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Aircraft Carrier Transformations Pt 1

January 25, 2010

A recent ONI graphic of the planned Chinese carrier. Note the lack of a ski jump. Thanks to Scoop Deck!

The Enticement of Small Decks

The primary argument against the building of small carriers (CVL) by the US Navy is an apparent lack of performance as compared to large deck Nimitz nuclear vessels (CVN). This assumption becomes more transparent when you consider the dramatic technical advances naval aircraft have achieved in the past few decades:

  1. Modern naval aircraft such as the F/A-18 Hornet are far easier to maintain than Cold War legacy aircraft like the F-14 Tomcat or the A-6 Intruder. This allows a greater turnaround and relaunching of planes, and increased sorties.
  2. The use of Precision Guided Munitions in all naval aircraft has reduced the need for multiple sorties to destroy a target, also increasing the number of targets each plane can destroy. It is no exaggeration that a PGM armed warplane has the capability of an entire pre-precision era airwing.

Viewed in this light, the CVL is no less capable when compared to a larger ship. Add to this the price of a CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) CVL, which can cost from one-half to one-third that of a Nimitz CVN and you have more funds available for more carriers, or ideally a greater fleet of escorts which are always in short supply.

Nimitz Class Light Carrier?

Since as early as 1991 and First Gulf War there has been a significant decrease in the size of carrier air wings. Designed to carry up to 90 warplanes, the Nimitz’s and her sisters often carry less than 70. As aircraft age or become worn out from war service, too costly to replace, we might expect this number to decrease even further.

In 1991, the US Navy carrier air wing consisted of 5 fighter and strike squadrons. Today this has dwindled to 4 squadrons, with a Marine F/A-18 unit typically being one of these. It appears then the price of the large hulls so prohibitive, $6 billion for a Nimitz with the Ford class averaging $10 billion each, little funds are left for adequate planes and adequate numbers, with the Navy deploying only 3 squadrons instead of 5.

The giant CVNs which increase in price and size are now in the light carrier category in terms of the quantity of its airwing. The argument might be the squadrons would be increased during wartime, except the USAF has no carrier capable planes like the Royal Air Force Harriers to swap out on carrier decks. Neither would much help come from the Marines, who have their own separate missions and already are buttressing the Navy’s big ships with a single squadron each.

India Stumbles, Recovers

India’s decades long search for replacement of its aging carrier fleet, seemed to be near fulfillment early in the last decade when it was announced she was to receive for free the former Soviet Kiev hybrid aircraft, for only the price of a refurbishment. The Admiral Ghorshkov would lose its powerful main armament, transforming her into a true carrier able to operate MIGs from a 14.3 degree ski-jump. The ongoing trouble of the newly renamed INS Vikramaditya has more to do with the decline in Russian manufacturing and shipbuilding, than the vessel itself, though it reveals the extreme difficulties faced by major industrial powers for deploying such vessels.

India also plans to build her own Big Decks, with a 40,000 ton “indigenous aircraft carrier” named Vikrant. Like the former Russian ship, she will be equipped with a ski jump and navalised MIG fighters. A larger 50,000 ton home-built vessel is scheduled for commission in 2017 equipped with steam catapults and up to 40 aircraft. This seems to be a much better design than the previous two ships, as it provides a good balance between available aircraft and ship size. This type of carrier is what the Nimitz replacement should have been.

The Best of Plans, the Worst of Plans

Great Britain is constructing it’s first large deck aircraft carrier since the decommissioning of HMS Ark Royal (R09) in 1978 (not to be confused with the new Ark Royal Harrier carrier). The HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are impressive in size, 65,000 tons as is her aircraft complement of 40 F-35B V/STOL aircraft. As large as the vessels are it is notable the lack of a CATOBAR ability, which would seem to be the primary benefit of a 280 meter flight deck.

Now the ski jump which has also been placed on Russian ships is a proven way to enhance the performance of the Harrier jump jet, and soon will service the unproven F-35B. Britain pioneered the use of vertol aircraft on her 3 Invincible class light carriers (20,000 tons full). The primary advantage of V/STOL (vertical short take-off and landing) is its ability to operate from small, unconventional decks. Other than their ability to launch from short runways, such planes have little attributes over conventional planes dependent on catapult launch, and are actually shorter in range and payload.

The giant Queen Elizabeth’s then become the worst of both worlds. It has neither the added capability and performance of a catapult plane, nor the small cost and adaptability of a light carrier. Because of the high price paid for two giant unconventional ships, it appears they will now go to sea without the a full complement of the F-35B V/STOL, or be forced to share with either warship. The British then receive less capability than if they deployed the 40 V/STOL planes on 3 light carriers, than the only one fully equipped supercarrier they can conceivably support under current budgets.

Tomorrow-The Logic of Small Carriers.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2014 10:48 am

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about
    this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home
    a bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent blog. An excellent read.
    I’ll definitely be back.

  2. January 13, 2013 2:32 pm

    Does anyone know what physical energy is the most destructive and natural killer to life is? How about the second most destrutive power?

    Small Carriers make sense, till you get silly like a one or two plane carrier.
    What does not make sense is a non stealthy carrier. Lower the radar section, put an open roof over the launch platforms , one that can be raised and lowered, have the airplanes leave like it was an outer space carrier, planes fly out an opening.Use prism’s and lasers to make the ship look like the horizon at sea. Ie maintain sea netural colors and brightness/contrast

    To answer my question 1. Gamma radiation, 2. Ozone
    No ship in any navy has any significant protection from Gamma radiation. Mankind can make gamma radiation appear on any given point across the surface of the Earth. He can make enough gamma radiation to kill everyone on a ship, if the ship is not ripped apart in the creation of gamma radiation. Gamma radiation destroys atomic structures like DNA, “sorry Hulk, you are smashed.”
    Ozone is relatively easy to protect yourself from, don’t breath it or have your bare skin exposed for long periods of time to extremely high levels.of Ozone
    To defend against Gamma Radiation? No be there is probably the best defense. Followed by so much protective coationg of substances like gold or lead, that the ship cannot float or have any real internal volume or portage capasity.

    We always plan for the last war we fought and the last carrier war really was the pacific ocean in WW II. Come to think of it it was the only Carrier war. I will call the rest of the conflicts Actions, as in many cases only one side had carriers. Not to say that the Carriers in all these other actions were not significant to the conflict. It is just that it was not carrier vs carrier as it was in WWII.

    We have no abilty to stop Gamma radiation, Star Trek Shields don’t exist, nor do we have Star Trek’s deflectors either.What we have is Six to Seven billion people and growing, A United States with its war capasity Gutted all but destroyed, and a world that did not become less warlike, just afraid of war. Our Children often do not understand our fears as adults, so thus you seen an american president claim, “You are either for us, or against us.” He never fought in a war, just like most european and north american people we have not lived through a war. Not like it will be in the next major world conflict.

  3. Scott B. permalink
    January 26, 2010 1:51 pm

    Mike Burleson said : ” The purpose of warships aren’t just to survive but also to fight.”

    You cannot fight when you’re dead.

    As the much regretted DK Brown pointed out in his excellent book entitled “The Future British Surface Fleet” (page 73) :

    “The common philosophy of the US Navy and the Royal Navy is well illustrated by their respective slogans ‘Fight Hurt’ and ‘To Float, to Move, to Fight’.”

    This hard-learned lesson, which was paid with the blood of our sailors, seems to be systematically ignored by the so-called Reformers (e.g. Thomas P.M. Barnett) who keep pushing for expendable warship, i.e. disposable crews at the end of the road.

    Of course, they are not the ones who will start bleeding (if) when the sh!t hits the fan…

  4. Charley permalink
    January 26, 2010 10:43 am

    I suppose a good question is why the CVN’s are putting to sea with fewer warplanes. Is it because the PGM equipped airframes are that much more efficient at killing? Is the Navy not training enough aviators? Perhaps the Navy can’t afford to buy the aircraft to stand up the squadrons needed to fill out the airwings. Certainly if the Navy follows through and buys the F-35C, we will see even fewer aircraft on deck, and this will stimulate discussion about how many aircraft carriers are needed (read: affordable) to support worldwide operations. Anyway, I’m straying. Aircraft compliment can be surged for an emergency short-term deployment with existing airframes. For an extended commitment, I’m not so sure.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 26, 2010 9:56 am

    Charley, thanks for your comment. I can’t see though how placing fewer planes on larger decks, balances out their theoretical survivability. The purpose of warships aren’t just to survive but also to fight.

  6. Charley permalink
    January 26, 2010 9:29 am

    There is a passive defense capability of a large deck carrier: the theoretical ability to absorb more battle damage.

  7. Chuck58 permalink
    January 26, 2010 8:24 am

    Interesting, Mike – thanks.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 26, 2010 4:43 am

    Chuck58–A very unlikely proposition but if the CF-18s carry the same landing gear as USN versions, there should be little difficulty other than the pilot training. According to Wikipedia, these are carrier ready:

  9. Chuck58 permalink
    January 25, 2010 11:25 pm

    Mike Burleson said: “The argument might be the squadrons would be increased during wartime, except the USAF has no carrier capable planes like the Royal Air Force Harriers to swap out on carrier decks. Neither would much help come from the Marines, who have their own separate missions and already are buttressing the Navy’s big ships with a single squadron each.”

    On the topic of putting more aircraft on our NIMITZ/FORDs in a wartime scenario:
    how much would it cost to navalize the Canadian CF-118’s?

    Or, would it just be more cost-efficient to await all of the allied variant JSF’s?

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 25, 2010 6:05 pm

    As I pointed out, the CVNs are already going to sea with light carrier aircraft complements, yet we insist on building large decks, and only large decks. The Nimitz class is officially labeled as carry 85 planes, yet it only loads 70 or less. The new Ford class is listed carrying 75, yet is some 3,000 tons heavier, and $3-$4 billion more expensive.

    Officially this sounds like a death spiral. The extra sorties Tangosix was discussing doesn’t exist since you are going to sea with fewer planes, and increasingly fewer large decks because the navy can’t contemplate reasonably priced alternatives.

    Also Tango, compared to a pre-precision age carrier loading the full 1980 CVN complement (back then) of 90-100 planes, the 30 planes of a modern CVL would be far superior in firepower and sortie rates.

  11. B.Smitty permalink
    January 25, 2010 4:48 pm

    D. E. Reddick,

    I think if you’re going to make that many changes you might as well start with a fresh design. I would also worry about cat clearances around the ski jump, and how much parking space all of it would take up. Is it really worth it just to fly the F-35B?

    With a CATOBAR option, USMC could save a lot of money and just buy Super Hornets. These are primarily CAS aircraft anyway, right? Do they really need stealth? If so, the USN can fly F-35Cs off of the same deck (or UCAS-N).

    And partnering with the Brits on a CATOBAR CVF/LHA might allow us to cancel the F-35B entirely, without undue political costs.

  12. Scott B. permalink
    January 25, 2010 4:32 pm

    I’d hate to rain on Mike’s CVL parade, but I am under the uncomfortable impression that there is some sort of confusion over displacement in this discussion.

    The British CVF, with a full load displacement of ~65,000 tons (start of service life) is labeled as the giant Queen Elizabeth class.

    At the same time, the Indian Vikrant follow-on, with a standard displacement of ~50,000 tons, is described as providing “a good balance between available aircraft and ship size.”

    Now, am I the only one here to suspect that a standard displacement of ~50,000 tons should translate into a full load displacement of ~65,000 tons ?

    How can the same full load displacement of 65,000 tons mean a giant (read : oversized, exquisite,…) CV in the first case (i.e. UK) and, at the same time, represent a good balance in the second case (i.e. India) ?


  13. B.Smitty permalink
    January 25, 2010 3:37 pm

    Well, in my perfect world, I would jump across the pond to help solve both the RN and USN problems by jointly developing a CATOBAR CVF.

    Though in reality, I am sure the NIH syndrome would force an enlarged LHA on us. Yes, EMALS and other carrier systems would likely demand greater power generation.

  14. D. E. Reddick permalink
    January 25, 2010 3:34 pm

    B. Smitty,

    I wrote the following back on January 7 in the Return of the Small Carriers thread here at New Wars:

    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.

  15. January 25, 2010 3:23 pm

    “Rather than scaling down our big carriers, maybe we should scale up our little ones. The LHAs are almost CVF sized as it is. Making a true angle-deck, CATOBAR carrier/LPH shouldn’t cost that much more, and it would offer far more air wing flexibility (not to mention hedging against a complete F-35B meltdown).”

    I did point out to Mike B. that his small America class LHA weren’t that tiny.

    Are you proposing a bigger engine fit too?

  16. January 25, 2010 3:13 pm

    BZ tangosix. The RN have squeezed a lot out of the Invincible class. And by doing so actually proved that small carriers aren’t the way to go. I have been on all members of the class several times, each time they seem to get smaller and smaller.

    We desperately need an extra pair of Darings to ensure that the CVF and any amphib group are covered (as a minimum.)

    I remember amazing my father by explaining to him that the Invincible primary task was to escort (by providing an ASW screen) for US strike carriers.

    It is a shame we don’t have the courage to go nuclear like our friends across the Channel.

  17. B.Smitty permalink
    January 25, 2010 3:13 pm

    Rather than scaling down our big carriers, maybe we should scale up our little ones. The LHAs are almost CVF sized as it is. Making a true angle-deck, CATOBAR carrier/LPH shouldn’t cost that much more, and it would offer far more air wing flexibility (not to mention hedging against a complete F-35B meltdown).

  18. January 25, 2010 2:31 pm


    Mike Burleson said:

    “The use of Precision Guided Munitions in all naval aircraft has reduced the need for multiple sorties to destroy a target, also increasing the number of targets each plane can destroy. It is no exaggeration that a PGM armed warplane has the capability of an entire pre-precision era airwing.”

    This is absolutely correct and it is the reason airforces need fewer aircraft today than they had in the past.

    Mike Burleson said:

    “Viewed in this light, the CVL is no less capable when compared to a larger ship.”

    This however does not make any sense at all,the bigger carrier has more aircraft flying more sorties and doing more damage to the enemy.
    No matter how big the carrier is it still has to defend it’s self.
    The number of air defence sorties the carrier must fly is defined by the threat posed by the enemy,not by the size of the carrier.

    Take for example a small carrier which can sustain 20 fast jet sorties a day and a big carrier can sustain 100 sorties a day.
    In a situation where 20 daily sorties are required for air defence,the small carrier can do nothing more than defend itself while the big carrier has 80 “spare” sorties to attack the enemy on land,sea or in the air.
    Thus the large carrier is an effective weapon while the small carrier is the proverbial self licking lollipop,an expensive asset able to do nothing more than defend it’s self.

    Of course,if the defence of the carrier requires more sorties than the small ship can generate then you will need another carrier and that will cost a lot more than building a bigger ship.

    At the height of the Falklands War Royal Navy Sea Harriers were flying 60 sorties a day against a small air force from a developing nation.
    The small carrier H.M.S.Invincible was able to generate only about one third of the required sorties.
    If the larger carrier H.M.S.Hermes had not been present,the British would have lost the Falklands War.

    In the era of precision guided weapons,American forces alone flew over 18,000 fast jet sorties during the month long invasion of Iraq in 2003.
    That average of about 600 fast jet sorties a day could easily have been generated by just 6 large Nimitz class carriers or 10 smaller Queen Elizabeth class carriers but it would have required about 30 small Invincible class carriers to generate the same amount of air power.

    It is worth considering the cost implications of that.
    A Queen Elizabeth class carrier willcost about £2,200 Million (if they are delayed that will increase the cost to about £2,500 Million).
    The current H.M.S.Ark Royal cost £332 Million back in 1985,civilian inflation rates would put that at £760 Million in 2009.
    However,defence inflation runs at double civilian inflation which suggests a more realistic estimate would be about £1,500 Million in todays money.
    That is about the same price as the Italian carrier Cavour.
    Running costs for the Invincible class are about £50-£60 Million per ship per year.
    The Queen Elizabeth class will cost about £50 Million a year to run (they have smaller crews than the Invincibles).
    With the Invincibles having a life of about 35 years and the Queen Elizabeths expected to last up to 50 years,both class heve have very similar annualised lifecycle costs of about £100 Millon per ship per year,though this is a very rough way to work things out.
    If we need 3 Invincible class carriers to do the job of 1 Queen Elizabeth class ship,it will cost us 3 times as much!

    Let us not forget that every carrier needs escorts and replenishment vessels,the escorts alone usually cost more than the aircraft carrier.

    American carriers are much more expensive to buy and operate than the British ships,a Nimitz is about twice the price of a Queen Elizabeth class and a Ford class may cost as much as 4 times the price of a Queen Elizabeth class.
    American carriers are expensive partly because they are nuclear powered but mostly because,like most American warships,they are built in expensive American shipyards and manned to United States Navy standards.
    However,the high number of sorties they generate is in proportion to their increased cost.

    It is easy to see why the Royal Navy (and every other navy) would rather have a small number of large carriers than a large number of smaller carriers.
    Small carriers cost too much!


  19. January 25, 2010 1:46 pm

    “I think the only way to get out of the valley of airframe numbers in both land- and carrier-based tactical manned aviation is to unify them.”

    I agree. Scrapping the RAF would save us millions. :)

  20. Distiller permalink
    January 25, 2010 1:24 pm

    I think the only way to get out of the valley of airframe numbers in both land- and carrier-based tactical manned aviation is to unify them. It should not be too expensive and difficult to keep all the aircrews carrier qualified IF – IF! – aircraft recovery is automated. This is not a question of technology, that is a question of naval aviators’ egos. And looking at the F-35B and its Playstation-like landing procedure we’re almost there anyway. Just my take on it.

    The issue with smaller (medium, that is) carriers is (and I’m still a fan of them), that on a fleet level (meaning incl construction and maintainance facilities, escorts, manning, &c&c) to *pay* for them you have to get 2 medium for 1 heavy – big question is that do-able? For the USN to just build a smaller carrier wouldn’t make sense, since say, 40.000ts +/- doesn’t make a cost difference on the fleet level. So yes, go for the big boys. For anybody entering the business these days the 50/55.000ts range 2-cat carrier is probably the sweet spot.

    Agree on the CVF.

  21. Matthew S. permalink
    January 25, 2010 11:06 am

    Now this I do agree with. I don’t normally agree with the smaller ships advocacy. However, you make great points about carrier size. Also, the aircraft complement is in the mid 60s these days. I don’t understand why the USN is continuing with these behemoths. They probably should be about the size of the Charles de Gaulle.

    Also, I agree with you on the Royal Navy carriers which have no catapult. I don’t understand that thought process.


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