On July 22, 2017, after years of design, building, and testing the USS Gerald R. Ford, the US Navy’s latest supercarrier finally entered service. Aircraft carriers have formed the backbone of the U.S. Navy for decades, and the Ford is the most advanced vessel of this type to date. Yet despite the fanfare and patriotism surrounding the ship, its commissioning comes at an uncertain time. Naval combat has changed significantly since the first US aircraft carriers appeared, and recent advances by the likes of China and Russia have caused some to fear that carriers are becoming obsolete.

While it is important not to overreact, as this isn’t the first-time carriers have encountered new threats, the future does look dangerous for America’s carriers, and Washington must be prepared.

An evolving threat environment

When a crisis erupts anywhere in the world, one of the first questions U.S. leadership asks is, where are the carriers? The deployment of a carrier is a major show of force, a sign that the U.S. is prepared to act if needed. Though the presence of U.S. carriers is never welcome by adversaries, and weapons to counter them have always existed in some form, carrier strike groups have become very proficient at countering the traditional threats, like bombers, submarines, and surface vessels.

However, in recent years adversaries have acquired several new capabilities to counter a U.S. naval presence. One particular concern is the advances in missile technology and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, the former of which is commonly a significant part of the latter.

Among the most well-known examples are the Chinese DF-21D and DF-26 ballistic missiles, which have made headlines for their ability to threaten carriers beyond the effective range of their air wings, and for how difficult it is for ships to counter ballistic missile threats.

But these missiles are only the beginning of what seems to be a growing trend. Russia has several variants of supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, with hypersonic models like the Zircon poised to make their initial debut very soon. But missiles aren’t the only worry, a carrier’s power comes from its airwing and advances in air-defense systems such as the Russian S-400 and Chinese HQ-9 provide the capability to severely limit where US aircraft, even those with stealth technology, can fly.

Whether obsolescence is inevitable remains to be seen, but other implications exist

In all fairness, talk of the carrier’s obsolescence has been overblown. No weapon system is foolproof, and with the U.S. Navy’s sophisticated air and missile defense systems, only dense concentrations of these weapons would be true “no-go” zones for U.S. carriers. U.S. commanders have expressed confidence in the Navy's ability to counter new threats, and the USS Ford was designed with recent developments in mind. But the impact of these new capabilities is nonetheless significant, as they threaten the range and lethality advantages carriers have long enjoyed.

The ability of a carrier’s air wing to fly further than the range of guns or missiles and carry more firepower than even the largest surface ships is what brought about the carrier’s dominance.

The negation of these advantages stemming from A2/AD seems poised to take that dominance away. Furthermore, the inexpensive nature of these weapons calls into question the cost effectiveness of aircraft carriers, which have been criticized even before weapons like “carrier-killer” existed for their enormous price tags.

If carriers do end up obsolete, it will be gradual, not sudden. But the main takeaway from the current situation is not about how much longer the carrier has, but rather that warfare is headed in a new direction which will reshape the role of aircraft carriers; A2/AD capabilities do not mean the end of carriers in warfare, but rather the end of carrier centric warfare.

Warfare is changing, and so must the carrier’s role

This isn’t exclusive to carriers and is, in fact, part of a much larger shift in how war is fought. The book "Unrestricted Warfare," written by Chinese Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui explains that warfare is undergoing a transition from "Fighting the Fight that Fits One's Weapons" to "Making the Weapons to Fit the Fight." Military engagements are becoming less weapon centric, eras of military history no longer defined by a single type of weapon or piece of technology.

Rather, roles are being filled by a vast array of systems that exploit multiple dimensions of combat and merge various capabilities to accomplish a single mission. Similarly, America’s flat tops will have to take on an increasingly specialized role, becoming part of a more dynamic, flexible, and multi-pronged approach instead of forming the core around which other Naval assets are arranged.

This is partly because, when all is said and done, carriers do retain some advantages. They are really good at maintaining control of an area once it has been established. A carrier can control thousands of square miles of ocean at a time, effectively serving as an A2/AD platform of its own, in the enemy’s own backyard. It can also support ground forces, surface combatants, or other friendly aircraft. What changes in warfare have cost carriers is their ability to serve as the tip of the spear in military operations.

As such, the way that carriers fight and the tactics used by other vessels must evolve. In a conflict with an advanced adversary, submarines and surface combatants would likely be the day one naval asset, with the former stealthily moving in to launch cruise missiles at enemy missile and air defense batteries, and the latter using long range missiles to assist them in this role as well as engage enemy surface vessels and aircraft.

In this phase of the conflict, carriers would take a passive support oriented role, using their planes to provide air cover for the fleet and to target enemy vessels moving to intercept it, while staying just outside the main theater of combat. Once threats to the carrier are eliminated, submarines and surface assets would hand the lead role over to the carrier, which would use its air wing to protect the fleet from counterattack and to provide air cover for further military operations.

A new Navy for a new era of warfare, force structure, and procurement

This approach does present some challenges of course. With U.S. cruise and anti-ship missile technology lagging behind Russia’s and China’s, and no dedicated heavy surface combatants since the retirement of the Iowa Class Battleship (the Zumwalt class is the closest to this, but only two ships have been constructed), fighting in this way would prove difficult.

However, rearranging force structure and reallocating resources would allow the U.S. to fix this. U.S. submarines are state of the art, so if development and construction of these remains at the current pace it is highly unlikely they would be a bottleneck, though the U.S. does need to focus more on improving anti-submarine capabilities. The main concerns lie with surface warfare capabilities, missile capabilities, and how carrier development and construction is approached.

Ever since the dominance of the carrier began, surface combatants have only had ship-to-ship combat and shore bombardment as secondary roles. This is part of the reason the Iowa class battleships were decommissioned and then recommissioned so many times.

But that philosophy won’t cut it in an environment where surface combatants will need to take on leading roles in both combat and power projection. The U.S. needs to consider reviving the concept of a heavy surface combatant and modernizing it for the 21st century. Something akin to a Kirov class battlecruiser, or a modernized incarnation of the Iowa class battleship; a nuclear-powered capital ship armed with long range missiles and railguns, would be useful.

Of course, questions are bound to be asked about the practicality and survivability of this platform and whether they would be effective in combat. But such a class of vessels would offer several advantages. Their larger size and power generation would allow them to carry more and a larger variety of weapons.

They would also have more deck space for sophisticated air and missile defense systems, useful for encountering the increasingly sophisticated missile threats U.S. naval assets face.

Additionally, their larger size, and likely inclusion of armor, would also allow them to be more survivable in a multi threat environment by contributing to a layered defense approach, where air and missile defense systems protect them from most threats while armor allowed them to shrug off hits from small short-range weapons, or to take a hit and keep fighting if air and missile defenses were overwhelmed. These ships would be expensive, but building them in large numbers would not be necessary as they would work alongside carriers and smaller surface combatants.

But for this to be practical, advances in missile technology would need to be made. America should invest in hypersonic cruise missiles, ship-ship ballistic missiles, and deploying an anti-shipping variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile. These weapons would also have the side benefit of enhancing the lethality of current vessels. While anti-ship ballistic missiles, railguns, and heavy armor would be limited to large capital ships, hypersonic cruise missiles and ultra-long range anti-ship Tomahawks would enable clusters of smaller ships to be used in a similar capacity, either augmenting the capabilities of capital ships in major conflict, or reducing the need for them to smaller ones. The lethality of clusters of small ships launching long range missiles was demonstrated when the Russian Caspian Sea fleet bombarded ISIS targets in Syria.

Design philosophy and resource allocation for carriers in a modern navy

Paying for this would require a re-evaluation of fiscal priorities, downsizing and specialization of the carrier fleet are necessary. The U.S. has more supercarriers than it will need to fight even two or three wars simultaneously. Selling some to allies, many of whom lack carrier capability would raise revenue, reduce maintenance costs, and demonstrate U.S. commitment to the security of allies. The U.S. should maintain three or four supercarriers for big and fast conflicts, and between six and 10 fleet carrier sized vessels to either respond to smaller conflicts or augment the capabilities of larger carriers. These vessels could even be America or Wasp class amphibious assault ships modified to include a catapult, as they are of comparable size to World War II and early Cold War Aircraft carriers.

The U.S. also needs to develop longer range missiles for aircraft, and focus on extending the combat radius of carrier based aircraft. This would not only improve their ability to provide support and maintain control, but would also serve as a temporary fix while the navy initiates the year's long process to get these other programs fully developed, tested, and implemented.

Too much is at stake for inaction

America’s reliance on Naval power to protect global interests necessitates adaptation to current shifts in warfare. A blue water navy is indispensable for global dominance and power, as well as to enforce international law, protect the right of all nations to peacefully navigate the world’s oceans and to counter rising naval powers who do not share that vision. Naval combat has evolved, the way the next major war will be fought is going to be far different from anything seen previously.

But this does not have to be the end of America’s rule of the high seas. In fact, it can be a new beginning. If doctrine and technology make the necessary adjustments, the U.S. can adapt to these changes and use them to its advantage. Is the decline of the carrier a risk or an opportunity? That is in our hands.