Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Carrying Carriers to the Future

"Look, pals, the aircraft carrier was the weapon of this war, before Hiroshima. Carriers don't look so good against space ships. Let's build galleons instead; they are cheaper, prettier, and just as useful."
- Robert A. Heinlein, "The Last Days of the United States"

For the last seventy years, the aircraft carrier has been one of the ultimate expressions of power on the waves. Bombers operating from an aircraft carrier raided Tokyo in 1942; Harriers operating from aircraft carriers kept the Falklands British in 1982; Maverick shot down a bunch of MiGs and made peace with Goose's death while flying off an aircraft carrier in 1986. Specifically, the aircraft carrier has been one of the ultimate expressions of American power; of the world's twenty carriers, eleven of them fly the Stars and Stripes. Italy is in second place, with two.

I don't expect this to be a state of affairs that will continue indefinitely into the future, even as the People's Liberation Army Navy of the People's Republic of China puts the final touches on what was once the Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, built but unfinished in 1992 as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reportedly renamed Shi Lang, the carrier is a powerful symbol of China's rise. Carriers are the cornerstones of a blue-water navy; states do not need them to secure their coasts, which is probably why Canada decommissioned its last carrier in 1970. What a carrier says is "I am in a mood to enforce my state's interests beyond the range of land-based aircraft."

Ultimately, Shi Lang may have more power as a symbol than a weapon of war. Not only because she's outnumbered - but the days of the carrier may be ending soon. In fact, it may be that in the not-too-distant future, surface combatants become as worthwhile to have as men-o'-war.

You start with this, then add about a hundred years' worth of R&D, then maybe weld some bigass VLS tubes onto the side...

The submarine has come a long way in the last hundred years. Before the First World War, their biggest booster was probably Jules Verne; it was the war, and the demonstrable advantages of being able to sink enemy ships while remaining relatively hidden, that propelled a flurry of technological development. Today their roles are focused mainly on hunter-killer and ground strike operations; there's no particular reason this has to stay the same as technology changes.

While I have a few disagreements with George Friedman's The Next 100 Years, one of the aspects of his forecast I found interesting was the rising importance of hypersonic missiles in the twenty-first century. At sufficient speeds, such missiles wouldn't need warheads - their kinetic energy would do all the damage. While Friedman used them to attack ground targets like military bases and power plants, it's not inconceivable that hypersonic weapons could be scaled down enough to be used as naval armament. Specifically as submarine armament.

If that's the case, I would expect modern navies of 2061 to be absolutely submarine-heavy. Aircraft carriers in the modern mold wouldn't exist; they'd be liabilities, too difficult to defend and too expensive to keep replacing. If anything, I'd expect to see things like "micro-carriers" - ships that launch and recover UAV fighters, which can be piloted from anywhere on Earth where there's a secure connection. Or perhaps the pilots would be in a submarine somewhere near the carrier, kept in control of their planes with undersea communication lasers feeding to unobtrusive transmission buoys on the surface.

Sure, there's every possibility that I'm wrong, that this won't be the case - but the fact is that no paradigm lasts forever. The Battles of Tsushima and Jutland only reinforced the notion that big-gun battleships ruled the waves. Today, the only battleships you'll find are floating museums. The potential of a shift is something to consider... and even if the United States doesn't, I'm confident that China will.


  1. I agree, the age of capital ships is passing into history, which is a shame because I'd always hoped big-gun BBs would make a comeback someday... somehow. Surface combatants won't be obsolete anytime soon - but that will depend on advances in stealth vessels. Micro-carriers for UAVs are definitely on the drawing board - so too are micro-carriers for unmanned submarines. So I think navies won't have so many subs as long-range UUVs. Carriers may be headed for obsolescence, but they'll still be around in 2061, if only because people are still building them today, and even if they do prove to be a liability they will represent too big an investment - financially and emotionally - to be scrapped entirely. Hypersonic ASMs and possible torpedoes will play an important role, but I think the next big sea change will revolve around those who can afford to develop directed energy weapons and militarize space (whether we like it or not), and those who cannot. Personally, I'm as interested in future doctrinal advances as I am in technology.

    Can you tell I'm a navalist? =P

  2. Can you tell I'm a navalist? =P

    If you were part of that group that had that ad hoc desk-based geopolitical thing going when I was in Grade 5, then it comes as little surprise at all.