Floating airbases project power, but critics call them Cold War relics
ABOARD THE CHARLES DE GAULLE: Despite growing controversy about the cost and relevance of aircraft carriers, navies around the world are adding new ones to their inventories at a pace unseen since World War II.
The United States - with more carriers than all other nations combined - and established naval powers such as Britain, France and Russia are doing it. So are Brazil, India and China - which with Russia form the Bric group of emerging economic giants.
'The whole idea is about being able to project power,' said Rear-Admiral Philippe Coindreau, commander of the French navy task force that has led the air strikes on Libya since March 22.
'An aircraft carrier is perfectly suited to these kinds of conflicts, and this ship demonstrates it every day,' he said in an interview aboard the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, which has launched daily raids against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces since the international intervention in the Libyan conflict began on March 22.
The 42,000-ton nuclear-powered carrier has been joined in this task by another smaller ship, Italy's 14,000-ton Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The US Navy still operates 11 nuclear-powered carriers, mostly Nimitz-class vessels displacing up to 100,000 tons.
The floating fortresses became the backbone of US sea power after World War II, projecting military might around the world in crises and in conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Dr Lee Willett, head of the maritime studies programme at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based military think-tank, said the war in Libya illustrates the usefulness of carriers to other navies with more regional interests.
France and Italy, the Nato nations nearest the North African coast, chose to deploy their ships on operations although they have air force bases within easy reach, he noted.
'All around the world there are major and not-so-major navies now looking into getting into some form of sea-based airpower,' Dr Willett said. 'They may not want to be global powers but they certainly want to have some regional power-projection capability.'
The exact number of aircraft carriers in service worldwide is difficult to establish because of the proliferation of vessels that are classified as amphibious warfare ships, helicopter carriers, or even cruisers or destroyers, but which fit the classic definition of a carrier as a mobile airbase with a flat deck from which aircraft take off and land.
'At the end of the day, the popularity of carriers is due to the fact that these are very flexible platforms that can be used for a wide variety of tasks and not just warfare,' said Mr Nate Hughes, director of military analysis at the US-based think-tank Stratfor.
The US Navy is scheduled to induct the Gerald R. Ford, the lead ship of a new three-ship class of supercarriers, in 2015. Each is expected to cost about US$9 billion (S$11 billion).
Other Nato nations adding flat-tops to their fleets include Britain, already building two ships, and France, which is considering procuring a second nuclear-powered vessel. Spain and Italy have just inducted two new flat-tops.
China and India are both in the process of acquiring revamped Soviet-built carriers, and India is also building its first homegrown flat-top.
Russia will modernise its Admiral Kuznetsov carrier next year to extend its life until after 2030, and plans to acquire French Mistral-class ships.
But military experts have long debated the relevance of aircraft carriers, which some have dismissed as relics of the Cold War.
Some critics say the entire concept of the seagoing airbase is now antiquated. They contend that advances in anti-ship weapons have turned the carriers into white elephants that are just too expensive to risk losing in a war.
'These new technologies make it easier to target carriers from much greater distances,' said Dr Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow with the Washington-based Cato Institute.
'Those technologies are set to advance faster than the ability to defend against them, meaning that in a couple of decades the carrier business may not be viable any more.'