"Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack."
May 27, 2009 1:46 PM   Subscribe

The aircraft carrier, a majestic and grand symbol of American naval might... susceptible to swarming small-boat assault and weak against ballistic missiles, nevermind an anti-ship ballistic missile. Is it time to reevaluate the role of the aircraft carrier in a modern naval strategy?
posted by Keter (58 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ha! I was just about to mention that war nerd article.

Aircraft Carriers are just big bombs waiting to go off. Battle Of Midway anyone?

Or to put it another way, The American military is the best army on earth ....at fighting Imperial Japan.
posted by The Whelk at 1:52 PM on May 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


What do you suggest, we replace them with something long, hard and full of seamen?
posted by punkfloyd at 1:53 PM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


I just wanted to note that if I was in a war, I'd want Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper (ret.) to run it.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:57 PM on May 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


It's not so cut and dried of an issue. Yes, admirals, politicians, and weapons suppliers greatly benefit from carrier projects. Yes, they can indeed be sunk. But carriers are usually kept out of direct harm's way. The US wouldn't be able to be the global power/bully/peacekeeper (it manages a bit of all of those things), without being able to put jets where it wants to. Carriers are the only way to do that currently. If the US is in a situation where its carriers come under direct attack from China or Russia, then things will be pretty bad all around anyway.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:00 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


It is estimated that the missile can travel at mach 10 and reach its maximum range of 2000km in less than 12 minutes.

Assuming the missile could be identified and tracked from the moment of launch, that might at least give a carrier time to launch several aircraft and otherwise save the lives of a lot of the crew.

But in a real shooting war, I think it's been obvious for a long time that a carrier group is an ideal target for a nuclear weapon, whether on a ballistic missile, cruise missile, or guided bomb. A carrier group is a large number of high-value military targets, all in range of a single blast, and as an added bonus it's on the ocean where there is much less collateral damage. Further, it can do significant damage while staying out of range of the group's defenses (e.g., Phalanx, SeaRAM, etc).

For what it's worth, the above is one reason why I think a transoceanic invasion of a nuclear power is a complete non-starter. Any troop flotilla would be nuked to pieces before they got more than a couple hundred miles from shore.
posted by jedicus at 2:01 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Again we see that the tools states use for fighting against other states are useless when the assumption of a well-behaved, symmetric opponent is removed. I mean, this is essentially the way the US won the revolutionary war, right? At least according to the story books that were read to me as a kid, the 'Red-coats' fought in big troop formations and had little defense against the more guerrilla-style tactics of the revolutionaries.

If war is a game that each side desperately wants to win, then each side, in order to win, will have to check and undermine the assumptions of its opponent. When one side brings to the battlefield a massive, capital-intensive set of hard-to-alter assumptions, they're setting themselves up for failure.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:01 PM on May 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't know anything about anything, but I've always thought aircraft carriers were super awesome. I mean, not necessarily in a strategic sense - I'll leave that to the analysts - but in terms of purely testosterone fueled glee, the sight of an aircraft carrier gets me going. It's seriously the closest thing we have to a Battlestar Galactica.
posted by kbanas at 2:02 PM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


As long as there is a need for a sea-going platform to deploy aircraft, there will be aircraft carriers, whether or not the aircraft carrier can be killed.

Horse cavalry were not made obsolete by the pike, the rifle, the cannon, the machine gun, or barbed wire, even though all of these made it easier and easier to kill men on horses. Horse cavalry were made obsolete by the introduction of the internal combustion engine (ie, the tank), which gave you a more stable firing platform (guys on horses with guns aren't very accurate!) which didn't require all sorts of fodder (just gasoline). This is because despite the fact that more guys on horses were going to die, there were still jobs that could only be filled by guys on horses.

Despite what some people said, tanks were not made obsolete by the introduction of the anti-tank missile, which theoretically allowed anybody who had one to kill a tank.

Aircraft were not made obsolete by the advent of guided surface-to-air missiles.

Similarly, the aircraft carrier will not be made obsolete by the fact that new technology makes it easier to kill. What might make the aircraft carrier obsolete is if everybody decides is that what we really need is a platform which can launch loads of unmanned aircraft, or if everybody decides that any aircraft mission can be more easily carried out by guided missiles, so we won't really need a aircraft carriers.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:04 PM on May 27, 2009 [13 favorites]


In the simulation, General Van Riper sent wave after wave of relatively inexpensive speedboats to charge at the costlier, more advanced fleet approaching the Persian Gulf. His force of small boats attacked with machine guns and rockets, reinforced with missiles launched from land and air. Some of the small boats were loaded with explosives to detonate alongside American warships in suicide attacks. That core tactic of swarming played out in real life last weekend, though on a much more limited scale and without any shots fired.
Sounds like a zerg rush to me.
posted by kdar at 2:07 PM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


As they use to say in Groton Connectict:
"There are only two types of ships:
Submarines and Targets"
posted by ahimsakid at 2:11 PM on May 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Is an aircraft carrier even part of our **naval** strategy? Do we even need a naval strategy?
posted by smackfu at 2:14 PM on May 27, 2009


Aircraft and tanks weren't made obsolete by things designed to take them out, correct. But to some extent they DO have defenses against a good deal of threats designed for them. Also, if something like the Javelin anti-tank system was incredibly cheap and often found in the hands of insurgents, we likely would have given up having tanks anywhere near Iraq or Afghanistan by now.

All that aside though, that doesn't exactly compare to the issue of aircraft carriers. In regards to vulnerability, cost, time to manufacture, value as a target, everything really, it isn't a good comparison. Taking out a tank or a plane means so much less than taking out an aircraft carrier that any comparison there is almost meaningless. What the article was mostly getting at is that we continue to forge ahead designing new generations of aircraft carriers to use against an imaginary enemy. In an engagement against a serious threat that amounts to more than a bunch of guys hiding in houses with AK-47s our carriers could be completely destroyed with ease. By a nation with (comparably) ancient technology. They are MASSIVE high-value floating targets that can't stop means that could be readily available to any country that would have a serious interest in destroying one during a conflict.

That's kind of a problem. A huge portion of our projected might comes from our aircraft carriers, and there's the very real possibility that they could be quickly crippled if they were really needed. That has been true for decades, and we've done nothing about it. This has been something that stuck out to me for a long time, and I am in no way a qualified expert in the field. It seems very possible that the new Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carriers will end up going the way of the Iowa class battleships; huge badasses already obsolete by the time they're made, quickly pushed aside.
posted by Stunt at 2:27 PM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


The problem is that of concentrating 50 aircraft in one big jumble. Either the Navy needs to develop small, fast mini-carriers, each holding 2 or 3 planes, or relegate the entire idea to the Air Force with their "global reach" concept of air-to-air refueling. Not that I care much for continually dumping money into the military-industrial complex.
posted by crapmatic at 2:33 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Unlike the articles imply, The US Navy is not just sitting on their asses.

Again we see that the tools states use for fighting against other states are useless when the assumption of a well-behaved, symmetric opponent is removed. I mean, this is essentially the way the US won the revolutionary war, right?

It's not as simple as that. The ballistic missile is an useless weapon for force projection or classic gunboat diplomacy, while an aircraft carrier group achieves this quite nicely. Aircraft carriers are the real enabler of US military operations just about anywhere in the world. These ballistic missiles on the other hand, while cheaper than a aircraft carrier by far, are not useful in the modern asymmetrical war. In this sense it is the chinese who are preparing for last century's war.

But in a real shooting war, I think it's been obvious for a long time that a carrier group is an ideal target for a nuclear weapon, whether on a ballistic missile, cruise missile, or guided bomb.

True enough. On the other hand in a world war with nuclear weapons used, conventional weapons are fairly irrelevant anyways.

Also everything what Burhanistan said.
posted by Authorized User at 2:44 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, the above is one reason why I think a transoceanic invasion of a nuclear power is a complete non-starter. Any troop flotilla would be nuked to pieces before they got more than a couple hundred miles from shore.

That's why I think the US and China are at a sort of permanent stalemate. There are, of course, ways one side could get an upper hand, such as space warfare or strategic disabling cyber attacks. But wars are always won by the boots on the ground. We're not going to be able to get enough troops there, and they're not going to be able to get enough troops here. If the conflict went nuclear, that'd probably get the other nuclear powers of the world involved, and there wouldn't really be anything left to win.

(Note - I am not a military strategist or anything like that; it's just my opinion based on my years of observation. If you've got info that can clean this up, by all means send it along.)
posted by azpenguin at 2:48 PM on May 27, 2009


During WWII the U.S. developed PT boats for the very same reasons outlined in these articles. Small, maneuverable, and fast boats with lethal firepower can destroy slower boats that have inadequate protections. Plus, the smaller boats are less expensive and have fewer crew members, so they are in a sense expendable.

It seems that these days we are constantly forgetting the lessons of WWII. We forgot to create a true central intelligence agency to monitor enemy activity and predict attacks (see Pearl Harbor and 9/11) and now we're forgetting our own PT boat strategy. Doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes.
posted by Muddler at 2:51 PM on May 27, 2009


Aircraft and tanks weren't made obsolete by things designed to take them out, correct. But to some extent they DO have defenses against a good deal of threats designed for them. Also, if something like the Javelin anti-tank system was incredibly cheap and often found in the hands of insurgents, we likely would have given up having tanks anywhere near Iraq or Afghanistan by now.

Mayyybe, maybe not. I'm fairly certain that the scenario that the original designers of our current tanks envisioned involved the assumption that the Red Army would be handing out anti-tank rockets like candy, despite which people still intended to park a whole lot of tanks all over Germany.

Yes, I'm aware that carriers are much much more expensive than tanks, aircraft, or dudes on horses. However, again, so long as there is a job that only aircraft carriers can do, there will be aircraft carriers. They may not be exactly like the aircraft carriers you have today, and they may not do every job that aircraft carriers do today, but they'll still be aircraft carriers.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:51 PM on May 27, 2009


Comrade_robot & AU on the money and the War Nerd's being, as usual, just an iconoclast.

"The most obvious example is European heavy cavalry trotting into longbow fire again and again. Crecy demonstrated that knightly charges were suicide against the longbow in 1346. But the French aristocracy had so much invested in prancing around on their damn steeds that it took another demonstration, at Agincourt in 1415 to even start to get them thinking about it. I’m no math wiz but I think that 1415 minus 1346…yup, that’s 69 years between catastrophes. Lessons learned? None."

But then, of course, they totally learned their lesson about the impracticality of horse warfare and never practiced it again. Sure, we could just get rid of aircraft carriers as we know them and switch over to an all-B-52s-flying-out-of-Missouri-all-the-time style force projection, but the point of aircraft carriers is as much for peacetime "hey look at us guys look what we made can you do that" (and associated tongue sticking out) as it is to, y'know, have jets really close to stuff. That we're dumping huge amounts of money into showing we can fight another Second World War is wildly problematic, yes, but it's not as if being big targets with questionable cost-benefit numbers is a new problem for aircraft carriers.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 2:52 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Submarines with VTOL drones > Aircraft carriers.
posted by mullingitover at 2:55 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Back in probably '88 or '89, during a particularly long and sweltering Okie Summer, my neighborhood buddy T. and I had grown bored playing our collective board games by the regular rules, so we started tinkering with them a bit.

One of our favorite twists was tweaking the fleets on Battleship. We had access to three or four (incomplete) sets, so there were numerous setups we could dream up.

One of the first, and probably the origin of the whole experiment, was two aircraft carriers vs five submarines. By the standards of our simple 9-year-old logic, 10 hittable spaces were 10 hittable spaces, so it was a fair fight. Besides, this setup tended to make the games last longer and provided some extra variety while the earth baked outside.

I'm not going to claim it was mathematically or scientifically sound, but I am here to tell you that in the little petri dish that was the Bayberry Place Battleship League in Suburbia, Landlocked State, the side with the five subs easily won 19 out of 20 games, no matter who was leading the fleet.

Take that knowledge freely but use it wisely, America.
posted by Ufez Jones at 2:57 PM on May 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


Submarines with VTOL drones > Aircraft carriers

Possibly. But probably not for another 30 years.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:58 PM on May 27, 2009


During WWII the U.S. developed PT boats for the very same reasons outlined in these articles. Small, maneuverable, and fast boats with lethal firepower can destroy slower boats that have inadequate protections. Plus, the smaller boats are less expensive and have fewer crew members, so they are in a sense expendable.

Do you know the origin of the name 'destroyer' for a kind of ship? It comes from 'torpedo boat destroyer'. Torpedo boats have actually been around for a bit longer than World War II, and were actually not _that_ effective.

Smaller is not always better; the example bandied about in the 1940's was that an Iowa was cheaper than 5 Brooklyn class cruisers, but could easily sink all five of them at the same time.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:58 PM on May 27, 2009


Carriers serve the useful purpose of getting planes close to where our military needs might be when we have no land bases for our military and planes in the very few places left in the world that we have not built upon. Besides: whenever some nation, ruler makes threats, noise etc we send our fleets (usually 6th Fleet) to go steaming around to show that we have ships that can move through the seas...that'll show 'em.
posted by Postroad at 3:02 PM on May 27, 2009


People forget that aircraft carriers travel in battle groups that include destroyers, cruisers, frigates and submarines, each of which has its own unique capabilities to deal with parts or all of the threats listed in the article. For example, destroyers embark their own helicopters, with air-to-ground capabilities. A swarm of low-tech boats? An Arleigh Burke destroyer can see the swarm over the horizon, and carries two Seahawk helicopters, each armed with up to a dozen or so Hellfire missiles. End of swarm.

In the simulation, General Van Riper sent wave after wave of relatively inexpensive speedboats to charge at the costlier, more advanced fleet approaching the Persian Gulf.

I thought the Van Riper exercise was interesting, but here's my problem with it:

We all saw the hordes of Iraqi soldiers surrendering in Gulf War I. Hundreds of them surrendered to CNN camera crews. Yet Van Riper's strategy assumed these same soldiers would happily jump on board with Saddam's suicidal Zerg rush strategy.

Uhh, no.

When the 2003 invasion happened, the Iraqi forces pretty much folded again. All hell didn't really break loose until after we fired the army and sent them home without their paychecks.

Van Riper's strategy was great on paper, and a great example of what a committed enemy could pull off (Iran? China? North Korea?), but just wasn't realistic for Iraq, which was the point of the exercise. I certainly hope the Navy is wargaming both the Van Riper strategy, and a strategy of what would happen after the first weeks of shooting.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:03 PM on May 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised that the War Nerd doesn't mention the Falklands. The Argentines came very close to fielding a missile attack on two UK carriers, which might have changed the course of the war completely.

Carriers have an indirect defense against ballistic missiles and small vessel swarm attacks by maintaining a screen of smaller vessels and by maintaining air superiority. While I have no doubt that a fleet of small boats carrying missiles and drones would be more effective for many military objectives, there are few options other than supercarriers for extending US air power across the globe.

I will admit that when the US is not on a world war footing, our carriers are going to be extremely vulnerable. But with the proper (read expensive) level of screening escorts, and a less in you face placement, I think carriers still have some role.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:07 PM on May 27, 2009


Crap, I started that post over an hour ago and got distracted by a phone call, should have previewed.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:08 PM on May 27, 2009


By the way, the thing that keeps admirals up at night isn't a small boat swarm.

No, what gives you the heebie-jeebies is the idea of a diesel-electric submarine slipping through your ASW cordon and zapping your aircraft carrier.

In RIMPAC 1996, the lone submarine of the Chilean Navy "sunk" a U.S. aircraft carrier in a wargame. This is akin to me stepping on the court, dunking on Kobe and going home with LeBron' girlfriend.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:15 PM on May 27, 2009 [11 favorites]


Sounds like a zerg rush to me.

Put four aircraft carriers in a bunker.
posted by ryoshu at 3:17 PM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have to disagree with the sentiments expressed above. Without doubt, the greatest threat to any naval group is aircraft. The aircraft carrier is therefore the dominant weapon on the seas. The advent of drone aircraft will only serve to increase this dominance, as an aircraft carrier can carry large numbers of such drones.

Of course an aircraft carrier is vulnerable to small boat "swarms." Unfortunately for those using such weapons, they are not effective once the carrier is out to sea. Any naval battle group is surrounded by escort vessels that protect the larger ships in the group. There is no ship, on its own, that isn't vulnerable to such attacks.

I agree that subs are a much more important threat to aircraft carriers.

But these ships are the core of our naval force for a reason. They give us quick and flexible response capability to any threat anywhere. They are incredibly flexible and can send one plane to drop one bomb, or a squadron of them to destroy locations hundreds of miles from the carrier. We'd be fools to get rid of them.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:28 PM on May 27, 2009


Similarly, the aircraft carrier will not be made obsolete by the fact that new technology makes it easier to kill. What might make the aircraft carrier obsolete is if everybody decides is that what we really need is a platform which can launch loads of unmanned aircraft, or if everybody decides that any aircraft mission can be more easily carried out by guided missiles, so we won't really need a aircraft carriers.

This bears repeating; I think. What will mark the end of the carrier era is a switch to an air-superiority strategy that uses UAVs and cruise missiles rather than manned fighter jets.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:28 PM on May 27, 2009


Assuming the missile could be identified and tracked from the moment of launch, that might at least give a carrier time to launch several aircraft and otherwise save the lives of a lot of the crew.

I think you're underestimating the problem of hitting a fast-moving carrier-sized target that doesn't want to get hit using a repurposed IRBM, especially since unless you're going to nuke it you'll need just about a direct hit.

The countermeasure to this isn't necessarily a countermeasure to the missile itself. If you take out the "network of satellites, radar and unmanned aerial vehicles that can locate U.S. ships and then guide the weapon," the weapon system is MOL mission-killed.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:33 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Aircraft Carriers are just big bombs waiting to go off. Battle Of Midway anyone?

The battle of Midway proved the value of the aircraft carrier, rather than diminished it. You see, it was aircraft from carriers that sank all four of those Japanese carriers at Midway.

Run! One of our aircraft carriers might be sunk, we need to stop making carriers now!

What these normally dumb articles always forget is this: War is risk. You bet some carriers are gonna get sunk by the Chinese. But the carriers are gonna sink a whole lot more of the Chinese navy than that. Just because there is going to be casualties does not mean we need to drop the dominant weapon on the high seas.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:36 PM on May 27, 2009


UAV's will strengthen the carriers dominance. UAV's can't just loiter for days anywhere they want. A carrier can spend months on station right next to where we want to go.

We need them on a ship near the action, so we can launch them all quickly and they can get to their targets quickly. While a UAV carrier will be smaller, it will still be an aircraft carrier. Maybe a sub aircraft carrier, but an aircraft carrier nonetheless.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:40 PM on May 27, 2009


There are all kinds of assumptions and parameters thinking about future conflicts, which is why the war college type institutions exist. For example, the missile is satellite guided and the land-based forces would probably need to rely on satellite imagery to figure out where to aim it. The US and China both have anti-satellite missiles, with plenty of research into ground-based anti-satellite lasers. How long into a conflict does the assumption of satellite guidance stay valid? Is this a missile that you get to use exactly once?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:45 PM on May 27, 2009


Aircraft carriers have always been weak. That's why carrier groups exist - besides their offensive capabilities, frigates and destroyers are there to protect the carrier so it can focus on launching planes.

Small boat swarms is probably more an issue of tactics. It's not as if modern naval technology is incapable of dealing with a threat like that, it's most likely just that the commanders were unprepared for it. The second runthrough of the same war game scenario resulted in a win for the naval convoy.

I guess the ballistic missile is a problem, but modern weaponry is nothing if not a constant game of oneupmanship. If we weren't constantly making better war machines, bows and arrows would still be state-of-the-art.

I guess I'm not really seeing the fatal flaw that requires a complete reevaluation of a proven mainstay of modern naval warfare.
posted by chundo at 3:55 PM on May 27, 2009


The Fauklands conflict proved the value of the American Supercarrier. The British only had light carriers to protect their fleet. The force projection radius of the light carriers was inadaquate to defend their troop ships. The US had been moving towards the British model but reassessed after the conflict and recommited to the supercarrier.
posted by humanfont at 4:20 PM on May 27, 2009


I have to disagree that UAV's will ever make carriers obsolete, since a UAV is still an aircraft that needs to launched from somewhere and still needs to land a re-arm somewhere, even if they are solar powered and could theoretically keep circling an area for a long period of time. Having a mobile launch platform close to your target is a huge asset.
posted by Sargas at 4:22 PM on May 27, 2009


Now I recall where I first saw this debate: Gizmodo, of all places.

The terrifying thing about the ballistic missile is that it can supposedly avoid radar detection by flying in an erratic path and maintaining a generally low radar signature, thereby bypassing our Aegis system.

Two quick things: (1) I don't think anything flying at Mach 10 can really do anything but move in a straight trajectory; and (2) it seems physically improbable to maintain enough fuel to maintain maneuverability in flight for 12 minutes straight.

How bad is the anti-ballistic threat? Bad, sure. But there is a reason that the U.S.'s anti-ballistic systems is more threatening on a world-wide scale than actually having ballistic missiles.
posted by jabberjaw at 4:26 PM on May 27, 2009


That's why I think the US and China are at a sort of permanent stalemate. There are, of course, ways one side could get an upper hand, such as space warfare or strategic disabling cyber attacks. But wars are always won by the boots on the ground. We're not going to be able to get enough troops there, and they're not going to be able to get enough troops here. If the conflict went nuclear, that'd probably get the other nuclear powers of the world involved, and there wouldn't really be anything left to win.

Which is why the Reagan and Bush White Houses were so keen on Star Wars, because they have a view of a future where they can shutdown enough of the offensive capability of a nuclear competitor that the US can initiate nuclear strikes without fear.

That's why I think the US and China are at a sort of permanent stalemate.

The superpowers have been for a long time. During the Pakistan/Bangladesh conflict the US sent a carrier group in to threaten India - we'll destroy you if you don't stop supporting the Bangladeshis. The Soviets deployed a submarine group, the US withdrew, and the subcontinetal powers duked it out amongst themselves.
posted by rodgerd at 4:33 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


*cough* There are others, there are those in in development.
posted by Feantari at 4:43 PM on May 27, 2009


Wars are not, contrary to the above, ultimately won by boots on the ground but by logistics (excepting the occasional blind luck). In that sense, I think a visit to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum's nascent UAV wing might be informative.

UAVs are cheaper than conventional aircraft, can be operated by kids raised on video games based, well, anywhere, and no one gives a fuck if we lose one. That is the future of our force projection, and we don't need huge ships to do it. I think our current president is doing a reasonable job demonstrating our current methods of force projection in South Asia right about...now.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:00 PM on May 27, 2009


"Is it time to reevaluate the role of the aircraft carrier in a modern naval strategy?"

Not really. An attack that seriously damaged a carrier task force would probably result in a nuclear retaliation... and last I heard, that was a pretty effective deterrent.

See "permanent stalemate". A major war is unwinnable, and probably always will be. That's part of the reason why a nuclear Iran with a piddling deterrent and relatively low-range weapons doesn't scare me. If anything, it might help avoid a future war with Iran.
posted by markkraft at 5:30 PM on May 27, 2009


... and yes, UAVs are important. They don't make carriers obsolete, especially since carriers are masters of mobile stand-off attacks, but they do allow for better, less expensive standoff options.
posted by markkraft at 5:34 PM on May 27, 2009


"Unlike the articles imply, The US Navy is not just sitting on their asses. ..."
posted by Authorized User at 5:44 PM on May 27 [+] [!]

Amen, Authorized User, if not, realistically, because of their interest in the systems you link.

No, our Naval command recognizes that a good offense is generally the best defense, and accordingly, has completed conversion of 4 SSBN Ohio class boomers to SSGN boats. Each SSGN is equipped with either 140 Tomahawk or Tactical Tomahawk cruise missiles (and uses 2 of the former ICBM tubes for sub-surface special forces deployments) or 154 Tomahawk/Tactical Tomahawks.

Another 2006 article speculates how these re-fitted Ohio class vessel's former missile tubes could be utilized effectively for non-traditional warfare.

And although the BGM-109A W80 equipped nuclear warhead version of the Tomahawk has been reported as "withdrawn" from service, at least 320, of W80 warheads remain in the enduring stockpile, and could be rapidly retrofitted to Tomahawks, should the need arise. These are backed by at least another 1660 B61 warheads which can be rapidly converted to W80 warheads, if the need should arise.

Thus, theoretically at least, the U.S. already possesses the ability to launch from stealthy SSGNs, approximately 600 Tomahawk strikes, conventional or, if needed, nuclear, at will in any 24 hour period. At least 320 of the warheads in the enduring stockpile are W80 Tomahawk style warheads, available within hours for rearming Tomahawks. And theoretically, at least, the U.S. could repeat at least 50% of that launch capacity, from rearmed SSGNs working with appropriate tender vessels, for days after initial strike launches.

And still never have opened a hatch on any remaining SSBN boat, or nuclear armed a single B-2, or B-52, or tuned up a single Minuteman silo, or launched a single counter-attack from another carrier or U.S. air asset.

Foreign powers know all this, and know we prize our carriers, too. Our carriers sail, always, in harm's way, but they never sail alone. An intentional strike on a U.S. carrier by a belligerent nation would be the most expensive 4.5 acres of U.S. territory ever contested by them.
posted by paulsc at 6:40 PM on May 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Worth noting that the U.S. has not lost an aircraft carrier to enemy action since 1944. That's 65 years, during which the U.S. has engaged North Korea, North Vietnam, Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, the Taliban and al Qaeda. None has managed to sink a carrier (knock wood). So I'd say they've actually fared extremely well in asymmetrical warfare.

Also, no carriers were sunk during the Battle of Okinawa, which involved the largest and most concerted suicide attacks in history.

Russia or China (or France for that matter) could probably take out a big carrier, but as noted above there'd be all hell breaking loose anyway to precipitate the conditions under which that scenario would arise.
posted by stargell at 7:46 PM on May 27, 2009


Globalsecurity.org has some nice images of a Nimitz-class carrier. This one shows the scale of ordnance available.
One day the 44th will ask "where are the carriers?"
posted by JohnR at 7:57 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't forget the Surcouf. Submarine carriers remain on the drawing board, but aren't entirely farfetched. I can certainly see whopping great (~15 000 tonne) UAV launch pads that are submersible.

Of course, as the point was made, decent submarines are regularly reported to 'kill' carriers, so against any advanced opposing fleet, you'd be shit-scared to be on a carrier.

But for impressing the natives, yeah, carriers are cool.
posted by wilful at 8:00 PM on May 27, 2009


Hmm, I'm not sure this is exactly breaking news, and it's certainly nothing to start wringing our hands over. China won't be blowing up any of our carriers any time soon. That would be...kind of a big deal, to say the least.

Outside of an all-out global shit-show, it all amounts to deterrent. China wants to mitigate the influence of the US navy vis-a-vis Taiwan and curtail its presence in East Asian waters. No big surprise.

This story smells like astroturfing for missile defense funding. Moist, delicious funding.
posted by kurtroehl at 9:01 PM on May 27, 2009


Smaller is not always better; the example bandied about in the 1940's was that an Iowa was cheaper than 5 Brooklyn class cruisers, but could easily sink all five of them at the same time.

The thing is, a single modern anti-ship missile launched from a small ship is vastly more likely to strike a fatal blow against a larger ship than would a shell, or a salvo of them, fired from a WWII cruiser.

Carriers are largely, though not entirely, instruments of politics and diplomacy. They're seagoing armed embassies, and carry these propositions: a) the US can threaten any spot in your country; b) because so many US personnel are at risk in a carrier, an attack on a carrier will trigger all-out retaliation. So they're both cudgels and tripwires... not that those metaphors go together all that easily.

In some sense, carriers are strategically defended, but tactically vulnerable-- a nation-state wouldn't dare--unless it was already committed to withstanding a full campaign from the US--, but some small group of anonymous or suicidal types, if armed with, say, an outlandishly effective Russian missile (or its Chinese clone) probably very well could take out a carrier...
posted by darth_tedious at 9:13 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The UAV, if anything, guarantees the aircraft carriers' future. They mean that the aircraft carrier can carry more firepower and in the transitional period from planes flown by people to planes flown by robots the aircraft carrier can carry both. It's all well and nice to launch a little recon drone from a destroyer, but anything with actual firepower works better if there is a runway.
posted by Authorized User at 10:24 PM on May 27, 2009


I agree that there has always been a sense in which aircraft carriers have been considered paradoxically both powerful and vulnerable. I recall a supposed naval aphorism that their life expectancy in the event of a nuclear war was about five minutes -- that every single USN carrier group had a target painted on it by a MIRV or three, preferably including an EMP hit from altitude disabling every supporting ship in the kaboodle.

It's also a bit beside the point to consider this vulnerability in and of itself, as such a hit would constitute a first strike of a nuclear exchange -- after which there wouldn't be a lot of utility in a carrier group anyway. So there's a Taiwan Strait dispute again and a trigger-happy China lobs one for the heck of it ... without even sending a good-bye note to Shanghai. Right. MAD rules remain in force. In cases like this there is a point to asking "Then what?" I mean, Taipei is dust too. The prospect of a littoral invasion is rather moot on both sides.

So then we're left to contemplate the asymmetrical implications, which have also been evident for quite some time. I've never quite understood some of the conclusions people have drawn from the Van Ripen zerg attack. The Pentagon was quite right to force a reset of the scenario so that they could play it out as intended, because it wasn't all about that one objective. He did show there was probably insufficient breadth in the mission planning but it didn't invalidate everything. It also only applied in a very specific strategic locus, with a carrier group trapped, as it were, in the Persian Gulf or scenario equivalent. It's a vulnerability, to be sure, but it isn't a universal one either. Most of the time your typical carrier group is well out to sea with every horizon patrolled. Given the fact that one would move in close enough to be that vulnerable, you could plan for it, but you couldn't put a lot of resources into expecting it. And war, especially in the cooler phases, is all about resources and expectations of using them.

I do think the area of anti-missile defense is a disputed zone in many ways, but a heckuva lot farther along than in the Harpoon days. But again, you're not playing for invulnerability. You're playing odds.
posted by dhartung at 10:54 PM on May 27, 2009


So there's a Taiwan Strait dispute again and a trigger-happy China lobs one for the heck of it ... without even sending a good-bye note to Shanghai. Right. MAD rules remain in force.

The PLA doesn't have anything like the counterforce capability for a MAD strategy, which if anything makes the point even stronger.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:33 AM on May 28, 2009


An intentional strike on a U.S. carrier by a belligerent nation would be the most expensive 4.5 acres of U.S. territory ever contested by them.

Your link would have been more credible if the dickhead who wrote it had been aware that the USS Jimmy Carter is a nuclear attack submarine.
posted by rodgerd at 12:53 AM on May 28, 2009


It's seriously the closest thing we have to a Battlestar Galactica.

And that worked out so well.
posted by odinsdream at 6:05 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]



1200: With these horses we can lule the wold! (Genghis Khan)

1914: Withz thize Submarines We can ruhle tzhe world! (Germany)

1939: Withz thize airplanes we can ruhle tzhe world! (Germany)

1991: With these aircarriers we can rule the world! (US)


All nonsense. With these wombs we rule the world!
Most conflicts are not decided by military power but by reproduction rates. This is also why the current war in Afghanistan is so useless. Minimal losses, minimal investments and huge reproduction rates, hence the opponent gets stronger, not weaker.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 7:51 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I recall a supposed naval aphorism that their life expectancy in the event of a nuclear war was about five minutes -- that every single USN carrier group had a target painted on it by a MIRV or three, preferably including an EMP hit from altitude disabling every supporting ship in the kaboodle.

The 5-minute thing is probably true, the MIRV business is not; the counterbalance to carrier groups during the Cold War was attack submarines with nuclear torpedoes and later anti-ship missiles, not ICBMs.

Reliably hitting a carrier group with an ICBM would be tough: first, you'd have to know where the group is at any particular time with a great degree of certainty — that's no mean feat. Even if you have spy satellites they can't be looking everywhere at once, so you'd be taking a risk of not knowing where the target was when you needed to. Plus, you'd have to account for the flight time of the missile itself when guesstimating the future position of the target.

The Soviet strategy — and the reason they spent so much money on attack submarines like the titanium Alfa — was to take out a CBG with one surprise blow. (I think it probably would have been suicidal for the submarine in question, perhaps one of the reasons the US Navy gave up the idea of nuclear torpedoes after a brief flirtation.)

The attack submarine is, in this role, a sort of asymmetric weapon; a fast, deep-diving sub is difficult to defend against and threatens an extremely high-value target. This is different from the role US attack submarines played, which was pretty much to shadow Soviet ballisic-missile launchers around, hopefully able to pop them should things go south before they had the opportunity to launch. The Soviets had similar attack submarines for this role, but they were different from "interceptors" like the Alfa. The original design concept for the Alfa was quite extreme, and would have been very small, very fast, and had a very small crew; they weren't able to get the reactor to scale down that well, though.

The high-speed anti-ship missiles and supercavitating torpedo technology developed by the Soviets are two examples of things they did particularly well and that the West just didn't seem to spend much time or effort matching. (I suppose because the obvious deterrent against someone firing a nuclear torpedo or missile is all-out nuclear war.) While that might have been fine during the Cold War, now we have these highly-asymmetric weapons floating around, and it's probably only a matter of time before they get into the hands of someone who's not dissuaded by large-scale retaliation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:26 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


yoyo_nyc: what

Your bizarre pidgin intro aside, it's not as if Afghanistan's like a game of Starcraft (kekeke) where new militants show up fully formed soldiers of a state as fast as their leader can click the little "build zergling" button.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 1:07 PM on May 28, 2009


“That's why I think the US and China are at a sort of permanent stalemate… If you've got info that can clean this up, by all means send it along.”
It’d be over petroleum, food, water maybe, et.al. We’d fight it over there. It might go tactical nuclear, but no more.
Either way, we’d lose. China already has the upper hand in terms of where they’re at viz energy resources. We’ve got the advantage of being too far for them to really invade sure. But China’s always used an aggressive defending sort of attack. Akin to Russia under the Tsar, but less mobile (and less weather dependant).
They’d ‘invite’ us in. Provoke us to where we’d mobilize. Then just wear us out. They can absorb almost any level of casualties we can (conventionally) inflict. So we’d run out of juice to sustain the war and we’d have to retreat. Oh, we’d kick the crap out of them. But it’d be like Clubber Lange vs. Rocky. Guy just won’t go down and you’d get gassed.
Might be nice to have Russia as an ally. We’d have a shot then. Begs the question though – what’s “win”?
Hopefully we’ll have invalidated the premise for that war by seeking alternative energy technology, etc. And maybe help China out with food. Dunno. I’m a student of strategy but the big hardware tended to be on the other side of the table from me. So I’d cede most arguments here. Though the points about what makes a given piece of warfighting equipment obsolete is solid. Doesn’t much matter how many you can break, only matters whether it’s superseded by something that can do the job better.
Maybe one will be hit. That will suck. Can’t say though I can think of a more legitimate target.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:05 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


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