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.
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.