Nuclear supercarrier necessary to fight Somali pirates

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Feb. 25, 2009 at 9:57 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- The dispatch of the U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower to combat the pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden is an ideal role for the enormous 80,000-ton plus warship.

At first glance, deploying the Eisenhower may seem like using an enormous and extremely expensive hammer to crack open a nut. But it makes cost-effective sense in a lot of ways.

First, throughout the history of warfare, the ideal strategy has been to deploy and use overwhelming force to crush an enemy with zero or minimal risk of casualties to one's own side.

Second, the Somalia-based pirates who have been infesting the Gulf of Aden off the Horn of Africa use extremely fast speedboats in which they can easily outpace the fastest conventional warships such as frigates and destroyers that the Russian, Indian and Chinese navies already have dispatched to project their power, show the flag and protect their own shipping in those waters.

That means that any kind of conventional surface fleets can do no more than protect a limited number of vessels in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's most important waterways for the shipment of oil from the Middle East all around the world.

But the one weapons system those speedboats cannot outpace is aircraft. And that's where aircraft carrier battle groups come in.

Furthermore, no other country in the world deploys colossal aircraft carriers powered by nuclear reactors as the United States does. The gigantic flight deck of the Eisenhower, therefore, can launch a far larger number of aircraft than the much smaller carriers of nations like Britain, France and Spain can do.

This is especially important in protecting the shipping in the Gulf of Aden. For, unlike the far more circumscribed waters of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea or the Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Aden is an enormous expanse of ocean 7.5 million square miles in area. A handful of reconnaissance aircraft or patrolling combat planes from a much smaller carrier could not possibly cover that entire vastness and be deployed to be able to react within a few minutes to reports of any pirate attack.

By contrast, the combat aircraft of the Eisenhower will be sufficient in number to fly regular patrols far more often and intensively over the areas of maximum risk. Their deterrent effect on the pirates therefore will be correspondingly greater.

It is certainly true that U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups are enormously expensive to maintain and operate, but since they are operating anyway, the additional cost of deploying any of them in the Gulf of Aden region will be insignificant as they would be doing something else anyway.

And the operations of the Eisenhower will send an enormously potent message to the oil-producing nations of the Middle East and the major industrialized nations of the world: Even in times of economic crisis, no other armed force or navy in the world can do what the U.S. Navy can do in maintaining the security of the world's most vital oil export lanes. Fleets of diesel-electric submarines, such as China and India are developing, cannot protect oil tankers or other cargo ships from the depredations of modern pirates operating in fast speedboats. Nor can nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic missiles such as Russia, China, Britain and France all operate.

Only large aircraft carriers with the ability to remain on operational station for months at a time can fulfill that role and offer the level of protection that major industrialized nations desperately need in their insatiable hunger for oil. And only the U.S. Navy with its giant nuclear-powered supercarriers can still offer that kind of capability.

That makes them an excellent continuing strategic investment.

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(Part 3: The vulnerabilities of U.S. supercarriers)

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