A thought experiment in bureaucratic rivalries, foregone technologies, and alternative histories

Aircraft carriers are multi-billion dollar investments—in the case of USS Gerald Ford, some $12 billion. They take years to build—in the case of the French ship Charles de Gaulle, twelve years. They take a long time to repair—USS Eisenhower is just back from a two-year stay at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. And as the US Navy is remembering in its Optimized Fleet Response Plan, training their crews is difficult and costly. As Michael Horowitz wrote in The Diffusion of Military Power (Princeton University Press, 2010), they pose serious organizational challenges to any navy. So what if all these problems had been deemed too daunting back in the 1920s? What if the world had taken a collective pass on the aircraft carrier? The balance of bureaucratic and international rivalries would have produced alternative histories, and some intriguing military-technological trajectories.

The aircraft carrier is indeed a challenge—thus today, only Brazil, China, France, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United States operate fixed-wing aircraft from ships. Brazil’s membership in that club is tenuous, as its 55 year-old second-hand French carrier, the São Paolo (formerly the Foch), has been under almost continuous repair for the past fifteen years. Soon enough, the United Kingdom will operate a fixed-wing carrier again (HMS Queen Elizabeth); currently (with HMS Ocean) sits with Japan, South Korea, and Thailand as operating carriers, but only with rotary-wing aircraft. Operating helicopter carriers is challenging too, but the flight deck and hangar bay choreography is not on the same order of complexity.

Several countries have operated carriers and quit. Canada paid off HMCS Bonaventure in 1970. The Netherlands bought HMS Venerable in 1948, and operated her as the Karel Doorman, before selling her onto Argentina as ARA Veinticinco de Mayo in 1969. During the Falklands War in 1982, lurking British submarines chased her back into port. Aftewards, the Argentines hardly operated her, and effectively got out of the business, scrapping her in 1999. Australia sent the old HMAS Melbourne to a Chinese yard for scrapping in 1985. In the process, the Chinese Navy got to see her taken apart level by level (see Ian Storey and You Ji, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions: Seeking Truth from Rumors,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2004, p. 79).

In a big war, some carriers will indeed need repair. As Andrew Krepinevich of the CSBA wrote at length last year, operating any naval surface force in narrow seas invites attack. In the Mediterranean, from 1941 through 1943, this mostly kept the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina at arms’ length from one another. That’s one reason that Italy, Spain, and France don’t operate more than one or two carriers each. Around the periphery of the Mediterranean, the cost tradeoff just doesn’t merit a large investment in floating (and thus sinkable) airfields. The trouble is that increasing missile ranges are making all the oceans narrower.

So without carriers, what would have been different? Obviously, no Pearl Harbor raid. In his 1925 novel The Great Pacific War, Hector C. Bywater under-appreciated the future of airpower at sea. He suggested that the Japanese surprise attack would come from a floating bomb of a freighter against the Panama Canal, while the main force attacked the Philippines. (Think of his book as the last century’s Ghost Fleet.) An attack on Hawaii might only have been a submarine minelaying operation to block the channel. (That’s less Ghost Fleet.) The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Top Gun would have been Air Force movies. (That’s just harsh.) Over Vietnam, without Navy carriers on Yankee and Dixie Stations, the Air Force would have had to run the entire bombing campaign from Thailand and Guam—though perhaps without the benefit of the Navy’s investment in the Sidewinder missile.

Just possibly, though, the USAF would have been providing fighter cover out of Da Nang for the Navy’s battleships, as they fired 16-inch shells into Haiphong. This is not to suggest that battleships would have proven as effective as submarines and aircraft. As Robert L. O’Connell recounted in Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (Oxford University Press, 1991), only one American battleship (the West Virginia) ever sank an enemy battleship (the Yamashiro) in combat (at the Battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944). As in the Second World War, aircraft (land-based) and submarines would have still constituted the major threats at sea. But without sea-based aircraft, navies might have put more money into rocket-boosted, guided sub-caliber rounds and even railguns. Given the ongoing problems with these technologies, it’s not obvious that they would have worked, even with greater investment. But differential investment does explain why American artillery remains outranged by many adversaries’ cannons, and how the South Africans came to specialize in long-range guns. The former has abundant airpower, and the latter not. Why still do Russians like rockets so much? Because their Air Force is overmatched by NATO’s, so a GLONASS-guided Iskander is a surer way of hitting a target.

Surface ships would have gotten a partial pass in the open oceans, outside the range of land-based bombers—at least until the development of long-range radar-guided anti-ship missiles in the 1960s. That 1982 Falklands War would have been even more challenging for the Royal Navy. The fleet would still have traveled south—Admiral Woodward admitted in his memoir that he and the entire naval staff had badly under-appreciated Argentine airpower. But area air defense would have rested entirely on Sea Dart missiles, and without air cover from Sea Harriers, the whole affair might not have gone well. As it was, two of the seven Type 42 destroyers that went south were sunk, bagging only three Argentine aircraft in return. Their missiles, however, did force the attackers down to low altitude, where the fleet’s anti-aircraft cannons could do their work. Would navies have put more money into air defense research? Almost certainly. With profitable results? That’s yet another question.

For a chance at fending off those Mirages, airborne early warning would have been accomplished with radar-carrying helicopters—as from the Royal Navy’s carriers today—lingering within the missile envelopes of their destroyers. Eventually, we might guess, that mission would have gone unmanned—navies began experimenting with drone helicopters in the 1950s. Another alternative would have been flying picket boats, and accompanying seaplane tenders, again within the missile umbrellas of the surface ships. In the late 1940s, the US Marines seriously considered seaplanes as an alternative to the helicopter for increasing the range of amphibious assault. With a stern refueling connection from the fleet oiler, and a big crane for winching one aboard in an emergency, the concept might have been developed further than just the Martin Seamaster and the Beriev 200.

In 1986, the USAF would have run the entire raid on Libya, but the Navy might have agitated more for trying out its newfangled land-attack missile, the Tomahawk. In the United States, part of what held up that inter-service challenge was the intra-service resistance of the carrier admirals. The intervention of Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Clements was necessary to get the program going in the 1970s. If the angry aviators had all been wearing light blue, then perhaps the Navy would have put its mad money on cruise missiles. Would the Navy have considered bigger ones? Could they have been made reusable? Would clever contractors have devised crosslinks and auto-routing as an early form of drone swarming?

Regardless of how far the technology could have been pushed, most American punitive bombing expeditions over the past few decades would have been cruise missile barrages, rather like the Bush-Clinton raids of the 1990s. Sometimes those have refocused local potentates’ attention, but they have lacked sustainability. From the sea, that’s what fixed-wing carriers bring. When ISIS was threatening Baghdad last year, and the Iraqi government dawdled in approving American requests for local basing again, a single supercarrier ran the air war. Without American carriers comfortably offshore, Arab allies might have to decide on whether to face existential threats alone, or allow American forces ashore.

None is this to suggest that any other kind of surface ship would have been more survivable than carriers, but they’d still be necessary. Surface vessels are the infantry of a navy—they need air cover, and take the most casualties, but they’re also the arm that holds a position, without which military action is not about control, but merely denial. In peacetime, like the carriers, frigate fleets mostly go about their business unmolested. And with more, smaller ships, perhaps the US Navy would be spending more time policing what Ian Urbina of the New York Times has recently called “The Outlaw Oceans.”

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Graduate Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas. In the early 1990s, he served as a naval officer aboard a helicopter carrier.