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Aircraft Carrier Evolution

From the eyes of the fleet to its centerpiece

The great lesson was that the crisis mission was paramount. Thus Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, a skeptic, felt compelled to approve a new carrier given the experience of valuable carrier strikes in Vietnam. As the U.S. Navy had argued immediately after World War II, simply by expanding the area from which attacks could come they enormously complicated an enemy’s task of air defense. At the end of the Vietnam War, only carriers could come to the rescue of the American merchant ship Mayaguez, which had been seized by Cambodians. By that time the United States no longer had air bases in the area. Administration after administration found that it faced surprise crises in which carriers were the only available air bases. That is why George H.W. Bush is the 10th “Nimitz-class” carrier, in a series begun in the 1967 program (Nimitz was laid down in June 1968).

The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CV-34) photographed sometime in the mid-1970s demonstrates her angled deck that allowed operation of the second generation of jet fighters. Visible are six Vought F-8J Crusaders, twelve Vought A-7A/B Corsair IIs, and a single Grumman E-1B Tracer of Carrier Air Wing Nineteen (CVW-19). National Archives photo.

The new carriers and rebuilt Essex– and Midway-class ships were viable in the face of modern land-based aircraft because of two innovations adopted from the British, the steam catapult and the angled deck. They are why the new Forrestal could remain on the front line through several generations of naval aircraft of increasing sophistication and performance. She and her improved sister ships (in all, eight carriers) set the very successful flight deck design which we still see in George H.W. Bush, more than 50 years later.

The U.S. Navy has periodically looked at radical alternatives. They included different flight deck arrangements, a smaller carrier, and a carrier equipped only with STOVL (short take off and vertical landing) aircraft, which would be so much smaller that it could be built in larger numbers.

Carriers were successful because they were, in effect, the first modular warships: they could operate successive generations of naval aircraft without needing radical reconstruction for each change. As it happened, the outer limits on size, landing speed, and takeoff speed set by the postwar nuclear bombers sufficed for later aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat fighter and the A-6 Intruder bomber. The current F/A-18 Hornet is smaller than either, and the coming F-35 is still within these limits. In a very broad sense a carrier is a broad flight deck and an open hangar deck ready for whatever aircraft she can launch. She still needs to carry specialized support equipment for each new airplane, but that entails far less effort than the sort of reconstruction surface warships need to accommodate new weapons. The most important internal change to accommodate a new generation of aircraft was the installation of computer combat direction systems, which began in the 1960s. It radically changed carrier/air group capability, but again it was relatively easy to accommodate from a physical point of view. The same basically modular ship has supported multiple generations of air weapons, of self-defense weapons (beginning with 5-inch guns and now using short-range missiles), and of radars. Thus the same ship has offered dramatically different capability over the years.

That George H.W. Bush resembles the Forrestal of half a century earlier does not reflect conservatism. The U.S. Navy has periodically looked at radical alternatives. They included different flight deck arrangements, a smaller carrier, and a carrier equipped only with STOVL (short take off and vertical landing) aircraft, which would be so much smaller that it could be built in larger numbers. The first look at flight deck alternatives came as early as 1955, when the first nuclear carrier, USS Enterprise, was being designed. A Forrestal-like arrangement was selected instead of exotica such as two-level flight decks and decks with the carrier island in the center (with an angled deck on either side). The flight deck has been modified over the years, with the island pushed aft, but such changes look cosmetic alongside the more radical ones evaluated.

George H. W. Bush differs from Forrestal in being nuclear-powered. Carriers were an obvious possibility when the U.S. Navy adopted nuclear power, beginning with eight reactors in USS Enterprise, completed in 1962. They offered enormous advantages, but at a high price. Thus the first carrier to be built after Enterprise was completed, John F. Kennedy, reverted to conventional steam power. While that ship was being built, the naval nuclear reactor organization strove to cut the cost of a nuclear plant by cutting the number of separate reactors a carrier needed. The next carrier, Nimitz, needed two rather than the eight of Enterprise, making for many fewer special personnel and a simpler overall design.

USS Nimitz (CVN 68) was the lead ship of a class of nuclear powered supercarriers that form the core of  U.S. Navy striking power today. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Matthew J. MaGee.

In effect George H.W. Bush is an improved version of the Nimitz design. It has been so successful that, despite several efforts to find alternatives, only now, in the next carrier to be built (CVN 78 Gerald R. Ford), is the first major departure from that design being made. That is not to deny important improvements. The three Nimitz-class were succeeded by six Theodore Roosevelt-class and then by George H.W. Bush. The most obvious hull improvement is a long bulbous bow, introduced in Ronald Reagan, the carrier built immediately before Bush. Probably the most important change has been the introduction of a new distributed combat direction system, conceived originally, ironically, for smaller ships’ self-defense (ASDS, the Advanced Self-Defense System). The new ship has a redesigned island and mast, adapted for later installation of fixed-array radars (SPY-2/3) and a new arresting gear (Advanced Arrester Gear). Design improvements have reduced the ship complement from 3227 to 2900 and the air complement from 2865 to 2700, which is important given that the cost of sailors is so high a percentage of overall Navy operating cost.

Carriers are expensive, so periodically it is suggested that smaller ones should be built. Such proposals have failed for several reasons. First, any carrier needs certain basic equipment, such as her combat direction system and radars. Hull steel is relatively inexpensive. Shrinking a carrier saves surprisingly little money. On the other hand, a smaller carrier operates fewer aircraft, and the cost per airplane can rise dramatically. Moreover, carriers typically operate one by one. That makes it unwise to cut the number of aircraft they can accommodate. Current carrier air wings are smaller than earlier ones, the argument being that the emptier flight deck makes for faster turn-around and hence for more sorties per day, and more targets hit per day. However, the large flight deck can still be filled if a carrier must make a more concentrated attack. That would be impossible on a smaller carrier. The question right now is whether the basic hull adopted three decades ago in the Nimitz-class should be enlarged, not shrunk.

Periodically it is suggested that the future really lies with much smaller carriers operating STOVL aircraft. Other navies have certainly taken that route. This option seems first to have been suggested in 1955, in connection with a hoped-for STOVL fighter that could operate both from carriers and from large surface ships, and thus could be distributed through a fleet. That would have reduced carriers to attack aircraft, which at the time seemed not to demand so much in the way of catapults and flight decks (it seemed that long-range nuclear attack could be assigned to fleet missiles). Technology developed the wrong way. The STOVL then expected never materialized, and it turned out that a new generation of fighters required every bit of carrier capability provided in the first place for long-range bombers.

The STOVL idea returned about 1970, inspired by the success of the British Harrier jump-jet. The U.S. Navy seriously considered building a small carrier it called a Sea Control Ship, which was conceived either as a more affordable replacement for big carriers or primarily as a means of dealing with submarines in mid-ocean. The main question was whether a high enough performance STOVL could be built, and the answer at the time turned out to be no. Spain built a Sea Control Ship, but the U.S. Navy did not. The current F-35B does offer high STOVL performance, but no revived Sea Control Ship was proposed. It may be true that a small ship can support a few F-35Bs, but a few such aircraft offer relatively little striking power. The smaller the ship, the less it provides each airplane, for example in terms of weapons and maintenance capacity. In order to provide as much net striking power as a single large carrier, the U.S. Navy would have to build several times as many small ones, and the overall cost would be far higher. So would vulnerability: It takes a large hull to absorb damage.

This article was first published in Freedom at Work: USS George H.W. Bush CVN 77.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...