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The U.S. Navy’s Biggest Pet Peeve

Each succeeding presidential administration debated whether or not to build medium-sized aircraft carriers. It had the support of Presidents Ford and Carter but not Reagan.

US Navy Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

“Why Not Have Some Medium-Sized Aircraft Carriers?”

It’s all-or-nothing, so make it count. According to the United States Navy, such is the case for carrier aircraft.

The United States Navy constructs supercarriers that can carry over 5,000 marines. Its length exceeds three football fields and can carry over a hundred thousand metric tonnes. They have two nuclear reactors and four shafts, allowing them to transport roughly 90 aircraft. Yet, the construction cost ($13 billion for the new USS Gerald R. Ford) is surpassed only by the maintenance expense over the ship’s lifetime.

But why not scale it back and construct a moderate-sized aircraft carrier instead?

During World War II, the U.S. deployed huge strike carriers and smaller escort carriers. This idea made perfect sense. The escort carriers may unleash patrols and a screening force to prevent a counterattack on the main carriers if they were involved in an offensive operation and their jet wing was stationed far away.

The acquisition strategy of the navy was a major factor in its expansion throughout the Cold War. Instead of constructing a heavy and a medium, or two mediums, all at once, it was thought to be simpler to construct one supercarrier at a time and devote all available resources. If the huge size encountered problems, they might scrap the medium one. A good example of this is the Ford. The debut of the brand-new flat-top has been pushed back by about four years.

Thousands of sailors would still be required to operate the smaller number of planes on board a medium-sized carrier. Also, there was the issue of upkeep expenses. As opposed to two smaller ships, it is preferable to maintain one large one. The marginal cost is very high.

A carrier of moderate size could lead its strike force. Needed more escort ships. Specifically, frigates and destroyers were in limited supply when the Cold War ended, and the Global War on Terror began to heat up.

That was the plan in the 1970s: use conventional electricity for the smaller ships. The flight deck, elevators, and catapults on the medium-sized ships would be shorter, and fewer aircraft would be on board. It translated to less lethal fighting power and a slower sortie rate. These difficult tradeoffs influenced the ratio of strike planes to support planes for surveillance, electronic warfare, command and control, and anti-submarine operations. Could all of the missions be completed if there were enough planes?

Each succeeding presidential administration debated whether or not to build medium-sized aircraft carriers. It had the support of Presidents Ford and Carter but not Reagan. Much of the back and forth was caused by financial constraints, and Reagan’s grand plan, which held that could win peace through strength and that larger nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers would aid in defeating communism and the victory of the Cold War. With higher defense funds at his disposal, Reagan went all out.

There were just too many drawbacks to building medium aircraft carriers. Their use of conventional propulsion restricted their range. There was still the issue of upkeep expenses. Might need more planes or ships to accompany them to complete combat operations. Despite their high cost, supercarriers will likely remain in service for global power projection, critical in 21st-century naval warfare.

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