A poll of Naval Technology readers has found that 82% think aircraft carriers are a good use of naval budgets, but 18% said that the ships are not worth it.
Overwhelmingly, Naval Technology readers backed the use of naval budget to buy aircraft carriers, with only a small fraction of readers disagreeing.
Carriers have been a controversial sticking point for politicians, budgets, and navies in recent years, with their high price tags and advances in anti-ship missiles leading to a debate around their utility in the modern era.
Our poll asked ‘Are aircraft carriers still an effective use of navy budgets?’. Of 3,394 respondents, 2,772 (82%) said yes, whereas 622 (18%) said no.
Several navies are investing in the development of new or upgraded aircraft carriers with the Royal Navy now operating two new Queen Elizabeth-Class carriers, the US Navy investing in new Gerald R. Ford-class vessels and further investment by China, Turkey and India to field new carriers.
Other navies are looking to recapitalise existing vessels into aircraft carriers, most notably with the Japanese Navy, which is looking into how it can modify an existing helicopter destroyer into an aircraft carrier capable of berthing the F-35.
Despite this investment, experts have argued that advancements in anti-ship missiles could make aircraft carriers obsolete in a state-on-state conflict, most notably against China which as recently fielded an array of new missile capabilities that would present a threat to aircraft carriers.
In January a report from the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) showed how such missiles would hamper the US Navy’s ability to counter China. The report goes into detail on how the area denial effect of China’s vast missile arsenal would make it hard for the onboard air wing to get in range of its target.
The CSBA said: “Carrier air wings will be constrained in the number of weapons they can deliver because they will need to operate at least 1,000 nm from significant enemy missile threats, such as those on the Chinese or Russian coasts.”
In this potential scenario, the report found that in a single day of conflict in the South-China sea the US Navy could see itself come up against around 4,500 missiles a day fired from a mixture of land-to-sea, air-to-sea and ship-to-ship ordnance. This would force aircraft carriers to operate further from the littoral area limiting the utility of the aircraft on-board.
Aircraft carriers also serve another purpose, acting as a signifier of countries’ naval strength and the technological ability to develop and build the vessels.
Aircraft carriers require advanced power plants to drive and power their on-board systems as well as having to carry all of the functionality a fixed airbase would need to maintain the fleet of fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft on-board. Depending on the aircraft they carry, they often need to include complex launch and arrest apparatus to enable seaborne flying missions.
Aircraft carriers also allow the user to project ‘hard power’ in a way that cannot be achieved by a conventional mix of destroyers and frigates. At DSEI last year, Royal Navy First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin described the ‘enormous power’ offered to the US by its fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, adding that the UK’s new aircraft carriers would have ‘strategic impact’ in the way the UK approaches operations.
Since development on its new aircraft carriers began, the Royal Navy has also been keen to emphasise the multitude of roles they can fulfil. Within NATO the UK, the addition of two carriers will enable the Royal Navy to position itself as the leading carrier operator within Europe and the wider world. In the past, the navy has also described how the vessels are not only useful in ‘high-end warfighting’ but also could play a wider role in humanitarian assistance operations.