|Thesis: The most expensive way to deliver a bomb/payload by air is via a carrier-based jet. This budgetary fact, combined with the advances in UAVs will certainly combine to threaten the number of carrier groups in the next decade or two. To further complicate matters for the Navy are advances in anti-ship ballistic missiles by China (and assumably, Russia as well). Carriers will only get more vulnerable and more expensive to protect.
The Navy will be the last to admit this, and Naval Aviators last of all, but the age of a dozen supercarriers is passing.
For the capital cost as well as the care and feeding of an entire carrier battle group the US can field literally thousands of UAVs with FASTER response time and far greater strike capability.
Case in point: Recently North Korea got belligerent again. It took how long for the Geo. Washington to arrive on the scene? How long to get 3-4 carriers in place if needed? If immediate action were required the NAvy would have launched cruise missiles, not FA18s. Sorry Flyboys.
Now fast forward 10 years. The US mothballed 4 carriers and spent the funds on over 1000 stealth UAVs (think mini-B2's) with global range and unlimited (refuelled) loiter time, and global response time measured in hours, not days. North Korea launches an attack that requires a massive and immediate response, and 18 hours later said thousand UAVs are dropping more simultaneous precision strikes than the entire combined Naval Air Fleet. Yes it will be a day before they can all sortie again, but remember the Geo. Washington is still a couple days away, and the other carriers a week or three.
A fleet of UAVs is always ready: it is never in port, never in retrofit, never more than a day away from the action and can sortie over North Korea one day and Afghanistan the next. There is no pilot fatigue, the requirements for operator training is a fraction of training a Naval Aviator, and the UAV operator will never be captured, paraded through the street and put on trial.
UAV aircraft are cheaper to build and maintain, and can be designed with more extremes in maneuverability, etc.
Now I know this is an extremely unpopular perspective, even inflammatory. And OF COURSE THERE ARE MISSIONS, such as obtaining/maintaining air superiority where UAV development is a generation away from being competitive. And yes, the saber-rattling show of force of a Carrier Group is impressive. But so is a radar-screen filled with 800 bogeys lurking in nearby international airspace for 36 hours straight.
It's a budgetary reality, a geopolitical reality and a technological reality. WHEN, my friends, not IF. We'll have carriers for the next 50 years, just fewer, certainly never more than now.