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Return of the Small Carriers

January 7, 2010

Capt. Wayne Hughes, USN (ret.) author of the influential work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, has released a study online detailing how the Navy might embrace a true Green Water strategy for a new era of conflict at sea. We hope to be discussing portions of this exciting proposal which closely aligns with our own thinking of where the fleet needs to be, in terms of how its fights, and especially on the questions of increasing numbers of ships available. Today I will examine specifically Dr Hughes’ plan for light carriers, CVLs. From the report titled “The New Navy Fighting Machine” (Google Doc.):

In view of recent debates over the procurement cost of the next CVN and LHD, it should come as no surprise that there is substantial uncertainty in the cost and preferable size of a CVL. We believe a notional CVL, which operates 20 F-35B aircraft in STOVL mode, will displace 25,000-30,000 tons and cost from $2.5B to $3.5B after the first prototype is constructed. We use $3B as the SCN cost in Table 2 of blue water ships (following Chapter VII). We emphasize the desirability of adapting the same design for green water operations. The size and  cost are based in part on HMS  Illustrious, which carries up to 24 AV-8B Harriers, and in part on the conviction that a dedicated aircraft carrier can be smaller than the current  LHAs and LHDs (costing $4B or more and displacing 40,000 tons), when the well deck and Marine berthing and assault equipment are removed. Since a standard LHD airwing is 12 CH-46s, 5 CH-53s, 4 UH-1s and  AH-1s, 6 AV-8Bs, and 2 MH-60s or nearly 30 aircraft, the envisioned CVL seems
feasible, although we will not know this until the ship is designed and the cost in series production of 18 of them is estimated.

According to the report, primary advantage of the large deck Nimitz class would be life cycle costs over time:

Why the CVN, costing 40-50% more to construct than an nonnuclear CV carrying the same number of aircraft, was nevertheless seen as preferable 30 years ago and led to an all-CVN force. A 50% cost disadvantage of the CVN reduces to only a 5% penalty in life-cycle costs of ship and aircraft. Nuclear power’s operational mobility advantage easily makes the CVN more attractive.

My own thinking, according to the evidence, is this notion is less attractive because it adds to the upfront costs of aircraft carriers, even when spread out over the building cycle of about a decade. USN carriers are now averaging $10 billion each with the Ford class, not counting warplanes, almost impossible to construct in the numbers required.

A comparison of a ten-CVN force with a 35-CVL force carrying the same number of aircraft (about 700 in each case) shows that they have similar life-cycle costs, even if the CVN is costed correctly at $10B and the  not-yet-designed CVL were to cost more than $3B.

I would also point out that thanks to precision weaponry, the CVLs are as effective as the CVNs in terms of firepower. I recently posted my thoughts on how building small carriers would bring savings without reducing effectiveness:

The Navy then might say they can operate a single, large $6 billion supercarrier with 70 warplanes over its lifetime far cheaper than a $3 billion light carrier like the future America class with say, 30 F-35 JSF. This is probably a true  statement from an economic standpoint, especially with the price of fuel, the two smaller ships would be more costly over time, comparing the two types individually.

However if you factor in the effect of 10 light carriers, all fitted with precision bombers might have beside 10 supercarriers with the same weapons, the savings of the latter disappears. In other words, if a single light carrier can perform the standard presence mission done by the $6 billion ship, also in wartime the same attack mission (recalling that precision weapons now assure us “one bomb, one hit”), here you would see enormous savings. Specifically, small carriers take best advantage of the advances in precision bombing aircraft, manned or unmanned, since smart weapons do not require smart platforms.

  1. 10 x Nimitz class carriers-$60 billion
  2. 10 x America class light carriers-$30 billion

So we find that building the same number of light carriers which ship-for-ship is as effective as  large deck vessels, we have savings of $30 billion with which to do other things with.

Still there is the issue of costs. No matter how capable a warship might appear on paper, or even how cost effective it seems over the years, it cannot be in many places at once. Whether we have a mix of large and small carriers, or just many small carriers as I would suggest, numbers are the overriding factor. The reports sums up the question nicely:

Absent such a CVL,  we believe that on affordability grounds alone, the total number of aircraft carriers will shrink to eight within the next two decades and, absent the development of a CVL, with no redress possible.

New Wars’ ongoing prediction–costs kill the large deck carrier.

Concerning Hughes’ light carrier proposal, I am thinking 20 F-35Bs would need a parent vessel of at least 30,000 tons. My reasoning for this is the size of late model Harriers and the RN’s use of only about 10 at the most on its Invincibles. The Harrier’s full weapons load brings the weight of the plane to 31,000 lbs, which is the empty weight of a F-35 Lightning. I think a small ship of 10 planes might be sufficient and perhaps less costly, keeping it down to European light carrier dimensions, or closer to the 20,000 ton range. Such a vessel would also make an ideal UAV mothership.

54 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2015 2:55 pm

    Many thanks for this post! Some genuinely inspriational designs here. LC

  2. January 13, 2010 10:12 pm

    The CATOBAR CVL is close to the STO idea floated before . I Like It!

  3. January 13, 2010 10:08 pm

    I have been a fan of light carriers since the CVV which was far from perfect. I think a CVL design is a practical idea with today’s strategic outlook.Many decks with lesser planes is more practical given the development of PGM and UAV’s more so today than the last time they were seriously discussed in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
    The thing that sunk many of these ideas was the loss of capability and lack of flexibility of a pure V/Stol and helo carrier.
    The F-35 helps but still has limits by its self. Any true CVL would have to support AEW with an E-2C/D and a true ASW capability.The British carriers that are being built cater more to this as a true CVL .
    There was a proposal for a STO CV that would support the same aircraft as a CVN.An air group of 30-32 aircraft ,a mix of F/A-18’s ,E-2’s and ECM aircraft and a displacement of 30,000 – 35,000 tonnes .
    The main drawback here is no CVL can support high tempo operations like Desert Storm without committing more ships,surface combatants and supply ships.

  4. Scott B. permalink
    January 12, 2010 2:50 pm

    Al L. said : “It’s not that I think UAV AEW is a certain solution, its that it’s an avenue I think needs to be persued before it is rejected.”

    It is actually being seriously persued with MP-RTIP.

    Discussing the possibilities offered by the Hummingbird in terms of AEW might make a potentially interesting discussion on the blogosphere, if such aspects as what’s technologically achievable is matched with what’s operationally needed.

    Sadly, I don’t see such a structured discussion happening any time soon, and I fear that such a topic will only be covered superficially, with people pretending that technology will solve all the problems.

    Anyway, this topic is on page 2 of Mike’s blog now. I’m sure Mike will give us another chance to chew the fat on this specific subject.

  5. Scott B. permalink
    January 12, 2010 2:31 pm

    Al L. said : ” That orbit if flown around the flatdeck creates regular periodic decreases in coverage in all directions equal to the orbit diameter”

    AEW rarely fly an orbit centered onto the flatdeck. Hence the very simplistic comments I made earlier, which I don’t feel so comfortable elaborating upon any further.

  6. Al L. permalink
    January 12, 2010 12:09 pm

    I’ll do this to illustrate further why the UAV vs. conventional AEW doesn’t work well on a blog.

    Scott B. said:

    “Even when you equalize the comm. aspect, and assume an UAV like the Hummingbird can operate as far away from the group it’s protecting as a traditional AEW, let’s says x NM, you still end up with a situation where the radar range of the traditional AEW, let’s say y NM against a given target, is far greater than the radar range of the UAV, let’s say z NM.” etc.

    Yes I would mostly agree however there are other factors to consider not limited to these:

    1. A conventional AEW craft must fly an orbit of substantial size. That orbit if flown around the flatdeck creates regular periodic decreases in coverage in all directions equal to the orbit diameter (i’ll ignore for simplicity the racetrack orbit)
    2. Because of #1 a command must often choose to tilt the AEW toward one direction or the other, a calculated risk further limiting converage on the weak side.

    A group of AEW UAV helicopters can mitigate #1 and #2 by either holding station or flying orbits which instead of creating periodic reductions in coverage, create periodic but moving gaps in coverage by flying orbits within a group orbit. These gaps can even be made random, to confound the enemy.

    If a conventional AEW such as E-2 has a radar range of about 225 miles against all targets (a limitation created not by power but by altitude and the horizon) then it covers an area of 1430 mi. circumference. But it must fly an orbit. This reduces the effective full coverage range to 200mi. Lets say our AEW UAV has a 100 mi. radar range. 4 UAVS fly in orbits within a 200 mile diameter orbit 100 miles from the ship.

    The UAV scheme provides comparable coverage to the E-2 but also provides redundancy and multi vector tracking. I say comparable because it has weaknesses which must be taken as calculated risks but so does the E-2. The E-2 does and will always have a greater tracking time against a given target on a given vector, but in order to do that it will always be a single target radiatiating along multiple vectors. Its a matter of which risk is preferrable.

    It’s not that I think UAV AEW is a certain solution, its that it’s an avenue I think needs to be persued before it is rejected.

    We haven’t even discussed the possible great advantage of UAV AEW operated as picket line vs. E-2, especially in the littoral or all the other flexibility concepts. Or the fact that unlike E-2 they can actually be used to draw fire. It goes on and on if you spend time thinking about it.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 12, 2010 7:02 am

    Again the Army, being in contact with the enemy, is leading the pact concerning UAV deployment:

    UAVs Replacing Scout Helicopters

  8. Scott B. permalink
    January 12, 2010 4:23 am

    Al L. said : “But Global Hawk is never going to land on a flat deck”

    That’s indeed one of the points I was trying to make earlier.

  9. Scott B. permalink
    January 12, 2010 4:22 am

    Al L. said : “I agree with that BUT, the idea would be to operate the AEW A160t type UAV in multiples.”

    I understand what you’re trying to say, and I agree that a blog is not the right place to discuss such subjects as the geometry of AEW, or the concept of how to provide AEW with multiple UAVs.

    However, on the geometry aspect, suggesting that multiple UAVs like the Hummingbird might, in aggregate, provide the same radar coverage as one traditional AEW is a serious oversimplification.

    E.g., how far an AEW platform can operate from the group it’s supposed to protect is largely driven by the quality of the comm. equipment, and there’s no reason to assume that UAVs like the Hummingbird will enjoy any kind of superiority in this domain, because in fact, the opposite is true.

    Even when you equalize the comm. aspect, and assume an UAV like the Hummingbird can operate as far away from the group it’s protecting as a traditional AEW, let’s says x NM, you still end up with a situation where the radar range of the traditional AEW, let’s say y NM against a given target, is far greater than the radar range of the UAV, let’s say z NM.

    IOW, along a given vector, the combined range of the traditional AEW, i.e. x + y, will be far greater than the combined range of the UAV, i.e. x + z.

    Which in turn has significant implications on how much warning time you’ll get from the specific AEW solution that’s being used.

    More generally, what I do find a little short with some of the UAV-based AEW being floated here and there is that people NEVER even try to match the capabilities of the resulting UAV-based solution with the capabilities of the other components that are part of the equation (e.g. the anticipated capabilities of the F-35B for instance).

    More often than not, the proponents of such *transformational* innovations simply take it for granted that technology will solve all the problems and contend, sometimes arrogantly, that the strategists they are don’t need to bother with the technological aspects involved.

    And that’s exactly how we ended up with the Nuclear Powered Hydrofoil Battleship nonsense the last time around…

  10. Al L. permalink
    January 11, 2010 11:17 pm

    Scott B. said:

    “Once you factor not just the radar itself, but also such mundane stuff as power, cooling and comm gears, you won’t get more range coverage into this 1,000-lb payload than what the AN/APG-81 has to offer.”

    I agree with that BUT, the idea would be to operate the AEW A160t type UAV in multiples. Say with 3-4 airborne at any given time. Assuming they would spend 6 hrs on station with an 8 hour flight time they could be moved out to a station 100-miles plus off the flat deck. Adding essentially 100 miles to their range as opposed to a single AEW AC flying orbit around the flat deck.

    The concept of how to provide AEW with multiple UAV’s as opposed to a single AC like E-2 is hard to discuss down to details in a blog. Too many calculations, and too much info most of us will never have access to.

    “4) No matter how promising Hummingbird might be, it’s not even playing in the same league as Global Hawk.”

    That’s obvious. But Global Hawk is never going to land on a flat deck, and even with its astounding range there are places in the world where such long range land based assets will have weeknesses due to airspace restrictions, the possibility of hostile action, basing restrictions, and most of all the danger of intercept while on route to station.

    If we are to have small carriers then an onboard backup to AEW provided by Global hawk or CVN based E-2 or E-3 is a good idea and in some cases might be all that was needed. (Might even be useful on a CVN or LHA/D)

    And lets also consider that the current AEW scheme from carriers is capable but also high risk. It’s one lucky missile shot away from disaster as would be a global hawk.

    Lastly, if the radar is a modular unit, then types of sensors could be swapped, from AEW to periscope detection, to MAD, to… well it’s an endless list thats hard to replicate on platforms that have to take off, land, or operate at high speed.

  11. Scott B. permalink
    January 11, 2010 5:39 pm

    Al L. said : “A UAV carrying an AEW radar with the human operators on a ship instead of in the cargo bay isn’t that far fetched.”

    Much as I find the Hummingbird promising, I’d have the following reservations regarding what’s technologically achievable with a reasonable timeframe :

    1) With a 1,000-lb payload, the A-160 offers an endurance of about 8 hours.

    2) Once you factor not just the radar itself, but also such mundane stuff as power, cooling and comm gears, you won’t get more range coverage into this 1,000-lb payload than what the AN/APG-81 has to offer. And as it currently stands, chances are you won’t even come close.

    3) Incidentally, the only POR that may come close to the much touted UAV-based AEW is the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP), which is to be (if successful) be integrated onto the Global Hawk Block 40.

    4) No matter how promising Hummingbird might be, it’s not even playing in the same league as Global Hawk.

  12. B.Smitty permalink
    January 11, 2010 10:12 am


    The R-99A is not really any smaller than an E-2. AESA arrays require a lot of power and cooling, which limits how small an airframe you can put them on.

    Al L,

    I’m eager in seeing what the A-160 can do, but it’s still early to start building force structures around it. Also, it will have power and cooling constraints as well. But I agree, it could form part of a solution.

    Another possibility I’ve wondered about is building a podded, S-band AESA radar for the F-35B. It wouldn’t have the endurance of some other solutions, but you wouldn’t have to build a new airframe, or take up deck spots with AEW aircraft. Plus, you could transfer the pods from aircraft to aircraft.

    My guess is, the F-35B pylons might not provide the desired power levels.

  13. B.Smitty permalink
    January 11, 2010 9:58 am

    Al L,

    Obviously the cost of an AEW solution would depend on how many we bought. If we only bought a handful, the per-unit program price could be far higher.

  14. Al L. permalink
    January 11, 2010 3:33 am

    B. Smitty said:

    “I bet a V-22-based AEW solution could run $200 million or more a pop.”

    That would be a small bargain as the planned contract price for 75 E-2D is $17.5 billion or $233 million a copy.

  15. Al L. permalink
    January 11, 2010 2:52 am

    All those in this thread who commented that rotary UAV’s have poor service ceilings need to check out this UAV.

    Note the size of the radar its flying with in this photo:

    The A160T is already in service with SOC with about 30 units total in service or contracted. It’s may also soon be in service with the USMC.

    A UAV carrying an AEW radar with the human operators on a ship instead of in the cargo bay isn’t that far fetched.

    It won’t match a E-2 for power, but it will be much more compact, and since about a dozen of them could be packed into the area occupied by 2 E-2 on a ship, multiples could be deployed, adding redundancy, perhaps equalling coverage, and all but eliminating the risk that comes with dependace on a single airborne AWACs loaded with half a dozen highly trained crew. (Not to mention the service demands, fuel consumption, long flight wear on crews etc.)

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 9, 2010 9:39 am

    Heretic, an interesting post at Aviation Week on using UAVs to enhance the range of the BMD search and tracking radar. Apparently this allows the Navy to rethink its $10 billion CGX idea for a lower cost Burke alternative. Key quote:

    “One key to making UAV-carried sensors work has been the rapid improvement in IR sensor performance, weight, cost and processing, which makes it possible to install a high-end, long-wave IR sensor on a small UAV.”

  17. Heretic permalink
    January 9, 2010 9:17 am

    Pilatus PC-6
    Payload is 1530kg or can carry 10 parachute jumpers.
    STOL performance is excellent.

    Makes me wonder what would happen if you added wing folds and corrosion resistance to the airframe, then loaded it up with 1500kg of generators, electronics and station operators for use as a ship-borne AEW platform with STOL performance that needed no assists on takeoffs or landings (thanks to Wind Over Deck).

    As can be seen from the Embraer R-99A, you don’t exactly NEED a big huge rotating radome these days when you’ve got AESA … which makes for quite a weight savings!

  18. Sarcastic ShockwaveLover permalink
    January 8, 2010 7:30 pm

    Scott B, I love you. That piece on the French carrier gave me the biggest laugh I’ve had all week.

  19. Matt permalink
    January 8, 2010 4:16 pm

    Noticed a ‘minor’ gaffe in my earlier email:

    “The problem with your concept is that any UAV carried by DD/FF/LCS in the forseeable future is likely to be rotary wing. Rotary wing a/c have inherent altitude limitations (e.g. 16K ft for Scan Eagle.)”

    Scan Eagle is actually fixed wing, not rotary wing, and is launched with a slingshot launcher. However, it does have a ceiling of 16K ft.

    I still think most ‘small-boy’ launched UAS are likely to be small, rotary wing. Rotary wing aircraft have inherent operational limitations as an AEW platform — where speed, altitude, and endurance are critical factors.*

    Fire Scout could almost work — it can get up to 20K ft and stay aloft for 8 hrs. However, it can only go 125 kts, and I think if you hung an AEW radar on it, you’d kill its flight performance.

    *Yes, I realize the Brits use Sea Kings helos in the AEW role, but the RN was driven to this by the small deck size of the Invincible class. I don’t think you’d meet too many FAA types who’d say a Sea King can perform the AEW role as well as an E-2.

  20. B.Smitty permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:51 pm

    The difference in empty weight between a C-2 Greyhound and an E-2C Hawkeye is around 2,000kg. If you consider that to be the weight of the AEW systems, then you would need three hundred and thirty three Scan Eagles to carry the same weight.

    Of course, to paraphrase Matt, “Having three hundred and thirty three guys who can carry 6kg is not the same as having 1 guy who can carry 2000kg.”

  21. Scott B. permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:43 pm

    Matt said : “Sounds vaguely like LCS. So… can we make it go 50 kts while we’re at it?”

    You’re actually spot on : same people, same software, same nonsense.

    To refresh everybody’s mind, here is an article published back in 2004 on one of Cebrowski’s follies :

    Cebrowski: Develop Small Aircraft Carriers From High-Speed Ships

    Inside The Navy
    August 9, 2004

    Arthur Cebrowski, the retired three-star admiral who leads the Pentagon’s transformation office, defied convention last week by suggesting the Navy, long wedded to its fleet of massive aircraft carriers, should convert high-speed vessels into “very, very small” aircraft carriers.

    He briefly sketched out a concept for distributed, seabased, tactical aviation that would use large numbers of minicarriers, each carrying a handful of short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing Joint Strike Fighters armed with very small, precise weapons. It was one of several ideas he discussed Aug. 4 during remarks at a Navy research and development conference in Washington, DC.

    After acknowledging he likes the carrier variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Cebrowski touted the characteristics of the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant, which can launch and land without a great deal of runway space. He praised the network structure and sensors that are common to the entire JSF program. He stressed that the Pentagon’s Small Diameter Bomb program will increase the capability of any aircraft.

    “We may be in a position [where] we’re going to run out of targets before we run out of war,” he said. “And what that means then is you have the possibility of moving to very, very small aircraft carriers in multiplicity in order to deal with the diversity of the threat.”

    Cebrowski’s presentation included a slide about seabased, tactical aviation. The briefing depicts a carrier-like variant of a high-speed catamaran. The picture shows a slightly scaled-up version of the Joint Venture (HSV-X1) built by Incat. The original Joint Venture is 1,700 tons and 315 feet long. A fully loaded Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which displaces about 97,000 tons, is 1,040 feet long.

    The minicarrier version of Joint Venture, about 367 feet long, is depicted carrying five tactical aircraft and other items, including a couple of helicopters and some amphibious assault craft. These vessels would be network-centric and could contribute to seabasing, according to Cebrowski’s briefing. Under the heading “assured access,” the briefing argues the minicarrier would “correct tactical instability” and complicate enemy intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The minicarrier would be more survivable against certain threats and less susceptible and vulnerable, according to the briefing. The idea would also allow the Navy to reduce manpower and costs, the briefing argues.

    Large carrier-like ships “do not have to be designed around tactical fighter wings anymore,” Cebrowski told the audience. “They can be designed as large open systems, multipurpose, to be used for anything, to include an aircraft carrier of today, or a large-deck amphib ship, or a command and control ship, or a maritime prepositioning ship.” He noted the Joint Requirements Oversight Council recently blessed seabasing as a joint concept.

    After the remarks, Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, head of the Office of Naval Research, told the audience he is a “big fan” of Cebrowski. Cohen noted Cebrowski “has pulled the stops here for his small carrier based on [an] HSV. What a platform. It’s probably about 2,500 tons.”

    He said Cebrowski “has taken disparate technologies” including lightweight, high-speed advanced hull forms, which can be stabilized in high seas. Cebrowski “has taken” the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing JSF, Cohen said, noting a vertical takeoff would not be necessary because of a ski-jump like feature included in the minicarrier’s design. This would avoid “a refueling scenario immediately after launch and afterburner,” Cohen said.

    “And when you’ve got a ship that can run around at 50, 60 or 70 knots, and anywhere on the ocean you’ve got 10 or 20 knots of wind,” Cohen continued, “when you’ve got relative wind over the deck, how much of a catapult do you need to launch? How much of an arresting gear do you need to stop the aircraft? And what does this do to distributed, tactical airpower?”

    In June 2001, amid speculation about a review of major defense programs that was under way at the time, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark told an audience of naval aviators in San Diego that big-deck carriers would remain in the fleet (Inside the Navy, June 4, 2001, p1).

    “Let me assure you carriers are not going away. That’s not going to happen, not anytime soon anyway,” said Clark. “Hello! The product is in huge demand.”

    Cebrowski is known for proposing radical change. When he was president of the Naval War College a few years ago, Cebrowski advocated creating a small fast ship he dubbed “Street Fighter.” The concept had fierce enemies at the time but ultimately inspired the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program.

    Cebrowski “knows he doesn’t make a lot of friends,” Cohen told the audience. “He gets invited to a lot of places to try to affect change.”

    — Christopher J. Castelli


  22. Matt permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:30 pm

    Sounds vaguely like LCS.

    So… can we make it go 50 kts while we’re at it?


  23. Scott B. permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:28 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “the not-yet-designed CVL were to cost more than $3B.”

    A not-yet-designed CVL that’s gonna to rely on a not-yet-operational fighter and a not-even-on-the-horizon UAV-based AEW solution…

  24. D. E. Reddick permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:20 pm


    This is just the sort of discussion needed to evaluate whether any form of CVL development is feasible. Four to six E-2 airframes per the smaller air group of a CVL would certainly cut into the strike and defensive capacity of such a platform.

    So, the development of new UAV AEW platforms might be necessary to provide AEW capability to CLVs, it the latter were to be built.

  25. Scott B. permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:15 pm

    D.E. Reddick said : “Still, it works, doesn’t it.”

    My excellent friend Stuart Slade posted this short essay on a public forum some time ago :


    When the French Navy realized they had to replace Clemenceau and Foch back in the early 1980s, the Government was very reluctant to release the cash. They only agreed to the construction of two ships if they were exact replacements for the two carriers due for scrapping. This meant they were restricted to 27,000 tons normal, 32,000 tons full load and a length of 240 meters. Also, that they should carry a group of around 32 aircraft. That, by the way, made them look very much like an Essex class (which isn’t surprising, the Foch and the Essex are very, very similar in design terms).

    Length first. This was actually set by the available drydock. At that time, DCN had a stranglehold on French shipbuilding and required their facilities to be used. The maximum length that could be accommodated within their available drydocks was 260 meters. That immediately lead to a problem. Aircraft are much higher performance than they were in teh 1950s, they require bigger decks to operate from. They needed much more deck space so the ship had to be crowded into that available length. The real joke is that just across the port is the biggest drydock in the world, it was used to build the SS France pre-WW2. But, it couldn’t be used, DCN didn’t own it.

    So, why not lengthen the drydock? Well, the problem was that at the landward side, the extension to the drydock was blocked by a toolshed. Why not move it? Well, the toolshed was owned by the Ministry of the Interior, the drydock was owned by DCN, part of the Ministry of Defense. Moving the toolshed should cost roughly US$100,000 – who should pay? Interior said Defense, Defense said Interior, they never agreed and the tool shed is still there. So was the length restriction of 260 meters.

    So, to get around the problem, the designers adopted a solution by which an unusually wide flight deck was adopted. This lead to a rolling problem (its a matter of vertical movement, for the same degree of roll, a wide ship has a much greater vertical movement at its outer limits than a narrow ship so a wide ship has to roll less if its extreme vertical movement is to be within tolerable limits). In order to reduce roll to an acceptable level, the French had to include an elaborate computer-controlled anti-rolling system. This works well but its wasted weight and space, both of which were at a premium.

    The restricted length gave another problem. The aircraft on board have to be accelerated to a specific speed in a specific distance. The catapults available couldn’t do that. So the French designed a short, high-acceleration catapult. It worked OK but dummy tests showed the force transmitted to the pilot was very, very close to that which would break his neck. Since French pilots carried sidearms and were pounding on the door wanting to discuss this with the catapult deisgners, it was decide dto abandon the new catapults.

    Instead, the French bought American C-13-3 catapults. Problem was that these were much longer than the French design. Now, some technicality. On the Pepe le Pu, the flight deck is the strength deck, this is what gives the hull girder its integral strength. Cutting two long slots in the strength deck severely compromises the strength deck and thus weakens the overall hull strength. Worse, because the design of the carrier was restricted in size, the two catapults couldn’t be installed in the bow, there was only room for one there. The other had to be put in the waist. That meant not only were the slots cut in the strength deck long, they were one-behind-the-other and overlapped. That critically weakened the flight deck. The only option was to strengthen the flight deck by thickening it up and, because of its area, that cost a lot of weight.

    At the other end of the deck, the French also designed a very fierce arrester wire system to bring teh aircraft to a halt quickly. It worked extremely well, the arrester wires stopped the back half of the aircraft perfectly. Unfortunately, the front half kept going. It was decided that this was not desirable (the pilots were pounding on the door again, this time with sidearms drawn) . The only option was to install a conventional arrester wire system and extend the angled deck forward. This interefered with the bow catapult and meant the carrier could not launch and recover aircraft simultaneously – a major limitation.

    Later, it was found that they hadn’t lengthened the angled deck enough, it was three meters too short and the heavier aircraft would still be moving forward when they reached the end and vanished over the edge. It had to be extended post-completion.

    The travails of the design team weren’t yet over. The problem now aorse of the elevators. They’d decided on two elevators, fair enough for the proposed air group. The problem was that the flight deck was the strength deck and stress levels there were already critical. Even deck edge elevators require a major cut-out in the deck and weaken the deck significantly. Now, the conventional solution is to put elevators on both sides of the ship, that’s good from damage control and from weather shelter perspective. Unfortunately, that means there’s a cut out on both sides of the ship, doubling the weakening effect. Having both elevators on the same side of the ship doesn’t do that. So, the French had to put both elevators on the same side of the ship. The question was, which side? If they put them to port, they would obstruct the landing deck, they had to go to starboard, the same side as the Island. Hold that thought.

    Now we need a little digression. For mostly political reasons it had been stipulated that the ship would need nuclear power. The problem was the French didn’t have the money to develop reactors specifically for her, they had to use the K-15s off the shelf. Now, the K-15 was designed at a time when the French were hoping to export nuclear-powered attack submarines. To get around the nuclear non-proliferation treaties, they designed their reactors to use low-enrichment fuel called “caramel”. This had two impacts, it lowered the power density of the reactor and it reduced the life between refuellings. Neither mattered too much in teh putative export SSN. It turned out they both mattered a lot in a CVN.

    The French Navy adopted the K-15 for its own use. In theory at least, this isn’t such a dumb decision. Caramel is around 15 percent enriched, the fuel used in US or British submarines is a lot more (like multiples) more enriched than that. However, highly enriched fuel needs special processing and reprocessing plans that caramel doesn’t. So, in theory at least, its possible to argue that the financial and operational costs of using low enrichment fuel can be offset by the elimination of the reprocessing plant. Implicit in that approach (which turned out not to be the case by the way) is designing the ship so that refuelling the reactors is quick and easy.

    This meant designing her so there was a path through the ship, straight down to the reactor room. For weight reasons, the reactor room has to be more or less amidships, so this path had to be amidships. Again, structural reasons meant that this non-load bearing path (essentially a hole cut right through the ship’s girder) couldn’t be in parallel with one of the elevators (stress levels in the flight deck would pass critical).

    Back to the held thought on elevators. The refuelling soft patch had to be between the elevators, meaning the two elevators would have to be both starboard side and very well separated. The island (a structure that imposes significant loads on the ship) also couldn’t be parallel with the reactor access soft patch. That meant it had to be either forward of the fore elevator or aft of the rear elevator. The latetr was impossible, it would have perched the island right on the stern.

    The forward position had to be chosen. This is good for ship handling, lousy for aircraft operations. The French tried to claim that the forward position was selected because it sheltered the aircraft from the weather. The world laughed.

    Still more problems. Flight deck space was critical, the minimum required was calculated and subtracting that from the space available gave the space for the island. It wasn’t very much. All the antennas were compressed into a small area and they all interfere with each other. That means that many systems can’t be operated simultaneously including such things as comms, search radar, fire control, radar et al.

    More problems. The design chosen had a wide hull for its length. That’s bad for speed. The French did a lot of research into hull forms, a lot of calculation and a lot of trials with a sub-scale model. None of which helped. Pepe le Pu was designed for 27.5 knots; it was admitted that there was no possibility of getting her past 25.5.

    Other problems emerged as well. The reactors lacked steam capacity to operate the catapults properly (sustained launching of aircraft would deplete the steam capacity and have a serious effect on the ship – not just on speed). On trials that was a problem, but a bigger one was that the screws fell apart. Partly this was a production problem; the screws had been improperly cast and contained voids, but the other factor was intense vibration at higher speeds. After her screws fell apart, they had to be replaced by a set from one of the older carriers. They were unsuitable and restricted the ship’s speed to “less than 23 knots” (actually 21.4). When her new screws arrive (2008), her speed will increase to above 23 knots (actually 23.5 her real maximum operational speed, she can do a bit more but the vibration is intense and its not recommended).

    The ship had other operational problems as well, internal flow is not good, supply of munitions is difficult, all the things one expects of a new design team. By the time the design process was finished, the ship weighed 36,600 tons standard, 42,500 tons full load (35 percent and 32.8 percent overweight respectively)


  26. Matt permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:09 pm


    My understanding is that the French Navy doesn’t rely solely on organic E-2C to provide the full AEW picket for the CDG. Instead, the French use a combined force of organic E-2 / E-3 AWACS to provide AEW protection for the CDG.

    In contrast, the USN CVBG typically embarks with 4x E-2, giving them greater capability to provide 24/7 AEW coverage. They can and have augmented this to 6x E-2 in a high threat environment. That’s the nice thing about a big deck – you’ve got plenty of room to make those kind of changes.

    So yes, a CVL could put a “check in the box” in terms of operating an E-2. But beacuse of deck-space limitiations, they’d have a hard time being self-sufficient in terms of AEW.

  27. Scott B. permalink
    January 8, 2010 2:49 pm

    D.E. Reddick said : “Still, it works, doesn’t it.”

    If it were working sooooo smoothly, why did the French start looking at a second CV (N or not) that was at least 50-55,000 tons as early as 2003 ?


  28. D. E. Reddick permalink
    January 8, 2010 2:36 pm


    Still, it works, doesn’t it. That’s what counts, isn’t it. If we were to build a CVL based upon the 45,000 ton LHA-6 America class, then the E-2 Hawkeye family of AEW aircraft should be able to operate from them. I’m just saying it appears possible to use the current E-2C and new E-2D aircraft on a ship one-half the displacement of USN CVNs. Thus, there should be no need for helo-borne AEW platforms or exotic airframes like F-22 AEW Raptors. A CVL should be able to handle both F/A-18G Growlers and E-2D Hawkeyes for future electronic naval aviation warfare requirements.

  29. Scott B. permalink
    January 8, 2010 1:27 pm

    D.E. Reddick said : “The E-2 Hawkeye does not require a CVN supercarrier-sized flight deck to operate from.”

    The French currently operate 3 E-2s from their CDG CVN (which is roughly the same size as USS Oriskany after the SCB-125 conversion, i.e. 40,000+ tons fully loaded).

    And they find it to be a tight fit to say the least…

  30. Matt permalink
    January 8, 2010 10:38 am

    The problem with your concept is that any UAV carried by DD/FF/LCS in the forseeable future is likely to be rotary wing. Rotary wing a/c have inherent altitude limitations (e.g. 16K ft for Scan Eagle.) That’s a real limitation for an AEW platform, where altitude is the key factor in determining radar horizon. I’m not sure you can compensate for this limitation with increased numbers of Scan Eagles.

    If we go the CVL route, but we still need the organic AEW capability that we currently have with E-2/APY-9, I think trying to reproduce with Scan Eagles is a mistake. A better solution would be a land-based, long-endurance AEW UAV assigned to support the CVL.

    (Not to beat a dead horse, but this perfectly illustrates my earlier comment – having 7 guys who can jump 1 foot, is not the same as having 1 guy who can jump 7 feet.)

  31. D. E. Reddick permalink
    January 8, 2010 10:37 am


    The E-2 Hawkeye does not require a CVN supercarrier-sized flight deck to operate from.

    “Oriskany returned to San Diego on 10 March 1964. After overhaul at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, she steamed for refresher training out of San Diego, followed by qualifications for Carrier Air Wing 16. During this period, her flight deck was used to test the E-2 Hawkeye, the Navy’s new airborne early warning aircraft. She also provided orientation to senior officers of eight allied nations.”

  32. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 8, 2010 9:09 am

    The E-2 Hawkeye is a wonderful capability, one of those irreplaceable weapons from the Cold War whose future successor is obviously itself. As long as we are able to deploy it I insists we keep at it, but apparently it can only be used in the presence of $10 billion warships, so there is a mark against its future. At some point then it may have to be replaced, the question is, with what?

    Supposing then in the future each warship carried its own AEW in the form of UAVs like Scan Eagle, though some have said they lack capability, the required huge radome as on the American E-2 means you have to use a big deck to launch such a fairly large aircraft. But I think if you increase the numbers of aerial spies, you would compensate for the lack of a high powered single plane. Perhaps it would more than compensate because the more “eyes in the skies” you have the more likely of detecting a threat that much sooner.

    Radar is getting better. We now can place the magnificent Aegis system in ships as small as corvettes where once only a 10,000 ton cruiser would do. I think we can improve our fleet defense by depending on more smaller platforms like UAVs without loss of capability. Perhaps we aren’t there yet but we are improving constantly. It can only be a matter of time.

  33. Matt permalink
    January 8, 2010 8:48 am

    Reference above — should read: Capabilities of the platform determine where you have to put the base.

    (Serves me right for typing before I’ve had my coffee!)

  34. Matt permalink
    January 8, 2010 8:45 am

    Sarcastic ShockwaveLover wrote:

    “Land based aircraft, by definition, require, require a base, which as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam, for that matter) is immovable and easily targeted by anyone with access to a mortar, explosives etc.”

    Capabilities of the platfrom determin where you have to put the base. For short-legged fighters and helos, yes. But land-based, long-endurance UASs such as BAMS will have capability to stay airbone for 30+ hrs. Endurance translates to range.

    Given sufficient R&D investment I can see many of the ancillary carrier functions eventuallly transferring to land-based UASs. AEW, tanking, even wide-area ASW (which carrier hasn’t had organically since S-3 sundown) could all be done by a BAMS-like platform – leaving more deckspace for pointy nose, bomb droppers.

  35. B.Smitty permalink
    January 8, 2010 8:40 am


    We certainly could use land based AWACS, if they were available. But that depends on having land basing or significant aerial tanking available.

    As SSL said, sat-based AEW would likely be a lot more expensive than building an AEW V-22.

    Another somewhat inexpensive option would be to use JLENS aerostats from ships. But it would have operational limitations.

    As D E Reddick said, you don’t need a 1000ft flight deck to handle E-2s. But you do need catapults and arrestor gear. OTOH, a 1000ft flight deck doesn’t have to be expensive.

  36. Sarcastic ShockwaveLover permalink
    January 8, 2010 4:42 am

    And considering the past history of military satellites, you’d end up losing all the money you saved purchasing smaller carriers due to cost overruns on the sats. And unlike a AWACS, you can’t put a fighter escort into orbit. :P

  37. Sarcastic ShockwaveLover permalink
    January 8, 2010 4:38 am

    Land based aircraft, by definition, require, require a base, which as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam, for that matter) is immovable and easily targeted by anyone with access to a mortar, explosives etc.

    Satellites are vastly more expensive than an AWACS, and would present coverage problems. Considering that a carrier is constantly on the move, you would either have to constantly change the satellite’s orbit to follow it (which would mean a very limited lifespan, as they only have a limited amount of propellant) or set up another sat network, which would require enough sats to cover the entirety of the world’s oceans (and would require more than the minimum for backup).

  38. D. E. Reddick permalink
    January 7, 2010 8:43 pm


    This matter of Chinese ASMBs has been discussed on multiple military blogs and websites. It is not the most recent of news arising from purported efforts by the Chinese PLA Navy to find a way to counteract the presence of USN CVNs.

  39. nico permalink
    January 7, 2010 8:26 pm

    This was just put out by Jane’s “Ballistic trajectory – China develops new anti-ship missile”, how does this effect the big carriers? My first thought was it might be better to develop smaller/numerous carriers. We probably should buy more DDG51 too.

  40. D. E. Reddick permalink
    January 7, 2010 8:19 pm

    Members of the E-2 AEW aircraft family operated from Midway class CVs. These were not the size of modern CVNs. This can be seen at the Wikipedia E-2 webpage with them serving on USS Coral Sea (CV-43).

    During the mid-1960s USS Oriskany (CV-34) served as a test bed for the E-2 Hawkeye platform. Since CV-34 was an angle-decked WW-II era Essex class CV of 30,000+ tons, then concerns about deploying the E-2 Hawkeye family of AEW aircraft on modern CVLs seem rather moot.

  41. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 7, 2010 7:30 pm

    I’m still not convinced one plane, and a prop at that, would bind us to only deploying a 1000 ft flight deck. What about land based air? Satellites?

  42. Joe permalink
    January 7, 2010 6:24 pm

    S.S.L. said: With the current and fast multiplying menagerie of threats to naval vessels, they need all the warning they can get.

    And as Mike often takes time to remind us, all surface ships, especially carriers, are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been. Thus, it would make little sense to minimize capability in this (defensive) area.

  43. Sarcastic ShockwaveLover permalink
    January 7, 2010 4:26 pm

    Interesting ideas as always, but what Smitty says is true. Part of the reason the radars on the E-2 Hawkeyes are so effective is due to their range, which requires a large radome. You can’t shrink or do away with the radome without drastically reducing performance, thus defeating the purpose of AEW. With the current and fast multiplying menagerie of threats to naval vessels, they need all the warning they can get.

  44. B.Smitty permalink
    January 7, 2010 2:04 pm

    Mike said, “Concerning AEW, I can’t imagine that fixed wing air is the only viable alternative here either, considering the use of UAVs for early warning, and the makeshift RN helos used in the Falklands. The AEW issue which I often hear for the need for 1000 ft launch platforms seems a weak, though understandable argument.

    What do you consider “viable”? How much will it cost to develop a new platform? At what range do you want to detect a small sea-skimmer? A 1 sq m fighter? How long should the air vehicle be able to stay aloft? At what altitude? Should it have ESM capability in addition to AEW? Should it have air traffic control capabilities as well?

    You can’t just “check the AEW box” with some makeshift solution and feel comfortable that it’ll do the job.

  45. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 7, 2010 1:11 pm

    Considering that modern precision airpower was created specifically against heavily defended SAM targets, notably the Thanh Hoa Bridge in Vietnam, I don’t see its viability in either irregular or conventional conflicts ending anytime soon.

    Again no one is suggesting doing away with naval airpower, just deploying it differently without gutting essential naval escorts, or forcing crews into extended deployments, and prematurely wearing our ships. If anyone has a better suggestion, I’m ready to listen, but the costs of deploying 100,000 ton warships are killing us.

    Concerning AEW, I can’t imagine that fixed wing air is the only viable alternative here either, considering the use of UAVs for early warning, and the makeshift RN helos used in the Falklands. The AEW issue which I often hear for the need for 1000 ft launch platforms seems a weak, though understandable argument.

  46. elgatoso permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:37 pm

    the above sentences are supost to be together

  47. elgatoso permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:36 pm

    Minisubs in modern form to be carried by fast and long-​​endurance SSNs and SSGNs – such as something that works well in place of the failed ASDS project, and various UUVs and sub-​​launched UAVs – deserve a priority in development and acquisition funding

  48. elgatoso permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:36 pm

    A good idea,IMHO,from Joe Buff from Defense tech

  49. D. E. Reddick permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:26 pm

    What about a CATOBAR CVL with the addition of a ski-jump. Have the ski-jump oriented 3 degrees off center axis to starboard. Running away from that could be a standard catapult at 3 degrees port from the center axis. The bow would certainly be unusual, but wouldn’t such a configuration be possible on a notional 45,000 ton CVL derived from the LHA-6 class. If possible, then you could launch F/A-18E & F Hornets, F/A-18G Growlers, and E-2D Hawkeyes along with both F-35B & F-35C configurations from the same deck. That would provide some operational flexibility in terms of what sort of air group package one could put together.

    To achieve such a CVL, take the USS America class LHA-6 and reduce the size of its starboard island and shift it further aft. Shift the starboard elevator to a position forward of the reduced island to service that ski-jump and forward catapult. Then shift the port elevator aft nearly to the stern. In between the starboard island and the aft port elevator create a standard 7 degree angled landing deck. On that angled landing deck also position a second catapult for launching aircraft from port amidships. Some degree of adding sponsons to support a wider flight deck is going to be needed to achieve such for this CVL, but look at what was done with USS Midway (CV-41) over the course of her career. With two deck-edge elevators serving two catapults and the option of a ski-jump then this sort of CVL could operate a wide range of navalised aircraft.

    For propulsion adapt the large nuclear power plants developed for the Ohio class SSBNs. With two of them then these CVLs could be speedy flight decks. Otherwise, the planned installation of marine gas turbines as found in the LHA-6 class would leave this sort of CVL a rather slow boat.

  50. B.Smitty permalink
    January 7, 2010 10:41 am

    Jed, I also agree with you that committing to a CVL solution when the only viable, fixed-wing aircraft that can fly from it is still VERY early in its development life. This is too big a risk, IMHO. Add to that the need to develop a completely new, probably very expensive, AEW design. I bet a V-22-based AEW solution could run $200 million or more a pop. We would need at least 60 to put on 8-10 CVLs with some attrition spares and training aircraft. So that could be a $12+ billion expense right there!

    If we want smaller, cheaper carriers, they should be conventional CATOBAR designs that can fly EXISTING aircraft types like the Super Hornet and Hawkeye (plus possibly UCAS-N and/or Predator-C down the road). If the F-35B or C works out, then all the better.

  51. B.Smitty permalink
    January 7, 2010 10:28 am

    Jed said, “Third – “one bomb, one hit” – well yeah, on a good day, with air supremacy / air dominance for our side. What about when the enemy is jamming GPS, and chucking S300 SAMs at you, and Sa17’s on your run into target ?

    This whole “one bomb, one hit” thing is just nonsense, IMHO. It implies we always have precise targeting and we always destroy the target with the first hit.

    Plus, it plays down the frequent need to hit a LOT of targets in a short span of time. Just look at Operation Anaconda. During continuing operations in March ’02, we dropped 3,500 bombs. And that’s just one operation, for one month!

    Precision munitions may have dramatically reduced the number of bombs needed to destroy a target, but air power has become so lethal and effective that it frequently supplants other systems like artillery as the only fire support option for troops on the ground.

    So the demand for strike sorties and CAS remains high even in the day of “one bomb, one (sometimes) hit”.

  52. Jed permalink
    January 7, 2010 9:19 am


    I agree somewhat with Matt. Although I am all for some CVL, they should be flexible adjuncts to, not replacements for (all) CVN.

    First developing CVL is putting all eggs in the F35B basket – better keep your fingers crossed it doesn’t turn out to be a turkey….

    Second, CVL has no capacity to carry AEW aircraft. Gonna develop an AEW V22 variant ?

    Third – “one bomb, one hit” – well yeah, on a good day, with air supremacy / air dominance for our side. What about when the enemy is jamming GPS, and chucking S300 SAMs at you, and Sa17’s on your run into target ?

    I know the “current enemy” does not have those capabilities – so CVL = good. But you need CVN to provide a base for AEW, and possibly even more importantly for electronic attack in the shape of the Growler.

    Finally nuclear power – I ‘don’t know if you heard, but oil is a finite resource, your country even fights wars to ensure it has access to it (yeah, we all know the other BS reasons, but lets be realistic about Iraq). So it might be sensible to put an SSBN derived powerplant into an CVL design, yes it may cost more upfront, but just think of the points you would win from the liberals on reduced carbon foot print !!

  53. Matt permalink
    January 7, 2010 8:54 am

    Mike –

    I read the article in question. Concerning CAPT Hughe’s article vis-a-vis CVN vs. CVL mix, a co-worker and I discussed this issue. By concentrating on the low-end capability by trading CVNs for CVLs, there’s definitely a loss in future capability and capacity that isn’t adequately addressed. Example: We used the KITTY HAWK as a SPECOPS airbase during OEF — something that was never forseen as a use for a big-deck, and likley wouldn’t have been possible with a smaller frame.

    To put it simply, having 7 guys who can jump 1 foot is not the same as having 1 guy who can just 7 feet. The guy who can jump 7 feet is more likely to be able to adapt to the unforseen circumstances which can and should be expected in future conflicts.

    Incidentally: why is it that any viewpoint which aligns with your own instantly billed as “exciting” or “profound?” I’d hope for a more critical eye for detail and source. CAPT Hughes is (gasp) a long-retired SWO. You think there’s any black-shoe parochialism at play?


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