Why doesn’t the US Navy build medium aircraft carriers?

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The threats are clearly piling up against US Navy aircraft carriers. Why not build smaller so-called medium aircraft carriers? – Since the US Navy’s USS America (LHA-6), at 45,000 tons fully loaded, is larger than many aircraft carriers in service with many foreign navies, it’s easy to see why it might be mistaken for a real aircraft carrier.

However, America is actually an amphibious assault ship, and its mission is to act as the flagship of an expeditionary strike group or amphibious ready group.

Yet in the 1970s, the US Navy envisioned a conventionally powered carrier that was to be smaller and more importantly cheaper than the contemporary nuclear-powered carrier. Nimitz-classroom. Thus was born the Aircraft Carrier (Medium) (CCV) program.

Medium carriers: not quite super carriers

Faced with a reduced budget following the Vietnam War, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt proposed maintaining a large US fleet while using a mix of very high-end ships and low-end ships. range – which extended even to carriers as the Navy sought to replace its aging Half-wayclass carriers.

The result would be the so-called “Carrier (Medium)”, intended to complement the Navy’s existing super carriers. With only a 908-foot flight deck and capable of carrying up to sixty aircraft – it would be significantly smaller than the super carriers, but in addition the carriers would be conventionally powered even as the Navy went thoroughly on nuclear propulsion. carriers.

There would be a few other notable concessions, including only two steam-powered catapults instead of the four found on the supercarriers, which meant the mid-sized flat tops could only launch planes at half rate. Similarly, there would only be two elevators instead of three, while the smaller air wing would mean the carrier would not have as many air defense and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. ). Instead, the CVV would focus on its punching power and in this respect the medium carrier was to be on par with that of a true supercarrier.

Still, it wasn’t exactly easy for the CVV program despite having the backing of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Price was a factor.

The first of these carriers was expected to cost around $1.5 per ship, compared to $2.4 billion for a fourth. Nimitzclass carrier. But it was also determined that the USS John F Kennedy (CV-67) – the last large conventionally powered aircraft carrier built for the US Navy – cost only about $100 million more than the CVV and was significantly more capable. It was suggested by then-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in 1978 that the Navy move forward with another John F Kennedyclass carrier instead.

This idea was rejected by President Carter, who noted that the lower life cycle costs were associated with a smaller ship and a smaller air wing. At the same time a fourth Nimitz-class carrier was approved in the fiscal year 1981 (FY81) budget – while the election of President Ronald Reagan changed everything. Reagan asked for – and received – a larger defense budget, and the Navy pushed forward with nuclear-powered supercarriers. This sank the CVV program.

The medium aircraft carriers of the 21st century

Even though the US Navy maintains a fleet of eleven super carriers, many navies around the world have sought to do more with less when it comes to flat roofs. The Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth II is comparable in size and capability to the proposed CVV, while the navies of Japan and South Korea are also exploring smaller but still high-performance carrier designs.

These smaller carriers can operate with short/vertical takeoff and landing (S/VTOL) aircraft, including the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, and thus offer many of the strike capabilities of a larger flagship. big.

The late Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) was among the proponents of Zumwalt’s concept, including the “high/low mix” of the aircraft carrier fleet.

“Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat close competitors, but other day-to-day missions, such as power projection, control of sea lanes, close air support or counter-terrorism, can be achieved with a smaller, lower-cost conventionally powered aircraft carrier,” McCain said in his white paper to lawmakers, Restoring American Power.

Since the United States Navy’s last aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, has faced numerous delays as it went over budget should make it clear that bigger isn’t always better – especially when hypersonic “carrier killer” missiles pose such a threat today. The cost, maintenance schedule and last year’s Covid-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Rooseveltwhich has put the carrier out of service for months, should also serve as a harbinger that even with nearly a dozen carriers in a conflict, the US Navy could fail with so much emphasis on super aircraft carriers.

There was a case for the CVV program during the Cold War, and an even better case for medium carriers today.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to over four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He writes regularly on military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear, including A gallery of military hairstyleswhich is available on Amazon.com.

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