The Case For Smaller Carriers In The US Navy

USS Eisenhower operating alongside the Charles de Gaulle in 2016

There’s no easy way to put it, the US Navy is in a serious budget issue. The Ford class carriers are coming in over budget at an eye-watering $12B each. The F-35C Joint Strike Fighters are still around $95M a piece. The Columbia class are hoping for a price tag of $5B each. These are all wonderful systems in their own rights, but something has to give. The US Navy’s budget is not an infinite resource. To compound the issue even more, the US Navy is severely lacking the number of hulls its needs in order to meet tasking requirements even today.

A simple solution would be simply to cut the Ford class to just 6 hulls. With 6, three could be assigned to either coast, leaving one per coast operational at any given time (one operational, one getting ready for deployment/just getting home from deployment, one in long term maintenance). Then use that additional roughly $50B saved for more ships, problem solved. However, aircraft carriers are one of the most sought after US Navy assets by regional commanders. Their air wing brings increased flexibility and options to the table that regional combatant commands desire. So with that, simply cutting the number of carriers would be less than ideal.

An option to address that would be to run the Wasp and America class LHDs and LHAs as STOVL carriers. This has been done in the past with effective results. In 2003 when the Iraq War started, both the USS Bataan and USS Bonhomme Richard deployed their MEUs to Kuwait, and then both operated in the Persian Gulf as STOVL carriers. AV-8B II Harriers operating off the USS Bonhomme Richard actually dropped some 175,000lb of munitions in support of the invasion force. Fast forward to today, and F-35Bs would dramatically increase the effectiveness of such a deployment, what with its 60% increased range and payload over the AV-8B II, not to mention its AN/APG-81 radar and VLO technologies.

The issues with using the Wasp and Americas as STOVL carriers are that;

  • They weren’t designed to be carriers — They have very limited aviation capacity due to their primary mission of getting an entire MEU of 2000 Marines, and all of their necessary equipment, ashore. That takes up a massive chunk of the ship that can’t just be reclaimed in an instant.
  • They can only operate STOVL fixed wing aircraft and helicopters — While F-35Bs are far superior to AV-8B IIs, they’re still lacking range and payload compared to their F-35C brothers. On top of that, E-2s that provide AWACS coverage to the carriers would not be able to operate off of them. This would leave the STOVL carriers to either operate with someone else’s AWACS looking out for them, or no AWACS cover at all.

That leaves one final option; procuring a second class of dedicated, but smaller, carriers. At first glance that looks foolish, but lets look deeper at it for a second. France’s Charles de Gaulle as a prime example, is a roughly 50% miniature of the US’ Ford or Nimitz class carrier. It can still deploy E-2s and non STOVL fighters, but weighs around half as much, and carries half as many aircraft. So you’re losing overall airwing size, but you’re not losing any capabilities, which is huge. Instead of a Ford class with an airwing comprised of:

  • 48 F/A-18E/Fs and F-35Cs
  • 5 EA-18Gs
  • 4–5 E-2s
  • 2 C-2s/CMV-22s
  • handful of MH-60S and MH-60Rs

You would have an airwing along the lines of:

  • 24 F/A-18E/Fs and F-35Cs
  • 2–3 EA-18Gs
  • 2–3 E-2s
  • 2 C-2s/CMV-22s
  • handful of MH-60S and MH-60Rs

The major selling point of it however is that it only cost around 40% what a Ford class costs (converting from Euros to USD, and adjusting for inflation). Those 4 additional Ford class carriers would come out to be around a combined $48B as it stands today. That same $48B would buy 10 carriers comparable in size to the Charles de Gaulle.

That would increase the carrier fleet from its projected 10, to up to 16, and for the same cost. On top of 1 CVN per coast operational at any given time, there would also be 1–2 mini carriers per coast operational. It would go from 2–3 carriers constantly at sea, to 4–6 carriers constantly at sea. That’s a huge increase in the number of hulls available to meet operational taskings, without rushing deployments, breaking ships and crew alike.

While the mini carrier would not match a CVN’s air wing, two of the mini carriers could operate together, for a near perfect replication of a CVN’s capacity. On top of that, these mini carriers would likely be conventionally powered, much like the Wasp and America class ships that are of comparable displacement in the US Navy today. That would allow for deployment and staging of them in traditionally unconventional locations, such as Australia and New Zealand. That would put even more US Navy carriers and air wings just 2000 miles away from the South China Sea, while today, the closest carrier (outside of the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan), is some 7000 miles away in Bremerton WA and San Diego CA. That means a carrier could be on station in under 3 days, vs the current situation that takes over twice as long. That kind of quick flexibility and reaction time, while still being ported outside of the range of Chinese anti-ship missiles is realistically impossible as it stands today.

While this seems completely outlandish and bordering on naval fan fiction, the now infamous and former Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly stated in March of this year that the Navy was actually considering cutting the Ford class order short, and was beginning to look at other alternatives. Hopefully a mini carrier is one of those alternatives.

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