Aircraft Carriers Won't Help America in a Great-Power War?

Matthew Reisener
Reuters

Matthew Reisener

Security, Asia

Should the United States engage another great power in a full-on naval conflict, the winning side would likely be the one that could replace its missiles and ships more quickly.

Aircraft Carriers Won't Help America in a Great-Power War?

Former President Bill Clinton remarked in 1993 that, “when word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it's no accident that the first question that comes to everyone's lips is: ‘where's the nearest carrier?’” President Clinton’s sentiment still rings true today. Not only did the United States recently dispatch the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group near the Persian Gulf in an attempt to deter perceived Iranian aggression, but this spring President Donald Trump overruled the U.S. Department of Defense’s cost-saving proposal to forgo refueling the nuclear reactor of the USS Harry S. Truman. Washington has long viewed aircraft carriers are the crown jewel of American naval power and has shown little willingness to deviate from this position in recent years.

There are, however, some naval experts who would push back against the Washington establishment’s pro-carrier sentiments. One such expert is Dr. TX Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel and a Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The Center for the National Interest hosted Hammes for a private breakfast event on Wednesday, June 5, during which he outlined his innovative, if not controversial, proposal to shift the focus of the U.S. Navy from its aircraft carriers to a large armada of missile-armed merchant ships which are better equipped to handle the challenges of modern naval warfare.

According to Hammes, the Navy must confront several major structural challenges in the coming years. In addition to a general shortage of ships, the current fleet also suffers from a dearth of the vessels needed to adapt to the rapidly changing character of naval combat. America’s ships increasingly suffer from the same range obsolescence that afflicted armored knights during the Middle Ages. While knights were well-equipped to dispatch any crossbowman they encountered on the field of battle, their limited range forced them to get close to their opponent before inflicting any damage. This gave less powerful, but longer-ranged combatants an eventually insurmountable advantage.

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