Military

Sea monsters: Is this the new age of the aircraft carrier?

Sea monsters: Is this the new ...
HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy
HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy
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Is the 21st century the second age of the aircraft carrier?
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Is the 21st century the second age of the aircraft carrier?
The new British and American carriers feature the F-35 fighter bomber
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The new British and American carriers feature the F-35 fighter bomber
Bow bulb of HMS Queen Elizabeth
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Bow bulb of HMS Queen Elizabeth
One of four diesel engines aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth
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One of four diesel engines aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Queen Elizabeth under tow in Rosyth
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HMS Queen Elizabeth under tow in Rosyth
HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy
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HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy
HMS Queen Elizabeth has two islands instead of one
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HMS Queen Elizabeth has two islands instead of one
HMS Queen Elizabeth being fitted out
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HMS Queen Elizabeth being fitted out
HMS Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to be commissioned in 2017
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HMS Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to be commissioned in 2017
HMS Queen Elizabeth being maneuvered for fitting out
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HMS Queen Elizabeth being maneuvered for fitting out
A Merlin helicopter flying over HMS Queen Elizabeth
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A Merlin helicopter flying over HMS Queen Elizabeth
Captain Jerry Kydd, first commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth
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Captain Jerry Kydd, first commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Queen Elizabeth has a modular design
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HMS Queen Elizabeth has a modular design
Module section of HMS Queen Elizabeth being fitted
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Module section of HMS Queen Elizabeth being fitted
A section of the Gerald R Ford being lifted into position
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A section of the Gerald R Ford being lifted into position
Testing the electromagnetic catapult system on the USS Gerald R Ford
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Testing the electromagnetic catapult system on the USS Gerald R Ford
Towing test block for the Ford's catapult test
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Towing test block for the Ford's catapult test
A US Navy JROTC unit visits the USS Gerald R Ford
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A US Navy JROTC unit visits the USS Gerald R Ford
Sun rising over the flight deck of USS Gerald R Ford
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Sun rising over the flight deck of USS Gerald R Ford
Tug boats maneuver the aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) into the James River during the ship's turn ship evolution
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Tug boats maneuver the aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) into the James River during the ship's turn ship evolution
Bow section of teh USS Gerald R Ford being lowered
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Bow section of teh USS Gerald R Ford being lowered
ISland being fitted to the flight deck of USS Gerald R Ford
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ISland being fitted to the flight deck of USS Gerald R Ford
Island in final positioning on USS Gerald R Ford
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Island in final positioning on USS Gerald R Ford
President Donald Trump landing on USS Gerald R Ford
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President Donald Trump landing on USS Gerald R Ford
The Ford class is named after former US President Gerald R Ford
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The Ford class is named after former US President Gerald R Ford
Newport News Shipbuilding begins flooding Dry Dock 12 to float the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford
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Newport News Shipbuilding begins flooding Dry Dock 12 to float the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford
USS Gerald R Ford in transit for fitting out
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USS Gerald R Ford in transit for fitting out
Ship's Sponsor Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald R. Ford, christens the aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford
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Ship's Sponsor Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald R. Ford, christens the aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford
 USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) transits the James River during the ship's launch and transit to Newport News Shipyard
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 USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) transits the James River during the ship's launch and transit to Newport News Shipyard

Aircraft carriers are very much in the news these days. The United States and Britain are scheduled to commission the first of two new carrier classes in the coming months, China has embarked on a program to build its own flat tops, Russia and France's lone carriers have gone to port for major refits, and India has just retired its venerable INS Viraat (former HMS Hermes) in favor of the country's first domestic-built carrier. With all this activity, it seems as if a new age of the aircraft carrier is dawning. Or is it? New Atlas hits the deck to find out.

The 21st century carrier revolution

Before the Second World War, aircraft carriers weren't much to look at. Ugly, mongrel ships that were often converted cruisers and merchant ships with ungainly wooden flight decks piled with seaplanes and rickety biplanes, they were regarded as rude experiments that weren't good for much except reconnaissance and artillery spotting.

Then the outbreak of war in 1939 changed everything. In six years of bloody fighting, the carriers racked up an increasing record of accomplishments. In 1940, a flight of obsolete Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers from the carrier HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto, sinking or severely damaging several heavy warships. In 1941, torpedo planes from HMS Ark Royal crippled the German pocket battleship Bismarck, making it vulnerable to the chasing task force.

Tug boats maneuver the aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) into the James River during the ship's turn ship evolution
Tug boats maneuver the aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) into the James River during the ship's turn ship evolution

On the other side of the world, on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese fleet led by six carriers all but destroyed the US Seventh Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor. Then in June 1942, the decisive battle of the Pacific War was fought at Midway in what became one of the first all-out fights between two carrier fleets where neither side saw the other except through pilots' eyes.

By the end of the war, the aircraft carriers had demonstrated that they were the biggest revolution in sea power since the invention of the steam engine. They were like artillery pieces that could fire intelligent shells with a range of hundreds of miles and strike the target at will. Against the carriers, battleships were sitting ducks and the old ship-vs-ship naval tactics had to change.

During the Cold War, the carriers underwent a series of technological revolutions. Angled decks were added to allow planes to takeoff and land safely and simultaneously. Steam catapults allowed heavier aircraft to use the short decks, and the mirrored sight allowed them to land safely. And last, but far from least, was the introduction of nuclear reactors that allowed the famous supercarriers to operate for decades without refueling.

Is the 21st century the second age of the aircraft carrier?
Is the 21st century the second age of the aircraft carrier?

Then there were the new aircraft. Jets went to sea almost as soon as they took off from land. Helicopters were added, radar planes, supersonic fighters, and Short Vertical TakeOff and Landing (VSTOL) aircraft, like the Harrier.

Small wonder that the aircraft carrier ended up playing a pivotal role in every major naval deployment, including Korea, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Falklands War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq Invasion, as well as countless minor skirmishes and emergencies.

The job of the carrier

Today, there are 20 strategic aircraft carriers with fixed-wing aircraft on active service with eight navies in the world, with another eight under construction. In addition, there are another 24 tactical or helicopter carriers in ten countries, with three more under construction. But what is it that carriers actually do? Why are they so valuable? What role do they play in the 21st century. To find out, let's look at today's strategic or strike carriers.

The new British and American carriers feature the F-35 fighter bomber
The new British and American carriers feature the F-35 fighter bomber

When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it's no accident that the first question that comes to everyone's lips is: "Where's the nearest carrier?" That attitude is has basically been true of every US President since 1945, and that's because the large modern carriers of today provides a major sea power the ability to place a fully functional combat air wing with complete support facilities anywhere in the world, yet outside the territory of any other country.

In a combat situation, like the Falklands War in 1982, it allows a government to project power on a global scale even if the theater is tens of thousands of miles away, yet without relying on bases in any other country.

But there are other reasons that some countries have such ships. Modern aircraft carriers are the capital ships of any fleet (though submariners will hotly dispute this) and any nation that owns one has some bragging rights, so for some countries, a carrier is a symbol of prestige.

Sun rising over the flight deck of USS Gerald R Ford
Sun rising over the flight deck of USS Gerald R Ford

Some countries only have one carrier that previously served in a foreign navy, are armed with a handful of obsolete aircraft, and rarely set to sea. For them, a carrier is a bit like owning a well-polished but clapped out Jaguar E-Type built in 1962. It might be hopelessly behind the times, nearly impossible to start, leaks oil, leaves the garage once a year, and you have to walk everywhere, but its looks impress visitors to no end.

Others have one strike carrier and while these are more than status symbols, they lack ships in their navies to protect them at sea. For the countries in question, including Spain or Italy, owning a single carrier isn't very practical. That lone carrier would spend so much time in dry dock, training or transit, and all an enemy would have to do is show a bit of patience before attacking. However, these navies are in the NATO alliance and usually only operate in joint exercises, so that single carrier would be backed up by those of allies or would act as a relief ship to free up a more powerful one.

Then there are those with small fleets that have carriers partly for status and partly for regional ambitions. Russia, China, and India all have single-carrier navies, but they have all expressed desires to modernize and expand their carriers using their own shipyards rather than buying them from abroad as India and China have done in the past. Though what their ultimate goals are for these carriers is still unclear, they undoubtedly include expanding power over their regions to dominate their neighbors and local waters.

The new breed of aircraft carriers

To have an idea of what the next generation of carriers will be like, let's look at the two most advanced classes, the American USS Gerald R Ford class and the British HMS Queen Elizabeth class, which are scheduled to be commissioned this year. These carriers are not only the most technologically advanced, but they also represent the two highest levels of carrier operation: Protection of the sea lanes on a global scale, and power projection. That is, the ability to deploy a military expeditionary force anywhere in the world and maintain it in the field indefinitely.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

At the moment, Britain has a very anemic carrier fleet consisting of two helicopter carriers, HMS Ocean and HMS Argus. The last proper strike carrier was HMS Ark Royal, which was decommissioned in 1979 and replaced by three through-deck carriers of the Invincible class designed to carry the Sea Harrier VSTOL fighter jets. The Invincibles and their jets were, unfortunately, retired and scrapped early as a budget trimming measure with the last, HMS Illustrious, paid off in 2014.

Bow bulb of HMS Queen Elizabeth
Bow bulb of HMS Queen Elizabeth

This has left the Royal Navy in the embarrassing position of only being able to deploy helicopters, and left the country with the inability to practice power projection beyond the reach of land-based aircraft. However, when a defense review concluded that Britain needed to reverse its retreat into the European theater, the decision was made to create two new carriers with a blank page design that would carry the F-35 Lightning II fighter.

Costing £6.2 billion (US$9.4 billion), the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers represent both a return to the past and a leap forward for the Royal Navy. Not only does it mean the return of fixed wing aircraft, but a new scale of naval architecture. With a displacement of 65,000 tonnes (64,000 tons), Queen Elizabeth is the biggest warship ever built for the Royal Navy – as much as the entire Invincible class put together. This makes it second only to the US supercarriers in warship size.

The specs for the Queen Elizabeth are impressive. The carrier is 280 m (920 ft) long and 70 m (230 ft) abeam, with a flight deck covering 16,000 m² (170,000 ft²). It draws 11 m (36 ft), so it's no shallow water boat and new docks had to built at Portsmouth to accommodate it.

HMS Queen Elizabeth has two islands instead of one
HMS Queen Elizabeth has two islands instead of one

As the Royal Navy is fond of pointing out, Queen Elizabeth's last commander hasn't been born yet. Carriers aren't cheap and the days of pounding one together on the slipways in a matter of months are long gone. The new class isn't just big, it's long lived, with a projected 50-year service life. Due to this, the design reflects this in its ability to take on an additional 5,000 tonnes of architecture as well as accommodate future weapons, like lasers, and new aircraft that have yet to be conceived of.

But it isn't just numbers that make the Queen Elizabeth. Along with the Prince of Wales, it was too large for any one shipyard to handle, so a new modular system called Block Integration was used. This allowed the hull and bulkheads to be constructed in sections at six different shipyards around the British coast, which were then towed to Rosyth, Scotland for final assembly and fitting out. That may sound simple, but in practice it meant building modules weighing tens of thousands of tons, towing them hundreds of miles, and then expecting them to join up exactly to precise tolerances – not to mention relying on state of the art virtual modeling to coordinate the construction at half a dozen yards as well as a hundred subcontractors.

This being the digital age, the new carriers are interconnected in line with the doctrine of networked warfare. Not only is the Queen Elizabeth crammed with intelligent systems that include remote sensing and remote viewing, the ship itself is connected to a larger network across the Royal Navy and allied fleets, as well as air and ground forces.

One surprising aspect of the Queen Elizabeth is that, unlike the US supercarriers, it isn't nuclear. This is partly because, while nuclear propulsion has many advantages, marine reactors are very expensive to decommission and many countries have restrictions on nuclear vessels entering port, which would cause diplomatic problems.

One of four diesel engines aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth
One of four diesel engines aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth

Also, the Royal Navy points out that nuclear aircraft carriers have to refuel just as often as conventional ones, since both have to take on jet fuel for the indispensable air wing. The difference is that a nuke only needs to haul aboard one pipe instead of two. However, where a supercarrier has unlimited range, the Queen Elizabeth can only manage 10,000 nm (11,500 mi, 18,500 km).

For power, the Queen Elizabeth uses a combination of four Wärtsilä 38 marine diesel engines and two Rolls-Royce Marine Trent MT30 36 MW (48,000 bhp) gas turbines. The diesels are used to propel the ship under normal circumstances and the turbines are for high-speed maneuvers of over 25 knots (46 km/h, 29 mph). In all the power plant for the two 33-tonne propellers and the low-voltage electrical systems that run the ship can crank 110 MW, which is enough to power a small city of around 200,00 inhabitants.

Being an aircraft carrier, the flight deck is the focus of the Queen Elizabeth. The uppermost of nine decks, this enlarged flight deck doesn't look like the those used by the US Navy. Instead of the "cats and traps" or steam catapults that fire jet fighters into the air and arresting wires to trap them when they land on the short deck, the Queen Elizabeth has a distinctive "ski jump" on the bow to launch VSTOL jet aircraft.

HMS Queen Elizabeth being fitted out
HMS Queen Elizabeth being fitted out

A VSTOL jet can take off on a flat deck, but that uses a lot of fuel and doesn't allow for more than a minimal payload. The ski jump allows the jets to use their ability to direct thrust downwards and roll off the deck and into the air using less fuel, while carrying a larger payload. The British government opted for the VSTOL/ski jump arrangement as a cost saving measure, but the new carriers are designed to be retrofitted with a catapult system if a suitable one is available in the future.

Beneath the flight deck is the hangar deck, which is much larger than on previous carriers and can not only handle fighter aircraft and small helicopters, but also big birds like the Chinook helicopter and the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. Servicing this are two lifts that can raise two F-35-sized aircraft to the flight deck in 60 seconds. The Royal Navy won't say how long it takes to get them into the air after that.

Another innovation for the flight deck is that is sports two instead of one island – the superstructure usually seen to one side of the deck. One of these contains the Bridge and handles navigation, while the other is dedicated to flight operations. However, if one is knocked out, the other island can take over its duties. These islands also have a slimmer, simpler appearance than their predecessors because they incorporate stealth technology to minimize their radar signatures.

A Merlin helicopter flying over HMS Queen Elizabeth
A Merlin helicopter flying over HMS Queen Elizabeth

Speaking of radar, another advanced feature of the Queen Elizabeth class is its sensors. These include the BAE Systems S1850M long range radar, which can automatically detect and track up to 1,000 air targets at a range of about 400 km (250 mi) and the BAE Artisan 3D Type 997 maritime medium-range active electronically scanned array radar that can, according to BAE, "track a target the size of a snooker ball over 20 km away."

But a carrier is only as useful as the aircraft it plays host to. The Queen Elizabeth can carry a routine complement of a dozen F-35B Lightning IIs, though in an emergency this can be augmented to 36 Lightnings and four helicopters, or even as high as 50 aircraft if the flight deck is loaded up as well.

The F-35B is the biggest gun that the Queen Elizabeth has. It's the VSTOL variant of the F-35 supersonic stealth fighter bomber. Behind the cockpit, there's a hatch that opens to reveal a giant fan that directs a blast of air under the plane while the jet engine's stern nozzle is able to rotate to shoot straight down as well. This arrangement allows the 5th generation fighter to take off and land vertically or make very short take off runs.

HMS Queen Elizabeth being maneuvered for fitting out
HMS Queen Elizabeth being maneuvered for fitting out

This isn't the place to go into a full discussion of the F-35B, but one of the reasons it was chosen for carrier duty is that it isn't so much a fighter bomber as a miniature, computerized, command and control center. Designed for a digital era, it can send and receive data directly from the carrier, shore bases, other manned aircraft, satellites, or drones.

Along with automated control systems, this lets the pilot concentrate less on flying the aircraft and more on executive decisions, like carrying out coordinated missions with drones and cruise missiles to penetrate and destroy enemy air defenses. This makes the F-35B a force multiplier for the Queen Elizabeth that will only grow stronger as new systems, such as fighter drones, emerge to integrate with it.

The Queen Elizabeth isn't just a strike carrier. It's also expected to take over the duties of Britain's helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, so it will also carry the Merlin HM2 and HC4, Wildcat AH1 and HMA2, and the Merlin Crowsnest AEW, which will act as the carrier airborne early warning system against incoming threats, including hostile aircraft and missiles. For Royal Marine operations, it will also ship the Chinook transport and the Apache AH64 attack helicopter. Routinely, nine helicopters will be needed for anti-submarine patrols and airborne early warning.

Captain Jerry Kydd, first commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth
Captain Jerry Kydd, first commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth

Despite being the largest British warship ever, the Queen Elizabeth has a remarkably small complement of only 679 officers and ratings – smaller than that of HMS Invincible, which was a third the size. However, this does not count the pilots and crew for the air wing or the Royal Marine complement, which take up the rest of the 1,600 berths.

The reason so few sailors are needed to run the Queen Elizabeth is automation. For example, handling ammunition requires only a quarter as many crew thanks to the Highly Mechanised Weapons Handling System (HMWHS). Adapted from a land-based warehouse system by Babcock International, HMWHS uses track-mounted pallets to move munitions from the magazines and preparations areas both vertically and horizontally to bring them to the flight deck. This means that sailors are only needed to initially store the munitions or mount them on aircraft.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is scheduled for commissioning sometime in 2017. Exactly when is still uncertain because working all the bugs out of a floating airbase isn't simple. The latest setback is that the paint on the hull is starting to come away, but there isn't a real sense of urgency because the Lightnings are still on order and the crews are still training in America, so the carrier will be making do with helicopters until 2020 – three years before HMS Prince of Wales goes on active service.

USS Gerald R Ford

Meanwhile, across the pond, the US Navy is still operating in a superpower league of which it's the sole member. Also, scheduled for commissioning in the next few months, the first of the Gerald R Ford class is being readied for service. The new nuclear-powered supercarriers are intended to replace the Enterprise and Nimitz class carriers and are designed to act as the core of the US surface fleet until the end of the century.

Bow section of teh USS Gerald R Ford being lowered
Bow section of teh USS Gerald R Ford being lowered

Unlike HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is a multirole platform, the USS Gerald R Ford is first and foremost a strategic powerhouse. It is also the world's largest warship by a very comfortable margin. Where the British carrier is 65,000 tonnes, the Ford is 100,000 tonnes (110,000 tons), 1,106 ft (337 m) long, 256 ft (78 m) abeam, and 250 ft (76 m) tall. Small wonder Ford class ships cost around US$12.8 billion each, plus US$4.7 billion in R&D.

In contrast to the Queen Elizabeth's blank-page design, the Ford is a combination of conservative tweaking of the previous Nimitz architecture and cutting-edge innovation. Also, the US Navy isn't as open about design details as the Royal Navy is about its carriers. Partly this can be set down to a strong habit of security consciousness, but also the fact that where the RN had to work hard to sell its carriers to Parliament, the US Navy is required by law to field 11 supercarriers at all times.

The first ship in the Ford class had its keel laid in 2009, but is only receiving its commission in 2017. For the first of 10, that's a significant knock-on effect that could mean the last carrier won't enter service for over fifty years. While the builders hope to speed up production, they've also catered for the Ford class to receive significant upgrades over each ship's 50-year life, and even factored in major changes in design for later vessels.

Ship's Sponsor Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald R. Ford, christens the aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford
Ship's Sponsor Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald R. Ford, christens the aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford

Built using 3D computer modeling, the 25 decks of the Gerald R Ford are designed to be much easier to move about in, with horizontal movements of equipment and personnel eliminated wherever possible. In addition, the compartments use what is called a Flexible Infrastructure, which allows them to be modified easily without the need for calling in the cutting torches.

In the heart of the Ford are the two A1B nuclear reactors that provide propulsion and power all the ship's services. Exactly how much power each reactor produces is classified, but the pair allow the Ford to generate three times the electricity of the Nimitz class carriers, despite being smaller.

The US Navy says the most significant thing about the ship's power is that the Ford is a completely electric ship. Previous nuclear carriers were essentially steam ships with a super sophisticated boiler. Steam not only provided propulsion, but also powered many of the ship's services, including the catapults for launching aircraft. Now the Ford uses all-electric systems, which means less maintenance and easier upgrading.

Newport News Shipbuilding begins flooding Dry Dock 12 to float the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford
Newport News Shipbuilding begins flooding Dry Dock 12 to float the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford

According to the official stats, when the reactors are online and powering the four propeller shafts, the Ford can reach speed of over 30 knots (56 km/h, 35 mph). Being nuclear, she has unlimited range and only needs to refuel once at the midpoint of her half-century career.

Like the Queen Elizabeth, the Ford is heavily automated, so despite having a crew of 4,660 officers and ratings plus the air wing personnel, that's still 700 fewer than the Nimitz class. The US Navy estimates that this reduction alone will save US$4 billion in operating costs over the life of the ship.

On the 1,092 ft by 256 ft (333 m by 78 m) flight deck, one can see some of the more revolutionary innovations introduced on the Ford. The three lifts that replace the four on the Nimitz, for example, don't use cables, but electromagnets for a smoother ride and heavier payloads. Meanwhile, the single island containing the Bridge and flight operations incorporates stealth technology, is noticeably smaller and taller than previous designs, and is farther astern and outboard to free up more space for aircraft.

The Ford class is named after former US President Gerald R Ford
The Ford class is named after former US President Gerald R Ford

The Ford is very much a cybership with fully interconnected computer systems inside and out. For eyes, it has the AN/SPY-3 active electronically scanned array multi-function radar and Dual Band Radar (DBR). These combine both big picture and detailed scans, which means fewer antennae and fewer operators.

But the most dramatic innovation is the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Traditionally, flight decks have been witness to loud whooshes and jets of steam as jet fighters were blasted down the short runway with neck-snapping (sometimes literally) acceleration. The Ford replaces this with one that uses electromagnets that provide a smoother, less jolting launch.

The EMALS also eliminates 25 percent of the catapult deck crew while launching 25 percent more planes in a day, at 45 seconds per jet, using a much simpler system than the complicated steam catapult. On return, the planes are caught using the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), which uses water turbines to absorb the energy of the jet hitting the deck. Together, the US Navy says these systems can handle 33 percent more sorties in a day than the Nimitz.

Towing test block for the Ford's catapult test
Towing test block for the Ford's catapult test

One place where the Ford can make the Queen Elizabeth feel like it's wearing odd socks is in the aircraft department. Where the British carrier handles a routine 12 fighters and can squeeze in 50 aircraft, the Ford carries over 70 and can go as high as 90. These are mostly the F-35C Lightning II, which is the carrier variant of the fighter bomber. Lacking VSTOL capability, it's marked by a stronger airframe and the gear needed to use the Ford's catapults and arrestor systems and has a heavier payload and range than the F-35B.

Other planes aboard the Ford will include the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the EA-18G Growler electronics warfare plane, the E-2D Hawkeye radar early warning and command and control aircraft, the MH-60R and S helicopters, and the CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. In addition, the Ford can work in cooperation with shore-based P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol airplanes and the unmanned Triton MQ-4C UAV.

The Ford class will also one day play host to unmanned warplanes like the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike). This will provide the Ford with a new unmanned capability to conduct reconnaissance, as well as full combat operations using UAVs. In addition, the US Navy is looking into developing unmanned carrier-launched tankers, which would greatly increase the range and endurance of carrier-based missions.

A US Navy JROTC unit visits the USS Gerald R Ford
A US Navy JROTC unit visits the USS Gerald R Ford

This future orientated strategy also extends to the carrier's weaponry, which is the reason the Ford produces more energy than she needs. Currently, the Ford carries the RIM-162 ESSM, RIM-116, and the Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles as well as the Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) radar controlled anti-missile gun, but the US Navy is looking forward to the not too distant future when the carrier will also be armed with combat lasers and other energy weapons to handle future threats.

The case against the carrier

So what is the point of all this? Yes, the strike carriers of today are impressive and there's no denying their capabilities, but they also come with a hefty price tag and are hellishly expensive and slow to build, as well as expensive to operate. This overall cost is so great that critics argue carriers suck up money that could be better spent on a larger fleet of smaller ships.

Also, carriers exacerbate the chronic shortage of trained sailors and airmen, who are not only required in large numbers, but are also very difficult to retain. Sometimes these shortages can be so great that carriers must borrow crews from other ships or make do without. Taking into account that crews also need time off for rest and training and the problem grows ever larger.

Another problem with carriers is that they aren't just one ship, but the centerpiece of a small flotilla called a carrier group. This is made up of frigates and destroyers to protect the carrier against submarines and air attacks, and a submarine for more stealthy protection. Then there are land or carrier-based airborne sentries, oilers and supply ships, and shore-based tanker aircraft for long-range missions.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to be commissioned in 2017
HMS Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to be commissioned in 2017

Add to this the simple fact that no matter how powerful a carrier is, it can't be in two places at once. The 11 supercarriers of the US Navy may seem at first glance excessive, but when you consider that for every carrier on station, one is in transit, another is training, and another is in for repairs, you realize that the US actually only has four carriers at its disposal on any given day. That can be a problem if it's a really bad day on the world stage. The Royal Navy is gambling that it can get away with only two through automation and ultra reliable systems, but at the end of the day, it's still a gamble without very good odds.

Perhaps the biggest objection to the carrier in the 21st century is that it may be too vulnerable to be of any use. Just as the battleships of the First World War put paid to the old ironclads and the carriers of the Second World War made the battleships obsolete, some see emerging technologies as making the carrier about as useful as a marshmallow in a flamethrower fight.

Several of these emerging technologies are already posing a severe threat to the carrier. A ship the size of the Ford or Queen Elizabeth is a tempting target – just the thing that an anti-ship missile wants to lock onto. Modern anti-missile defenses have proven adequate against subsonic and even most supersonic missiles, but many nations are working on hypersonic missiles that fly at five times the speed of sound or more, making them extremely difficult to intercept. The Chinese have shown particular interest in using land-based ballistic missiles that plunge down from space at suborbital velocities so great that they don't even need a warhead to strike a fatal blow.

President Donald Trump landing on USS Gerald R Ford
President Donald Trump landing on USS Gerald R Ford

Then there are improved submarines that are much quieter and torpedoes that are faster, have a degree of intelligence, and can be targeted with greater precision. To this can be added the more exotic weapons like swarms of drones, or the increasing threat of cyberwarfare where a single computer virus could potentially turn a supercarrier into a floating lump of powerless iron.

The case for the carrier

The above are all legitimate concerns and must be addressed, though, as with any emerging technology, the development of countermeasures will depend on whether hypersonic missiles or drone swarms do become practical weapons. In 2005, the US Navy tested simulated torpedo attacks against the hull of the former USS America – a 1960s vintage carrier. Despite repeated underwater explosions, the giant hull was too big to decisively hole, so she ended up being scuttled. The moral: Carriers are hard to kill.

There's also the argument that offensive weapons and defenses have always been in competition with one another. Perhaps missiles will make carriers obsolete and perhaps lasers will go the way of the musket. That's a question that tomorrow will answer.

However, one thing to bear in mind when talking about whether the carrier is obsolete is that naval warfare has changed fundamentally since 1945 in one key respect – it almost never happens.

HMS Queen Elizabeth has a modular design
HMS Queen Elizabeth has a modular design

Though there have been any number of naval operations and the carriers have been kept busy on a round-the-clock basis for decades, there has been only one major naval engagement in 72 years – the Falklands War in 1982. That's because the main purpose of naval forces, at least in the West, is deterrence and keeping the sea lanes open. In other words, the job of the carrier is to prevent a major war from breaking out rather than fighting one.

In some ways the carrier is a peacetime weapon. That is, a weapon that is more valuable in peace than in war. A prime example of this is the USS Iowa. When the Second World War battleship was taken out of mothballs by the Reagan administration, some critics thought it was a ludicrous idea because the old battlewagon wouldn't stand a chance in a war against the Soviet Union. What they didn't see was that the Iowa may have been obsolete, but when that giant ship showed up in a trouble spot with its 16-inch guns, the effect on the country in question was much stronger than if a more powerful nuclear submarine drifted by unseen.

This is similar to what a carrier can do. A carrier can appear anywhere in the world quickly and disappear just as quickly. It can be an immediate warning to an enemy or a form of reassurance to an ally – not to mention a symbol of national prestige, which doesn't hurt in diplomatic circles.

 USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) transits the James River during the ship's launch and transit to Newport News Shipyard
 USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) transits the James River during the ship's launch and transit to Newport News Shipyard

In addition, a carrier is a tremendous practical asset in times of natural disaster. In the event of a tsunami or a hurricane, a nation with a carrier fleet isn't restricted to sending condolences, it can dispatch a fully functional air base, hospital, rescue center, water supply, logistic support unit, and power station within days. Aside from the critically important humanitarian aspects, that type of relief pays dividends diplomatically.

Renaissance or swan song?

So, is this the new age of the carrier or is it the last gasp? The case can and has been made for both. They may be technical marvels that will rule the waves for the rest of this century at least, or they're potential targets waiting to be sunk. Which of these possibilities plays out depends on many factors other than the carriers themselves or how advanced they are.

Aircraft carriers have many roles. They are deterrents, supporters for expeditionary forces on land, protectors of the sea lanes, a diplomatic presence, and an aid to disaster victims. These many roles need to be considered as well as how they would fare in all-out war, but there's more than that.

Island in final positioning on USS Gerald R Ford
Island in final positioning on USS Gerald R Ford

The aircraft carrier doesn't work alone – it's the sharp point of a very long spear. As part of a much larger navy, their impact depends on how effective that navy is. You can have the best carrier ever built, but without support ships, it's useless. It needs the protective screen of the carrier group, the logistical support of the supply ships, fuel, ammunition, and spares in an unending stream.

It also needs a trained crew and that training must be hard and relentless. There are many instances in naval history where a well-trained ship took on and defeated a seemingly superior enemy. If that training is neglected, skills and reflexes are quickly lost and hard, bloody lessons must be relearned and often sooner than one would like.

The most decisive factor is that the carrier, like the navy, is the servant of its landlubber masters. Where it goes, what it does, how well it is kept shipshape and ready to go – these are all up to the politicians and the purse holders. It's up to them to decide if the carrier is too powerful to not be used, too valuable to ever be risked, or not worth even having. Given the massive investment that's been made in the latest carriers and their long lifespan, there's unlikely to be a shift in focus anytime soon. Ultimately though, the future of the aircraft carrier is subject to the winds of the wider political landscape, and how that will play out in the next 100 years is anyone's guess.

20 comments
ripshin
Well done David. This is a thoughtful article, written with care a deliberation. You've touched on the main benefits and concerns of the modern carrier...and, equally impressive, have refrained from the hubris of assuming an answer to the questions that truly can't be answered today. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks. rip
Rusty Harris
Great article! The battleship era died with WW2, or, more importantly, Pearl Harbor. The carrier, is like having an entire air group, that you can place anywhere in the world. Not just the aircraft carrier, but the entire strike & support group. Carrier, subs, destroyers etc.
fb36
What happened to giving short and simple names to ships like "USS Enterprise" etc? "USS Ford" would not be more practical than "USS Gerald R Ford"? I wonder if there are also ships with 4 word names with Jr/Sr in the end.
jerryd
For the most part, these are normally called targets. Only against an inferior enemy are they effective. And really only the US has multiple carriers and the ships to sail with them and the ability to protect them. The future will be far smaller trimaran 450' ones with 2-4 runways and lots of hanger space at 30% of the weight, cost. And as 3 hulls, can take a lot of damage, if needed. The big thing is a small nuke that does the cruise, house power with excess going to make synfuels for aircraft and flank speed. Fact is all our ships need a major upgrade to increase power projection at 30% of the present price. And get 2-3x as many ships as far smaller, lighter, faster. It's happening in the submarine field that need to get innovation to the surface fleet vessel, weapon designs. For instance a 24'' low pressure gun could boost a 30 mile missile into a 300 mile one for just 10% more..
Penguin
I remember reading articles that stated, in no uncertain terms, that if an actual shooting war started against countries that had long range cruise missiles then the biggest, juiciest, targets would be aircraft carriers. Torpedoes and smart-mines would make short work of them too. They are big, slow, and hard to miss. That's why the Russians didn't bother with them much. They are also incredibly expensive to run. Sea dinosaurs in other words.
AndréLuizD.Queiroz
"<i>Some countries only have one carrier that previously served in a foreign navy, are armed with a handful of obsolete aircraft, and rarely set to sea.</i> " -- That's exactly the situation of Brazil's Navy with its carrier NAe Sao Paulo (A-12), former FS Foch, a Clemenceau class carrier bought from France to replace its predecessor NAeL Minas Gerais (A-11), former HMS Vengeance (Colossus class). Both ships were never fully operational, besides being always target of scepticism about their functionality to Brazil's armada. Very recently, Brazil's Navy have finally decided to retire the Sao Paulo, once the ship would still needs too much work (and financial resources...) to achieve operational status again...
Douglas Bennett Rogers
The main advantage of a nuclear ship for the Navy is that it starts in seconds. If a ballistic missile launch is detected, you have about 15 minutes. An oil fired steam ship has to sit in port half a day building up a head of steam. This is probably why the Queen Elizabeth is part diesel.
habakak
Very good read. Thanks for the effort in putting this together!
CharlieSeattle
The article stops well short of exposing how vulnerable modern Aircraft Carriers really are. ..................Google this report. Report: Chinese Develop Special "Kill Weapon" to Destroy U.S. Aircraft Carriers Advanced missile poses substantial new threat for U.S. Navy U. S. Naval Institute March 31, 2009 With tensions already rising due to the Chinese navy becoming more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy seems to have yet another reason to be deeply concerned. After years of conjecture, details have begun to emerge of a "kill weapon" developed by the Chinese to target and destroy U.S. aircraft carriers. First posted on a Chinese blog viewed as credible by military analysts and then translated by the naval affairs blog Information Dissemination, a recent report provides a description of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) that can strike carriers and other U.S. vessels at a range of 2000km. The range of the modified Dong Feng 21 missile is significant in that it covers the areas that are likely hot zones for future confrontations between U.S. and Chinese surface forces. The size of the missile enables it to carry a warhead big enough to inflict significant damage on a large vessel, providing the Chinese the capability of destroying a U.S. supercarrier in one strike. Because the missile employs a complex guidance system, low radar signature and a maneuverability that makes its flight path unpredictable, the odds that it can evade tracking systems to reach its target are increased. It is estimated that the missile can travel at mach 10 and reach its maximum range of 2000km in less than 12 minutes. Supporting the missile is a network of satellites, radar and unmanned aerial vehicles that can locate U.S. ships and then guide the weapon, enabling it to hit moving targets. ............ As analyst Raymond Pritchett notes in a post on the U.S. Naval Institute blog: "The Navy's reaction is telling, because it essentially equals a radical change in direction based on information that has created a panic inside the bubble. For a major military service to panic due to a new weapon system, clearly a mission kill weapon system, either suggests the threat is legitimate or the leadership of the Navy is legitimately unqualified. There really aren't many gray spaces in evaluating the reaction by the Navy…the data tends to support the legitimacy of the threat."
ArnoldTaube
This is a nice article. However, it begins with at least a couple of errors. First, the Bismark was not a "pocket" battleship. The Bismark was a full-size battleship; and a large one at that. The Graf Spree was a "pocket" battleship, a cruiser sized ship with the guns of a battleship. Next, the first carrier vs carrier battle that was totally fought with aircraft and the opponents never coming to visual or gunnery range was the battle of the Coral Sea. It preceded Midway by about one month. The Japs believed they had sunk the Yorktown during Coral Sea.