Lessons from the battle of the Black Sea - Washington Examiner (2024)

The debate over the vulnerability of aircraft carriers has raged for decades, ever since their emergence in World War II as the ultimate naval warfighting platform.

“The aircraft carrier is vulnerable to gunfire, submarine attack, and air attack — and aircraft carriers have been sunk in this war by all three of these means,” Lt. Cmdr. John Collett wrote for the U.S. Naval Institute publicationProceedingsin 1942, while still arguing its inherent advantages made the aircraft carrier “the most formidable surface ship” of its day.

Lessons from the battle of the Black Sea - Washington Examiner (1)

“No other type of ship is in any way a match for an aircraft carrier,” Collett argued. “There is no excuse for an aircraft carrier being sunk. … In reality, then the aircraft carrier … is actually better protected than other types of ships in modern aero-sea warfare.”

Flash forward 80 years, and today’s American supercarrier, a floating air base often referred to by the Navy as “4 1/2 acres of sovereign U.S. territory,” is bristling with defenses beginning with its airwing of up to 85 planes and including an array of escort ships armed with defenses against missiles, drones, and torpedoes.

Lessons from the battle of the Black Sea - Washington Examiner (2)

In the modern era, U.S. aircraft carriers have ruled the seas with impunity. No other nation could challenge them. In fact, until recently, no other nation had more than one supercarrier.

China now has three and is building a fourth.

Russia only has one, the decrepitAdmiral Kuznetsov, which is in dry dock undergoing repairs and may never again be put to sea.

America has 11 and embarked on building a new class of mammoth carriers, beginning with theUSS Gerald R. Ford, with a price tag of $13 billion, which just completed its first real-world deployment in the Middle East.

But with the advent of maritime attack drones, hypersonic anti-ship missiles, and swarming aerial drones, some fear the golden age of the aircraft carrier may soon be over, and they point to the startling success Ukraine has had neutralizing Russia’s vaunted Black Sea Fleet.

“Look what’s happening in the Black Sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet, a third of it, is on the bottom of the Black Sea, drinking seawater as we would say in the business,” retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former supreme NATO commander, observed in a recent interviewon CNN. “Why? Not because Ukraine has a navy, they don’t. It’s because the Ukrainians have used both air and surface drones.”

Beginning with the April 2022 sinking of the cruiserMoskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, just seven weeks into the war, Ukraine has shocked and surprised the Russian navy by employing an array of homegrown maritime drones and cruise missiles, along with innovative tactics to sink or disable more than two dozen ships both at sea and in port.

According to the private intelligence firm Molfar, theMoskvawas en route to Odesa with the intention of spearheading an amphibious assault intended to capture the city.

In the past two years, Ukraine has managed to force Russia’s navy to keep a wide berth by making its Black Sea coastline a graveyard for warships.

“An analysis of the Russian fleet’s losses shows that strikes were delivered across a broad spectrum of naval forces. Both small and large ships performing various functions, from amphibious operations to patrolling, were destroyed,” Molfar said in ananalysisposted online. “The losses of large landing ships and frigates diminish the aggressor’s capability to conduct large-scale maritime operations, having long-term strategic consequences for the Russian fleet.”

While Ukraine is struggling against Russia’s numerically superior ground force, its victory at sea has thwarted Russia’s plans to blockade Ukraine’s grain shipments, its main economic lifeline.

Exports of grain are now approaching prewar levels as ships move through a sea corridor where Russian warships fear to tread.

“As the Black Sea increasingly becomes a no-go area for Putin’s Navy, Ukraine’s grain exports are increasing and helping to put their economy on a firmer war footing,” British Defense Minister Grant Shappsposted on X. “In recent months more grain has been exported than at any time since the outbreak of war.”

The fact that Ukraine, a country without a navy, could humble a supposed superpower’s naval fleet largely with drones that are basically remote-controlled, explosive-laden speedboats has not gone unnoticed at the Pentagon.

“We’re paying very close attention to all the ongoing conflicts, and we’re taking lessons learned from those,” Rear Adm. Fred Pyle, director of the Navy’s Surface Warfare Division, said at a recentforumat the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Pyle said U.S. warships, including aircraft carriers, employ a strategy known as defense in depth, which uses layers of various weapons in sequence to intercept missiles or drones long before they can reach their target, beginning with long-range interceptor missiles and then shorter-range missiles, and finally, as the last line of defense, 20 mm guns.

“The theory is that as that threat comes in, should one of those layers fail, you’ve got another layer there,” Pyle said.

In the Red Sea, where U.S. ships are targeted routinely by drones and cruise missiles fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen, the ship defenses have been 100% effective.

“We could not be more pleased with how they’re performing,” Pyle said, adding one caveat.

America’s ship defenses, he said, are “on the wrong side of the cost curve,” which could make them too expensive and, therefore, impractical on a large scale.

“You’re shooting $1 million missiles at $100,000 drones,” Pyle said. “We need to find a more cost-effective way of downing an inexpensive drone, absolutely, and we’re working towards that.”

“At the top of my list would be incorporating high-energy lasers into the defensive mix,” argued Stavridis, who, in addition to being a top commander, was captain of a destroyer during his naval career.

“Currently, defenders want to shoot at least two and preferably three defensive missiles at each incoming target. A guided-missile destroyer can carry just under 100, which could be depleted quickly in high-tempo combat,” Stavridis wrote in anopinion essayforBloomberg. “They also cost a fortune — $2 million each for the SM-2s fired by Aegis. Laser systems require no such projectiles — but there remain big challenges with getting sufficient power to the point of impact.”

Traditionalists have argued for years the threat against aircraft carriers from adversaries is overblown, noting that America’s aircraft carriers are hard to find at sea, much less target.

“The Western Pacific is a mighty big place. The only practical way to continuously track carrier movements in the Pacific is from orbit,” Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, wrote in anessay inForbesin 2020.

“Beijing would need over a hundred costly satellites in low earth orbit synchronized with long-range anti-ship weapons and an agile command system,” which Thompson argued China doesn’t have and won’t anytime soon.

“It hardly matters, since U.S. war plans call for preempting such systems before they can go into action. So don’t take all those stories about China’s carrier-killing missiles too seriously, because the missiles are useless if the target can’t be found,” Thompson added.

Yet, awargamesimulating a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan, developed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies last year and run over and over again two dozen times, yielded aconsistent result, with the United States typically losing two carriers and between 10 and 20 surface ships.


Stavridis, who has co-authoredtwo novels with Elliot Ackerman,2034and2054, imagining future wars in a world in which drone swarms and artificial intelligence dominate the battlefield, predicts that in a decade or two, these supersize and uber-expensive behemoths may become obsolete.

“So, the question then becomes, are the carriers still viable? I think they are for the moment, for the 10-year future, 15-year future,” Stavridis said on CNN. “Boy, you get much beyond that, and the capacity of massive swarms of drones accompanied by cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, all linked together by artificial intelligence, it will make those crown jewels of the fleet, our aircraft carriers, vulnerable.”

Lessons from the battle of the Black Sea - Washington Examiner (2024)
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