In early February, analysts from four Washington think tanks held a public event to recommend how the Pentagon could walk the fine line between developing a future military capable of meeting emerging security threats and staying within legislated budget caps.
Although the teams differed on many of their recommendations, all chose to shrink the Navy’s fleet by two or more aircraft carriers. Given the symbolism and cost of aircraft carriers, this generated public speculation that carriers are becoming irrelevant to modern warfare.
In fact, the think tank analysts were heralding the rebirth of the aircraft carrier, not its end. At the same time they cut carriers, each think tank also invested in a new unmanned carrier-based aircraft. Two teams chose a stealthy unmanned combat aircraft system (UCAS) that would be able to perform strike and surveillance missions over long ranges, thus greatly increasing our nation’s ability to use carriers to maintain a military presence or fight aggression in multiple regions.
The teams chose this UCAS over a current Pentagon program to develop an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft, which is intended to be more of a surveillance asset than a long-range strike platform.
Since the start of World War II, America has relied on its aircraft carriers to project power, control the seas, deter aggression and reassure allies. Today, the Navy has 11 carriers that carry manned fighter jets for precision attack, anti-surface warfare and air defense.
But the future Navy won’t always be able to perform these missions as it does today. Competitors are fielding anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarines and other “anti-access” threats that will target carriers.
To avoid these threats, aircraft carriers will have to operate farther from enemy coastlines, thus limiting the ability of carrier-based short-range fighters to reach targets ashore. And when those fighters reach land, they can expect to be met by advanced air defense systems.
Long-range stealth bombers such as the B-2 and submarines like the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine can strike targets despite anti-access threats. But to reload, these platforms rely on fixed land bases that will also be vulnerable to attacks.