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We need to carefully describe how we think about obsolescence. Military analysts often equates obsolescence with uselessness, especially while pursuing dollars for new gadgets, but the two words don’t mean the same thing. In every war, armies, navies, and air forces fight with old, even archaic equipment. Built for World War II, the A-26 Invader attack aircraft served in the Vietnam War. The USS New Jersey , declared obsolete at the end of World War II, fought off Korea, Vietnam, and Lebanon. The A-10 “Warthog,” thought by many to be obsolete before it even flew, continues to fight in America’s wars. For countries less well-endowed than the United States, the point hold even more strongly; all of the armies currently fighting in Syria and Libya use equipment that the U.S. considered obsolete decades ago.
The point is that even if the ships of the CVN-78 class cannot penetrate advanced A2/AD systems, they can still serve other useful purposes. Indeed, American carriers since 1945 have entirely earned their keep on these other missions, which include strike in permissive environments, displays of national power and commitment, and relief operations. “Obsolescence” for one kind of mission does not imply uselessness across the range of maritime military operations.
Carrier vs. A2/AD:
People have predicted the obsolescence of the aircraft carrier since the end of World War II. The Soviets developed an elaborate system of submarines, sensors, and aircraft designed to strike US aircraft carriers. The U.S. developed countermeasures, including the F-14 Tomcat , intended to defeat and distract the Soviet systems. As war never happened, we never had the opportunity to test the capabilities of a carrier air wing against a flight of Tu-22M “Backfire” bombers. The Soviets and the Americans worked hard against each other, countering each innovation with an ever-more-sophisticated reply. Each iteration led to a different constellation of power and vulnerability; the bombers had the upper hand at some points, and the carriers at others.
The next generation of A2/AD capabilities will have a similarly non-linear character. While Chinese missiles might have the range and terminal maneuverability to find U.S. carriers, missile defense and electronic counter-measures might make the missiles ineffective to the point of uselessness . Similar, improvements in anti-submarine technology could limit or eliminate the vulnerability that carriers face against undersea threats. Carriers that become “obsolete” may not stay that way.
The utility of a large, flat-decked ship comes primarily from the kinds of aircraft it can carry and launch. The aircraft carrier as a concept has survived, in no small part, because aircraft carriers are good for jobs other than penetrating tightly defended A2/AD systems. Indeed, no U.S. carrier since World War II has ever needed to directly challenge such a system. Instead (as noted above) aircraft carriers have found themselves jobs in a variety of other conditions.
The U.S. Navy has enjoyed the advantage of nearly unfettered access to enemy airspace over the past twenty-five years, and has structured its air wings accordingly. While the U.S. has been slower than many would have liked to adapt to the new array of anti-access threats , the development of fifth and sixth generation stealth aircraft, as well as the eventual procurement of long range, carrier-based strike zones, can help restore the usefulness of the CVN-78 class, even if anti-access weapons drive the carriers further out to sea.