When nuclear weapons were new, they were pretty large. Too large for carrier based aircraft, so the Air Force was tasked with building a nuclear bomber force, with the funding to come at the expense of the Army and Navy budgets. In defense of its budgets, the Navy designed a mega carrier that would carry bombers that were capable of carrying nuclear weapons. This carrier, the USS United States (CVA-58), was a bad idea and poorly designed. It was cancelled by President Truman as being an expensive boondoggle.
The legacy of CVA-58 lived on and formed the basis for the idea of the supercarrier. At their cold war height, a carrier airwing carried over 90 aircraft. When I reported aboard the USS Eisenhower, our air wing had two squadrons of F-14 Tomcat fighters, two squadrons of A-7 Corsairs, a squadron of A-6 Intruders, a squadron of S-3 Vikings, a squadron of H-3 Sea King helicopters, a squadron of five EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, a squadron of E-2 Hawkeye AWACS aircraft, and a couple of C-2 Greyhound cargo aircraft. More than nine squadrons.
Since then, the Navy has eliminated the submarine hunting S-3, and has combined the functions of the A-6, EA-6B, KA-6D, F-14, and A-7 into just one aircraft platform: the F-18.
Now the US Navy has downsized the carrier airwing. Now the air wing consists of just 53 aircraft, about half the number of aircraft carried 30 years ago. At $12 billion each, the question is: do we still need to be building full sized supercarriers?
The Marines think they can make LHA’s, ships less than half the size of a supercarrier, operate while carrying 13 F-35s alongside the other aircraft, helicopters, and 1700 marines– at a quarter of the cost of a super carrier. Could- or should- the Navy take a look at the feasibility of a carrier that is about the size of an LHA that would carry an air wing of 25 to 30 aircraft and do it at a third of the cost? More importantly, their smaller size would mean that these smaller ships would have half the crew, and would present a much less valuable target. A smaller and less expensive carrier would mean that we could have 20 of these carriers for less money than the 12 super carriers we currently have.
In smaller conflicts, a single carrier would be deployed. For major conflicts, 2, 3, or even 4 of them could operate together. The enemy forces would then be forced to expend the additional effort needed to attack 3 or 4 carrier battle groups instead of one.