Aircraft Carrier Transformations Pt 1
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:
- 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.
- 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.