The Giants of the Navy Face Growing Risks ; as Defense Secretary Rethinks Shape of Military, Some Say Aircraft Carriers Will Become Increasingly Vulnerable

By Hey, Robert P. | The Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Giants of the Navy Face Growing Risks ; as Defense Secretary Rethinks Shape of Military, Some Say Aircraft Carriers Will Become Increasingly Vulnerable


Hey, Robert P., The Christian Science Monitor


They were the workhorses of World War II in the Pacific, with fighter planes roaring off their pitching decks to pummel Japanese ships and soldiers.

Ever since, aircraft carriers have been a worldwide mainstay of American military might, moving into position whenever American forces, or those loyal to the United States, have been threatened.

But now, serious questions are being raised about their vulnerability in the 21st century. Has the age of the carriers ended? Or are they now invulnerable to destruction?

The question about this one class of ships is a pivotal one for White House and Pentagon officials as they craft a long-term vision for America's armed forces. They want to maintain US superiority in the skies, but tight budgets will likely mean tough choices.

The gray giants remain an important platform for projecting US power to the far reaches of the globe.

But even by Washington standards, carriers don't come cheap. A new, improved flat-top would run about $6 billion.

Moreover, in an era of smart bombs and unmanned surveillance planes, an aircraft carrier in combat puts roughly 3,000 US men and women at risk.

Although they are vulnerable to detection and attack, carriers at present "are also the most difficult warships to detect and attack," says longtime defense consultant Norman Polmar, the author of a coming book on the ships. For now, potential enemies lack sophisticated systems to track or seriously attack them.

"The real debate isn't whether vulnerability will occur. It's when it will occur," says Loren Thompson, the main author of a study on carrier vulnerability, yet to be released, by the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

It's important that defense planners do their best to figure out the "when" of vulnerability as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tries to identify what the future shape of the military should be. Among other things, he's trying to decide whether more big carriers should be built, or smaller ones instead. Or whether some other types of weapons should be phased in soon to replace some existing carriers.

For many, it may seem hard to think of today's gargantuan carriers as vulnerable. Each is as long as three football fields, as high as a 20-floor building, and carries a crew of 3,000. Most weigh 100,000 tons, much of it armor.

Several US carriers were sunk in the early years of World War II, but they had far less armor and defensive protection. Today's carriers "are so huge, and so sophisticated, that the entire Japanese fleet couldn't have sunk one," Mr. …

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