The Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is perhaps the greatest symbol of American military power. But this titan among ships possesses vulnerabilities.
To download a PDF of this piece that was suggested by STRATFOR Member Michael Kuzik, Click here. If there is a single symbol of the military power of the United States and its global reach, it is the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Although capable of projecting immense striking power, these warships also possess inherent vulnerabilities. The lead ship of the class, the USS Nimitz (CVN-68), was laid down in 1968. The 10th and last of its class, the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), will not be commissioned until 2009, more than four decades after the USS Nimitz. Built around a massive 4.5-acre flight deck and displacing more than 100,000 tons, the class represents the largest warships ever constructed. This size allows the Nimitz-class to embark an air wing with more than 60 combat aircraft, comparable to the number of such aircraft in a small NATO member state's entire air force. Even today, refinements in the composition of the carrier air wing and the maturation of precision-guided munitions now allow a single carrier air wing to hit the same target set that would have required more than six such wings at the end of the Cold War. In more than three decades of operational service, they have proven themselves again and again an invaluable tool of U.S. foreign policy and military operations. Yet part and parcel of this immense size and impressive strike capacity is the inherent vulnerability of the modern U.S. aircraft carrier.
The much-vaunted battleship was eclipsed by carrier-based airpower during World War II. The battleship's vulnerability was inextricably tied to its design, which incorporated immense armor and massive guns. Such battleship designs were excellent for tasks like sinking the HMS Hood, but were poorly tailored to the era of torpedo bombers. It is not that the battleship was obsolete — the final Iowa-class battleships were only finally stricken from the U.S. Naval Vessel Register in 2006 — but rather, the apex and decline of one era crossing the emergence and rise of the next era. The proof of this transition was provided by the massive naval battles of World War II. No similar opportunity to observe carriers taking on the latest anti-ship technologies has emerged, though one loomed for most of the latter half of the 20th century in the prospect of a massive naval competition for the North Atlantic if war broke out in Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Nevertheless, the rise of the latest generation of supersonic anti-ship missiles is unmistakably under way. Since the advent of the first anti-ship missiles, the United States has fought to defend its carriers. This was the proximate motivation for Aegis — the battle control system of Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers. Designed to coordinate the defenses of a carrier battle group and defeat dozens and dozens of incoming Soviet anti-ship missiles (a mission for which it has never been tested in combat), Aegis is the embodiment of the fundamental vulnerability of the aircraft carrier. One of the great technological achievements of the Cold War, Aegis symbolized the cutting edge of naval technology. To this day, it stands as perhaps the essential link in the U.S. Navy's competitive technological advantage in battle. Nevertheless, it took this revolutionary development to attempt to defend against the already-extant threat of Soviet anti-ship missiles. Such technology has been around for decades now, and will only continue to proliferate and improve.
More simply, the cost — both financial and technological — to defend the carrier from the threat is at least an order of magnitude more than the cost of threatening the carrier. This is particularly true in scenarios when numerous less-advanced anti-ship missiles are used in a bid to overwhelm qualitatively superior defenses. The danger is not necessarily that enough missiles might get through to actually sink the carrier. Certainly, if just some of the 3,000 tons of aviation ordnance or the more than 2.5 million gallons of aviation fuel aboard a carrier were ignited, they might facilitate just that. Instead, the danger is that the missiles would achieve a "mission kill." Sinking a warship and denying it the capacity to carry out its function — especially in wartime — is not the same thing. Good damage control may keep a crippled ship afloat, or even allow it to limp back to port. But this, by no means, suggests that the ship would be likely to stay in the fight. This is the mission kill. In some ways, these considerations are especially critical in the case of an aircraft carrier. A carrier must be able to steer into the wind and maintain a steady course and speed to launch — and especially to recover — aircraft. A list to port or starboard that would be an annoyance to a surface combatant could quickly pose a much more significant problem for flight operations. The hangar deck and flight deck can be incredibly crowded with a full air wing embarked and flight operations under way. Taking any portion of the flight deck or even a single elevator out of commission could have a very real impact on the efficiency of those operations. Certain systems, such as the catapults and arresting gear, are absolute necessities. A strike that disables either of these systems makes the carrier a very expensive parking lot with a handful of helicopters able to enter the fight.
A fully alert carrier strike group (CSG) with airborne early warning, combat air patrols and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) surveillance under way has the highest situational awareness one could hope to achieve on the high seas today, possessing an immense defensive capability at its highest state of readiness. It would be extremely difficult for a flight of aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles to penetrate that air cover, and even surface formations should be monitored from a great distance. (Indeed, in the open ocean, a CSG is not necessarily even easy to find in the first place, given the maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of most nations in the world.) And yet this is not a posture that can be sustained efficiently or indefinitely. U.S. CSGs rarely are surrounded by open water in operations in the 21st century. Transiting the world's narrow shipping lanes — from the straits of Malacca and Hormuz to the Suez Canal — and supporting missions from the comparatively cramped waters of the Persian Gulf or off the coast of Pakistan, the CSG necessarily opens itself to challenges for which it was not designed. There is little room for these ships to maneuver in some of these choke points, and exercises have reportedly shown that swarming by large numbers of small craft might prove an effective means of overwhelming and penetrating shipboard defenses. Mining also is a potential concern. Meanwhile, the clutter of air and littoral traffic along the shore vastly complicates the security the open ocean affords, opening up opportunities for the use of shore-based anti-ship missiles or aircraft operating — until the last moment — inside foreign airspace. But even more important, these choke points and the complexities of anti-submarine warfare in the littoral environment open up opportunities for conventional diesel-electric submarines. Such submarines do not have the endurance to hunt down a CSG in the open ocean, nor the ability to keep up if the CSG moves at speed. But they can be exceptionally quiet at a few knots while running on battery power and can loiter around sea lanes and choke points. Methods of attack available to them range from traditional mines and torpedoes to some of the most advanced anti-ship missiles in the world, all capable of being launched from below the surface. In October 2006, just such a submarine — in this case a Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy Song class (Type 039) — surfaced within 5 miles of the USS Kitty Hawk, well within range of both anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. The utility of the carrier as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platform was once meaningful, although defending the carrier itself necessitated most of the ASW assets it carried. But the S-3 Viking, the last carrier-based fixed-wing ASW platform, was then "upgraded" to the S-3B — from which mission-specific ASW equipment was stripped at the turn of the century — and is being withdrawn from service. The MH-60R Seahawk is slated to become the only ship-based airborne ASW asset in the fleet, and it will count ASW among half a dozen other primary missions. The U.S. Navy's ASW capability has deteriorated in the face of more pressing missions relevant to the U.S.-jihadist war. Today, a P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft crew can deploy to the 5th Fleet and conduct few if any ASW exercises or patrols, focusing instead on supporting operations ashore in Iraq. Whether that was the right choice or not is irrelevant to this discussion. The fact of the matter is that ASW is a particularly delicate art that requires careful drilling — drilling that is not happening anywhere close to the scale of that during the Cold War years. Meanwhile, China is reportedly refining an anti-ship ballistic missile especially tailored to target carriers off its coast. This change of aspect could present new challenges for shipboard defenses.
The claim that because a military asset is at risk, it is therefore obsolete is obviously false, and is certainly not the claim we are making here. One cannot argue that because the world's surface warships can be shot at, they are obsolete. The immense power projection capability that the aircraft carrier brings to bear is undeniable. As a tool of global military dominance, it is invaluable. Like the battleship, its utility will extend far into the future beyond the apex of its era. However, its offensive value must be weighed against defensive requirements. What we are asking, instead, is this: In the age of proliferating supersonic anti-ship missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and broad area maritime surveillance, has the long, slow decline of the age of the aircraft carrier already begun?