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Expensive, Massive, and Lethal: Exploring the Future of Aircraft Carriers

The importance of aircraft carriers in military history cannot be overstated.

In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the future USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is seen underway on its own power for the first time on April 8, 2017 in Newport News, Virginia. The first-of-class ship – the first new U.S. aircraft carrier design in 40 years will spend several days conducting builder’s sea trials, a comprehensive test of many of the ship’s key systems and technologies.

Aircraft carriers helped the United States win key naval battles in World War II, especially in the Pacific Theater. In the decades after World War II, aircraft carriers gave the United States the ability to project its military power across the globe. But advances in naval warfare could unseat the role of the aircraft carrier.

“If you want to operate aircraft carriers, you need a whole lot of high-end technology to be able to defend it,” said David Larter, a naval warfare reporter for Defense News. “It’s been the advancement in anti-ship cruise missiles that can be launched from land. It’s been advancements in cruise missiles launched from bombers or fighters that just pose an enormous threat.”

Aircraft carriers are expensive, and losing one to a drastically cheaper anti-ship missile would be an unmitigated disaster. The latest carrier in the Navy, part of what’s called the Ford class, costs $12.8 billion per ship, and that’s before the costs of aircraft flying off the deck, fixing new technology, and operating the carrier in the high seas for months at a time.