For how long can the United States count on its fleet of super carriers to continue as the cornerstone of the modern battle fleet? With the advent of a potentially serious threat to area denial, the carrier’s reign as queen-of-the-seas may be coming to an end.
Anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) got its real start during World War 2. The Kamikaze attacks against the American fleet off of the Philippines, late in the war, showed that the potential for damaging attacks is enough to modify your opponent’s tactics when it comes to using capital ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the escort carriers USS St. Lo, USS Sangamon, USS White Plains, USS Kalinin Bay, USS Kitkun Bay, USS Santee and USS Suwanee were all damaged by Kamikaze attacks. The attack on the St. Lo caused fires which reached a bomb magazine; the resulting explosion sank the carrier.
These early attacks caused an expansion of the Kamikaze program which before it ended attacked hundreds of allied ships, damaging many of them. Two additional escort carriers and fourteen destroyers were sunk by Kamikaze attacks during the war.
Although the attacks were of the “too little, too late” variety and could not stop the Allied forces from continuing the final stages of its campaign against Japan, the effects of the Kamikaze attacks had an oversized effect on the allied fleets. Defensive tactics and formations were modified to protect the carriers at all costs. The number of ships used as radar pickets was increased and fleets spread out. To prevent an attack on one carrier to be redirected toward another, as happened with the St. Lo, formations became wider and protecting the carrier became the most important aspect of naval tactics for the allies.
This mindset continued during the Cold War and is with us today.
American battle groups are designed so that the carrier, and to a lesser extent other surface ships and submarines, project power against the enemy. Ships in the battle group protect the carrier from attacks by air, surface or underwater weapons. Since the end of World War 2, no country has possessed the means to overwhelm this defense in an area the Navy intended to fight.
Even the Soviets would have had difficulties overwhelming the firepower of a CVBG (aircraft carrier battle group) unless the CVBG was making an attack against the Soviet Union. Since the United States had no overwhelming reason to do so, the possibility of the Soviets sinking a carrier were usually tied to that country’s submarine fleet or a nuclear exchange.
Littoral combat and the potential for conflict in and around the South China Sea, however, is changing the way the Navy thinks. The Chinese have been actively seeking a ballistic missile that could penetrate the defenses of a CVBG and target the carrier. With speed and countermeasures in place to suppress the defenses of the escorting ships, this weapon could destroy an American carrier. As opposed to the fighting at Leyte Gulf, where the Navy deployed eight fleet carriers, eight light carriers and 18 escort carriers, the Navy would be hard pressed to provide more than two or three carriers for any potential combat around the South China Sea.
These carriers would run the risk of damage and destruction on a near constant basis while operating within the area that their embarked airplanes could reach. In addition to the potential Chinese ballistic missile attacks, the PLAN is establishing airbases on many of the islands in the area. These bases would force the American fleet to allocate resources to nullifying them that they could ill afford.
The Chinese do not even have to fully develop their A2/AD weapons to effectively suppress the American fleet. The potential threat of losing a multi-billion dollar weapon system with a crew of over 5,000 sailors is a higher risk than most commanders would be able to bear.
Although tactics and strategies are constantly evolving, the one thing that has not changed since the end of World War 2 is the supremacy of the aircraft carrier. However, operating in restrictive waters against an enemy who can target and attack a carrier nullifies its worth in that environment.
This is the first of a series of articles dealing with the changing environment of naval combat.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.