Danger Room: Are Carriers Slowly Becoming Obsolete?


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Assault ship. Navy photo.

Assault ship. Navy photo.


For seven decades, they’ve been the ultimate symbol of American power. When conflicts break out across the globe, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers — fast, mobile and each packing more firepower than most countries’ entire air force — have been the first responders, more often than not. “When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: where is the nearest carrier?” Bill Clinton famously said.

But today’s 1,000-foot-long, nuclear-powered supercarriers and their air wings are expensive, costing up to $15 billion just to build. Plus, the latest anti-ship missiles could render them vulnerable to attack. It’s for those reasons that one influential Navy officer is proposing the Pentagon rethink its approach to building and deploying carriers.

Instead of today’s small number of gigantic carriers, the Navy of the future should operate a larger number of smaller flattops, Capt. Jerry Hendrix asserts in the pages of Proceedings magazine. “Moving away from highly expensive and vulnerable supercarriers toward smaller, light carriers would bring the additional benefit of increasing our nation’s engagement potential.”

It would also spread out U.S. naval air power instead of concentrating it in just a few places, where it can be more easily knocked out.

Read the rest at Danger Room.


7 Responses to “Danger Room: Are Carriers Slowly Becoming Obsolete?”

  1. Brian Black says:

    Hendrix points out that you can have three 40kton CVA for the price of one CVN, but you have to take into account that you would then need to provide crews, escorts and auxiliaries for three ships rather than one; so you could pay more in running costs.
    If the USN must have more carriers, then two ~60kton ships would probably give a more efficient return than three of 40kton. Also, the extra 20ktons gives a disproportionately favourable increase in range, sorties and aircraft numbers when compared with the relatively minor increase in construction costs and crew size.

  2. Brian Black says:

    It’s perhaps also worth noting that the Royal Navy’s experience from as far back as the ’60s, was that even then, their lighter carriers were not capable of carrying a balanced aircraft fleet. The 50kton Ark Royal and 50.5kton Eagle were thought to be the minimum size for an ideal fleet carrier.
    Ships at around 40kton are probably needed to operate a full range of today’s carrier aircraft types, but you end up with relatively few top-end fast jets amongst your aircraft fleet.

  3. Peter Vine says:

    The RN really did show how to squeeze every last drop out of your carrier fleet that is in itself barely big enough in terms of size of carriers and numbers of them. Considering Ark Royal and Eagle were of WW2 vintage its incredible that they could have comfortably handled Phantoms if kitted out correctly.

  4. Bucherm says:

    Large carriers tend to be more efficient to operate than smaller carriers. The idea that carriers are “obsolete” is something that’s been bleated since, oh, August of 1945.

    A good example of a smaller carrier not being as good of an investment of a CVN would be comparing the Cavour to the Nimitz series. A carrier that that’s a third the size but only carries 1/8 the aviation fuel of a Nimitz isn’t that great. Smaller carriers are also limited in the kinds of aircraft they can operate.

    Lack of carriers on (non-US) NATO’s part over Libya has resulted in the French and British cramming attack helicopters onto gators and hoping for the best while fighting an anemic air campaign.

  5. Prestwick says:

    I think its horses for courses. If you have quick and easy access to the war zone like NATO has with Libya dumping a huge Nimitz class carrier off shore seems like serious overkill. The fault in this case lies with the lack of resources dedicated to the current campaign period.

    However if you’re in a theatre where the Air force can’t go without spending 24 hours at a time travelling from Diego Garcia or RAF Fairford then you need the big carriers and there are still plenty of places in the world where that can happen! In that case small carriers simply can’t cut it and we saw that in the Falklands. Just having one big carrier would have solved all the Task Force’s defensive needs in 1982.

    The Royal Navy in its full Cold War pomp had two main carriers (Ark Royal and Eagle) followed by the Commando carriers (Albion, Bulwark, Centaur, Hermes) which operated in a similar manner to how the USMC use their light carriers now.

    This combination of big and small meant that the RN was especially agile in responding to crises. There was always at least one carrier in the Far East, another in the Atlantic and others elsewhere such as the Middle East and the Mediterranean and all could adequately respond to issues if and when they arose.

  6. Brian Black says:

    As Bucherm points out, there have always been folks saying that carriers are obsolete; they’re still here though, and there are plenty of countries that want to get there hands on one. All military kit is obsolescent from its introduction though, simply due to the fact that there are always lots of other people trying to overcome the capability of your new piece of kit.

    Those 20-30kton light carriers may be better than nothing, but they are very limited. The inability to operate a range of fixed wing aircraft types is just as important a factor as the lack of aircraft numbers, range, stores etc. Even the US Navy’s six Harriers wouldn’t be operating without either the present cover from land based aircraft, or the presence of a CVN.

    I agree that parking a Nimitz in the Med would probably be overkill. I doubt that the sortie rate could be greatly increased anyhow; not with the Libyan forces dispersed as they are.

  7. Jeff says:

    The issue of many small versus fewer large aircraft carriers is looked at by proponents of smallers carriers as a breakeven with numerical advantage and the decreases importance and reliance on a a small number of capital ships. Where their arguement fails though is in considering the major trade offs you have to make to aircraft so that they can launch from the smaller ships. On face value you’d need 3 light or “escort carriers” or “amphibious assault ships” for each full aircraft carrier replaced. In actuality you’d need more, since the aircraft like the F-35B tend not to have as much range or payload. You also lose economy of scale; everything from resupply, to comparative crew redundancy, and maintainance equipment redundancy are greater with a larger number of ships. Amongs the hypothetical light carrier fleet you’d either now have 6+ nuclear reactors (albeit smaller) where you had 2 or you resort to diesel requiring more time for service and resupply. Next you have to decide whether to give up certain capabilities or how to distribute them… like the EA-18G Growler, the electronic warfare fighter, do we toss it and replace through other means, or if we keep it and find some way to use it on a smaller carrier, how do we distribute them to the fleet. To maintain a base line capability you may end up needing several carriers sailing together just to keep a continuity of capabilities. In doing so you diminish the advantage of being able to distribute naval aviation assets.

    That said for the same price as new full-sized carrier you could theoretically buy 5-6 light carriers. Even if operating in groups this lend themselves to better distributing capabilities over a larger area. In some areas of the world the trend is towards having to cover larger areas more rapidly something a full-sized carrier fleet doesn’t adapt itself towards. That said moving to light carriers doesn’t fix the main driving force towards smaller ships, the ability to hit ships with large missiles will not go away just because you make many more smaller ships, it just makes those ships, to a small degree, more expendable.

    I actually believe in the greater use of light carriers but not to replace all our full-sized aircraft carriers. Its a trade off where the advantage of trends is currently in favor of light adaptable ships, but that doesn’t mean full-sized carriers are obsolete. They provide many unique advantages other countries only wish they had. Maybe we don’t need as many as we used to, but thats different than being obsolete.

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