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HomeDEFENCEIs it time to say good-bye to aircraft carriers?

Is it time to say good-bye to aircraft carriers?

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Aircraft carriers are owners pride, neighbor's envy.  On 14 April 2022 Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet —sank about 90 km off the Ukrainian coast after being hit by two relatively low-tech, shore-launched R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles.

Aircraft carriers are owners pride, neighbor’s envy.

On 14 April 2022 Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet —over two football fields in length—sank about 90 km off the Ukrainian coast after being hit by two relatively low-tech, shore-launched R-360 Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles.

Moskva was one of the most powerful warships to be lost in combat anywhere in the world over the past nearly 40 years and the largest Russian warship to be sunk since World War II.

The last such world news headline was created when Argentine Navy cruiser ARA General Belgrano was sunk by a Royal Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Conqueror during the Falklands War in 1982. Since then a number of virtually ‘unstoppable and invincible’ land, air, and sea-borne weapons and hypersonic missiles traveling at ten times faster than the speed of sound and with a range of over a thousand miles have been developed to make ship-killing seem like child’s play.  

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As expected, this sent shock waves all over the world because huge aircraft carriers like Moskva are always surrounded by a flotilla of smaller fighting ships, fighter jets, and submarines to protect them from all kinds of missiles, bombs, torpedoes, and cyber-attacks.

But apparently, none of this paraphernalia could save the three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar ship from going down to the bottom of the sea.

According to Forbes Ukraine, the sinking of Moskva is a big and irreparable loss for the Russian military in the war – one that would cost around US$750 million to replace. And if the Ukrainian claims are true, Moskva is the largest warship ever to be destroyed by a missile.

This was celebrated as a big achievement in Ukraine and the commander of Ukrainian naval forces, Rear Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa was promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral as a reward for sinking Moskva the pride of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

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The Cambridge dictionary describes an aircraft carrier as “a large ship that carries military aircraft and has a long, flat surface where they take off and land.”

Aircraft carriers are like floating islands that allow aircraft to take off and land anywhere in the ocean and launch precision attacks on sea-to-sea, sea-to-air, or sea-to-land targets.

As compared to other battleships, which can destroy targets — at the most thirty miles away, aircraft launched from aircraft carriers can act as force multipliers and accurately destroy enemy targets on land, air or sea — over one hundred miles away.  

During the Falklands War, the United Kingdom was able to win the war 13,000 km away from home largely because of the role played by the vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft on board HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. In addition to the above, helicopter gunships proved to be an asset for deploying troops and casualty evacuation. Recently, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan provided air support for counter-insurgency operations in Iraq.

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The history of cruiser-bound naval aviation dates back to the early 19th century when Aviator Eugene Ely landed and look off from USS Pennsylvania docked at the San Francisco harbour in 1910.  By virtue of this daring feat, Ely became the first man to land and take off from a ship and proved that it was possible to fly an aeroplane on-board a ship. But still, not many people saw this as the future for naval aviation and mainly considered this as an advanced reconnaissance tool.

During World War I, many navies tried to develop platforms that could launch fighter aircraft from heavy cruisers or battleships which had to ditch at sea after being launched.

The first real test of the usefulness of aircraft carriers in combat came during the World War II when the Japanese Imperial Army launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This dramatically demonstrated the lethal power of the aircraft carriers, which became the dominant combat vessel of war.

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Years later, during the Gulf War USS Independence and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower positioned themselves in the Gulf of Oman and Red Sea and facilitated the largest, and fastest strategic sealift in history in which over 240 ships carried more than 18.3 billion pounds of supplies and equipment to support Operation Desert Storm.

Once again during Operation Enduring Freedom aircrafts and helicopters carried on board USS Enterprise, USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Kitty Hawk and USS John C. Stennis Carrier demonstrated their might by attacking Taliban airfields, air defence positions, and al-Qaeda training bases.

Is the Queen of the Waves past its prime?

All in all, there is no denying the fact that aircraft carriers have played a crucial role in various combat operations over the past 100 odd years. However, their proven utility in the past does not necessarily does not make the aircraft carriers – the largest, most complex and most expensive of all warships find a place in the naval fleets in future.

This question is all the more relevant considering the advances in anti-ship technologies, ranging from drones to satellite reconnaissance to nuclear submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

As compared to the torpedoes and dive bombers in World War II, aircraft carriers today face many threats from a number of seen/unseen kamikaze drones, UAVs, submarines, supersonic, nuclear-tipped missiles as well as hypersonic and ballistic trajectories fired from beyond the visual range from land, air or sea.

Some analysts maintain that it is not easy to sink aircraft carriers which have sophisticated air defence and early warning systems to counter incoming threats and are always escorted by destroyers, frigates and corvettes and submarines. But this does not explain why INS Vikrant – armed with 40-millimetre Bofors anti-aircraft guns, and the capacity to field up to 23 aircraft was kept out of action in all the wars since the day it joined the Indian fleet in 1961 and eventually retired in 1997.

During Operation Vijay (for the annexation of Goa) INS Vikrant was asked to patrol along the coast of Goa to deter foreign interference with two destroyers, INS Rajput and INS Kirpan. The same story was repeated in 1965 when INS Vikrant did not go out to sea and was kept sitting in the Bombay Harbour. Again in 1971, India’s lone aircraft carrier INS Vikrant didn’t fly any aircraft and kept loitering along the relatively safer East coast because of ‘intelligence reports’ that Pakistan might deploy PNS Ghazi. Ghazi was considered to be a serious threat to INS Vikrant by the Indian Navy, which believed that Vikrant’s approximate position would be known by the Pakistanis once she started operating aircraft.

Similarly, the Royal Navy is understood to have kept its two carriers away from the area of operations because of the fear of reprisals by the Argentine air force during the Falkland war in 1982. Argentina too deliberately decided to hold back its aircraft carrier after the British submarines sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano.

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Neeraj Mahajan
Neeraj Mahajanhttps://n2erajmahajan.wordpress.com/
Neeraj Mahajan is a hard-core, creative and dynamic media professional with over 35 years of proven competence and 360 degree experience in print, electronic, web and mobile journalism. He is an eminent investigative journalist, out of the box thinker, and a hard-core reporter who is always hungry for facts. Neeraj has worked in all kinds of daily/weekly/broadsheet/tabloid newspapers, magazines and television channels like Star TV, BBC, Patriot, Sunday Observer, Sunday Mail, Network Magazine, Verdict, and Gfiles Magazine.


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