Immediately after the end of the First World War
The navies of the world were taking inventory and preparing for a future conflict. Ships, unlike most other weapon systems, have very long procurement schedules and take years to design, build, test, and finally be operational and ready for combat, therefore the first few years after World War I would decide what the navies of the future would look like. For most businesses continued as usual with the battleship and its mighty deck guns being the centerpiece of naval power.
The battleship- or dreadnought- had ruled the seas for decades after all, and before it during the age of sail frigates loaded with multiple decks of cannons had been top dog at sea. In 1920 through American General Billy Mitchell had a different view of things. Mitchell had paid careful attention to the evolving role of the airplane during the first world war, initially being nothing more than a reconnaissance asset and then a fighter aircraft loaded with machine guns. By the end of the war, the first bombers were being fielded, and it was these aircraft that caught Mitchell's attention. Compared to traditional artillery, early bombers were seen as having little use. Artillery could fire relatively quickly, an expert gun crew could fire off almost two dozen shells in a minute, a considerable amount of firepower. In comparison bombers of the time could only carry a few dozen pounds worth of bombs- but what they lacked in sheer firepower they more than made up for in range and precision. Aircraft could travel a hundred or more miles and the pilot could ensure great accuracy in their delivery, as opposed to the blind, probing strikes so often used with artillery.
The ability to deliver bombs
At ranges far greater than any cannon, and with more accuracy, gave General Mitchell an idea- and one that he brought up with senior Navy leadership. Using a captured German battleship, Mitchell tried to convince US leadership that the future of naval combat was not the big gun battleship, but the aircraft carrier and its armament of fighter and bomber aircraft. In 1921 Mitchell proved the validity of his theory by sinking the German battleship Ostfriesland via aircraft in a widely publicized demonstration. The onlookers were shocked, as to date, no one had thought a battleship could be sunk by such flimsy weapons as aircraft. And yet, the US Navy brushed Mitchell aside, saying his demonstration proved nothing. Amongst the observers though were two Japanese officials, who unlike the American admirals, saw a great deal of potential in Mitchell's demonstration.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today the modern aircraft carrier finds itself in a similar moment in history a hundred years later as the battleship did during Mitchell's time. For eight decades the aircraft carrier has been the backbone of any serious Navy, with its ability to strike from hundreds of miles away with high precision weapons. The US's supercarriers alone each hold enough firepower to rival the air forces of entire nations, and together make up the second most powerful air force in the world. Yet the time of the aircraft carrier's supremacy is quickly coming to an end, and many fear that the US's continued investment in big supercarriers, like those of the new Ford Class, are going to place it in a strategically perilous situation in the next major conflict. Already aircraft carriers make up almost half of the US Navy's budget, and while they bring incredible capabilities to any conflict, they are increasingly vulnerable to weapons being developed, or already deployed, by powers such as Russia and China.
Hypersonic and wave-skimming missiles can be fired from hundreds of miles away
Or from hard-to-detect submarines, and in enough numbers to overwhelm a carrier battlegroup's defenses. Ballistic missiles, such as those deployed by China, can threaten aircraft carriers from a thousand or more miles away and can be launched from mobile and thus difficult to detect and destroy platforms from deep within enemy territory. The economic cost of aircraft carriers and the increasing capabilities of anti-ship weapons is also leaning heavily in favor of non-carrier forces, with China for instance being able to buy over a thousand anti-ship missiles for the price of a single US Ford Class carrier. So if the future looks set to dethrone the aircraft carrier as the premier naval combatant, then what does a futuristic aircraft carrier actually look like?
America is firmly committed to its acquisition of Ford Class Carriers
And plans to have at least 11 supercarriers operational through as late as 2070. Many, including former Secretary of DefenseJames Mattis, have all criticized the vulnerability of supercarriers to current and future weapons, but the Ford Class carrier is built with the future in mind. Unlike its predecessors, the Nimitz class of carriers, the Fords are built from the ground up with the capability to modularly install future technological upgrades. Its current systems for instance only consume half of the energy each Ford carrier can produce, meaning in the future each ship will be able to install futuristic technologies as they become available.
Chief amongst projected technologies that the Ford and other futuristic carriers will be equipped with are rail guns and directed-energy weapons. Currently, carrier battle groups rely on intercepting missiles to fend off an anti-ship missile attack or incoming ballistic missiles dropping down from space. While a formidable defensive system, it is limited in how many targets it can engage by the physical amount of missiles available, how fast it can engage each target, and how much time it has to respond to incoming targets. Currently, fleet missile defense relies primarily on enforcing a bubble of safety around the carrier through the use of the combat air patrol and anti-submarine warfare assets.
The combat air patrol, or CAP, engages incoming aircraft at long range, and anti-submarine drones and helicopters, as well as accompanying attack subs, keep enemy subs at a safe distance. However today's anti-ship missiles have ever-increasing ranges and accuracy, and ballistic missiles can be fired from thousands of miles away, placing both systems well out of the range of the CAP or ASW measures. Once detected, incoming missiles moving at hypersonic speeds may give the defenders as little as thirty seconds warning time before impact. Today's AEGIS cruisers can respond with a volley of two interceptor missiles every seven seconds or so, giving a cruiser four chances to destroy an incoming missile before impact.
When faced with a small number of anti-ship or ballistic missiles
The odds are good that they can be defeated, but a future opponent will not be deploying these weapons in small numbers. Instead, they will fire in very large volleys meant to overwhelm fleet missile defenses- and this is where directed energy weapons and rail guns come into play. Rail guns promise the ability to track and deliver rapid-fire salvos of kinetic interceptors against incoming missiles, far exceeding the firing rate of an AEGIS cruiser's vertical launch cells. Directed energy weapons such as laser beams and particle beams fire at the speed of light and can burn out missile warheads at long ranges, then shift to a second target in a fraction of a second. Both systems will help keep future carriers safe from missile attacks, though they will likely not be coming online in numbers for at least a decade.
Another future upgrade for aircraft carriers will be an armor upgrade designed to defeat
Or at least minimize the damage from, missile strikes. Current anti-ship missiles used shaped charge warheads to penetrate thick ship armor, and as they impact they produce a jet of ionized gas that cuts through steel like a hot knife through butter. While still highly classified and in testing stages, dynamic or electrically charged armor promises to help mitigate the damage of missile strikes. To protect a ship the armor is fitted with two thin shells of material separated by an insulator. The outer shell holds a huge electric charge, something that will not be a problem for Ford-class supercarriers, and the inner shell acts as a ground. When a missile strikes the armor and creates a superheated jet of conductive metal, it penetrates both shells and creates a bridge between them.
This causes the outer shell's electrical energy to discharge through the jet and disrupts it
Limiting the amount of damage it can do. While still in early testing over at the defense science and Technology Laboratory in England, the technology holds great promise and one day it is hoped it can be deployed on armored vehicles and even protect from traditional kinetic weapons- perhaps making science fiction shield technology something of a reality. Despite these technologies, though many still argue that the future of the aircraft carrier is not to go bigger and better, but rather, to go smaller. Much smaller. The loss of a single supercarrier will be a $15 billion economic hit for the US and mean almost as many casualties as in the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict combined. Supercarriers bring a lot of firepower to the table, but they are also big, slow, and very vulnerable to ever-more advanced anti-ship capabilities. So why not then, some defense insiders argue, go smaller rather than bigger?
Some argue that the future of the aircraft carrier will be a fleet of much smaller carriers with a capacity of 20-30 aircraft, as opposed to the 80+ which America's supercarriers can field today. Larger numbers of smaller carriers will mean that the loss of a single carrier will not represent as significant a hit to the naval capabilities of the American navy, and ensure that US airpower can remain in effect over contested shores. Today even if a carrier is not destroyed it can receive what is termed a 'mission kill', meaning that the carrier is no longer capable of launching and recovering its aircraft and cannot continue fighting.
A single volley of missiles may not knock out a supercarrier
But it could very well render it useless for the remainder of the war, and along with it a significant amount of perfectly functional air power. Dispersing that airpower over a fleet of smaller carriers however ensures that the majority of aircraft can continue with their mission if a single carrier is rendered a mission kill, and that carrier's own air wing can be reassigned and spread out across the rest of the fleet to continue the fight. In all likelihood though even these developments in carrier protocol and technology simply won't be enough to keep the carrier as a part of future naval operations.
Advancements in missile technology are rendering carriers far too vulnerable to risk near enemy shores, but those same advancements are also making the carrier obsolete much in the same way that they themselves made battleships obsolete a hundred years ago. Future missiles will have much-increased ranges and even greater accuracy, making the need for actual aircraft to deliver them obsolete. Instead of carriers, a future navy may consist of a fleet of robotic arsenal ships loaded to bear with dozens of varieties of missiles, allowing them to carry out the same missions an aircraft carrier currently undertakes at a fraction of the risk and a fraction of the cost. What do you think the future of aircraft carriers will be like? Let us know in the comments!