Though guiding such missiles onto a distant moving target is tricky, no navy will be keen on putting several billion dollars and thousands of sailors in peril. Carriers have become too big to fail. As a result, they will probably have to remain at least 1,000km away from shore, a distance that their warplanes cannot cross without refuelling. That could have grave implications for America’s ability to project power across the Pacific—and so for all its allies. Carriers will also have to be cocooned with destroyers and frigates, which will absorb most of the resources of smaller navies, like those of Britain and France.
Carriers are not entirely obsolete. Most wars will not be greatpower clashes. They will remain useful against foes which lack modern missile systems. Even in intense conflicts, warships will require air power to protect them from the predations of enemy ships and aircraft. As long as navies have surface ships, they will want to be able to fly planes above them.
But what sort of planes? Even as missiles force carriers farther offshore, the average combat range of their air wings has shrunk, from 2,240km in 1956 to around 1,000km today. (Modern munitions travel farther, but do not make up the difference.) The obvious remedy is to use drones that can fly longer, riskier missions than human pilots, allowing their host carriers to keep a safe distance away. But the Pentagon unwisely scrapped its programme for such a drone in 2016, replacing it with one that would merely refuel inhabited planes.
Aircraft-carriers, like the warplanes on them, belong to a class of large, vastly expensive weapons that military types call “exquisite”. A more homely approach to military technology is warranted. Smaller, cheaper and, where possible, unmanned systems could be procured in larger numbers, dispersed more widely and used more daringly. Such forces may lack the prestige of massive warships. But they are better adapted to a world in which the projection of military power is growing ever harder.