Carrier vs submarine naval power in the Indo-Pacific

Carrier vs submarine naval power in the Indo-Pacific


20 | 11 | 2023


The use of anti-ship missiles and the new anti-aircraft systems have led many to wonder about a possible obsolescence of the carrier. Is the submarine a better alternative?

In the image

Japanese Soryu class diesel-electric submarine [Jeffrey Jay Price, US Navy]

A Debate amongst the higher echelons of navies all over the world is whether or not to focus their efforts on the procurement of submarines or aircraft carriers. Recent technological developments have placed the fate of carriers at a crossroads not seen since the Second World War. The use of anti-ship missiles, hypersonic missile, and the new anti-aircraft systems currently in use by some countries around the world have led many to wonder about the feasibility of the carrier in the same manner that the battleship met its end at the hand of aviation during the Second World War. Many fear the rise of newer anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons systems. The fact that carriers have not been forced to engage enemies with highly sophisticated anti-air or anti-ship capabilities has heightened the concerns. The massive economic costs of these ships mean that many countries can only focus on operating one of the two, not both.

The submarine, due to its stealth advantage and relatively cheaper cost compared to aircraft carriers has been seen by many as a far better alternative to the expensive and “vulnerable” aircraft carriers. With both China and India (to some extent) intensifying their naval power, the US Navy, the most powerful naval force in the world is facing the dilemma of whether they should focus their budget on the procurement of the newer Gerald Ford Class carriers or new submarines. In this article, we will demonstrate why the carrier is still a relevant force in modern naval warfare, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

Aircraft Carriers

During the first half of the twentieth century the first aircraft carriers were cruisers and battleships capable of launching seaplanes to scout and relay accurate fire from the ships during engagements. However, the first aircraft carriers as conceived today appeared during the First World War with the British pioneering the concept, but arguably it can be said that it was the United States and Japan along with Britain who took the concept to its full potential during the Second World War. Both the US and Japan would soon become engaged in carrier vs carrier naval battles, most famously Coral Sea, Midway, Santa Cruz and Philippines Sea. US naval aviation proved to be effective and a critical asset in providing air support for US Army and Marine units island hopping in the Pacific and escort carriers assisted in hunting down submarines in the Atlantic.

Carriers played critical roles during the Cold War. The Korean War saw US carriers once more called upon to provide air support for US and UN forces and proved critical during the fighting withdrawal on the Chosin Reservoir. During the Korean War, the propeller planes of the 1940s, particularly the F4U Corsair were replaced with jet-powered planes in the latter stages of the conflict. During the Cold War, carriers were used by the US in Vietnam, Libya/Lebanon, and the Iran-Iraq War, the British in the Suez and Falklands Wars, and India in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. However, they were also capable of serving as a deterrent and a diplomatic tool during times of tension.

After the end of the Cold War, US carriers played a critical role during the Gulf War of 1990-1991, during which US-led coalition airstrikes decimated Iraqi ground forces and Command and Control centers. During the Global War on Terror after 2001, aircraft carriers played a critical role in providing air support and crippling enemy forces during both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They also later joined the massive NATO-led air campaign against Libya in 2011 that deposed Ghaddafi.

Currently, only the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Italy, Russia, Japan, Turkey, and Spain have aircraft carriers capable of operating fixed-winged aircraft, with some of those same countries operating helicopter carriers, used as transport ships to transport large numbers of soldiers and equipment into far away theaters. [1] [2]

At the time of writing, aircraft carriers use either nuclear powered engines (such as those of the US Navy and France) or the diesel powered carriers used by all nations who possess aircraft carriers. The largest aircraft carriers use nuclear energy, allowing them a longer lifespan compared to their diesel counterparts as seen by the career of the US Nimitz class carriers, with the first of her kind, the USS Nimitz, expected to retire in 2025.

One of the many ways the aircraft carriers are subclassified based on their flight operation systems: Catapult-assisted take-off barrier-arrested recovery (CATOBAR), Short take-off barrier-arrested recovery (STOBAR), Short take-off vertical landing (STOVL), and helicopter carrier.

Another subclassification is the nature of the flight deck. The largest of carriers make use of the Angled flight deck, which was conceived initially by the British and was quickly picked up by the Americans. This system adds a second flight deck to the carrier, allowing the simultaneous launch and landing of aircraft. This was a substantial improvement over the carriers of the 1940s that could only launch or recover planes at the moment, not both.

The aircraft carrier offers the ability to project air power far from home and in areas where there are no airfields from where to operate. The presence of a carrier and its air wings serve as a deterrent to adversaries and as such, carriers are the first choice to deploy to conflict zones as first responders. This also provides navies with the ability to launch airstrikes in places where ground-based aircraft such as those of the US Air Force find it impossible to hit without requiring herculean logistic efforts as demonstrated during the Falklands War. Another example was Operation El Dorado Canyon, where US carriers launched airstrikes against Libyan targets. While the US Air Force contributed to the operation, they were forced due to political reasons to use bases farther away in Britain instead of those in Spain, France or Italy and were unable to fly above said airspaces, forcing them to fly around said nations, while being refueled in midair by several tanker planes. A problem not faced by Navy carriers who were stationed off the coast of the target area.

There are some limitations and disadvantages, however. The first one is carriers are meant as floating airfields and therefore lack the ability to fight against surface ships in the way destroyers are capable of fighting, and while this forces carriers to operate in groups normally consisting of destroyers and other surface vessels to protect them from attack. [3] The greatest risks to the carriers would be cruise missiles, torpedoes, ballistic missiles, and mines.

Another problem is the issue of training the airmen who will be operating out of the carriers, which includes landing on a short, moving runway, at high speed in case the arresting cable fails to stop the plane and the pilot needs to try to land again. [4] Carriers are also amongst the most dangerous places to be, particularly the flight deck or hangar if an accident happens, such as planes crashing after misjudging their approach or ordnance misfiring.


The rise of the submarine can be traced as far back as the American Civil War with the Confederate Navy carrying out the first submarine attack in history. However, large-scale submarine warfare was used extensively by the German U-boats during both World Wars to inflict losses on allied merchant trade and supply lines. The US unleashed submarines to cripple the Japanese during the war, achieving spectacular success. Submarines were also responsible for sinking a handful of aircraft carriers during the war. [5]Following 1945, submarine technology continued to improve with both the US and the USSR investing in the creation of powerful submarines.

The nuclear-powered submarines that came into power in The 1950s brought into the fray the capacity to operate undersea for longer periods. While diesel-powered submarines can spend only a few days underwater before needing to surface to recharge their batteries, nuclear-powered submarines can spend weeks below the surface. The US took the lead by launching the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine in 1954. Submarines became an effective tool in the game of deterrence as they became an integral part of both the US and USSR’s Nuclear Triads. [6]

However, few submarines have seen actual combat since the end of the Second World War, with the Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor sinking the Indian Navy destroyer INS Khukri in 1971 and the HMS Conqueror sinking the ARA General Belgrano in 1982. Despite that, Submarines have continued to be a critical aspect in the security of several nations, particularly attacks submarines. [7]

The countries that have and continue to field submarines are much greater than countries that have carriers. There are currently two types of submarines used by nations classified by the fuel they use, diesel and nuclear powered. These are also classified based on their missions, Fleet Ballistic Missiles, Guided Missiles, and Attack submarines. [8]

Most countries use diesel-powered submarines as they are cheaper to use and tend to focus on attacking enemy ships, stalking them quietly before attacking them. Diessel-powered ships are mostly used by countries that lack the ability and capability to possess nuclear submarines. All submarines currently fielded by the US Navy use nuclear-powered engines as they make them quieter and harder to be picked up by sonar.

Submarines are capable of surveillance duties as demonstrated several times in history, for example, US submarines stalked Japanese ships heading to attack US forces in the Marianas and the Philippines.

Submarines have some advantages over carriers. They are stealthier and harder to detect than surface vessels and can sneak into areas not normally accessible to surface vessels such as enemy ports. Another advantage is their ability to conduct reconnaissance and gather information, a job they exceeded during the Cold War and has been by North Korea in recent years to infiltrate spies in South Korea. [9]

Another advantage is that they can stalk their enemies quietly, without being detected. This allows them to attack enemy ships without being seen. In the case of the Ballistic Missile Submarines, they are essentially moving launchpads of WMDs, and as such a hard to find target. [10]

Submarines have certain disadvantages, first, they need maintenance at greater amounts than other ships and need more specialized equipment to operate underwater, equipment normally not needed for other ships such as destroyers or carriers. Submarines need all this specialized equipment since they operate in environments that pose greater hazards to their crews if operated incorrectly or under poor maintenance. Examples include the losses of both USS Thresher and USS Scorpion, two American nuclear-powered submarines that sank with complete hull loss and all onboard killed. A similar fate suffered by the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan, lost near the Falklands with all hands onboard.

Training is another factor, the training for submariners is very different to that of other personnel in other parts of naval service and requires vastly different requirements than those of other vessels. This is why they are considered the most elite service in the Navy, and only those fit for the task are selected. This was one of the reasons why, until recently women were finally allowed to serve aboard US Navy submarines.

Another disadvantage of submarines is the many Anti-Submarine Warfare Systems (ASWS) that have been developed over the years, including sonar to track the submarines and specialized weapons and tactics to hunt them down. The Second World War saw both advances in land-based bombers and carrier-based aircraft capable of hunting down German submarines.

The issue of supplies is another problem, as submarines are only capable of carrying a limited number of supplies and weapons, meaning that sailors aboard live in cramped conditions and fresh food is only available in the initial stages of the voyage.  Submarines also face trouble regarding resupply, since they are operating alone, far from their home ports, reducing the chance of resupply from friendly forces.


Comparison between aircraft carriers and submarines

Both the aircraft carrier and the submarine were built for different roles to play in combat, the aircraft carrier is more suited to force projection missions, while submarines are meant to play the role of silent hunters. The submarine is more limited by the weapons and tasks it can carry out. The submarine might be effective to prevent an adversary from leaving port for fear of attack as was demonstrated during the Falklands War[11] or to interdict enemy supply lines, as was in the Second World War. Carriers can cover a variety of missions and can operate in environments where land-based aircraft can’t operate as seen during Dorado Canyon and the Iraq War.

Regarding cost, both are incredibly expensive pieces of equipment that require a great degree of maintenance and expertise to operate. And few countries can justify the cost of operating both types of ships in large numbers.

The main advantage of the submarine is the ability to operate separately from other forces, unlike carriers, who must be escorted by other ships to protect them from attack. But while this makes carriers a greater target, it gives carriers the protection submarines lack. Carrier groups, particularly those of the US Navy are heavily defended and will be very hard for aircraft, missiles, or submarines to get close. This was the case during the US naval action in the Gulf of Sidra of 1986 and the Gulf War, where missiles, planes and ships were picked up on radar way before they could get close to US ships.

The two kinds of ships are hard to find, an adversary will be forced to locate, via radar, sonar or by visual contact, an enemy in a large expanse of water and who will have moved to another location upon realizing they have been located.

Resupply is another issue; submarines can be resupplied at sea only by a resupply ship or another submarine and are hampered by the availability of such ships. Aircraft carriers on the other hand can be resupplied by air, with helicopters and planes carrying supplies to the ship, therefore expanding their time at sea.

Here is where things defer. Even if found, the opposing side will have to try to penetrate the defenses of the carrier group, which is prepared to deal with a variety of threats, including planes, ships, and missiles. The submarine, on the other hand, has less luck, as any kind of significant damage below water would prove fatal.

Advantages of the carrier and the submarine in the Indo-Pacific

The aircraft carrier and the submarine will play a critical role in the Pacific as both the US and China continue to build up their naval forces with the construction of new submarines and carriers, with the United States has launched the new Gerald Ford class carriers in 2017, which will gradually start to replace the aging Nimitz class carriers. The US, despite the concerns regarding the survivability of the carrier by some observers, has continued to press on in their development with three new Gerald Ford class ships on order.

Most players in the Indo-Pacific have submarines and some helicopter carriers. A handful of the main players have full-fledged aircraft carriers. But each has decided to use their resources in different ways. India has emerged as a secondary naval power in the Indo-Pacific. With its security concerns centered around Pakistan and to some extent China, the Indian Navy has greatly modernized and expanded in recent years. Its efforts have been focused on developing submarines with almost sixteen submarines of three different classes.However, it also has two aircraft carriers, making India the third country in the Indo-Pacific to have them. They are all diesel-powered submarines, and as such, lack the effectiveness of nuclear-powered submarines.

Meanwhile, South Korea has eighteen diesel engine submarines and no conventional aircraft carriers, though they have two helicopter carriers in the shape of the Dokdo Class. Japan has also started expanding their naval power, particularly to the threats posed by China and North Korea. The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) has four helicopter carriers in the shape of the Izumo Hyuga classes. However, Japan also has twenty two diesel powered submarines.

Australia has become a major focus of the issue, particularly after AUKUS trilateral cooperation with the United Kingdom and the United States. Currently the Royal Australian Navy has six submarines, all belong to the domestically produced Collins class. Australia also has two Amphibious Assault Ships, of the Canberra Class.

Taiwan, the main target of China’s efforts has a limited naval force with which to counter its aggressive neighbor. Taiwan has four submarines, two of which are Second World War era submarines that were transferred by the US after the war. The other two were built by the Netherlands in the 1980s. In September 2023 Taiwan launched its first indigenously-produced submarine.

The rising naval power in the Indo-Pacific is without a doubt China, as they have invested like no other Asian nation in their naval forces. China currently has three aircraft carriers, all diesel-powered and two of them based on the Soviet Kuznetsov class. The third carrier is of the new Fujian class. The People’s Liberation Navy has a massive submarine force, in both Attack and Ballistic Missile submarines. The Ballistic Missile and Attack submarines are made up of a mix of diesel-powered and nuclear-powered submarines. In total China has a total of seventy two. China also has three Amphibious Assault Ships that fit the classification of helicopter carriers in the Yushen class.

The United States has fielded the most powerful navy in the world since the Second World War. The US Navyhas at this moment eleven aircraft carriers, ten of the Nimitz and one of the Gerald Ford classes with four more under construction or being planned. The US also has sixty-eight submarines of the three categories mentioned.

The increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific and ongoing conflicts around the world will mean that naval powers will be forced to look into a bigger picture, and therefore to prepare to deal with different threats. Countries like China and Japan have rapidly started expanding their submarine forces, while the US prepares to acquire new submarines and carriers. The move is not only limited to the US and the naval powers of the Pacific as was demonstrated in 2021 when the United Kingdom’s HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed into the Indo-Pacific.

In the ongoing tensions in the region, carriers will prove to be a critical tool, not only for military purposes but also as a power projection tool. The carrier can be used as a tool to deter adversaries and provide a greater array of responses to crises such as wars or humanitarian catastrophes.

Submarines can do, via stealth some missions carriers cannot carry, such as intelligence gathering missions as has been demonstrated by North Korea and to a lesser extent Pakistan’s case regarding the PNS Hangor’schance encounter in 1971.


In conclusion, we can say that both ships are built for different missions, yet they both play critical roles in security and international relations. Despite concerns regarding the aircraft carrier’s vulnerabilities due to the rise of newer weapons and their expensive costs, they remain a critical element in responding to crisis and projecting power and continue to be seen by many rising powers as a critical piece of hard power. Submarines have also been a popular choice amongst those same powers. The choice that any country makes between the two will depend on their budgets, strategies, adversaries, risk assessment, economic limitations, and views of the role their navies will play in world events, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

[1] Fixed wing aircraft are aircraft are aircraft capable of flying using wings that generate lift.

[2] Helicopter carriers are unable to carry combat aircraft other than helicopters.

[3] In naval terminology, Destroyers are fast maneuverable ships meant to escort larger ships.

[4] Aircraft landing on carriers attempt to catch an arresting cable with a tail hook behind the plane, which will stop the plane.

[5] Among them include Shinano, Shokaku, Taiho, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Courageous, HMS Eagle, USS Yorktown, and USS Block Island.

[6] The nuclear triad is three-pronged force structure of deployment of nuclear weapons by way of land based missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers.

[7] Another example is the sinking of ROKS Cheonan

[8] Classification used by the US Navy; Fast Attack submarines are meant to seek and destroy enemy vessels, Ballistic Missile Submarines are capable of launching ballistic missiles, Guided Misslie submarines have a wider range of abilities, including supporting Special Operations Forces and stealthier capabilities.

[9] The 1996 Gangneung Incident and the 1998 Sokcho Incident.

[10] WMD: Weapon of Mass Destruction.

[11] Came as a result of the controversial sinking of the ARA General Belgrano.