Why Navy Aircraft Carriers Might Be Unsinkable

Although U.S. aircraft carriers are protected by the most potent, multi-layered defensive shield ever conceived, they do not take chances when deployed near potential adversaries. Their operational tactics have evolved to minimize risk while still delivering the offensive punch that is their main reason for existing. For instance, a carrier will generally not operate in areas where mines might have been laid until the area has been thoroughly cleared. It will tend to stay in the open ocean rather than entering confined areas where approaching threats are hard to sort out from other local traffic. It will keep moving to complicate the targeting challenge for enemies. It will also use links to other joint assets from the seabed to low-earth orbit to achieve detailed situational awareness.

Large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are the signature expression of American military power. No other combat system available to U.S. warfighters comes close to delivering so much offensive punch for months at a time without requiring land bases near the action. As a result, the ten carriers in the current fleet are in continuous demand from regional commanders — so much so that extended overseas combat tours are becoming the norm. This Company Just Struck The Motherlode of “Magic Metal” Nobody really doubts the utility of large-deck carriers. There’s nothing else like them, and the United States is the only nation that operates a fleet big enough to keep three or more carriers continuously deployed at all times. However, two issues have come up over and over again since the Cold War ended that have led at least some observers to question why carriers are the centerpiece of America’s naval fleet. One concern is that they cost too much. The other is that they are vulnerable to attack.

The cost issue is a canard. It only costs a fraction of one-percent of the federal budget to build, operate and sustain all of the Navy’s carriers — and nobody has offered a credible alternative for accomplishing U.S. military objectives in their absence. Critics say carriers are more expensive than they seem because an accurate accounting would include the cost of their escort vessels, but the truth of the matter is that the Navy would need a lot more of those warships if it had to fight conflicts without carriers.

The vulnerability issue is harder to address because putting 5,000 sailors and six dozen high-performance aircraft on a $10 billion warship creates what military experts refer to as a very “lucrative” target. Taking one out would be a big achievement for America’s enemies, and a big setback for America’s military. However, the likelihood of any adversary actually achieving that without using nuclear weapons is pretty close to zero. It isn’t going to happen, and here are five big reasons why.

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Large-deck carriers are fast and resilient:

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