It was just about 30 years ago that "Top Gun" introduced the world to the F-14 Tomcat and to a lesser extent, carrier operations. The movie helped boost Navy recruiting efforts and even if people weren't inclined to join the military, they still enjoyed watching Maverick and Goose flying their Tomcat. Even today, "Top Gun" is the movie most people when they think of aircraft carriers.
But they thrilling shots of F-14s being shot off of the flight deck or catching the cables during landing masked a secret. Even before the first roll of film was ever shot for "Top Gun", the dominance of the carrier based fleet had been disproven just a few years before.
The Falklands War was the result of Argentina invading colony of the United Kingdom (unless you war from Argentina, then it was about the British invading your island). Pretty much it is a forgotten war, not well remembered even by those who were around to remember it.
The Falklands War was at the height of PM Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan's time and efforts to shape a world to oppose the Soviet Union. The Falklands may have been an obscure colony even to many British people but there was no way the "Iron Lady" was going to back down. She sent a fleet of Royal Navy ships (which had to be hastily assembled since the Royal Navy had been drawing down ever since WWII) and sent 3,000 miles to defend the British flag.
Everyone pretty much assumed the Royal Navy and Royal Marines would mop the floor with Argentinian military but the Argentinians put a great fight and had an ace pup their sleeve. For the UK, much like the US Navy, based power projection on large carrier-based groups. And that's just what the Argentinians had planned for.
Argentina had purchased the Exocet anti-shipping missile. The Exocet made use of a revolutionary tactic of surface-skimming technology to flying low, just over the waves making it virtually invisible to the technology of the early 80s. The Harrier jump-jets did not have any capability to track or shoot-down the Exocets.
Fortunately, the Argentinians lacked enough of the Exocets and experience in using them in combat to take out the British carrier. But notice had been served to all navies with carriers, even a small nation could defeat the mighty carrier battle group.
While the Falklands War may not be well remember, the lesson of the Exocet has not been forgotten. Iran, China and Russia have all developed anti-shipping missiles that are more than capable than the Exocet of 1982. These new missiles can strike well beyond the range of any of the carrier's weapon systems (including their jet fighters). The Center for New American Security just released a study calling attention to this development and condemning the US Navy's continued reliance on aircraft carriers.
If the pre-eminence of the carrier was challenged some 34 years ago, then why does the US Navy still build them? The same question was asked almost 100 years ago by Billy Mitchell. BG Mitchell is considered by the USAF to be the father of the Air Force and was a distinguished aviator during World War I. He was also court-martialed for treason for questioning the US Navy's then love for battleships and had the temerity to prove his point by first blowing-up the USS Indiana (an old battleship) and the German Ostfriesland (WWI battleship) with aircraft!
This was radical thinking as the US Navy at the time was convinced that dreadnoughts were the future of naval warfare, not the carriers which Mitchell was a proponent of (airpower was in its infancy and no one believe aircraft carriers would ever replace battleships). Billy Mitchell proved the ability of bombers to take out even the most heavily armored ships of the era. He also proved that that Pacific Fleet was in great danger by being parked conveniently in Pearl Harbor. For all of his genius and foresight, he was court-martialed and permanently reduced from brigadier to full-colonel.
Despite the overwhelming proof he produced, the US Navy continued to build battleships and focus their strategy as though naval warfare had remained the same since the time of the Spanish Armada. Then on Dec 7, 1941 the Japanese attack the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor exactly the way Billy Mitchell predicted 20 years earlier.
Ever since, the US Navy has focused all of their attention on aircraft carriers. To be fair, the modern aircraft carrier does represent the ultimate in "power projection". But is also a huge, slow moving target that has just been waiting for technology to catch up to it. In 2000, the USS Cole was taken out by a very low-tech weapon. Basically a fast boat loaded with explosives sped out to the USS Cole while it was refueling and before the crew could react, a 40 feet hole was blown into the hull of the destroyer.
A carrier is just a much bigger, slower moving ship than a destroyer. While there are other ships to defend it, a missile using stealth technology can strike the carrier. It was only a matter of time before missiles were developed with the range to strike the carrier before its fleet gets in range of the missile launch site.
Despite all of the evidence, the US Navy is still building aircraft carriers with 3 more to be delivered between now and 2025. A conflict with Russia, China or Iran is not going to see carriers vs carrier type engagements. Anti-ship missiles will be launched from long-range aircraft, submarines, ships or even the coast. All of these scenarios will keep US carriers even further away from the battlefield.
Much like the USAF needs to give up the notion that only fighter pilots can be senior leaders, the US Navy needs to give up the notion that carrier-based fleets are still relevant.