Since World War II, the crown jewel of naval fleets has been the aircraft carrier. Behemoth ships often compared to floating cities, aircraft carriers have crews numbering in the thousands and several dozen aircraft embarked at a time.
Because air warfare and aircraft carriers evolved concurrently, their histories are rather intertwined. Air power rapidly became a necessity in World War II because it provided ground troops immense advantages, allowing them to break through enemy lines while also reducing opposing troop numbers. Concurrently, air power allowed for the accomplishment of strategic objectives by targeting critical pieces of infrastructure such as bridges and power plants, as well as logistics capabilities.
Although the United States had its own fleet of carriers before World War II began, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated that an expeditionary air capability was an immense military asset. No longer was proximity to friendly territory needed to launch massive air assaults. Aircraft carriers allowed nations to do so across the globe, with no fixed footprint. In the Pacific theater, American aircraft carriers repeatedly supported amphibious assaults on Japanese-controlled islands, and provided the dive-bombing capabilities that brought many ships in the Japanese Navy to their end. Even the Doolittle Raids on Tokyo, far-reaching bombing missions that allowed the United States to touch the Japanese homeland, were launched from carriers.
Following its victory in World War II, the United States maintained its carrier fleet in order to play its new and expanding role in international affairs. Before the war, battleships had been the capital ships of the US fleet, serving both as command and control hubs and as visible pieces of American power. Aircraft carriers usurped the role and began to anchor US fleets in what were originally called carrier battle groups, now referred to as carrier strike groups.
With the arrival of the nuclear age, naval power saw one of its biggest shifts in both capability and strategy. Seeing the immense utility of ships possessing the capability of territorial independence and unlimited range, the US Navy tasked Admiral Hyman Rickover with the project of developing the first US nuclear-powered vessel. This project culminated in the deployment of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine. No longer were proximity to friendly ports or limited operational duration matters of concern. Nuclear-powered ships could be rapidly retasked and extend their deployments at the President’s command, without significant logistical constraints, and maintained the capacity to do so around the globe. Within a few years of the deployment of the USS Nautilus, the Navy commissioned its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the storied USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 1962. It would be the first of the eleven nuclear-powered carriers that have served in the US fleet.
Over the next forty-seven years, culminating in the commissioning of the USS George H.W. Bush in 2009, the United States constructed the largest, most capable class of ships in the world. The Nimitz class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers served as the most tangible example of United States military and economic power; they have served in every conflict the United States has been engaged in since 1975. Nimitz-class carriers are powered by two nuclear reactors that provide the ship with uninterrupted power source for twenty-five years, at which point the ships undergo their midlife refueling. The two nuclear reactors, in addition to powering each ship’s propulsion and supplying electricity for its day-to-day operations, are also responsible for launching and recovering the up to ninety aircraft embarked with steam catapults and arresting wires.
With the USS Nimitz scheduled to be decommissioned in the mid-2020s and the first ship in the Gerald R. Ford class of nuclear-powered carriers having been commissioned in July, a debate has emerged over the proper role and design of aircraft carriers in the current threat environment.
The Current Carrier Fleet
As of 2017, the United States naval fleet contains ten active carriers, of which all belong to the Nimitz class. Displacing over one hundred thousand tons, these ships possess an indefinite range and the capability to support air operations of over ninety aircraft. With four catapults and four large aircraft elevators each capable of transporting two planes at once, the Nimitz class carriers form the backbone of US naval capabilities and are the centerpiece of America’s carrier strike groups (CSGs). Each CSG consists of a carrier, its complement of planes (air wing), and its embarked escorts. In recent years, a Nimitz-class air wing possesses around sixty-four aircraft in various combinations. This frequently includes two or three dozen F/A-18 Super Hornets and up to another dozen F/A-18C Hornets. In addition, the Marine Corps frequently deploys its own F/A-18 Hornets alongside the combat component of the Naval Air Wing. The naval air wing also includes a detachment of immensely capable E/A-18G Growler Electronic Attack Aircraft, several E-2D Hawkeye early warning aircraft, and a few helicopters and small cargo planes. The other ships in a strike group frequently include one Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser for air space protection, and a destroyer squadron consisting of three Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers. Frequently, an attack submarine will join the CSG in order to provide additional protection from sub-surface threats.
The next generation of nuclear-powered carriers, the Gerald R. Ford class, maintains many of the same capabilities as the Nimitz class, with a variety of upgrades including electromagnetic catapults that increase the sortie generation rate of each carrier, increased power generation capability to allow the incorporation of 21st-century weapons systems, and significantly reduced crew requirements due to computer automation. As of this moment, the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first ship in the class is preparing to enter active service, the USS John F. Kennedy is under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, and the new generation of the USS Enterprise is under contract and approaching the beginning of its nearly ten-year construction process. These ships will serve the United States for nearly fifty years.
In addition to its Nimitz-class supercarriers, the US Navy also possesses a lesser-known fleet of amphibious assault ships, a type of vessel that is roughly equivalent in size and capability to the smaller aircraft carriers of several other nations around the world. Currently, the US Navy operates eight Wasp-class vessels, each of which is capable of transporting an entire US Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to battle. This includes a multitude of smaller amphibious landing craft, nearly two thousand Marines, and up to two dozen aircraft including VTOL fighters, helicopters, and tiltrotor aircraft. The capabilities enclosed in one Wasp-class amphibious assault ship allow for US Marine Corps operations, anywhere on the globe, with a full air support, transportation, and logistics capability.
The new generation of amphibious assault ships (LHA), the America class, modernized the Wasp class for the 21st century. The first few ships in the class removed the well deck of previous generations of LHA in order to allow for greater aviation capabilities. This decision was later reversed for future ships in the class, of which eleven are planned in total and two have been completed. The America class’s biggest improvement over the Wasp class is its ability to embark an entire air wing of F-35B Lightnings, which can take off and land vertically. The Marine Corps is purchasing several hundred F-35Bs to provide a stealth air capability for its MEUs, allowing it to further its operational independence around the globe.
A 21st-Century Threat Environment
For decades, carriers have operated with near impunity around the world’s oceans, with the only threat centering around Soviet submarines designed to quietly follow and sink US carriers in the event of major war. But over the last fifteen years, immense strides have been made in developing Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) weapons systems that significantly inhibit the operational freedom of US surface ships, chief among them being aircraft carriers. The most visible indicator of this threat has been the development of the DF-21D and DF-26 “carrier killer” ballistic missiles by China. These weapons systems are launched, exit the atmosphere, and then barrel toward carriers at hypersonic velocities. An object traveling at such high speeds is incredibly difficult to intercept using today’s means. Although their ability to hit moving vessels is thus far unproven, the United States cannot afford to take the risk with ships containing five thousand American military personnel and costing over $10 billion. And as hypersonic weapons systems proliferate, this threat will only increase.
China and Russia have also both been at work developing more advanced anti-ship missiles, such as China’s YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship missile and Russia’s Klub missile. These missiles far outrange their American counterparts, and could theoretically out-maneuver point-based defense systems that have thus far been very successful at protecting all US naval vessels. Concurrently, both nations have been developing more advanced torpedoes that pose significant threats to US naval vessels. One such example, currently being researched, originally began development during the Soviet Union: a Russian supercavitating torpedo. Cavitation is the phenomenon that allows water to boil at extremely low temperatures when in low-pressure environments. What Russia’s supercavitating torpedo does is direct the engine heat to the front of the torpedo, rather than behind, thereby boiling the water in front of the torpedo and allowing it to travel through an indefinite air pocket. Because of the reduced resistance of the torpedo traveling through air rather than water, Russia’s new torpedo can approach speeds of nearly two hundred miles per hour. Although utilizing this phenomenon prevents the torpedo from being able to turn significantly (a small shift in direction would result in a piece of the torpedo leaving its self generated air cavity, and the water resistance at such high speeds would destroy the torpedo immediately), it still poses a distinct threat if successful.
In addition, China and Russia, and recently Iran, have increased the deployment of advanced surface-to-air missile systems, including the S-300 in Iran, the S-400 in Syria and Kaliningrad, and the HQ-9 in the South China Sea. These systems significantly restrict the capabilities of the most important part of an aircraft carrier: its air wing. The deployed missile systems significantly inhibit US air operations apart from stealth aircraft, and consequently inhibit the activity of the carrier strike group.
With the current state of the US carrier fleet uncertain, and an evolving threat environment for the United States to contend with around the world, the Defense Department and Navy leadership must evaluate what the proper role of the aircraft carrier is in the naval fleet. The debate has largely been confined to two simple positions: continue the use of a limited number of supercarriers as the cornerstone of the naval fleet, or shift to a more distributed concept of significantly more carriers of around half the size of the Nimitz and Ford classes.
Will Cohen and James Miller are writers for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Will Cohen is a second-year biology major with plans to specialize in immunology. In addition to his science interests, Will is also an avid defense follower with a particular interest in U.S. Military operations and capabilities. In addition to his work with The Gate, Will is a researcher at the Chicago Project on Security of Threats, a board member of College Republicans, and a member of MUNUC.