Why Aircraft Carriers Refuse to Die (And More Keep Going to Sea)

David Axe

While the U.S. military establishment continues to debate the value of large aircraft carriers, other world powers actually are expanding their fleets of big aviation ships.

The United Kingdom’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in September 2019 set sail for North America on a four-month deployment. The Westlant 19 cruise affords the ship’s crew an opportunity to get comfortable with their vessel while also qualifying Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35B pilots for shipboard operations.

The deployment is a glimpse into the Royal Navy’s future as it reorganizes around Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship Prince of Wales.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, proposed that the Pentagon give up one large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and instead spend its roughly $13-billion acquisition cost on an arsenal of 2,000 long-range, hypersonic missiles.

“Let’s just propose a thought experiment,” Griffin said at a September 2019 conference, according to Defense News.

“Which do you think the Chinese leadership would fear more: 2,000 conventional strike missiles possessed by the United States and its allies in the western Pacific capable of ranging Chinese targets, or one new carrier? Because those two things cost about the same amount of money. Those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking ourselves.”

The United Kingdom clearly still sees the value in carriers, as does China itself. The Chinese navy has one carrier in service, another in trials and a third under construction. The Chinese fleet in coming decades could add another three flattops and modify the air force’s J-20 stealth fighter to fly from some of the vessels.

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