The Strategic Value of Aircraft Carriers
Are They Worth the Investment?
By Commander Paolo Florentino, ITA N, JAPCC
The political and military leaders of many seafaring nations with blue-water navies worldwide and strong maritime interests, in the effort to imagine the future of their military forces, could soon face the dilemma of whether or not to finance an aircraft carrier programme. While the United States Navy (US Navy), as the only global military power, has funded its fleet of 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for fiscal year 2020, and the gas turbine engines of the United Kingdom’s (UK) second new carrier started rotating gently for the first time at the end of 2018, France and Germany1 are evaluating the opportunity to design and build an aircraft carrier to shape the European Union’s role as a global security and peace force.
At the same time, in the challenging region of the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese government announced in November 2018 their intent to upgrade its two Izumo-class helicopters carriers to support the F-35B Lightning II stealth strike-fighter. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA(N)), has aspirations to become a true ‘Blue Water Navy’, and is now building its third aircraft carrier, which reportedly will be the first PLA(N) carrier equipped with a catapult system and built completely by indigenous shipyards.
The maritime arena, thanks to the immense patrimony that it preserves and the enormous amount of maritime traffic that passes through it, is the foundation of global trade. Modern oil and gas extraction techniques, growing ever more effective, together with the robust maritime transport (90% of world goods travel by sea2) have, in fact, led the world-wide economy to be greatly influenced by the stability of the maritime environment. Shipping is the lifeblood of the global economy. Without marine shipping, intercontinental trade, the bulk transport of raw materials, and the import/export of affordable food and manufactured goods would simply not be possible. In this geo-political framework, it is clear that the economic prosperity and security of many countries are inextricably linked to the sea, to the freedom of navigation and to the safeguarding of the sea lines of communication. Because of this link, crisis or conflicts anywhere on the planet affecting waterways and the freedom of navigation will create substantial repercussions around the world.
While many nations have brown-water or littoral naval capability, or Coast Guards to enforce the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea3, these have limited reach and power. To ensure major maritime lines of communication, archipelagic sea lanes and straits remain open to free commerce and unimpeded by bordering nations, sometimes a stronger military deterrent force is required, and the core of this type of force is the ability to project power at sea. The most recognizable icon of maritime power since the end of World War Two has been the aircraft carrier.
Based on the capabilities to support the launch and recovery of fixed-wing assets, aircraft carriers can be categorized into three groups:
The CATOBAR (Catapulted Assisted Taken Off Barrier Arrested Recovery), which includes the US Navy super-carriers of the Nimitz and Ford classes and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. These units, equipped with nuclear propulsion and a flat-deck with a catapult launching system, ensure exceptional autonomy and represent fully-capable floating military airbases that can be deployed for long periods at great distances from their motherland. The US Navy operates with F-18 E/F and F-35C multi-role fighters on their super-carriers, plus a combination of EA-18G Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA), E-2D Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and C-2A transport aircraft. The deployable French Navy consists of the Dassault Rafale M multi-role fighter and the E-2C for AEW.
The STOBAR aircraft carriers (Short Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery), utilize conventional propulsion and were all launched from Ukrainian shipyards of the former Soviet Navy. They are currently in service within the Russian Navy (Admiral Kuznetsov) operating Sukhoi Su-33 and MiG29K, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (Liaoning) flying the Shenyang J-15, and the Indian Navy (INS Vikramaditya) flying the MiG29K.
The STOVL carriers (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing), can base their air components on specific aircrafts with STOVL capabilities such as the AV-8B Plus, and more recently the F-35B. These ‘light’ aircraft carriers, or amphibious ‘through-deck’ units capable to support fixed-wing assets operations, are equipped with conventional propulsion and are in use in major NATO Navies, namely the Royal UK Navy (HMS Queen Elizabeth), the Italian Navy (ITS Cavour, ITS Garibaldi), the Spanish Navy (SPS Juan Carlos I), along with the US Marine Corps’ Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) Wasp and Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) America Class units.
The overall Air Power that an aircraft carrier brings to the operational area is not only limited to the tremendous capabilities that the fixed-wing assets can deliver, it includes the capabilities of the organic rotary-wing assets and of the embarked ballistics and cruise missiles available, from the escort and support ships that sail with the carrier as part of a Carrier Strike Group (CSG).
An aircraft carrier is considered the most valuable sea-based asset, and offers an incomparable military instrument with its ability to project tactical Air Power over long distances, including Air Interdiction, Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), offensive and defensive Counter-Air, AEA and AEW.
The freedom of navigation4 and overflight in the international waters, the right of innocent passage of the territorial waters and the right of transit passage of international straits all guaranteed in the UNCLOS, means that a CSG has worldwide mobility. It has potential access to almost any area of latent crisis, considering that the earth is covered mostly by water and that a major portion of the population lives within 100 miles of the sea, and capability to arrive on station relatively quickly and remain in the area. As a floating airbase, an aircraft carrier combines operational flexibility and speed of intervention to the projection force of a relevant maritime nation, freeing it from the problems and political compromises linked to the diplomatic authorizations necessary to operate from a land airport abroad, and the clearances to overfly other countries’ airspace (assuming the country isn’t landlocked).
The world’s seas are vast. Maritime forces therefore have developed long-range capabilities and the capacity for a constant presence at a particular location for a prolonged period with limited logistic dependence. This endurance can be further extended by their capability for replenishment at sea. A carrier is therefore able to operate independently for prolonged periods, even in the absence of a host nation, and to cover great distances. It is an autonomous microcosm, as it has everything needed to operate internally, from food to fuel, from ordnance to supplies, and is therefore capable to express the maximum of its capabilities from the very first day of intervention.
The speed of advancement of a CSG, however, is limited (approximately few hundred nautical miles a day) and can be adversely affected by weather conditions, making movements relatively time-consuming. This requires early or forward deployment of maritime forces, and mobility and access in the maritime domain make this possible. The limited speed of advance over water is, however, relative; naval forces can normally move more quickly over long distances than large land forces, and this aspect contributes to the effect and power of a CSG significantly.
Moreover, operating from an advanced mobile airbase limits the impact of fatigue on personnel and aircraft, due to the close proximity to the affected area which reduces overall flight times. Operations can be conducted with maximum safety, as a warship underway is far less vulnerable to commando’s incursions and terrorist attacks compared to a fixed airport ashore in a country near the area of crisis. Furthermore, sea-based aircraft missions, with the carrier cruising beyond the visual horizon, allow operations out of the view of prying eyes which enables the element of surprise, benefits the safety of the crews and aircraft, and ensures covertness. An aircraft carrier can provide the only military airbase facility employable during the initial phases of an operation, able to launch and recover friendly air assets, as shown during the early phases of operation in Afghanistan in 20015.
However, an aircraft carrier is even more than just a military platform; it is a tremendous diplomatic tool, able to exert influence by its mere presence in an area, and to deliver strategic political messages. The type of influence is exceptionally flexible. A CSG can be used as a threat, but can also serve to strengthen alliances and forge coalitions. Influence can be increased easily, or forces can be withdrawn with a lower impact on the public opinion. From a political perspective, a CSG constitutes a highly adaptable instrument of power to control a threat in an early stage, allowing crises prevention and, if necessary, at considerable distances from home. It allows the political leaders to finely calibrate diplomatic or military actions to optimize the management of a crisis or conflict. The contemporary presence of three US nuclear aircraft carriers conducting joint operations near the coast of the Korean peninsula in November 20176, was a clear show of force from the White House against the aggressive posture of the North Korean government. On 18 November 2015, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle left its homeport of Toulon heading towards the eastern Mediterranean to support the bombing operations carried out by the international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. If the decision was made before the 13 November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, it was surely accelerated by the events, stemming from the strong willingness of the French government to prosecute global terrorist organizations with their best military assets.
As emphasized by the former United States of America Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, the CSGs ‘get there sooner, stay there longer, bring everything [they] need with [them] and don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. [They] provide our nation’s leaders with options in times of crisis’7.
With an expected operational service-life of approximately 50 years, an aircraft carrier is an asset that requires a lot of resources for the continued and proper maintenance, and for the constant training to allow the ships’, decks’ and air-wings’ crews to operate in a safe, coordinated and proficient way. The accidents that occurred on-board the Kuznetsov during the operational deployment in the East Mediterranean sea during the Syrian war at the end of 2016 (they lost one MiG-29K and one Su-33 in less than three weeks8) show, that naval aviation is an inherently dangerous business, and that properly funded and proficient maintenance and training are required for safe and effective air operations at sea.
The awareness of the importance of training for naval aviation crews has led the UK Navy to ask for help from the US Navy and Marine Corps to re-gain and maintain the skills it needs to operate aircraft carriers due to the entry into service of the HMS Queen Elizabeth. For this, UK aircrew and flight-deck personnel have been trained on-board US carriers.9 At the same time, the Italian Navy is carrying out the work of adapting the ITS Cavour to the F-35B standards, planning to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) by the end of 2023 with 8 F-35Bs and 12 navy pilots.
An operationally outstanding asset, capable of being effectively integrated into a combined multinational campaign, the aircraft carrier is sometimes the only instrument in the event of a crisis capable of intervening in the initial phase of an operation, thanks to the mobility and access granted to the maritime forces and the possibility to be prepositioned. Its mere presence in the area establishes a credible naval and air presence in support of national interests and political objectives.
A carrier is representative of the relevance of the country that owns it, a pillar of the power projection capabilities and maximum expression of the nation’s naval diplomacy, as well as tangible proof of the country’s technological proficiencies.
In summary, an aircraft carrier is a military tool of tremendous operational capabilities, which can provide the military and political leadership of a relevant maritime country with credible options and solutions for crisis management. While expensive to buy and operate, it may be ultimately less expensive and far more flexible (both militarily and politically) than deploying and sustaining land-based air assets to an available friendly host nation, and therefore well worth the investment.
3. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982.
5. Gregory Bereiter, The US Navy in Operation Enduring Freedom, Naval History & Heritage Command, 2016. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/us-navy-operation-enduring-freedom-2001-2002.html
7. US Navy (2016). Naval Aviation Vision 2016–2025. http://www.nae.navy.mil
9. https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2017/august/15/170815-carrier-strike-exercise-ends-ahead-of-hms-queen-elizabeth-arrival https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/UK_aircraft_carriers
Commander Paolo Florentino
Graduated from the Italian Naval Academy in 1991, was trained by the US Navy, and qualified as Naval Aviator in 1994. He flew ASW/ASuW Helicopters such as AB212, SH3D and EH101. He had appointments as Flight Commander on several warships, staff officer of the Italian Fleet Air Arm, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Helicopter Squadron and later of the 3rd Helicopter Squadron. As a Navy line officer he commanded the ITS Tirso. He participated in Operation Enduring Freedom as Navy Liaison Officer to ComUSNavCent, and has been awarded for NATO Operation Sharp Guard and the Italian operations related to the Albania crisis and supporting UNIFIL. Since August 2016 he serves the JAPCC as Subject Matter Area for Maritime Air/Embarked Rotary Wing.