Medium Aircraft Carriers: Why the U.S. Navy Said No

 In Air, Forces & Capabilities, FVEY, P5, Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste

Here’s What You Need To Remember: Despite the pro­posed advan­tages of the Medium Aircraft Carrier the dis­ad­van­tages of the small­er plat­form ulti­mate­ly made it unat­trac­tive. The advan­tages of larger ships were so sig­nif­i­cant that, as it could afford the larger ships, the Navy would con­tin­ue to buy them. The Navy pressed on with an all-super­car­ri­er fleet, and today the entire car­ri­er fleet is com­posed of nuclear-pow­ered super­car­ri­ers.

The United States Navy’s ten nuclear super­car­ri­ers are the largest war­ships on the high seas. Home to more than five thou­sand sailors and Marines, the Nimitz-class car­ri­ers are nuclear-pow­ered and can carry nearly ninety combat air­craft. Still, it didn’t have to be this way: had the Navy taken a dif­fer­ent tack sev­er­al decades ago, the gigan­tic ships would have been sup­ple­ment­ed with small­er, more cost effec­tive flat­tops — the Medium Aircraft Carriers.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy oper­at­ed two types of car­ri­ers: larger fleet car­ri­ers and escort car­ri­ers. The larger car­ri­ers com­prised the main offen­sive strik­ing power of the fleet, car­ry­ing a mix­ture of fight­ers, dive bombers, and tor­pe­do bombers. The escort or “jeep” car­ri­ers were an econ­o­my of force mea­sure, small­er ships with small­er air wings designed to pro­vide air sup­port to con­voys and fill in for fleet car­ri­ers when the bigger ships were oper­at­ing else­where.

After the war the Navy oper­at­ed a range of car­ri­ers, from full-sized nuclear-pow­ered fleet car­ri­ers such as USS Enterprise to the small­er attack car­ri­ers and anti­sub­ma­rine car­ri­ers of the wartime Essex class. Gradually how­ev­er as the older, small­er car­ri­ers aged out they were replaced by super­car­ri­ers. No small­er car­ri­ers were built, and by the mid-1980s almost all of the U.S. Navy’s car­ri­ers were at least a thou­sand feet long, with the excep­tion of the USS Midway and USS Coral Sea.

The drift towards large car­ri­ers was a mix­ture of pol­i­tics and prac­ti­cal­i­ty. Although defense dol­lars flowed rel­a­tive­ly freely during the Cold War, it was safer to pro­pose buying one large car­ri­er in one year than two small­er car­ri­ers in back-to-back years. An unfore­seen bud­getary emer­gency could result in the second car­ri­er being can­celled.

Large car­ri­ers were more cost effec­tive. One hull with a six-thou­sand-man crew was cheap­er to oper­ate than two hulls that required a total of nine thou­sand men — but col­lec­tive­ly had just as many planes. A single car­ri­er also required only one set of cruis­ers, destroy­ers and frigates as escorts. Finally, larger car­ri­ers could also gen­er­ate more air sor­ties than a small­er car­ri­er, and could oper­ate more and larger air­craft.

Still, large car­ri­ers are extreme­ly expen­sive, both to buy and to oper­ate, and ele­ments both inside and out­side the Navy searched for alter­na­tives. During the 1970s, then chief of naval oper­a­tions Adm. Elmo Zumwalt strug­gled with the twin prob­lems of a declin­ing post-Vietnam defense budget and the obso­les­cence of large num­bers of World War II – era Navy ships. If Zumalt didn’t do some­thing, he risked a huge drop in the number of battle-force ships.

Zumwalt’s pro­pos­al to keep the size of the fleet large was to create a high-low mix of ships split between very capa­ble high-end ships and less capa­ble low-end ships. This extend­ed to car­ri­ers, and Zumwalt pro­posed a so-called “Medium Aircraft Carrier” to sup­ple­ment the exist­ing super­car­ri­ers. The Medium Aircraft Carrier would weigh in at around sixty-one thou­sand tons, be con­ven­tion­al­ly pow­ered, and have a 908-foot-long flight deck. The ship would an carry air wing of up to sixty planes and have a total com­ple­ment, includ­ing air crew, of just 3,400 per­son­nel.

The Medium Aircraft Carrier would have just two steam cat­a­pults instead of the four that were on larger car­ri­ers, mean­ing it could launch planes at just half the rate of larger car­ri­ers. It would have just two ele­va­tors instead of three. Although it had fewer planes, it delet­ed fleet air defense and anti­sub­ma­rine war­fare air­craft from the mix to con­cen­trate on strik­ing power, giving nearly as much as a super­car­ri­er.

There were also advan­tages in build­ing more, small­er car­ri­ers. For the first time in decades the number of car­ri­ers dropped below twenty, making it increas­ing­ly unlike­ly that enough flight decks would be avail­able during a con­ven­tion­al war to ser­vice all require­ments. Spreading naval avi­a­tion out among more plat­forms made it more resis­tant to indi­vid­ual wartime car­ri­er losses. Finally, the increas­ing impor­tance of new oper­at­ing areas such as the Persian Gulf stretched exist­ing resources.

Despite the pro­posed advan­tages of the Medium Aircraft Carrier the dis­ad­van­tages of the small­er plat­form ulti­mate­ly made it unat­trac­tive. The advan­tages of larger ships were so sig­nif­i­cant that, as it could afford the larger ships, the Navy would con­tin­ue to buy them. The Navy pressed on with an all-super­car­ri­er fleet, and today the entire car­ri­er fleet is com­posed of nuclear-pow­ered super­car­ri­ers.

The story isn’t over. The costs of the new Ford-class car­ri­ers have even seapow­er advo­cates as Sen. John McCain search­ing for alter­na­tives: in January 2017, the Arizona sen­a­tor released a white paper, “Restoring American Power,” that called for a “high/low mix” of air­craft car­ri­ers, pos­si­bly involv­ing a vari­ant of the America-class amphibi­ous trans­port equipped with the short-takeoff and vertical-landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter. As long as the United States buys air­craft car­ri­ers, the high/low mix debate will con­tin­ue.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and nation­al-secu­ri­ty writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the DiplomatForeign PolicyWar is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofound­ed the defense and secu­ri­ty blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This first appeared sev­er­al years ago and is being repost­ed due to reader inter­est.

Image: Reuters.

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