic missile attack by ensuring air superiority and sending its own strike
aircraft against enemy ships, ballistic missiles can be launched from hundreds or even thousands
of miles away, safely out of reach of any carrier-based aircraft and typically from
platforms deep in well-defended enemy territory. While technically easier to defend against
than anti-ship missiles due to their mostly predictable trajectories and sheer size, nations
such as China have turned ballistic missiles into a deadly threat to American carriers
via sheer numbers alone. With thousands of missiles in its inventory,
the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force could easily oversaturate an American carrier’s
defensive measures operating in the Pacific all the way from deep inside China itself. The loss of even just a single supercarrier
would mean a loss of life not seen in one day’s worth of combat since the end of World
War II, and dwarf the total casualties of most conflicts since. Billions of dollars of hardware and thousands
of lives could be snuffed out in a single attack, severely testing the resolve of any
nation’s will to continue fighting. While most anti-carrier weapons require a
complex ‘kill-chain’ of assets such as satellites, radar tracking stations, and command and control
hubs that can all be neutralized and upset to prevent a successful attack, it is clear
that improvements in missile technologies is very quickly making carriers a potential
liability. Many defense insiders and military officials
have begun calling for a change in naval doctrine and a move to smaller, more dispersed and
thus more survivable light aircraft carriers, pointing out that the loss of a single light
carrier would mean only the loss of a fraction of a fleet’s total air power. In the end, only time will tell, though we
can only hope that it will not take a military tragedy to dictate naval doctrine for the
next 75 years. So, do you think aircraft carriers are still
a useful tool, or are they too much of a liability? How would the US react to the loss of 6,000
lives in a single attack? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. Also, be sure to check out our other video
called Smallest Aircraft Carrier In The World! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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