Why Aircraft Carriers Are the Most Cost-Effective Way of Containing China's Military (excerpt)
(Source: Forbes; issued Sept 03, 2019)
By Loren Thompson
Deterring and/or defeating aggression by China’s military has become a top priority of U.S. defense strategy. Due to China’s geographical circumstances, Pentagon planners assume that any outward thrust of the People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force would occur in the east, presumably using maritime routes. So it is there that America and its allies intend to block aggression—starting at the first island chain off the eastern coast that includes Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.

The United States has diverse means for countering China’s military forces. Air Force assets based as far away as Guam could be brought to bear against a Chinese threat, as could Army units deployed to the island chain with long-range missiles, and various naval assets in the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Washington’s ideas about the best mix and application of friendly forces in the region are constantly evolving.

A persuasive case can be made that the most cost-effective tool for deterring or repulsing Chinese aggression is provided by the 11 large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet. Although there has been much speculation of late about how China’s investment in new military capabilities might compromise the survival of carriers in the Western Pacific, such thinking is not grounded in a rigorous analysis of the challenges associated with finding and engaging carriers. U.S. carriers are actually more survivable today than they were a generation ago, as I explained in a May 21 assessment for Forbes.

But being survivable and being cost-effective are two different things. To be cost-effective, a military solution must connect capabilities with affordability, which is what I propose to do below. Here are five reasons why large-deck, nuclear-powered carriers provide the most cost-effective tool for deterring and/or defeating China’s military forces if they thrust outward to the east.

Carriers cost less than 1% of the federal budget. Several years ago, retired Navy captain Henry Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security offered this assessment of what a carrier strike group costs to own and operate: “Factoring in the total life-cycle costs of an associated carrier air wing, five surface combatants and one attack submarine, plus the nearly 6,700 men and women to crew them, it costs about $6.5 million per day to operate each strike group.” That equates to $2.4 billion per year. If we multiply $2.4 billion by the 11 carriers current law requires the Navy to sustain—a calculation that greatly exaggerates the cost of operating a handful of carriers on any given day—we arrive at a total annual cost of $26 billion. That is less than 5% of the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget, and less than 1% of the overall federal budget. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full story, on the Forbes website.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of the above article overlooks several factors that demolish his argument about the cost-effectiveness of US carriers.

First of all, he ignores the fact that US carrier fighters – especially both Navy and Marine Corps variants of the F-35 - have short ranges, and require the carriers to come as close as possible to their intended targets before launching their fighters.

He also overlooks the fact that in recent years China has fortified the “first chain” of islands in the South China Sea, deploying military aircraft, air-defense missiles and anti-ship missiles on several of them.

Thirdly, he ignores that China has developed a family of ballistic missiles with ranges well in excess of 1,000 miles, such as the DF-26, specifically to attack US carriers.

All this boils down to the harsh fact that US Navy carriers could be knocked out well before coming sufficiently close to China to pose a threat.

Even if they weren’t all sunk or disabled, the comparatively few aircraft that surviving carriers could launch would have a hard time getting through the ring of island chain defenses to reach mainland targets.

It is clear that aircraft carrier groups, which the author says cost $26 billion a year just to operate, can be effective in some military situations, but they clearly present little danger to China, and so are totally ineffective to contain its military.)


prev next

Official reports See all