Why on Earth Are We Still Building Aircraft Carriers?

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I really don't like the naming of carriers after people.

I would like to see the navy going back to the original scheme -- famous sailing ships and famous battles.
Original scheme? Turn the clock back to the birth of carrier aviation. Look at these named for people:

CV-1 Langley (for Samuel Pierpont Langley scientist and aviation pioneer - the very first carrier. Her name was changed when she was converted)

Then from the first group of 11 Essex class orders placed in 1940 after Founding Fathers
CV-13 Franklin (for Benjamin Franklin and not the Civil War battle)
CV-19 Hancock (for John Hancock)
CV-15 Randolph (for Peyton Randolph)

CVL-27 Langley (as per CV-1)
CVL-28 Cabot (after John Cabot the explorer)
CVB-42 originally launched Coral Sea but renamed Franklin D Roosevelt in May 1945 on orders President Truman.
CVL-49 Wright (named for the Wright Brothers)

All before the policy changed in the 1960s with CV-67 JFK.

Most of the CVE were named for bodies of water rather than battles.

Edit:- CV-16 was originally to be Cabot when ordered in 1940, until renamed to commemorate CV-2 Lexington in June 1942, 3 months before launch so allowing the name to be transferred to CVL-28.
 
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Original scheme? Turn the clock back to the birth of carrier aviation. Look at these named for people:

CV-1 Langley (for Samuel Pierpont Langley scientist and aviation pioneer - the very first carrier. Her name was changed when she was converted)

Then from the first group of 11 Essex class orders placed in 1940 after Founding Fathers
CV-13 Franklin (for Benjamin Franklin and not the Civil War battle)
CV-19 Hancock (for John Hancock)
CV-15 Randolph (for Peyton Randolph)

CVL-27 Langley (as per CV-1)
CVL-28 Cabot (after John Cabot the explorer)
CVB-42 originally launched Coral Sea but renamed Franklin D Roosevelt in May 1945 on orders President Truman.
CVL-49 Wright (named for the Wright Brothers)
Ok, you are correct, 8 carriers out of the first 49 fleet carriers were named after people.

And CVB-42 was commissioned after the end of WW II.

I probably should have limited my statement to naming after presidents. I don't like that for any president. Congressmen included (Carl Vinson and John C. Stennis).

Nimitz was a worthy name being directly connected to USN aviation.
All before the policy changed in the 1960s with CV-67 JFK.
Most of the CVE were named for bodies of water rather than battles.
Correct, and there were I believe 124 of them so IMO a whole different naming scheme is appropriate because of the sheer number.

I should have limited my statement to fleet carriers (CV, CVL, CVB and CVN).
 
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Ok, you are correct, 8 carriers out of the first 49 fleet carriers were named after people.

And CVB-42 was commissioned after the end of WW II.

I probably should have limited my statement to naming after presidents. I don't like that for any president. Congressmen included (Carl Vinson and John C. Stennis).

Nimitz was a worthy name being directly connected to USN aviation.

Correct, and there were I believe 124 of them so IMO a whole different naming scheme is appropriate because of the sheer number.

I should have limited my statement to fleet carriers (CV, CVL, CVB and CVN).
FWIW I agree with you as to carrier names.
 
While the USN currently has 11 nuclear powered super carriers (10 Nimitz class and 1 Ford class) at any one time there is usually at least 1 undergoing Refuelling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH), a process that takes them out of service for at least 4 years at a time.

The George Washington CVN-73 started her RCOH in Aug 2017, and has only returned to sea again last month to run post refit trials. She is expected to become fully operational again in 2024.

The John C Stennis CVN-74 began her RCOH in May 2021 and will not be back in service until at least 2025, and probably later, given delays in earlier ships.

Given the regular round of refits and work ups and the number of available air wings (see below) there are never 11 or even 10 available at one time. One ship, currently the CVN-76 Ronald Reagan, has its Home Port at Yokosuka, Japan. 4 are based on the US west coast and 4 on the east coast.

Getting CVN-78 Gerald R Ford operational has proved a lengthy task. First of a new class, Ford commissioned in July 2017, and was packed with new technology - new EMALS catapults, new arrester gear, new weapon elevators as well as new radars, which have provided many headaches. She has only begun her first fully operational deployment in 2023.

As for the new Ford class the completion dates are currently expected to be:-
CVN-79 John F Kennedy - as of March 2023 her delivery date has been pushed back from 2024 to 2025.
CVN-80 Enterprise - expected completion 2028
CVN-81 Doris Miller - expected completion 2032.

Meanwhile CVN-68 Nimitz is scheduled to be taken out of service in FY25 I.e. between 1 Oct 2024 and 30 Sept 2025, just as the Kennedy enters service.

More importantly, there are currently only 9 Carrier Air Wings (5 in the Pacific and 4 in the Atlantic) plus what is known as a Tactical Support Wing (previously a Reserve Carrier Air Wing) which is responsible for operational and training support of the main CVW. Only 2 of its 5 squadrons fly carrier capable aircraft unlike in the old days when the Reserve Wings could be carrier deployed in an emergency. CVW-5 is based at MCAS Iwakuni in Japan for the Ronald Reagan.

So the number of US carriers will never rise above 9 in service at one time.

You can follow their movements here.

Edit:- Nimitz first commissioned in May 1975 and had her RCOH between 1998 and 2001. So she will be 50 by the time she leaves service, with John F Kennedy as her replacement.

Eisenhower first commissioned in Oct 1977 and had her RCOH between 1995 and 1998. Her replacement will be the Enterprise around 2028/29, when she will be 50+ years old.

Vinson first commissioned in March 1982 and had her RCOH between 2005 and 2009. She will be 50 in 2032 just as the Doris Miller is scheduled to join the fleet.

The next oldest is the Theodore Roosevelt first commissioned in Oct 1986 and given her RCOH between 2009 and 2013.

I don't understand why the refits etc. seem so hard and so inefficient given how much $$$ they spend, it seems like the Defense Industry really needs some reform.

I can see the arguments for the carriers still being there but I do think it's time to re-imagine this whole paradigm, because things are definitely changing. Battleships still had some merits and value in WW2 but they were clearly no longer the dominant technology. I suspect air power, or some kind of drone equivalent, is going to need to be a lot more dispersed, stealthy etc., I can imagine a lot of smaller, stealthy drone launchers dispersed over a wide area, capable of launching larger and smaller flying war machines of some kind, whether human or AI controlled I don't know.

I am not entirely convinced AI is going to be better than humans so soon. I was a software developer for 30 years and I actually worked some with neural nets and some other 'AI' software, and I think it has flaws and people are quite good at discovering those. Neural nets have no common sense. Very powerful in some ways, quite weak in others.

Overall though, I think our defense industry is too oriented toward making a buck, lobbying, marketing etc., vs. making good hardware. I think some big reforms are in order, maybe even some anti-trust work. A lot of smaller companies competing would be much more flexible and imaginative, and ultimately probably more efficient.

On the other hand I bet large but still somewhat 'lean' companies like SpaceX could be quite helpful to the DoD. So i guess it depends.
 
I don't understand why the refits etc. seem so hard and so inefficient given how much $$$ they spend, it seems like the Defense Industry really needs some reform.
An RCOH just isn't like the annual service on your car. It is more akin to an engine out, body repair, repaint and rebuild from the ground up while installing the latest tech. They are basically going through each and every compartment (there are hundreds) and piece of equipment on the ship, repairing and replacing as necessary. Then there are the equipment upgrades for new better tech after about 25 years of service. Some articles here about the work carried out.

General

Abraham Lincoln

George Washington

With so few carriers in the fleet there is no opportunity to support more than one yard either building or carrying out RCOH work. If there were then you would have each yard stopping and starting, laying off its workforce, and having to recruit and retrain a new workforce when / if it won its next carrier contract. That was a problem for BAe Systems in the U.K. when the planned RN sub programme got cut back in the 1990s. The customer ended up bearing the cost of starting up again. Didn't work out so cheap at the end of the day. So a steady drumbeat of both construction and RCOH work is required.

It is a complex problem. No two ships will require the same work. Some work will be able to be predicted from maintenance records etc but not all. And although there are 10 Nimitz class they break into three groups. The first three, the next 6 and finally the Bush. Kinda what you expect as a basic design evolves over 50 years.

Yes it is an expensive process - maybe 75% of the cost of a new ship. But what is the alternative? Can you persuade Congress to fund a replacement after 25 years rather than 50? Alternatively you run the ship on for a few more years with an ever increasing annual maintenance bill. And if you get in a fight, is its tech adequate for the war it finds itself in?
 
Refitting a carrier is essentially rebuilding a steel city. Infrastructure repairs, water mains, power generation facilities, roadway, and a bunch of stuff I wouldn't think of. How long does it take to repair a bridge or even that patch of road nearby?
 
I think weapons procurement, maintenance and design has to be approached from a pragmatic point of view, which it certainly hasn't been from the political side for a really long time, and with the top priority being to make the best possible weapons for the defense of our nation. I don't begrudge people making a buck in doing this, but the first mission has to be efficacy of the weapon.

The very large size and scale of a ship like a CVN is perhaps one of the reasons why something smaller might be better. Only a few shipyards can work on something at that scale, and that has always been a problem. This backlog is a serious problem. We have sailors doing their whole tour in a half dismantled carrier under refit, under miserable conditions, learning nothing. We may be departing the era where 'bigger is better'. It might be possible to launch some types of flying weapons from something more like a VLS for example, which could be coming from a smaller vessel, even a submersible.

Carriers seem quite vulnerable to ballistic and hypersonic weapons, at least until we get more effective air defenses in place (Standard missile shows some potential of course). There may be ways to address this, and I wouldn't say the jury is out on whether bigger is still better at least in some cases, but I think we need to explore some alternatives a bit more aggressively and 'Zumwalt' isn't really a good example of doing that.

I think many, if not most of our defense industry contractors are a bit over-consolidated, are optimized for maximum profit above all other priorities, and use a fairly mercenary pool of contractors for a lot (not all) of the labor, which can make it difficult to keep institutional focus. This is somewhat necessary in the political environment vis a vis funding, as funding waxes and wanes, and these companies have to be able to shrink and grow their work force rapidly. But I think there are major problems associated with this.

In particular on the level of software, which has been both a strength and a weakness / issue for US weapon systems. I know people who worked in the industry and the lack of cohesion for very sophisticated software applications can be a big, big problem. You end up with millions of lines of code nobody can even understand, and that is not something you want on 'mission critical' software (or any software)
 
The current debate about carrier size is not new for the USN and the same debates have arisen in the RN. They date all the way back to WW2.

And when it comes to size just what is meant? Tonnage? Physical dimensions?

Forrestal class - c81,000 tons full load. 1,070' oa x 238' extreme (130 wl), draught 35'
Ford class - c100,000 tons full load. 1,100' oa x 256' extreme (134 wl), draught 39'

So you dump the nuclear plant to save money. Any alternative power plant requires space not only for itself but the fuel needed to power it. What does that do to aviation fuel capacity? So the carrier task group now needs more fuel to be supplied (the escorts need it either way) to keep it on station for the same length of time, or to get it to a crisis region at high speed. So you now have a greater tanker cost to figure into the equation. And so it goes on.

If you want physically smaller ships do you then need multiple carriers to do the same job? So multiple sets of radars, command systems etc etc. Cost? So does it really work out cheaper.

See the following for some of the arguments


And this for the RN debate to the origins of the QEs and the drivers for the eventual size with some other historical data.

Much is said of the hypersonic missile treat as a carrier killer. But just how great is it? Truth is no one knows. AIUI, it is only the final stage of their approach that is close to sea level. A large part is at high level so aiding detection, especially by AEW assets. And the heat they generate from that speed makes it difficult for them to operate their radars in certain phases of flight.
 
yeah looks like we may find out somewhere near Taiwan fairly soon.

But i don't mean smaller carriers. I mean something much more futuristic. Yes multiple vessels, some working as launchers, some as detectors, some as control / communicators, some as defenders. More of a swarm approach than something based on conventional aircraft.

The military calls this "distributed warfighting" or "distributed lethality" or "Distributed Maritime Operations"



DistributedLethalityConcept.jpg


The newest USN fighter already has some VTOL capability, we may see more radical moves in that direction in the future. In theory you could have quite small vessels launching a few aircraft at a time. Just a lot of these working together.
 
The mission of the large CVN is primarily to be able to project power in a high intensity war - in the form of a sledge hammer or a defensive wall/strong point - even if the war may be short.

In peacetime the CVN is in some ways a white elephant, but in wartime the US could theoretically position upto 8(?) carriers off the coasts of any country with shorelines on blue water. Each carrier can carry 60-90 aircraft, of which 2/3 or more will be strike capable. 480-720 modern front line high performance combat aircraft is more than any but about the 10-12 largest powers can effectively field.

The combat capability of a CVN/CBG is commonly grossly underestimated.

One fairly comprehensive estimate from 2020 in terms of effectiveness:

1. United States Air Force - 242.9
2. United States Navy - 142.4
3. Russian Air Force - 114.2
4. United States Army Aviation - 112.6
5. United States Marine Corps - 85.3
6. Indian Air Force - 69.4
7. People's Liberation Army Air Force (China) - 63.8
8. Japan Air Self Defense Force - 58.1
9. Israeli Air Force - 58.0
10. French Air Force - 56.3
11. British Royal Air Force - 55.3
12. South Korean Air Force - 53.4
13. Italian Air Force - 51.9
14. Royal Australian Air Force - 51.7
15. People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force (China) - 49.3

The values are based various factors including numbers, technology level, training level, ability to deploy/supply/sustain, etc.

While things like hypersonic missiles need to be taken seriously (and they have been since the 1950s) they should not be the deciding factor any more than submarines should be - and submarines are still considered to be more dangerous than air/missile attack depending on the situation.

While I agree that times are changing, there is currently no demonstrated alternative that is as effective as the CVN/CBG strategy for power projection, nor as far as I know is there any near term (20 years?) proposed alternative that is deemed as effective.

IMO we should build and maintain a total of somewhere around 25 CVN/CBG. This strategy was seriously considered (actually the number was 30) and proposed back in the late-1960s but the cost was deemed to high - despite the capability it would provide. The reasoning was primarily due to the political consequences of appearing to be able/intending/willing to rapidly deploy an air force capable of destroying any opponent. In effect it was feared that such construction would signal an arms buildup in preparation to starting a war, rather than just being willing to fight one if necessary. It was felt that this was more likely to start WWIII than the alternative chosen.
 
I think things are moving fast in China. 2020 is recent, but this is 2023. And I think ballistic and hypersonic missiles have advanced quite a bit since the 1950s.

And this is a measure of air forces, as in aircraft, I assume. I don't think this includes land based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles etc., into which China has been heavily investing.

Aircraft carriers, and most of the aircraft we are still flying from them, are still mostly pretty old technology. 80s or 90s. AEGIS was an amazingly effective system when it was invented. It's probably still effective but it's a bit longer in the teeth. Technology is older and it is quite familiar to potential adverseries. F/A 18 is a 1970s-1990s design.

We may not have another contingency other than CVs, but you could say the same thing about battleships in the 30s. The successfully navies of WW2 invested in some fairly new and still quit experimental technology which had never been used in war - aircraft carriers. I think some kind of remote or autonomous vehicles, i.e. drones of various types (flying high speed, flying low speed, underwater, big, small, swarms, etc.) are probably already in that role. Several recent conflicts have hinged to a large degree on drone technology.

I worry that we could end up caught with our pants down. Especially given how... assertive our foreign policy continues to be.
 
Oh and where is Sweden on that list?

EDIT: (Ah, found it on the 2023 version, ranked 38 "TvR", and 30 out of 100 on the list. Just above Ukraine).
 
The US CVN/CBG has been steadily improving during the last 3 years also - both in terms of aircraft capabilities (eg F-35 in increasing numbers) and in terms of the Aegis/SM system (ie more capable and increasing numbers of the improved SM-3).

As we have seen recently in Ukraine, the Patriot is quite capable of shooting down hypersonic missiles. The Patriot upgrades that allow this came from the Aegis/SM-3 ABM upgrades.

Also see:

"Turkish carrier"
 
Firstly STOVL. It comes with sacrifices which until now the USN has not been prepared to consider. Less range, less payload. The USN always seems to want more range, partly to allow iit to stand further off an enemy coast to deliver its attacks and partly to allow it to penetrate deeper into enemy territory or loiter longer. The Wiki page on the F-35 has a side by side comparison of the 3 models.

For a variety of reasons the UK was prepared to make the sacrifice by choosing the F-35B. But it is now looking at how it can improve the "bring back" weapons capability by using Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SVRL), allowing higher landing weights.

STOVL does however provide emergent carrier nations a cheaper way into the market via smaller ships. Japan is a good example where it is converting its latest pair of helicopter carriers (Izumo & Kaga) to operate F-35B. Korea is talking about it.

Now drones/UAV. Everyone talks about them but just what are they talking about? They come in all shapes and sizes from man-portable to the 130ft wingspan, 32,000lb RQ-4 Global Hawk. What do you want them to be? A strike platform? A sensor platform?

Most countries are looking at them on a trial basis. Her is the latest on the RN programme.
Peregrine in due in service next year.

And the USN has a programme to deliver UAV carrier borne tankers in the not too distant future.

But note its size to deliver 16,000lb of fuel. 75ft wingspan. Dimensionally it is not much smaller than an E-2D Hawkeye. But it does free up the F-18E/F from buddy tanking duty. But it's going to take a big carrier to operate it.

So compared to today's manned fighters an equivalent UAV should be a bit smaller and lighter without a pilot and his life support systems. But it is still going to be a substantial chunk of metal and plastic to do the same job.

And while a UAV can lift a sensor package into the air, it cant provide the direction facilities of an E-2D/E-7/E-3. That requires to be done on the ship or at a land base.

The problem I have with all these autonomous vehicles is the volume of comms chatter they are going to generate. Open to jamming, hacking, EMP. There have been instances of civil satnav systems being degraded in their accuracy in certain regions with conflict zones. What effect is that having / could it have on military systems? Seems to me that all it takes is the will to do it. A bit like codebreaking in WW2. Earlier this year there was a fly on the wall documentary filmed on HMS Queen Elizabeth during her deployment to the Pacific in 2022. At one point they needed to lose their Russian shadow spy ship. They just turned off all comms and sailed away into the night. Not an option if you have all these drones needing controlled. Or do you give them AI to decide for themselves what to do? Just look at the recent debate about controlling AI in the future. One step closer to the fictional "Skynet".

And as for this buzz idea about swarming. In reality it is nothing new. Put enough targets in the air and some will get through to hit the target. But no one seems to know exactly how a pilot in one aircraft for example, is singlehandedly going to control his "swarm" of attackers while simultaneously taking avoiding action himself.

Back in the 1950s the missile was going to be the thing and the man was going to be taken out of the loop. That never happened in the way it was envisaged. Are we in the same position today withwith drones/UAV?

As for carrier numbers that can be made available at short notice, the best example is probably Gulf War 1 where the USN managed 6. Midway, Saratoga, Ranger, America, JFK & Roosevelt. In addition Independence & Eisenhower had taken part in Desert Shield before being relieved by other carriers. Those 6 were spread between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, with no more than 4 in the Gulf. Sea room got a bit tight in there for 4 carrier battle groups let alone the other shipping.

Edit:- I should have added that at 30 Sept 1990 the USN had 13 active carriers from a total fleet of 15. Abraham Lincoln commissioned in Nov 1989 and Coral Sea decommissioned in April 1990 for the last time. Today at best there are only 10 active carriers in the fleet (with the Washington still to work up) so maybe adjust accordingly. So only maybe 4-5 available in a hurry.
 
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yeah looks like we may find out somewhere near Taiwan fairly soon.

But i don't mean smaller carriers. I mean something much more futuristic. Yes multiple vessels, some working as launchers, some as detectors, some as control / communicators, some as defenders. More of a swarm approach than something based on conventional aircraft.

The military calls this "distributed warfighting" or "distributed lethality" or "Distributed Maritime Operations"



View attachment 724238

The newest USN fighter already has some VTOL capability, we may see more radical moves in that direction in the future. In theory you could have quite small vessels launching a few aircraft at a time. Just a lot of these working together.

Note that the OV1 you provided simply shows multiple means of delivering effects. It does NOT show USN assets operating as a swarm. To do that, you need communication between the various ships/boats which is not shown on the graphic except at the very top where surface units are cooperating with an E-2D.

The ocean is a very quiet place from an electromagnetic perspective. Every time a ship turns on a radar, radio or datalink, it paints a huge target on that ship which is why ships crews practice very tight EMCON under combat conditions. Expecting lots of vessels to maintain swarming type communications is a massive OPSEC risk, IMHO. Yes, LPI/LPD systems can help but such systems bring other performance costs.
 
It would depend on the level of damage and desired/required repairs, and the threat level. There are around 23 shipyards in the forward areas that could 'easily' handle temporary repairs on a US CVN, and about 12 shipyards that could handle more serious damage.
USS Connecticut is said to be out of service for years due to lack of shipyard capacity. Would a damaged carrier be out of service for years waiting for space?

 
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USS Connecticut is said to be out of service for years due to lack of shipyard capacity. Would a damaged carrier be out of service for years waiting for space?

I count at least 55 USN attack subs in service. 19 are Virginias and 3 are Seawolfs. Three more Virginias that are launched.

I count 11 USN CVN in service.

I would think that a damaged sub out of service is a far lower priority than a CVN out of service.
 
Hey Admiral Beez,

It is most likely just a matter of priority.

One of the reasons we have 11x CVNs is due to the possibility/probability of 1 or more being put out of service in a war. In today's warfighting scenarios, for the vast majority of the scenarios we will win or lose the war with the major systems we start with. It is considered true that there will be no time to build replacements for systems like CVNs.

If a war lasts long enough - to where the US is able to build replacement CVNs or do major repairs/rebuilds after serious damage - the US figures its manufacturing capacity will allow it to do what is practical and needed - or it won't, in which case the scenario is too far out of the realm of predictability.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
Train the way you fight.
Stay ahead of the opposition in tech and methodologies.
Maintain as strong a military capability as allowed by society.
 
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One of the reasons we have 11x CVNs is due to the possibility/probability of 1 or more being put out of service in a war.
Good point, and France having a single carrier, and a maintenance hog CVN/L at that does not follow such thinking. The British have two CVs, though only about two dozen aircraft to fly off them combined. Not a lot of redundancy in the Euro navies.
 

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