The subtle context of aircraft carriers

I was surfing around today, trying to get a feel for the political climate, and found this Wall Street Journal editorial on the decline of the U.S. Navy’s power. The central claim, which is made by a fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute, is that the number of ships in the Navy has declined drastically and China is catching up. The answer, apparently, is to build more ships.

As I don’t know where Tom Clancy is, I’ll pinch hit this one, though his politics might prevent him from answering as bluntly as  I care to.

Let’s say China wanted to, say, invade and conquer Hawaii in a conventional war in the next year or two. Sounds doable, right? It’s not the continental United States, even. And China’s far more advanced than Imperial Japan, certainly…

Well, no. It’s a matter of logistics. And those logistics are why it’s perfectly acceptable for the Navy to operate with fewer ships.

If you want to possess land, you need troops. The troops have to be transported somehow. If overseas, you have your choice of plane or ship. Given the distance between mainland China and Hawaii, ship is the obvious choice, though plane is no better, as it will quickly become apparent.

All troopships are big and slow, and need escorts. The natural predator of shipping and transports is the nuclear attack submarine, of which the U.S. has many,  so you need ASW (antisubmarine warfare) ships. Also, if enemy ships get fairly close, you need anti-missile frigates to shoot down their missiles. This doesn’t even take into account an airstrike from a carrier by planes with long-range anti-ship missiles, which more or less requires that you have a carrier escort for any troopship.

So, long story short, in order to take large numbers of troops overseas these days without the U.S. Navy’s express permission,  you have to have a carrier group with a full complement of escorts.

Guess how many carrier groups China has.


Guess how many carrier groups the United States has.


Guess how many carrier groups all other countries in the world have, combined.

Eight. Seven of those belong to U.S. allies (Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Thailand, India, Brazil), and the eighth, the massive Admiral Kuznetsov that belongs to Russia and rarely gets out, is the only one of comparable size to American supercarriers (and by ‘massive’, I mean it is half the tonnage of an American carrier).

I would do the math, but I don’t want to insult my audience. The point, though, is that the kind of ships matter far more than the numbers.

The Chinese government certainly wants carriers and their generous side benefits. They have a bunch of retired ones, including a gutted Kuznetsov-class bought off of Russia, but nothing close to sea-worthy. As such, they can build all the smaller ships they want (they have a lot already). Without a carrier group, their ability to press any conventional war beyond, say, harassing Taiwan, is zilch. Carriers still rule the seas.

That’s why it’s so meaningful that a U.S. carrier group tends to cruise by Taiwan from time to time. This is a casual reminder from the U.S. Navy that China has no chance of taking it by force, despite the fact that the Taiwanese Strait is only a hundred miles wide. It might as well be a million – the chance of a troop transport getting across is no worse.

That’s how dominant U.S. naval power is. There can be piracy off the coast of Somalia, sure, mostly because the U.S. has demurred, wisely I think, on being Somalia’s Coast Guard.

I’m sure the Claremont Institute fellow that wrote that editorial knows all of this quite well. But, after all, this is a great time to press for more military funding, with the entire federal budget up for grabs in a deficit panic, and all these disturbing Arab revolts that have absolutely no effect on our naval power in the slightest. Still, without increased justification for defense spending, it ends up on an even keel (hey, a naval reference!) with domestic funding – like, say, I don’t know, education or other equally useless social programs.

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