Defense Focus: Carrier strategy -- Part 1

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  March 25, 2008 at 7:06 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 25 (UPI) -- No other navy has anything comparable to the dozen or so aircraft carrier battle groups that the U.S. Navy continuously operates around the world. Almost all of these carriers are powered by nuclear reactors enabling them to stay at sea and operational as long as is necessary. Each one carries a complement of 80 to 90 jet-powered combat aircraft, the best of their kind in the world.

Not a single other navy on Earth has anything comparable to this enormous and technologically magnificent strategic system of projecting U.S. air power around the world. Britain operates a small carrier and is planning to build two more. India is planning also to expand to a three aircraft carrier combat force. But both the British and Indian carriers will be far smaller than the U.S. ones and not remotely capable of carrying anything like the same complement of aircraft.

Russia currently has one aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, but as Russian naval analysts publicly admit, the last time it left port it shipped so much water it nearly sank and had to return to its home port in a hurry.

Russia is also currently virtually rebuilding another of its old Soviet-era aircraft carriers, the Admiral Gorshkov, to be operated by the Indian navy as part of its projected three carrier force, but the conversion work, at the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk, has been rife with problems, cost overruns and timetable delays. The problems cost the Sevmash managing director his job last year, and this year Russia has been forced to renegotiate the contract with New Delhi.

The Indians have opted to stick with the Admiral Gorshkov rather than, according to some reports, accept a U.S. offer of taking over the old non-nuclear U.S. aircraft carrier the USS Kitty Hawk. Clearly Russia, therefore, does not have the capability to build or reliably operate any kind of large aircraft carrier battle force to project its power around the world according to classic naval dominance theory.

The problems of building, maintaining and operating a significant aircraft carrier force are therefore clearly enormous and only the United States has currently mastered them on the grand strategic scale. France for many years operated the aircraft carrier Clemenceau, but it was beset throughout its life with major engine and other technical problems.

It is fair to say, therefore, that only Britain -- which has been a significant aircraft carrier power for 90 years and indeed invented the very concept at the end of World War I -- has even shown any ability so far to reliably operate far smaller, non-nuclear aircraft carriers on a reliable and ongoing basis.

The woes that the French and the Russians in particular have experienced with their aircraft carriers over the past quarter-century continue to have their impact on the strategic procurement decisions of major powers in the 21st century. Japan has so far shown no interest in building aircraft carriers to safeguard its crucial oil supply routes from the Middle East, even though Japan had one of the most impressive and brilliant records in building and operating aircraft carriers the world has ever seen during World War II. Only the U.S. Navy with a vastly larger force surpassed the operational capabilities of the aircraft carriers of Imperial Japan's Combined Fleet.

Aircraft carriers and their crews and aircraft are enormously expensive to operate. Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency, has famously claimed that the U.S. Army could pay for, equip and operate an entire combat division for the cost of operating a single U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle group.

What does the United States get for the scores of billions of dollars it costs to build, maintain and operate its aircraft carrier battle groups? A very great deal.

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Next: Projecting power with carrier battle groups

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