The Future of Aircraft Carriers

A debate at the Naval Academy Museum leads to some surprising conclusions.

AV-8B Harrier.jpg
U.S. Navy flight deck personnel taxi an AV-8B Harrier assigned to Marine Attack Squadron 542 across the flight deck aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in 2012. Should amphibious assault ships replace the traditional aircraft carrier?

Is the aircraft carrier obsolete? Henry “Jerry” Hendrix, director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for New American Security, argues that the carrier’s day is coming to an end. “They’re too old in their design, too expensive in their cost, too vulnerable, and we, as a people, are far too cautious to use them as they were intended.”

Hendrix took part in a debate at the U.S. Naval Institute on January 9; taking the other side was Bryan McGrath, assistant director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower. 

McGrath argues that the aircraft carrier’s flexibility as a combat system—with its principal weapon, the Air Wing—is unmatched. Take the USS Enterprise as an example, says McGrath. In 2012 it returned from a 238-day deployment to Afghanistan. Its aircraft—including four squadrons of F-18s, an EA-6B squadron, an E-2C Hawkeye 2000 squadron, and numerious  helicopters—flew more than 2,000 combat sorties. During the Enterprise’s 50 years of service, 43 different models of aircraft flew off its decks, making the carrier the most efficient platform in naval service.

But Hendrix argues that the carrier air wing “has lost the ability to strike effectively at distance, especially in high-threat...zones, [leaving] the ships increasingly vulnerable to attack at a distance.”

While the debaters held opposing views, both agreed the air wing needs to be modified. “The cancellation of the A-12 and the retirement of [its predecessor] the A-6 Intruder reduced the air wing capabilities to the F/A-18 Hornet,” says Hendrix, “which was purchased to replace the F-4 and the A-7 light attack aircraft. This reduced the carrier’s range from 900 nautical miles to around 400 nautical miles.” He believes the future lies in unmanned aerial combat vehicles, capable of carrying significant bomb loads and tanking autonomously, in addition to the Navy investing in smaller ships.  

Watch the entire debate here: