Grand Delusions: The Psychology of Aircraft Carriers. (Global Notebook)

By Smith, Nick | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Grand Delusions: The Psychology of Aircraft Carriers. (Global Notebook)


Smith, Nick, Harvard International Review


Like the most recent crisis in the Taiwan Straits and the Gulf War in 1991, the bombing assault carried out by the United States against Taliban forces in October 2001 is likely to spark agitation among the elite nations of the developing world--agitation for the expansion or creation of aircraft carrier programs that will secure a place for these nations on the global strategic map.

Surpassed in importance only by nuclear and biochemical weapons, the aircraft carrier has ruled as queen of the seas and juggernaut of conventional weaponry since it dethroned the battleship on December 7, 1941. By sinking eight US battleships stationed at Pearl Harbor, the six aircraft carriers of Japan's Imperial Combined Fleet rudely awakened the world to a new reality in warfare and crowned the aircraft carrier as the single most coveted piece of military hardware.

The end of the Pacific War is most closely associated with the dawn of the nuclear age. Although membership in the "nuclear club" garners a nation status on the international ladder of power, aircraft carriers have proven to be a more attractive means of gaining prestige in the last quarter century. Weapons of mass destruction have become strategic deterrents; due to the principle of mutually assured destruction they are never actually used. Aircraft carriers, on the other hand, are inherently offensive weapons built as a projection of power into foreign waters. Furthermore, there is no Anti-Aircraft Carrier Treaty or any mention of aircraft carriers in subsequent disarmament treaties. Indeed, the stigma attached to the development of nuclear and biochemical weapons that has won india, Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea reprobation rather than respect has not tainted the ownership of aircraft carriers.

Thus, when film footage is broadcast worldwide showing US planes launched from aircraft carriers pounding military targets with guided missiles, government and military leaders are tempted to reach for their wallets and climb a rung on the ladder of international clout. According to a US State Department memorandum, the price associated with building an aircraft carrier is roughly equivalent to that of developing a "deterrent capable" nuclear arsenal. Visually prominent, relatively uncontroversial, and symbolically on par with the nuclear key to US hegemony, an aircraft carrier seems an attractive investment for developing nations trying to beat their competitors to the First World.

India and China in particular have worried the Indian Ocean region with suggestions of interest in acquiring aircraft carriers. For India, this move was originally motivated by the collapse of the Cold War power balance and the US demonstration of the power of carriers during the Gulf War. India's interest in acquiring an aircraft carrier was clear in 1999 when the Chief of Naval Staff spoke of introducing three new carriers, which would establish the Indian Navy as a 'bluewater Navy, with fleets in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean, on the same lines as the US Pacific, Atlantic, and Mediterranean fleets?' While discussions with Russia over the purchase of the Gorshkov have stalled, expansion beyond its current fleet of one carrier continues to be a goal of the Indian Navy. …

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