Craig forwarded to me a translation of a Japanese web page on a notional Japanese future aircraft carrier.

History buffs will no doubt know that Japan was an early adopter of  aircraft carriers, and at the beginning of the Pacific War, after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, the core of their fast carrier fleet wreaked havoc across a third of the earth’s surface, with virtually no damage done to itself. It remains to this day the most stunning naval offensive ever.

Of course, during the course of the war, our fleet made destruction of Japanese carriers a high priority, and by the end of the war, the Japanese had essentially no carrier capability at all.

If I recall correctly, one of the provisions of the constitution MacArthur drafted for post-war Japan was a ban on carriers. Seems simple enough. Carriers are seen as offensive weapons in the naval arena. But here we are almost 70 years from the end of the war, and there is a good deal of pressure on Japan to assume an ever greater share of the burden of providing for its own defense. And with the growing strength of the Chinese navy, that pressure is only going to increase. To some extent, the Japanese have gotten around the restriction on building carriers by building what they euphemistically call “DDH’s” or helicopter carrying destroyers.  These DDH’s are quite close to several light carriers operated by countries such as Italy and Spain.  Currently, Japan only operates helicopters from them, but I can’t think of any particular reason they couldn’t operate VSTOL/STOVL aircraft such as the Harrier or the F-35B.

So here’s a bit of that notional Japanese carrier.

Now, my interest really isn’t in notional future Japanese carriers.  Really, I wanted to discuss light carriers. During World War II, in a bid to get more fast carriers into the fleet as rapidly as possible, several light cruisers already under construction were converted into light carriers. They lacked the size of large fleet carriers, and could carry only a fraction of the air wing. But unlike escort carriers, they had the speed to keep up with the main fleet. As the war went on, and large numbers of the excellent Essex class carriers joined the fleet, the Fast Carrier Task Force was eventually built around four task groups, each with a mix of Essex class carriers and one or two light carriers (CVLs).

Since the end of World War II, the US Navy’s trend has been toward ever larger carriers. First the Midway class “battle carriers”, then  the Forrestal class- the first “supercarriers” followed by the Enterprise, America, Kennedy, the Nimitz class and today, the Ford class carriers, each as large as or larger than its predecessor.

But every time the Navy faces austerity, there’s a very vocal call for the Navy to shift away from the enormously expensive supercarrier model, and shift to a numbers game of building larger numbers of smaller light carriers. The simple fact is, with only 11 (or 10… or maybe even only 9) carriers in service, the Navy can’t be everywhere it wants to be.  With a larger number of light carriers, the Navy could have at least some naval air presence in more places.

The problem is, small carriers lose out on economy of scale.  Two light carriers operating 40 aircraft each will likely cost more than one supercarrier operating 80 aircraft (yes, I know, current airwings are a tad light). And not only in up front ship costs. Very likely, the total manpower of the two light carriers and their air wings would be equal to or greater than one supercarrier. And manpower costs real money.

Further, each of those light carriers is still an incredibly high value asset, and would require every bit as much of an escort as  single supercarrier. So you have to factor in the costs of all the destroyers and cruisers that would sail along with the light carrier.  Two sets of escorts cost more than one.

Some of you bright folks will no doubt note that the Navy can, and recently has, used its big deck amphibious warfare ships (LHA and LHD classes) as mini-carriers. Sure, they can do that. But they aren’t optimized for it. They’re much slower than big deck carriers. They’re optimized for carrying Marines, not as serving as strike platforms. And since they can only operate VSTOL/STOVL aircraft such as the Harrier and F-35B, they can’t operate the E-2C/D Hawkeye airborne early warning airplane. So while they can be used in certain situation such as off the coast of Libya, where land based support is relatively easy to come by, they’re far less attractive platforms in other scenarios. The British experience with light carriers in the Falklands should be a cautionary tale for any advocates of light carriers. Given the US shift to an emphasis on Asia and the Pacific, where land based support for carriers will be difficult at best, the lack of an organic AEW platform would transform any LHA/LHD from a strike asset to at best a self-licking ice cream cone, whose air wing exists solely to protect the task force, and at worst to an easy target for the enemy.

Light carriers are a fairly viable option for those nations that can afford them, but not a supercarrier. But as long as the US maintains the ability to build and operate supercarriers, bigger really is better.

Your thoughts?

5 thoughts on “CVL”

  1. The only place you can save in manpower is in ship’s company. You are not likely to see much change in the size of ship’s company from, say, a Nimitz to a Midway (about 55K tons), or Essex (45K Tons) class carrier (what would be a “light” carriers today).

    Carriers are normally flag ships, and there is a much larger demand in the Combat Info Center and Bridge Crew (my QM gang on Courtney consisted of a QMC or 1st Class, and 3 junior QMs. A Carrier often has 15 junior QMs, may a couple 1st Class and anything from a QMC to a QMCM as the head of the gang. The Radar gang on Courtney had 8 people by comparison to the QM gang, and have little idea of what the carrier staff would be, but sure it would be at least twice as large as well. Add in the Snipes for the Tea Kettle and engine rooms, and I really don’t think you’re going to save much in Ship’s Company before it’s over. You could simply assign fewer, as it is very possible that the carriers are actually over manned simply because some one thinks they need all those extra people.

    My intuitive feel is that you would save little in ops cost. Certainly the material cost is nothing to sneeze at when you compare the 95K ton displacement of a Nimitz vs the 50K ton of a new Essex class, say. I don’t have enough knowledge to be able to take the specs for an Essex plant from the 60s, and compare it to what I would need from a nuke, Jeff Gauch might have enough background for that, but I don’t. Then you would have the space requirements for the tea kettle, and that’s another question I can’t answer. Then, what do you do about the fields from the EMALS. You may find yourself not being able to have a hard drive anywhere in the ship. This may be nothing in the end, as I don’t know how strong the fields are, and they do drop off quickly with distance (it’s an inverse square law as with gravitation, just a bit more complex as it’s not unipolar).

  2. Bear in mind that I’m just a lube-oil simian who barely figured out how to stand upright, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

    Hmmm, a nuclear powered Essex? I think I’d take the S9W plant out of the Virginia’s and rejigger it to power two shafts. Either that or design a shrunk-down version of the A1B plant that’s going into the Ford. Either way you’re going to see significant savings over the Nimitz propulsions plant. But the Ford has already been designed to capture most of those savings, so I don’t think replacing a Ford with two CVLN’s is going to save you much money.

    Now, if you were to make it dino-burning, either with marine diesel engines or gas-turbines (you could make like the original Essex and just double up a modern cruiser plant) you would save significant amounts of money in initial construction and manning (there aren’t many MMFA’s babysitting reactors), not to mention decommissioning (there’s a good chance I’ll be playing in the Enterprise decom. 8 reactors and a 50-year spill history, won’t that be fun!) On the other hand you’re going to have to spend money buying dinosaur carcasses to turn into smoke and wake.

    I think supercarriers offer the best economies of scale. IMO we need to look elsewhere for spending cuts (you know, I’ve gone over and over it, but I can’t seem to find the part of the Constitution that tells FedGov to run an insurance system for old folks.)

    1. I can’t anything in the Constitution about a lot of stuff FedGov does (e.g. National Parks, National Forests, ExIm Bank, Food stamps, and a host of other things). The military and securing the borders are two of the few things FedGov does, or supposed to do, that it is obligated to do.

  3. For some reason the idea of building fewer & bigger fleet carriers reminds me the increasing size & decreasing number of battleships. It also recalls to mind the fact that dreadnaught-class battleships were so expensive that few, if any, were put into harms way for very long during WW1. For all the pre-war fuss, the real work involved convoy duty, not major fleet action.

    The same could be said for WW2, with most of the “fleet actions” being carrier-on-carrier battles, and that only lasted about 18 months before Japan’s aviation capability was wiped out. After that the fleet carriers pretty much acted as CVE’s and CL’s on steroids.

    As a post script I’ll also cite S.E. Morison’s discussion of the Navy’s obsession with building big ships before WW2, given their limited budget. The thinking of the time was that smaller craft could be quickly and (comparatively) easily built. This thinking kept us from a balanced two-ocean Navy until well into the war.

    1. The same could be said for WW2, with most of the “fleet actions” being carrier-on-carrier battles, and that only lasted about 18 months before Japan’s aviation capability was wiped out. After that the fleet carriers pretty much acted as CVE’s and CL’s on steroids.

      I’d say that last bit is incorrect. The Fast Carrier Task Force was used very much as a Mahanian “fleet in being.” Another way of looking at the difference in use of the FCTF and the escort carriers is the view of “power projection” versus “sea control.”

      The CVE force primarily existed to control the waters in the area around the fleet they supported. The FCTF existed to project power against either the enemy fleet, or later in the war, against Japanese held lands. Because the land base air almost always had the option of reinforcement, the FCTF had to use its mobility to choose the time and place of engagement, and then retire to safety. Even the largest carrier for the world will ever see was only able to mount comparatively small raids (compared to say, fighter sweeps in Europe).

      As a post script I’ll also cite S.E. Morison’s discussion of the Navy’s obsession with building big ships before WW2, given their limited budget. The thinking of the time was that smaller craft could be quickly and (comparatively) easily built. This thinking kept us from a balanced two-ocean Navy until well into the war.

      I’d argue that events proved the Navy correct. The Navy was very successful in building the vast numbers of smaller combatants in an extraordinarily short span of time, not to mention the enormous numbers of service and support vessels needed. Navy planners did spend enough money to develop mobilization designs and conversion plans for many of the ships they knew they would need, but couldn’t afford during the peacetime era of austerity. If you have the chance to read the all of Friedman’s design histories, you’ll see that while the General Board and OPNAV often argued quite a bit over individual design characteristics, they also had a surprisingly clear vision of just what the fleet would need should war come. That they couldn’t build it all during peacetime was a political reality. The one glaring omission from their planning was the Destroyer Escort program.

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