Here’s what you need to remember: The drift to large carriers was a mixture of policy and practice.
The US Navy’s ten nuclear super-carriers are the largest warships on the high seas. Home to more than five thousand sailors and Marines, the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are nuclear powered and can carry nearly ninety aircraft. of fight. Still, it didn’t have to be that way: if the Navy had taken a different approach decades ago, gigantic ships would have been complemented by smaller, more profitable flattops, medium-sized aircraft carriers.
During World War II, the US Navy operated two types of aircraft carriers: larger fleet carriers and escort carriers. The larger aircraft carriers were the main offensive strike power of the fleet, carrying a mix of fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers. Escort aircraft carriers or “jeeps” were a force-saving measure, smaller ships with smaller air wings designed to provide air support to convoys and replace aircraft carriers when larger ships were operating. somewhere else.
After the war, the Navy operated a range of aircraft carriers, large-scale nuclear-powered aircraft carriers such as the USS Business smaller wartime Essex-class attack and anti-submarine aircraft carriers. However, as the older and smaller carriers got older, they were replaced by supercarriers. No smaller aircraft carriers were built, and by the mid-1980s almost all aircraft carriers in the US Navy were at least a thousand feet long, with the exception of the USS Half-way and USS coral sea.
The drift to large carriers was a mixture of policy and practice. Although defense dollars circulated relatively freely during the Cold War, it was safer to offer to buy one large carrier in one year rather than two smaller carriers in consecutive years. An unforeseen budget emergency could result in the cancellation of the second carrier.
The big carriers were more profitable. One hull with a crew of six thousand men was cheaper to operate than two hulls which required a total of nine thousand men, but collectively had as many planes. A single aircraft carrier also only required a single set of cruisers, destroyers, and frigates as escorts. Finally, larger aircraft carriers could also generate more air sorties than a smaller aircraft carrier and could operate more and larger aircraft.
Yet large carriers are extremely expensive, both to purchase and to operate, and elements both inside and outside the Navy have sought alternatives. During the 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then chief of naval operations, struggled with the twin problems of a declining defense budget after Vietnam and the obsolescence of many of the ships of the Navy dating from WWII. If Zumalt did nothing, he risked a huge drop in the number of combat force ships.
Zumwalt’s proposal to keep the fleet size large was to create a high-low mix of vessels split between high-end high-end vessels and lower-end lower-end vessels. This spread to carriers, and Zumwalt came up with a so-called “medium aircraft carrier” to complement the existing super carriers. The average aircraft carrier would weigh around 61,000 tons, be propelled conventionally, and have a flight deck 908 feet long. The ship would have an airlift wing of up to sixty planes and would have a total strength, including air crew, of just 3,400.
The average aircraft carrier would only have two steam catapults instead of the four found on larger aircraft carriers, meaning it could launch aircraft at only half the rate of larger aircraft carriers. . There would only be two elevators instead of three. Although he had fewer planes, he removed fleet air defense and anti-submarine warfare planes from the mix to focus on strike power, yielding almost as much as a superporter.
There were also advantages to building more and smaller carriers. For the first time in decades, the number of aircraft carriers has fallen below twenty, making it increasingly unlikely that a sufficient number of flight decks will be available during conventional warfare to meet all demands. needs. The distribution of naval aviation over more platforms made it more resistant to losses of individual aircraft carriers in wartime. Finally, the growing importance of new mining areas such as the Persian Gulf has strained existing resources.
Despite the proposed advantages of the average aircraft carrier, the disadvantages of the smaller platform ultimately made it unattractive. The advantages of the larger ships were so great that, since it could afford the larger ships, the Navy would continue to purchase them. The Navy continued with a fleet of supercarriers, and today the entire fleet of aircraft carriers consists of nuclear powered supercarriers.
The story is not over yet. The costs of the new Ford-class carriers have even advocates of sea power, like Senator John McCain, looking for alternatives: In January 2017, the Arizona senator released a white paper, “Restore Power American, ”which called for a“ high / low mix ”of aircraft carriers, possibly involving an America-class amphibious transport variant fitted with the short-take-off, vertical-landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter. As long as the United States buys aircraft carriers, the debate over the high / low mix will continue.
Kyle Mizokami is a San Francisco-based defense and national security writer who appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign police, War is boring and the Daily beast. In 2009, he co-founded the defense and security blog Security watch in Japan. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This first appeared several years ago and is reposted due to reader’s interest.