Has a battleship hit an aircraft carrier

More aircraft carriers on the world's oceans

Russia has a broken one, France has a functioning one, the US has many, and China would like to have many. We are talking about aircraft carriers - runways that weigh tens of thousands of tons and roam the oceans.

More and more nations are aspiring to join the floating air base club. Japan recently announced that it would convert its helicopter carriers so that fighter jets can also take off from their decks in the future. Turkey wants to follow suit and has bought carrier designs from Spain. The number of nations operating aircraft carriers would rise to a new high.

It was already more exclusive to the aircraft carrier club. As is so often the case in the maritime sector, the British were the first: the HMS Argus was supposed to help the Royal Navy win the First World War. It never came to that, the Argus was not completed until after the end of the war. The concept convinced the military, however; the USA, Japan and France followed suit and invested heavily in the new type of ship.

The new concept unfolded its horror on December 7, 1941. With the surprise attack by hundreds of aircraft on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which took off from six Japanese aircraft carriers, Japan forced the USA to enter World War II - and laid the foundation for its own defeat .

A few years later, jet jets took off from the ever larger decks; In 1961 the first nuclear powered carrier went into operation. But the heyday of the aircraft carrier was over by then: as many carriers as in World War II should never be on the oceans again.

Despite a military arms race in the Cold War, the number of aircraft carriers steadily declined. This was also due to the fact that the Soviet Union never built a large fleet of carriers - to this day, Russia's navy has only one carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov. The ship, which is often referred to as a scrap carrier, is currently in the shipyard for a general overhaul.

The USA remained. With eleven so-called supercarriers, they operate the largest fleet of aircraft carriers to date, plus nine amphibious helicopter carriers, from which vertical take-off aircraft (STOVL aircraft) can also take off if necessary.

Despite the decline in numbers, aircraft carriers have become an indispensable part of recent US politics. Whether it was in the Yugoslavia crisis in the 90s, in several Gulf Wars in the Persian Gulf or most recently in combat missions against the "Islamic State" in Syria or Iraq - the huge ships are always at the forefront. "When news of a crisis hits Washington, it is no coincidence that the first question that pops everyone's lips is 'Where is the nearest aircraft carrier?' "said President Bill Clinton in 1993 on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the symbols of American military power.

The phrase makes the ships attractive to this day - and not only in the eyes of the USA: After a short period of abstinence, the British are currently building their second aircraft carrier, India is currently planning its third carrier, and in addition to Japan and Turkey, South Korea is also considering converting one of its helicopter carriers into one Retrofit aircraft carriers.

China is arming

But one nation surpasses them almost all: China builds and plans as many aircraft carriers as otherwise only the United States. One reason for this is an almost forgotten military crisis in the 1990s. Chinese threats and missile tests against Taiwan prompted Washington to order two aircraft carrier groups into the region - the largest display of American military power in Asia since the Vietnam War.

The Chinese grudgingly had to admit that they would be vastly inferior to the United States in a conflict on their own doorstep. "The 1995/96 crisis forced the Chinese leadership to look facts in the eye, namely that they could do little or nothing to prevent the US from coming to the aid of Taiwan," explains Asia analyst Corte A. Cooper in several reports for the Rand Corportation think tank.

China's reaction was a massive investment offensive in its own armed forces - above all in the navy.

Only a short time later, a Chinese tourism company bought an unfinished Soviet aircraft carrier that was rusting away in a Ukrainian shipyard in order to turn it into a floating casino - as the Chinese buyers assured at the time. The gambling version was questioned when it was bought, and after almost two years of traveling the oceans and years of top-secret conversions, the Ukrainian junk carrier Varyag became the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.

Since then, Beijing has found a taste for the giant ships: By 2020, China plans to have at least two carriers fully operational. A third, even larger carrier, which should also be better equipped, is to follow. Experts believe a fleet of five to six Chinese carriers by 2030 is realistic.

The German naval expert Heinz Dieter Jopp said in an interview with STANDARD that there are solid strategic interests behind the Chinese armament at sea. "The thinking behind China's plans is as follows: The country's three major economic centers were all created on the coast. Therefore, it is perfectly logical to protect these economic areas against possible threats from the sea." It therefore makes perfect sense to develop a fleet that is capable of making it more difficult for the USA to use the South China Sea, "if not even impossible," says Jopp.

In part, this can also explain the urge of Asian nations to also build aircraft carriers. The recently announced conversion of a Japanese helicopter carrier into an aircraft carrier and the Indian plans for several aircraft carriers are ultimately only a reaction to the Chinese naval expansion. In the future, the Chinese side must "consider whether they can continue to appear as boyish as before".

Aircraft carriers - even small ones - are not cheap: The operating costs of a supercarrier alone devour millions per month - not including personnel costs. Carriers with a displacement of 75,000 tons are considered supercarriers. Such American carriers have a crew of up to 6,300 men. And that's just the running costs. The USS Ford, a ship of the latest generation, will cost around $ 13 billion to build. The costs do not yet include aircraft or armament on board.

However, the biggest chunk does not come up to a Navy until the porter is on duty. "There is a classic saying in the navy when it comes to aircraft carriers: 'Carrier eats fleet'", explains Jopp.

At first glance, aircraft carriers may seem imposing and frightening due to their sheer size, but once set to sea, the steel colossi are easy-found food for enemy naval forces. As a result, a large number of warships are required to protect the floating air force bases from attacks by submarines, other ships or enemy aircraft. American carrier combat groups consist on average of at least five warships, two hunting submarines and one supply ship - in peacetime mind you.

Prestige question

Not all navies can do this. The Royal Navy is currently planning to put two gigantic aircraft carriers into service; the largest ever built for the British Naval Forces. At the same time, however, the number of ships that could protect them has been falling for years. The first ship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is already going to sea. "However, with an interesting approach," says marine expert Jopp: "It does not yet have its own aircraft." The Royal Navy cannot yet say how many fighter jets it will have on board one day. Not surprisingly, the British armed forces are currently primarily occupied with plugging budget holes.

Tremendous costs, large personnel expenses and, despite falling military budgets, larger aircraft carriers - does that make sense? Not really, says Jopp, himself a long-time officer in the German Navy. And yet more and more smaller nations like South Korea, Turkey or Japan rely on carriers as part of their navy. For Jopp, such decisions are often more a question of prestige than military benefit. Politicians would often have Clinton's saying, "Where is our closest porter?" in the back of my mind. But: "Here I am of the opinion that this will no longer make sense in the future," says Jopp.

Ironically, in the carrier superpower USA, a rethink is starting. The origin for this lies in China, which is itself diligently building new girders. Shaped by the American demonstration of power in the 1990s, China has set itself the goal of keeping American sponsoring associations as far away from China's coasts as possible. The answer to this was, in addition to a larger navy, new long-range weapons that can capture and hit American aircraft carriers from the mainland. "As a result, this means that the American porters can no longer get as close to the coast as before," explains Jopp. As the range of the aircraft decreases at the same time, the whole concept is called into question.

In addition, through NATO maneuvers, the USA has long been aware of another weak point in its carrier groups. Conventional submarines from allies such as Germany, which are considered to be particularly quiet compared to nuclear-powered submarines, came dangerously close to American aircraft carriers in maneuvers.

Due to the skyrocketing costs of the latest generation of American aircraft carriers, the USA has also begun to unpack the pocket calculator: here an aircraft carrier costing 13 billion dollars, there a German, conventional submarine for around 200 to 400 million euros. "Something is changing a lot here, especially in the way the US Navy thinks, so that the question arises there as well, to what extent one will actually continue to rely on the carrier in the future," says Jopp.

The Americans have started to play through such scenarios in appropriate planning. And the question arises more and more often: Why an aircraft carrier? (Stefan Binder, January 21, 2019)