The Case for the Light Fleet Carrier

The term “Light Aircraft Carrier” has been much-maligned over more than half a century. The original light carriers, which were really converted light cruisers rebuilt to give the U.S. Navy some desperately needed additional flat-tops during the early days of World War II, were woefully ineffective stop-gaps, barely better than the by-then obsolete USS Langley. The current group of “Light Carriers,” the V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing) ships operated by Britain, Australia, Spain, and a few others, are cost-saving ships intended to allow the once-great navies of the world (and a few aspiring powers) to have some kind of fleet air defense without having a U.S.-style military budget. These small ships, with a complement usually around 20 to 25 aircraft, are less “Light Carriers” and are more accurately considered “Escort Carriers.”

Meanwhile, there are actual light carriers operating throughout the world as the capital ships of some navies, and some in the process of being built or refitted. Brazil operates an ex-French ship that would fall into the category of a true “light carrier”, France operates one, and Japan1 and Britain are both building ships larger than their current fleets of V/STOL ships, but smaller and lighter than the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz and upcoming Ford Class vessels.

The U.S. Navy, however, has steadfastly enshrined the Fleet Aircraft Carrier into its arsenal as the primary surface capital ship. These 100,000 ton behemoths are massively powerful, but also massively expensive to build and operate. The USS Ford will probably cost between $14 and $16 billion when all is said and done, and will cost billions more to operate. That’s not to say these ships aren’t necessary as a strategic capability and deterrent. The capabilities of the fleet carriers were important factors in dealing with conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and others throughout the last seven decades.

In addition, the Navy has deployed ships like the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault Ship, to support the U.S. Marines in landing operations and low-intensity conflicts. These ships carry helicopters, V/STOL aircraft, and landing craft to allow rapid deployment of its large complement of Marines and to provide combat air support. These ships are purpose-built to provide transport and air cover to Marines, and where greater intensity battles might occur they can be protected by their larger cousins, the fleet carriers.

Essentially, the Navy has chosen to eschew flexibility in favor of sheer overwelming firepower with its carrier fleet, and specialize any lighter flat-tops as landing assault ships. Certainly the fleet carriers can be deployed in low intensity situations, and Forrestal, Enterprise and Nimitz Class ships were deployed to hot spots like the Balkans, Indonesia, Panama, and elsewhere throughout the last seventy years. Likewise, the amphibious assault ships can be augmented with more aerial firepower by increasing their complement of fighters like the F-35 and AV-8B, but again these ships aren’t truly designed for this purpose.

So while the United States faces a world in which it increasingly is involved in low-intensity conflict, its capital ships are sized to face only the greatest strategic threats like China and Russia, and perhaps someday in the not-too-distant future, nations such as India or Brazil. Meanwhile its amphibious assault ships are capable of dealing on their own with local third world hot-spots like Liberia or East Timor, but aren’t built or intended for fighting fleet-on-fleet actions with regional threats like Venezuela or Argentina, or moderate-intensity airstrikes like those seen in the Balkans or which might someday be necessary in Iran.

There is a solution to this lack of flexibility called the Light Fleet Aircraft Carrier. Once again, this isn’t a European-style V/STOL ship, nor is it some other ship converted to a purpose for which the hull was never intended. This is a traditional, 270-plus meter long, 40,000-plus ton, angled-deck flat-top designed to carry between 35 and 50 fixed-wing aircraft such as the F-18E/F or the F-35, perhaps some combat drones, and five to eight support aircraft like the SH-60 and E/C-2. It’s not a jeep carrier intended for convoy escort or light air-support. It’s a combat-ready capital ship, just lighter than the biggest ships, much like the battlecruisers of first half of the twentieth century were lighter, less expensive versions of battleships.

Like the full-sized fleet carriers, these ships wouldn’t be stand-alone vessels. All current aircraft carriers are surrounded by a group of support ships, including combat ships, supply vessels, and submarines, and the light carriers would be no different. The light carriers would have a squadron of ships surrounding them to run radar and sonar pickets, provide additional defense and deterrence against attack, and to keep fresh provisions and armaments in stock.

The U.S. Navy aircraft aircraft carrier fleet seems likely to dip from a recent high of 14 to just 10 ships, and perhaps even to only 9 fleet carriers in the near future, despite a legal requirement to have 11 deployable vessels. Exchanging some of the older Nimitz Class ships for Light Fleet Carriers could fill the flexibility gap that will open as a result of these reduced numbers, but without the incredible cost of a Ford Class ship. At its post-Cold War peak, the Navy operated between six and eight active aircraft carriers on deployment. With 10 ships in its inventory, that number is likely to drop to as little as four and at most six. Adding light carriers could offer the Navy cost savings while keeping its deployments up. Plus, the light carriers can be deployed to lesser-intensity regions or restricted seas where the full-sized fleet carriers and their associated squadrons are simply too large and potentially vulnerable to be used.

The possibilities for light fleet carrier deployments aren’t endless, but they are extensive. As an example, a carrier group could be tasked specifically to the Carribean and Gulf of Mexico, where our fleet carriers are less likely to spend extended deployments but where U.S. national interests may become threatened. A light carrier could be deployed to the Black Sea during situations like the recent Crimea annexation, while a Ford/Nimitz Class carrier remains in the Med. As China increases its aggressive stance, a light carrier might even be appropriate to send to the Philipines, Japan, or Taiwan to show the colors in solidarity with allies, while a Ford Class continues on its regular Pacific patrol. Perhaps a Ford Class ship could cover strategic Indian Ocean deployments while a light carrier patrols the sea lanes off the Horn of Africa or near the straights of Malaka. These are just a few examples.

Certainly, having fewer aircraft and being a lighter ship overall reduces the capability of the light carrier, but it allows the Navy to operate more of them, increasing its deployment flexibility. So rather than replace its fleet carriers, the light carriers would augment them.

Think of it in somewhat different terms: There are many alternative sizes of freight truck rigs. The industry standard is the eighteen wheeler with a roughly 22 to 24 ton capacity and a bed 48 to 53 feet long. But some rigs are only built with 14 wheels and haul just 18 tons. Some have ten or twelve wheels and haul ten to fifteen tons. These trailers may be only 24 or 30 feet long. A few even have seven axles, 26 wheels and have a 50 ton capacity. The trucking industry recognizes the inefficiencies of using only one class of truck and has some of its fleet “right-sized” to match these varied loads. Likewise the Navy has many different types of combat surface frigates, destroyers, and cruisers to correctly size and position itself according to threats and missions. Even there, the smallest of those ships would be totally inappropriate in so-called “brown water” operations, where light gunboats and inflatable craft are used. Indeed, sizing ships to the mission and operational conditions is no new concept to the Navy.

Why, then, does the Navy eschew the light carrier? Part of it must be the weak operational performance of the light carriers in World War II, the last great aircraft carrier war. Part of it must also be the prestige of operating a fleet of the heaviest, most powerful ships in the world. Part of the reason is surely the perception that a modern “light carrier” always means a European-style V/STOL ship. Surely to some extent it is the budget game: Operating smaller, less expensive aircraft carriers threatens the procurement and operating budgets of the Navy. No good bureaucrat wants to see their budget shrink, and light carriers that are less expensive to build and operate risk causing just such a budgetary contraction. Worse, progressive voices in Congress could undermine the procurement of the [absolutely necessary] fleet of Ford Class ships in favor of smaller vessels.

These worries should be quelled. There is little chance that Congress would actually suspend the production of the Ford Class. There’s too much money being spent in too many congressional districts and states, and too many hawks in the Congress who wish a much larger percentage of Federal expenditures to be spent on the military as compared to other programs. Production of the Ford Class is all but certain to go forward, regardless of any other projects or class of carriers developed.

Development of the carriers also need not be a lengthy, expensive process. There’s no need to spend billions of dollars making improvements to the technologies employed. Rather than cutting-edge, these carriers can and should use off-the-shelf technologies already developed for the Nimitz and Ford classes. Additionally, the size class has already existed in the Navy’s fleet. If properly managed, carbon-copying the Forrestal or improved Midway classes and then upgrading the systems to those developed for the Nimitz and Ford Class will be far less costly than developing an entirely new hull. Construction costs could be further reduced by using conventional propulsion, however a nuclear power plant would be more appropriate to allow for extended deployments and reduce fuel storage penalties.

The day is coming when the Pentagon’s appetite for the most advanced, most expensive naval equipment will far outpace the government’s ability to pay for it. Whether that results in an overall fleet reduction or an upgrade and extension of the life of its most expensive platforms is unclear. If the Air Force’s continued extensive use of the B-52, C-130 and F-16 are an indication, it will be the latter. However the Navy can choose an alternate path, and the Light Fleet Carrier is a clear contender for that direction.

1Officially, Japan’s aircraft carrier is a “helicopter carrier.” In a shooting war with China, however, it will undoubtedly be outfitted with F-18, F-35, and perhaps other fixed wing aircraft.