In less than three decades from 1910, the aircraft carrier rose to overcome centuries of naval tradition and be crowned the new ruler of the seas. Even today, the floating flight deck is the US Navy's heart. And as naval aviators reflect on their first century, it is worth considering the aircraft carrier's prospects for the second.

Every innovation in warfare is followed by a countermeasure. Stealth overtakes the radar; then radar is adapted to detect the first generation of stealth. But the aircraft carrier has been immune to this phenomenon. Able to fling fighters and bombers off its flight deck, it can stand off a great distance from its target. It is encircled by protective ships, both above and below the surface. These traits have ensured survivability, from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Taiwan Straits to the Persian Gulf.

US Navy aircraft carrier
 © US Navy

But since 1996, when two US carriers intervened in a stand-off with Taiwan, China has focused on forcing the carrier battle group far back into the Pacific Ocean. The arrival of China's first anti-ship ballistic missile and the Chengdu J-20 prototype signal that the carrier will never again have free access to the Taiwan Straits.

Still, the real threat to the carrier is a balance sheet, not a weapon. With a price tag of about $11-12 billion, the next generation of ships in development will strain the navy's ability to pay for vessels and the weapons that make them useful. No countermeasure has ever proven more effective than an empty treasury.

Source: Flight International