Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Aircraft Carrier in Modern Warfare

I read an interesting article from BBC about the future of Aircraft Carrier. The article basically pointed some doubt that aircraft carrier will play the dominant role they play today.

I have some comment on that topic. To do that, I have to provide a small historical lesson.

Early History
USS Langley, the 1st US Carrier
When the aircraft technology was still in its infant stages in early 20th century, the navy decided that aircraft could provide a very crucial supporting role for the battle fleet. At that time, the most important ship in the navy was the battleship, the largest, most heavily armored ships equipped with the largest cannon. The navy thought that aircraft could become the eye for the battleship fleet, locating other fleet, OR providing fighter cover to shot down any enemies recon aircraft. The problem is, the fleet could be located very far from any friendly aerodrome. Thus the need for an aircraft carrier was born.

The idea that aircraft could sink ship, let alone battleship, was considered absurd at that time. Billy Mitchell from the US Army is the first military officer who disagree with that opinion. He experimented with battleship "Ostfriesland" that the US got from the German navy after they won the first world war. Mitchell bombed the battleship using land based heavy bomber, and managed to sink her. Mitchell concluded that all surface ships now become obsolete, AND he also stated that no ships, even no aircraft carrier, would be able to contest land based airpower. (Morison, 1963 p:8)

Mitchell was considered a prophet because of his experiment and prophecy, but second world war prove him wrong half of the time. Mitchell's experiment was fundamentally flawed. The Ostfriesland was anchored at the time of the experiment. She had no crew, therefore could not shoot the aircraft, didn't have any damage control operation, etc. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of his conclusions was outright wrong. But, his mistakes were not obvious at that time. We need the second world war to demonstrate this.

World War 2
When the US Navy designed the defense against the Japanese threat, they assumed that the land-based, high-altitude, heavy-bomber B-17 Flying Fortress could be ship killers that could be used to attack Japanese fleet. They were wrong. The high altitude bomber lack the accuracy to effectively bombed a sailing ships defended by Anti Aircraft cannons and machine guns.

Partly based on the awareness of the flaw of Mitchell's experiment and the conservative nature of the Navy, the US Navy also still assumed that battleship is the most important ship. This assumption was challenged when the British torpedoed some Italian Battleships in Taranto, and by the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor. But, reasonably, the navy still thought that those events didn't reflect the actual capability of a battleship to resist aerial attack.

Essex Class Aircraft Carrier
The first sailing battleship sunk by aircraft carrier was the HMS Prince of Wales. She was attacked by land-based aircraft but those aircraft didn't attack from high altitude, they have to fly low, and attack the battleship using torpedo and bombs.

Mitchell was falsified once again by the "Operation Hailstone" in the beginning of 1944. During this operation, US 5th Fleet  consists all kind of warships, but its core is mainly the Essex class aircraft carriers, under admiral Mitscher attacked the Truk Lagoon in Central Pacific. It is important fact that Truk was a major base of the Imperial Japanese Navy, defended by hundred of planes. By the end of the operation, the ships of the 5th Fleet wiped out all Japanese ships and aircraft in Truk by combination of aircraft aerial attacks and naval surface bombardment. On the other hand, the US didn't lost a single ship in this operation.

USS Forrestall, the 1st Supercarrier
USS Gerald R Ford, the newest supercarrier
By the middle of the second world war , or even earlier, all admirals agree that aircraft carrier already replaced battleship as "the queen of the sea." After the war, the United States built "Supercarriers," carrier that are far larger than  any carrier in the 2nd World War.

Modern Warfare
Why the historical lesson is necessary? I want to pointed out some facts that:
  1. The navy in some sense is a conservative organization, they need time to adjust to new development.
  2. The second world war provide important lessons, not only to the US Navy, but also to any navy in the world.
  3. Combined the 1st and the 2nd point, many of the lessons from the 2nd World War dominates the assumption of modern navy.
After the world war, jet propulsion become the dominant aircraft propulsion, and rocket-type weaponry provide even a small aircraft with sufficient firepower to sunk a battleship. Other significant technological developments are: nuclear power, satellite monitoring & positioning.

While the jet propulsion make sure that aircraft will have further advantage over ships, enhancing the importance of aircraft carrier, it also means that minor powers nowadays have the means to sunk any large and powerful ships, including any supercarrier.

Nuclear weapons make sure that any major power in an all-out war definitely will easily destroy all surface ships in a fleet with only one missile.

Satellite monitoring & positioning provides the exact location of any fleet to major powers. Unlike in 2nd world war where the fleet has to search the enemy's fleet by launching recon plane, nowadays modern fleet from any major power knows exactly the location of the opposite fleet.

In this case, it is reasonable to assume that in a naval battle between major powers, the fleet with supercarrier as its core would be easily overwhelmed by all kinds of attack that applied those new developments. In essence: carrier is irrelevant in a naval war between major power.

Nevertheless, nowadays we didn't expect any major power go to war between each other. No matter how heated the rhetoric between the US, Russia, China, India, etc, we consider a large scale naval war between them as highly improbable.

Today's conflict that involve carriers are US intervention in minor powers territory. The US used their supercarrier repeatedly as mobile aerodrome, mobile headquarters. Across those interventions, not a single  supercarrier was sunk. The Serbian, Iraqi, or any other forces never managed to threaten the carrier seriously. Of course the story may be different in case of US intervention in middle power, e.g.: Iran.

Nevertheless, the supercarrier are still useful in power projection in minor power territories. Not only the US, other powers also need some power projection capability to protect their interest in faraway ocean. This ability also will lessened the burden of the US. Other power repeatedly complained about US hegemony, US de facto status as world police, etc. If they really didn't like this situation, they should put their money where their mouth is. They should build some carrier, maintain them, and use them to protect others. If they really dislike "USA: the World police," better they stop become freeloaders like they are doing now, and take some burden from the USA.

What? They thought the concept of a world police is absurd? They thought that "the worst peace is better than the best war"?Tell that to the victim of the Holocaust, Rwanda Genocide, etc.  who lost their lives after the world police didn't exist or didn't intervene. This world need more world police, not less, because psychopaths still manage to become ruler of so many countries. Psychopath like Hitler only understand one language: power. Many of them can be stopped only by military intervention. Another many of them can be stopped by credible threat of military intervention. In that spirit, the world needs more aircraft carrier, not less.

Angelo Codevilla & Paul Seabury, War: Ends and Means 2nd Edition (Basic Books 1989, 2006)
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two Ocean War (Naval Institute Press 1963)

No comments:

Post a Comment