USNI Blog has an article about carrier losses in a peer war and suggests that we should be prepared to lose around half within the first year (1). The article goes on to suggest that we should be preparing to deal with replacement rates, environmental impact due to nuclear issues, and the impact of losses on subsequent combat operations. This article jibes with a commonly held belief among many that carriers are highly vulnerable – essentially sitting ducks waiting to be sunk.
The problem with this article is that it looks at historical data and then projects the results to a modern war (with
, obviously, though the article does not specifically
state that) without considering the circumstances of the historical data and
the likelihood (or not) of those circumstances repeating themselves in a modern
war with China . This is the
most cursory kind of analysis and leads, inevitably to incorrect conclusions. China
The data is what it is. The US Navy started WWII with 7 fleet carriers (I’m not counting
and lost 4 of them in the first year of the war. The article projects that loss rate to a
modern war. Is that a proper
analysis? Of course not! Let’s look at the circumstances surrounding
those WWII losses. Here are a few key
- Because of
Pearl Harbor, the started the war with no viable battle fleet and had ONLY carrier groups to fight the Japanese. US
- The Japanese were advancing rapidly across the Pacific. If we did not stop their advance, we would lose all our forward bases.
- Initially, Japanese battle fleet ships and carriers outnumbered Navy forces significantly.
Thus, due to circumstances, we had no choice but to try to stop the Japanese advance when and where we could and the only naval assets available were the carriers and our fleets would always be outnumbered. The carriers that we lost were expended stopping the Japanese advance at
Coral Sea and Midway.
How is this relevant? Our carriers were not lost at random. They didn’t just spontaneously sink. The Japanese didn’t methodically hunt them down and destroy them. Quite the opposite. We carefully husbanded our carriers and committed them to high risk, major battles as necessary to stop the Japanese advance. In other words, we knowingly and intentionally put them in situations where they were at great risk of being sunk. Of course, what they accomplished before sinking is legendary but that’s not the point of this post.
Unlike the expectation of so many carrier critics and unlike the implication in the USNI blog article, carriers don’t just spontaneously sink and an enemy has very little ability to find and attack a carrier that is not, itself, committed to battle. We had no unexpected carrier losses in WWII. If we had opted not to commit our carriers to high risk battles, we wouldn’t have lost any! Of course, we would have had a much harder time winning the war. Similarly, if we opt not to commit our carriers to a modern battle, we won’t lose any! But, is that any way to fight and win a war?
This gets back to circumstances. In WWII, we had no choice but to commit to high risk battles to stop the unchecked Japanese advance. Consider, now, the circumstances of a war with
. At least for
the foreseeable future, it is highly unlikely that the Chinese will attempt a
wholesale advance across the Pacific.
Thus, the pressing need to commit to high risk battles in a desperate
bid to stop an advance won’t exist. A
war with China is, in the foreseeable future, going to start at,
and be fought around, the periphery of the China South China Sea, a relatively contained and small region. There likely won’t be a need to commit to
desperate, high risk battles. Thus,
there likely won’t be high carrier attrition.
We’ll be in a much better position to pick and choose our battles as
opposed to WWII. The circumstances,
which the article chose not to consider, will be vastly different!
The one possible exception to this is the
scenario. I’ve stated that in
any war with Taiwan , China will be the first act. If the Taiwan commits to an immediate, and strategically unwise,
retaking of US then we may well be forced to commit carriers to a high risk battle. Taiwan
Another circumstance that would be different in a war with
than WWII is the initial number of carriers and
surface ships. Because of China Pearl Harbor, we started with a severe shortage of ships. Barring a modern Pearl Harbor, we will start a war with with twice the number of carriers and our full
surface fleet. This will allow us to
form proper carrier task forces (neglecting that each carrier will have a
vastly undersized air wing!) with robust AAW protection in the form of numerous
Aegis escorts. China
We see, then, that the circumstances are everything when it comes to carrier usage and potential losses. Carriers will sink only if and when we commit them to high risk combat. Thus, the article’s prediction of losing half our carrier force in the first year of combat is logically unfounded because it fails to account for circumstances.
Okay, so far I’ve criticized the article but I’ve got to be fair and note that it brings up some good points and raises some good questions. The article makes clear that carrier losses are inevitable unless the carriers are simply withheld from combat which would then lead to the obvious question, why did we bother building them? Thus, we have to accept the fact that losses will occur if we commit carriers to battle. That’s not a bad thing, assuming they accomplish suitably worthy tasks before they’re lost – it’s just part of the attrition of war. However, this, in turn, suggests that we ought to rethink the current cost of carriers. Do we really want to spend $14B+ on ships that can and will be lost in combat? Might it behoove us to simplify carrier design and construction and get that cost down to a level that we can afford to lose, however reluctantly?
The article also raises questions about our ability to replace lost carriers, the environmental impact of sunken nuclear ships, our plan for carrying on the war when don’t have as many carriers, etc.
As the article suggests, we need to be able to “quickly” replace lost carriers which means, again, that we need to simplify carrier design. Perhaps we ought to be building conventional, non-nuclear, “basic” carriers especially in light of the diminished air wing sizes. We certainly ought to begin qualifying at least one other shipyard to build carriers.
The article also suggests that we need to begin planning for how to continue combat operations when don’t have as many carriers as needed. We need to game out naval strategies that are not dependent on carriers.
In summary, although the article completely misses the most important factor in carrier losses – circumstances – it does raise important questions and issues that we need to address now.
(1)United States Naval Institute blog, “What Is Old Is Old Again - We Will Lose Carriers, and That’s OK”, CDRSalamander,
June 14, 2017,