Defense Media Network

Aircraft Carriers Large and Small

Navies deploy aviation ships for a variety of missions

The U.S. Navy has the biggest aircraft carriers and the largest fleet of flattops afloat. Since it recently commissioned its newest “supercarrier,” USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), the Navy has 11 aircraft carriers, as well as 11 large-deck, aviation-capable amphibious ships. But the United States is not alone in operating carriers. Other navies operate them, too, in different ways and for somewhat different purposes.

In the United States, the aircraft carrier is the centerpiece of maritime power. The Carrier Strike Group (CSG) – with a potent air wing of warplanes, a versatile cadre of surface combatants, and nuclear-powered attack submarines in “direct support” – is the ultimate concentration of naval warfighting capability. Still, as big as it may be, and as capable as its aircraft may be, a carrier still relies on surface combatants to contribute in the defense against air and missile attack and against submarines. Altogether, these Carrier Strike Groups continue to provide the capability to respond quickly and appropriately to global events.

Not every navy needs an aircraft carrier, and few nations can afford one.

“Aircraft carriers continue to be our nation’s on-call asset in times of need and enable the Navy to execute all six core capabilities of the Maritime Strategy – forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster response,” states a Navy “Rhumb Lines” fact sheet on aircraft carriers.

Not every navy needs an aircraft carrier, and few nations can afford one.

Conte di Cavour

An Italian Navy EH101 flares for landing on board the Conte di Cavour, Italy’s newest air-capable ship. Italian Navy photo

“The employment of naval maritime reconnaissance and fighter aviation assets at sea in the 21st century is expensive but essential for oceanic operations, whether it be for sea denial, sea control, or mere ‘flag showing and power projection’ in peacetime,” said Commodore Ranjit Rai, a retired Indian Navy flag officer.

“The larger ‘blue water’ navies like the French operate Rafale fighter planes from nuclear-powered aircraft carriers [such as] the Charles de Gaulle, and the Royal Navy has plans to operate U.S.-built Joint Strike Fighters from a futuristic carrier, but both navies are finding the costs of building and operating carriers is becoming unaffordable. Carriers eat into the submarine and surface fleet needs,” Rai said. “Aircraft carriers are big-ticket items essential for power projection and sea control, and only large ambitious nations with high growth rates – even if they are developing countries – find them essential.”

Carriers can offer presence, but the size advantage can also be a disadvantage. Carriers, Rai said, are hard to hide. “Today, in the changing geospatial scenario and as detection technology advances, an aircraft carrier moving at 25 knots cannot be concealed from satellites and medium-range surveillance systems such as the new, weapon-fitted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Large platforms will become easy targets at sea for long-range missiles fired from planes, submarines, and ships, not to mention stealthily launched torpedoes. Undoubtedly, aircraft carriers are very good as power projection platforms, and therein lies the dilemma for naval planners and their budgeters of how many to build and how big.”

If they are so costly to acquire, operate, and sustain, why do some nations operate carriers, or aspire to obtain them?

The Navy has a significant number of “large deck amphibs,” used for expeditionary warfare. These LHD and LHA amphibious assault ships are larger and more capable than most of the Harrier carriers operated by the U.K., Italy, Spain, India, and Thailand. The current ESG (Expeditionary Strike Group), centered around an LHA or LHD, could deliver a limited forward-based strike capability to augment the Carrier Strike Groups. Even with 11 CVNs, the United States cannot stage a carrier everywhere it needs one.

Naval analyst and author Norman Polmar said there will continue to be a requirement for “sea-based tactical air” in the foreseeable future. But, he said, the composition of the air wing will change. The presence of substantial numbers of Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles – which are able to accurately hit targets a thousand miles away – on surface combatants and submarines changes the calculus regarding how many strike aircraft are needed on board a CVN. He says the vertical take off V-22 Osprey and F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter can operate from smaller flight decks, such as amphibious assault ships, providing more aviation-capable platforms that can be in more places at the same time.

Capt. Massimo Annati of the Italian Navy said there are nearly countless reasons an aircraft carrier can benefit a navy, particularly the navy of a country like Italy, with 4,700 miles of coastline and a commanding position in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Inter-service rivalries exist where fixed-wing assets belong to the air force, not the navy. The services compete for scarce resources. “There is a strong opposition by both army and air force, as they consider those floating toys too expensive, and useless, and they would prefer instead to buy more of their own toys,” said one senior officer of a European navy.

“First of all, a flat deck can be used for supporting amphibious operations and as platform for joint and combined operations,” Annati said. “Our new carrier, Cavour, was designed from the very beginning with accommodations for some 360 marines and a 145-strong joint staff. I think that power projection is now the most relevant and immediate role, along with limited strike capability [at least limited for Harrier carriers], reconnaissance, close air support, and interdiction.”

Even if a Navy can afford a flattop, they may not be able to afford the aircraft to fly from the carrier. Thailand’s carrier has not received its full combat suite and operates its carrier one day per month because of the high cost to get it under way. The Royal Navy’s Illustrious is the only carrier fully qualified to operate the GR.9 Harrier and therefore is the only available one able to perform strike missions. Italy just commissioned its second carrier, Annati said, but only one carrier is to be used in the aircraft carrier role, and the other one, if operational, will serve as command ship and/or helicopter carrier for amphibious operations, carrying, in this case, not more than four Harriers.

Annati said sea-based naval aviation is required to support disputed non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO) or for deploying peacekeepers. “You need some form of airpower available, at least for escorting your helicopters. You need to show that these few [good] men are backed by something larger and heavier than their rifles.

“The current Italian navy plans are to procure and operate a force of five flat decks: one CVH, three LHD, and one LHA [the latter role is provisionally taken by the older carrier Garibaldi], but the navy wants a replacement, in the very long run,” Annati said.

Inter-service rivalries exist where fixed-wing assets belong to the air force, not the navy. The services compete for scarce resources. “There is a strong opposition by both army and air force, as they consider those floating toys too expensive, and useless, and they would prefer instead to buy more of their own toys,” said one senior officer of a European navy.

The United States used to operate specialized carriers. During the Cold War, the veteran Essex-class carriers served in the antisubmarine role, with S-2 Trackers and surface escorts that worked together as hunter-killer groups to seek out and engage Soviet submarines. Other carriers had attack and fighter aircraft. Later, the United States operated multipurpose large-deck carriers with attack and fighter jets, reconnaissance aircraft, and specialized sub hunters. In the Navy today, all 11 carriers have nuclear propulsion and similar multipurpose air wings. The air wing includes the fighter-attack F/A-18 Hornet, the EA-18 Growler, which will replace the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, and the E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft. The C-2A Greyhound is available to perform the carrier onboard delivery (COD) mission to bring high-priority passengers, cargo, and mail to the ship. Each air wing also includes H-60 Seahawk helicopters for plane guard duty, antisubmarine warfare (ASW), vertical onboard delivery (VOD), and other utility missions.

If the U.S. 100,000-ton, nuclear-powered, multipurpose super-carrier (CVN) is at one end of the spectrum, smaller ships with full flight decks serve in other navies in a variety of missions, from strike and power projection and ASW to support of amphibious operations and humanitarian assistance. Thailand’s 11,500-ton Chakri Naruebet, which can operate helicopters and AV-8 Harrier jump jets, is at that smaller end of the spectrum. Chakri Naruebet’s mission and capabilities, as expected, are quite different than those of the USS George H.W. Bush. But, for the most part, it is only the larger navies of the world, and nations with significant coastlines or overseas interests, that can and do operate flattops.


The United Kingdom

F-35B Lightning II

Artist’s impression of a Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II STOVL aircraft landing aboard the Royal Navy’s future CVF. The forward island will be devoted mainly to conning the ship, the aft to air wing operations. Although the ship will be fitted out to operate STOVL aircraft and helicopters only, it could be refitted to operate with catapults and arresting gear at a later date. BAE Systems photo

The Royal Navy is replacing its two remaining ski-ramp-equipped STOVL carriers, which operate Harriers and helicopters, with the “Future Aircraft Carrier” (CVF). The new ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will displace 65,000 tons, three times more than the Invincible-class carriers they will replace. HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal are also nearing the end of their service lives, having served for three decades. While these carriers were used primarily for ASW, the Falklands experience demonstrated the importance of using the carriers for more traditional airpower roles of air supremacy and power projection.

The CVF is designed to operate 50 aircraft. The U.K. is a full participant in the Joint Strike Fighter program, and the new carriers are intended to operate the F-35B Lightning II STOVL aircraft. The U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD) plans to have the F-35B in service not earlier than 2017-18, while the current Harrier GR.9 (owned and operated by the Royal Air Force) will be paid off sometime between 2013 and 2018, possibly leaving the Royal Navy aircraft carriers without aircraft to be carried. Queen Elizabeth was expected to enter service between 2014 and 2016, but a delay of one to two years was just announced, with a similar delay for Prince of Wales, originally planned to enter service between 2016 and 2018. The Royal Navy plans for a service life of 50 years. As such, they have design margin to later accommodate conventional fixed-wing aircraft and are designed to enable the fitting of catapults and arrestor wires.



BNS São Paulo (A 12)

Brazilian Navy aircraft carrier BNS São Paulo (A 12), foreground, comes alongside USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) as the ship transits around South America. São Paulo is the former French carrier Foch. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class John Lill

The Brazilian Navy is the largest navy in Latin America, and the only one with an aircraft carrier. The 32,700-ton São Paulo is the ex-Foch, which originally entered service in 1963 and was obtained from France in 2000. São Paulo replaced Brazil’s previous carrier, the 19,900-ton Minas Gerais, a former British Colossus-class first commissioned in 1945 and acquired by Brazil in 1956.

São Paulo’s fixed-wing aircraft are A-4 Skyhawks. This carrier-based type saw extensive duty with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. In the 1950s and 1960s, the A-4 was regarded as an exceptional attack aircraft, with a relatively simple design and good handling characteristics. Some of Brazil’s A-4s previously served with the Kuwaiti Air Force before coming to Brazil. These aircraft escaped to Saudi Arabia as Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991 and served as the Free Kuwait Air Force. They are the last A-4s in carrier service.

“Already with more than half a century of life, the Minas, though operational, was no longer able to catch up with the necessities of high-performance aircraft like the Skyhawk,” said Lt. Cmdr. Julio Perrotta of the Brazilian Navy.



Conte di Cavour

Conte di Cavour at sea. Planned from the start for a power projection role. Cavour’s hanger space can double as a vehicle hold capable of carrying up to 24 main battle tanks, and has accommodation for 360 marines and almost 150 staff officers. Note the ski-jump ramp at the bow for AV-8B Harriers. Italian Navy photo

With the introduction of Italy’s 29,000-ton Conte di Cavour, which was commissioned in 2008, Italy now has two carriers. Cavour joins the smaller Giuseppe Garibaldi. The multipurpose ship has a large hangar bay that can also carry tanks, heavy vehicles, and equipment along with 360 marines, so Cavour can serve as an amphibious assault ship. Cavour will carry rotary-wing aircraft, to include EH101 airborne surveillance helicopters, as well as the AV-8B Harrier II and eventually the F-35B STOVL aircraft.

The Italian Navy’s 22 EH101 Merlin helicopters are configured for different roles. Ten of them will conduct anti-surface and ASW missions, four will perform early warning (AEW) roles, and the remainder will support amphibious operations, special operations/combat SAR, or serve in a utility role. They will operate from Cavour and other units of the Marina Militare. The service also operates NH 90 NFH (ASW) or Tactical Transport TTH (Utility-Assault) and SH-3D Sea King helicopters, both of which can operate from Cavour.

Italy has a tradition of sorts with aircraft carriers. During World War II, the 28,000-ton Aquila was a converted liner that would have carried 66 aircraft but was scuttled when Italy capitulated and did not see wartime service.

Italy operates a total of 16 AV-8Bs. Up to six can be based aboard Garibaldi for normal operations, or twice that many if helicopters are not embarked.

Following World War II, the Allies imposed restrictions upon Italy, and the Italian Navy was not permitted to have an aircraft carrier. “This rule, like other limitations [submarines, for instance], were just canceled when it joined NATO in April 1949,” Annati said.

When commissioned in 1985, Giuseppe Garibaldi was classified as an Incrociatore Portaeromobili, or “aircraft carrying cruiser,” operating ASW helicopters. “The strange aircraft carrying cruiser name derived from a domestic legal rule, saying that all the fixed wing aircraft were to be owned and operated by the Italian Air Force,” Annati said. “As consequence the original design of Garibaldi was approved without ski jump, because she was officially intended to operate only rotary-wing assets. The 6-degree ski jump was added [later], when the legislation was amended, authorizing the navy to operate the Harrier STOVL aircraft.” In 1989, Italy acquired AV-8B Harrier STOVL aircraft to operate from Garibaldi.

Italy operates a total of 16 AV-8Bs. Up to six can be based aboard Garibaldi for normal operations, or twice that many if helicopters are not embarked.

Garibaldi is also qualified as MCC [Maritime Command Component] for … NATO’s Combined Joint Task Force [CJTF], adding a number of C4I [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence] facilities, though at expense of one or two parking spots in the hangar,” Annati said. “Garibaldi will serve mostly as [an] LHA for amphibious operations.”



SPS Príncipe de Asturias (R 11)

The Spanish aircraft carrier SPS Príncipe de Asturias (R 11) steams through the Atlantic Ocean while participating in Majestic Eagle 2004. The carrier was built to the design of the abortive U.S. Sea Control Ship. Spain’s Navantia shipyard is building a larger and more capable amphibious assault ship, Juan Carlos I, for the Spanish Navy. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class William Howell

The Príncipe de Asturias is the flagship of the Spanish Navy. She was built in Bazan’s Shipyards and delivered to the Spanish Navy on May 30, 1988.

Príncipe de Asturias was based on the U.S. Sea Control Ship concept, built in Spain with initial U.S. engineering assistance, and was designed with a “ski-jump” flight deck. Its complement is 29 AV-8B Harrier II STOVL aircraft or 16 helicopters designed for ASW and support of marine landings. The standard complement is eight to 10 AV-8Bs and eight to nine helicopters. The maximum operational number is 29 (17 in hangar and 12 on deck), including both jump-jets and helicopters. The carrier operates with a group of four escorts, including Álvaro de Bazán-class frigates with the Aegis Weapon System.

Spain has also launched Juan Carlos I, a 27,000-ton ship similar to the U.S. Navy’s large amphibious assault ships of the Wasp class (LHD) – although the U.S. ships are considerably larger – but classified as a strategic projection vessel (Buque de Proyección Estratégica ([BPE]). Like Wasp, it has a stern gate and well deck for boat operations and can support amphibious operations with rotary-wing and STOVL aircraft. It is also fitted with a ski jump for STOVL operations. The ship will feature turbo/diesel-electric propulsion, with diesels and a gas turbine powering a pair of azimuthal pods.




Spain’s Navantia will build Canberra-class LHDs, based on the Juan Carlos I class, for Australia, as shown in this artist’s conception. Navantia photo

The Juan Carlos I design has drawn interest from down under. Australia plans to adopt the concept for its new Canberra-class Landing Helicopter Dock, and has entered into a partnership with Spain to build two of these LHDs. At 27,000 tons, they will be substantially larger than the 20,000-ton HMAS Melbourne, Australia’s previous aircraft carrier. Melbourne operated S-2 Tracker, A-4 Skyhawk, and SH-3 Sea King aircraft, and was decommissioned in 1982. The Canberra class will eventually replace Tobruk- and Kanimbla-class amphibious assault ships. Australia is considering the F-35B as a STOVL aircraft to operate from this class.



Chakri Naruebet

Another offshoot of a Spanish vessel, Thailand’s Chakri Naruebet is essentially a smaller version of Príncipe de Asturias, and even operates first generation Harrier aircraft sold off by Spain. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Alex C. Witte

The Offshore Patrol Helicopter Carrier (OPHC) HTMS Chakri Naruebet was constructed for the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) by Spanish shipbuilders Izar (formerly Bazan, and now called Navantia).

Chakri Naruebet is a smaller cousin to Príncipe de Asturias, itself based upon a U.S. Navy concept for a Sea Control Ship, or small aircraft carrier that had much less capability than a large nuclear carrier but would cost less and could be built in greater quantity to permit flexibility of operations.

Thailand’s OPHC was built as much for non-military missions as for combat, including search and rescue (SAR), disaster relief and humanitarian assistance (HA/DR), and patrolling Thailand’s vast territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – the country has a 2,000- mile coastline and is strategically located between the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

The ship can conduct and support amphibious operations and provide control of aircraft in Thai air space. Conducting naval operations is almost secondary.

Thailand operates its carrier with six multimission Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk helicopters, designed for use in an antisubmarine role, along with six Matador AV-8S (Harrier) STOVL aircraft obtained from Spain. The Chakri Naruebet’s flight deck has a ski-jump bow.

The ship can achieve speeds of 26 knots and has a range of about 10,000 nautical miles at 12 knots. She has four active fin stabilizers. Provision is made for future installation of two 30 mm guns and an eight-cell Mk. 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) for the Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile. Also carried is the Sadral six-cell launcher for Mistral missiles. Thailand has two Naresuan-class frigates that can escort the carrier.



Today, the only purpose of Admiral Kuznetsov’s existence is to give jobs to navy pilots, which seems to be too expensive indeed,” he said.

The flagship of the Russian Navy is the 67,500-ton Admiral Kuznetsov, a multipurpose aircraft carrier that was built for the former Soviet Navy.

The mainstay of Admiral Kuznetsov’s air arm consists of fixed-wing multi-role Sukhoi Su-33 and Su-33UB Flanker maritime fighters. The supersonic Flanker is launched with afterburners using a ski-jump flight deck. Recovery is accomplished with an angled deck equipped with arresting gear. The ship also carries Ka-27 Helix helicopters. Unlike U.S. supercarriers, Admiral Kuznetsov features anti-ship cruise missiles and ASW weapons.

Admiral Kuznetsov had several previous names, including Riga, Leonid Brezhnev, and Tbilisi. Originally the lead ship of an entire class, just one other ship of the class, Varyag, was built but not completed, and Varyag was sold to the People’s Republic of China.

Admiral Kuznetsov has a crew of about 2,000, with 620 aviation personnel. Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Russia, has questioned the value of such a large ship. “If the navy needs the aircraft carrier so much, it should be repaired and used in campaigns. Today, the only purpose of Admiral Kuznetsov’s existence is to give jobs to navy pilots, which seems to be too expensive indeed,” he said.

Construction of a large nuclear carrier commenced in 1988. The Ul’yanovsk was to be a 75,000-ton, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with steam catapults. Work stopped in 1991 and she was scrapped in 1992. But Russia has aspirations of rebuilding its fleet, to include carriers. President Dmitry Medvedev called for new carrier construction to resume. “We need new aircraft-carrying warships, this is a very important direction for the development of the navy,” Medvedev said.



INS Viraat (R 22)

Sailors aboard the Indian Navy aircraft carrier INS Viraat (R 22) refuel a Sea Harrier after its return from a mission during the multinational exercise Malabar 2007. With delays in the conversion of the former Soviet carrier Admiral Gorshkov, to be renamed Vikramaditya, as well as India’s indigenous carrier program, Viraat and its venerable Sea Harriers may have to soldier on longer than originally intended. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dustin Q. Diaz


India will soon have the word’s third-largest carrier force, after the United States and United Kingdom. For India, a carrier is more than a status symbol. It enables the Indian Navy to achieve a blue water capability, befitting of a nation with such a large coastline, strategic location, burgeoning economy, and large population.

The former Soviet navy’s Admiral Gorshkov is being refurbished in a Russian shipyard and will transfer to India. A new class of “Air Defense Ship,” or aircraft carrier, of Indian design also is under construction in an Indian yard.

The Indian navy operates first-generation Sea Harrier jets from the 40-year-old INS Viraat (R 22), the former HMS Hermes. Ka-31 helicopters provide the airborne early warning cover for the fleet and SH-3 Sea King, Ka-28, and the domestic-built HAL Dhruv helicopters serve in the antisubmarine role.

In 2004, after five years of negotiations, India acquired the Admiral Gorshkov, which it will name INS Vikramaditya, and is in the midst of a major effort to bring that ship up to date. Originally called Baku, construction for the Soviet Navy began in 1978, but the ship wasn’t commissioned until 1991, and even then it was not complete. Russia has provided the ship for free, as long as Russia performs the refurbishment and supplies the MiG-29K aircraft. Upon completion of its modernization, Vikramaditya will have a planned extended 20-year service life. But costs have escalated, and the timetable has slipped again and again. India has already made a significant investment, but is balking at paying more.

Carriers figure into the Indian navy’s long-term plans. The Indian navy proposes to have at least three carriers, so that one can be deployed on the west coast and another on the east coast, while the third can be in upkeep. The 37,500-ton Vikrant-class Air Defence Ship (ADS) being built at the Cochin Shipyard will feature a ski-jump ramp for takeoffs and arresting wires for recovery back aboard, a system known as short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR), the method currently used with the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov. “The propulsion plant is strictly derived from the Italian Cavour,” Annati said.



It appears that Varyag will be completed and used as a training carrier operating Su-33s to prepare Chinese naval aviators for carrier operations.

“China has a long coastline and the sacred duty of China’s armed forces is to safeguard the country’s marine safety and sovereignty over coastal areas and territorial seas,” said a government spokesman, and China’s Ministry of National Defense has stated that aircraft carriers are “a reflection of a nation’s comprehensive power.”

The incomplete Russian carrier Varyag was towed to China in 2002. Besides a fresh coat of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) paint, its fate had been a mystery. But the PLAN has reportedly ordered a pair of 60,000-ton aircraft carriers, to be built in China, and will acquire a number of Russian Su-33 jet fighters to go with them. It appears that Varyag will be completed and used as a training carrier operating Su-33s to prepare Chinese naval aviators for carrier operations. China has even built a land-based airfield with the size and configuration of a carrier deck, fitted with a ski-jump ramp, in order to provide initial training to its pilots.



Although not aircraft carriers, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force helicopter-carrying destroyers have the size to be a very capable aviation platform. The 18,000-ton Hyuga-class DDH may be able to serve as a carrier, but Japan is politically sensitive about using the very name “aircraft carrier.” Call it a destroyer, but it will be twice the size of any Japanese destroyer today.


South Korea


The largest ship in the Republic of Korea Navy, the amphibious assault ship Dokdo can operate helicopters to support amphibious operations, and also, like the U.S. Navy’s LHAs and LHDs, has a well deck for hovercraft and landing craft. Republic of Korea Navy photo

The Republic of Korea’s 18,000-ton Dokdo LHD looks like an aircraft carrier but will provide aviation support to amphibious operations and will complement the navy’s new Aegis King Sejong-class air warfare destroyers. Dokdo is a third of the size of a U.S. Wasp-class ship, but is now the largest ship in the Republic of Korea Navy.



The French Navy has operated carriers for many years, and its current carrier, the 37,000-ton, nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, is the only nuclear carrier outside of the U.S. Navy. Charles de Gaulle is the flagship of the French Navy and operates Dassault Super Étendards, Dassault Rafale M, and Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye fixed-wing aircraft conventionally, using steam catapults and arresting wires. The carrier was launched in 1994 but not commissioned until 2001 due to funding problems and work stoppages.

The French Navy desires two carriers in order to have one available if the other is being refitted, so France is now building the follow-on to Charles de Gaulle. The new carrier, known as PA2, will be very similar in size to the Royal Navy’s new CVF carriers – the ships are being designed and constructed as a collaborative U.K.-French effort – but will operate conventional rather than STOVL aircraft. The new French ship is also referred to as CVF FR. Unlike the present carrier in the French fleet, the new ship will be conventionally powered. The PA2 program is not altogether on solid ground, however, and is in jeopardy of being canceled due to cost.


The United States

USS Bataan (LHD 5)

An AV-8B Harrier aircraft hovers above the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) as the pilot makes a vertical landing. The Bataan was dubbed “Harrier Carrier” during Operation Iraqi Freedom, proving the Wasp-class LHD’s capabilities as pure STOVL aircraft carriers. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Jonathan Carmichael

With the commissioning of the USS George H.W. Bush, the United States now has 10 Nimitz-class carriers, and the sole member of the slightly smaller Enterprise class. USS Enterprise was commissioned in 1961, and she will likely continue to serve until 2012 or so. The lead ship of the Nimitz-class was commissioned in 1975, but the latest and last ship of the class incorporates new technologies that make the ship more combat effective while also reducing crew size. The new technologies will also enable the Navy to transition to the next-generation carrier, USS Gerald Ford, which is expected to join the fleet in 2015 as a replacement for Enterprise.

The Ford class features include a new A1B nuclear reactor and an integrated electric propulsion system, which provides three times the electrical generation capacity of a Nimitz-class carrier. The new ship will have a reduced radar cross-section, more automation, open architecture, and a reduced crew requirement. The new ship will also look different, as the island superstructure will be located farther aft than those of present CVNs. With a 50-year expected service life, the Navy has designed Gerald Ford with plenty of margin to update or add new systems as their technologies mature, including its envisioned air arm of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems. The carrier-based unmanned combat air vehicle will send pilotless strike aircraft into heavily defended target areas without risking aircrew.

The new technologies will also enable the Navy to transition to the next-generation carrier, USS Gerald Ford, which is expected to join the fleet in 2015 as a replacement for Enterprise.

The U.S. Navy today also operates some sizeable expeditionary warfare ships that are really carriers with well-decks. The United States has four remaining 40,000-ton, Tarawa-class amphibious transports and seven active larger Wasp-class helicopter landing ships. An eighth LHD, Makin Island (LHD 8), is currently undergoing builders trials. The LHA and LHD classes of ships carry helicopters and AV-8B Harrier jump jets, and will operate the V-22.

The Tarawa class of LHAs displace 40,000 tons and are 820 feet long. Both the Tarawa and Wasp classes can deliver about 1,900 Marines, although the Wasp class is slightly larger.

When supporting expeditionary forces, the Wasp-class carries an air group of six AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft; four AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters; 12 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, three CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters or three UH-1N Huey helicopters. The ship can also support an assault with 42 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters to carry troops; or in a sea control role operate 20 AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft and six SH-60F/HH-60H ASW helicopters.

This article was first published in Defense: Spring 2013 Naval Edition.


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...