5 Reasons Why You Should Think Twice Before Attacking An Aircraft Carrier
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Here's what to keep in mind: The bottom line is that only a handful of countries can credibly pose a threat to America's most valuable warships, and without the use of nuclear weapons, none of them will likely sink one. Although the Navy has changed tactics to cope with the proliferation of anti-ship missiles and China's growing military power in the western Pacific, large-deck aircraft carriers remain among the safest and most useful combat systems in the American arsenal.
Aircraft carriers with large decks and nuclear power are the expression of American military power. No other combat system available to US warriors can deliver as much offensive strike for months without the need for land bases close to the action. As a result, the ten airlines in the current fleet are in constant demand from regional commanders - so much so that long overseas combat tours are becoming the norm.
Nobody really doubts the usefulness of large decks. There is nothing like it, and the United States is the only nation that has a fleet large enough to keep three or more carriers operating continuously. Since the end of the Cold War, however, two problems have arisen that have at least caused some observers to wonder why carriers are at the heart of the American fleet. One concern is that they cost too much. The other is that they are vulnerable to attack.
The cost problem is a canard. It only costs a fraction of a percent of the federal budget to build, operate, and maintain all of the navy's carriers - and no one has offered a credible alternative to achieve the US military goals in their absence. Critics say carriers are more expensive than they seem because accurate billing would include the cost of their escort ships, but the truth is that if they had to fight conflicts without a carrier, the Navy would need many more of these warships.
The vulnerability problem is more difficult to solve as 5,000 seafarers and six dozen high-performance aircraft are put on a $ 10 billion warship, which military experts call a very "lucrative" target. Taking one out would be a great achievement for America's enemies and a major setback for America's military. However, the probability that an opponent will actually achieve this without the use of nuclear weapons is close to zero. It won't happen, and here are five key reasons for it.
Large deck beams are quick and resilient:
The Nimitz-class carriers of the type that dominate the current fleet, like the Ford-class carriers they will replace, are the largest warships ever built. They have 25 decks 250 feet tall and displace 100,000 tons of water. With hundreds of watertight compartments and thousands of tons of armor, no conventional torpedo or mine can do serious damage. And because carriers are constantly moving at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour - fast enough to escape submarines - it is difficult to find and track them. Within 30 minutes of an enemy sighting, the area in which a carrier could operate has grown to 700 square miles. After 90 minutes, it expanded to 6,000 square miles.
Carrier defenses are formidable:
US aircraft carriers are equipped with extensive active and passive defense mechanisms to ward off threats such as low-flying cruise missiles and enemy submarines. These include a range of high-performance sensors, radar-controlled missiles and 20 mm Gatling guns that fire 50 rounds per second. The carrier air wing of more than 60 aircraft includes a squadron of early warning radar aircraft that can detect approaching threats (including radar periscopes) over long distances, as well as helicopters that are equipped for submarine, surface and mine warfare. All of the wearer's defense sensors and weapons are interconnected via an on-board command center to carry out coordinated actions against opponents.
Carriers don't work alone:
Carriers are typically deployed as part of a "carrier strike group" that includes multiple guided missile warships equipped with the Aegis combat system. Aegis is the world's most advanced anti-aircraft and missile defense system capable of tackling any potential overhead threat, including ballistic missiles. It is connected to other offensive and defensive systems aboard U.S. surface fighters that can defeat submarines, surface ships, and floating mines, or attack enemy sensors required to guide attacking missiles. Combined with the carrier air wing, these warships can quickly affect enemy systems used to track the strike group. Carrier strike groups often include one or more secret attack submarines capable of defeating underwater and surface threats.
Navy's tactics maximize survivability:
Though protected by the strongest, multi-layered defense shield ever developed, U.S. aircraft carriers don't take any chances when used near potential enemies. Their operational tactics have evolved to minimize risk while delivering the offensive strike that is their main reason to exist. For example, a carrier will generally not operate in areas that may have been mined until the area has been thoroughly cleared. It will remain in the open ocean rather than entering confined areas where it is difficult to distinguish approaching threats from other local traffic. It will keep moving to make the target challenge more difficult for enemies. It will also use links to other common assets from the ocean floor to near-Earth orbit to achieve detailed situational awareness.
New technology strengthens carrier defense:
Although there has been much speculation about new threats to aircraft carriers, the Navy is investing heavily in new offensive and defensive technologies to counter such threats. The most important advance in recent years has been the networking of all ship goods in one area so that sensors and weapons can be used optimally. Initiatives such as the Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air program combine every available combat system into a seamless, responsive defense screen that few opponents can enter. Numerous other advances are being introduced, from the penetrating intelligence of secret hunters to ship disruption systems to advanced obscurants who confuse the guidance systems of homing missiles.
The bottom line on aircraft carrier survivability is that only a handful of countries can credibly pose a threat to America's most valuable warships, and none of these are likely to sink one without the use of nuclear weapons. Although the Navy has changed tactics to cope with the proliferation of anti-ship missiles and China's growing military power in the western Pacific, large-deck aircraft carriers remain among the safest and most useful combat systems in the American arsenal. Given the unlimited range and flexibility that nuclear propulsion offers, there are few places where you cannot enforce the interests of the United States. And at the rate at which the Navy is investing in new combat technologies, this will likely remain so for many decades to come.
Loren B. Thompson is Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates, a nonprofit consultancy. Before he held his current positions, he was deputy director of the security studies program at Georgetown University and taught courses for graduates in strategy, technology and media affairs in Georgetown. He also taught at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. (This first appeared a few years ago.)
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