Key point: The carrier—like the dreadnought-type battleship—is a massive investment of national treasure and concentrates a huge amount of combat power and national prestige onto a single platform.
The United States Navy has the world’s largest aircraft carrier fleet with 10 Nimitz-class vessels and one Gerald R. Ford-class ship in service. Meanwhile, China has two carriers and is very likely to build more. The United Kingdom and India are also building aircraft carriers and Russia and France each have one such vessel. For navies around the world, the carrier is a symbol of prestige and power—much like the battleship before it. But are aircraft carrier still an effective tool of war or are they simply expensive white elephants?
Many have predicted the demise of the aircraft carrier since the end of the Second World War. The ships are large and extremely expensive and vulnerable to all manner of threats so the argument goes. Those threats, since 1947, have included everything from wake homing torpedoes and cruise missiles to tactical nuclear missiles. Thus far, the carrier has remained the queen of the seas, but the mighty vessels have not faced off in a high-end conflict since end of the Second World War.
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Could it be that the carrier is obsolete in the era of long-range precision-guided weapons? Perhaps, we simply have no way to know. It was not until Japanese bombers sank the British Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse on December 10, 1941, of the coast of Malaya that the world’s great naval powers realized the dreadnought era was over. The carrier has never faced such a moment—yet.