As THE PREDOMINANT FORM of naval power, aircraft carriers are one of the clearest symbols of military strength on earth. Short of the atomic bomb, nothing signifies the power of a great nation like the possession of a fleet of aircraft carriers, able to control the oceans and project power across great distances. It was the transition from battleship to carrier warfare that helped shepherd in the era of U.S. naval supremacy, and the complexities involved in adopting the innovation have ensured U.S. naval superiority ever since. The United States currently possesses an overwhelming advantage in naval power fueled in large part by its dominance in carrier warfare. While the United States presently operates eleven fleet carriers, no other country operates more than one fleet carrier—and only one other country, Great Britain, operates more than one carrier of any kind. Only the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy, and the World War II era Imperial Japanese Navy have ever adopted the core organizational practices associated with carrier strike operations, the crux of carrier warfare. This is curious given the natural desire of states to protect their own security by building up their military forces with the best available technologies and practices. If the effective operation of aircraft carriers is a critical element of naval power, why haven't more countries adopted the innovation?
This chapter builds on work by Goldman and others on the development of carrier warfare during the interwar period and the early years of World War II, when carrier warfare matured. The chapter focuses on what happened next: the post-World War II gap between the diffusion of aircraft carrier technology and the diffusion of carrier warfare as an operational practice—the carrier strike operations almost simultaneously implemented as the core element of naval operations by the U.S. and Japanese navies after the Battle of Midway. One explanation for the nondiffusion of carrier warfare and the slow diffusion of carriers themselves involves geostrategic requirements: states simply have not needed carriers. Another possibility is that the failure of carrier warfare to diffuse in the post-World War II era lies somewhere between security requirements and the difficulties, financial and organizational, involved in adopting. The high financial and organizational requirements for adoption caused most naval powers to evaluate the costs and benefits of their naval strategy differently than they did in response to the naval innovations of the past, driving a larger proportion of states to drop out of the naval power game, bandwagon, or try to counter U.S. naval supremacy through alternative means.