Global Ethics Corner: Aircraft Carriers and Anti-Ship Missiles

Friday, August 27, 2010

Has a technology threshold changed the role of aircraft carriers?

Battleships ruled the world's oceans for centuries. Their mission was to extend and enforce a state's policies beyond its borders. Today that's called "force projection."


Pearl Harbor began a new age of force projection. Carriers replaced big guns, and have been the primary means of projecting American force around the world.

Iraq and Afghanistan again demonstrated the carrier's military prowess. Crucially, in any conflict across the Taiwan Strait, U.S. carriers have long been essential.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) technology from China challenges the carrier's role. One ASBM hit might neutralize these floating airfields packed with thousands of Americans.

Two arguments suggest that carriers remain effective. First, Ballistic Missile Defenses may be able to counter the threat. Second, while huge, carriers may still be difficult to find. Both pro-carrier arguments, however, have some technical limits.

Conversely, force projection might now be accomplished with less vulnerable assets like, submarine launched missiles, long-distance aircraft, or even drones.

Nevertheless, carriers remain political assets. Analogously, American troops were in Berlin during the Cold War mostly as a "trip-wire." An attack required a major U.S. response.

What do you think? Have carriers lost their place as core naval assets for projecting force? Does the carrier's symbolic role and massive armament still sustain its central mission? For instance, would you risk U.S. carriers in a conflict across the Taiwan Strait?

By William Vocke

For more information see:

Shih-yueh Yang & William C. Vocke, Jr., "Myths about Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles," submitted for publication. For more information, contact

U.S. Department of Defense, "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China (2010)," U.S. Department of Defense, August 18, 2010.

U.S. Department of Defense, "Nuclear Posture Review Report 2010," U.S. Department of Defense, April 7, 2010.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Walter M. Wayman

U.S. Navy
U.S. Military
Central Intelligence Agency
Max Smith
Charles McCain
Ra'ed Qutena
Daniel J. McLain/ U.S. Navy
R. W. Rynerson
Kyle D. Gahlau

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