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.

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Angus McThag · February 23, 2020 at 2:54 am

We once had the "cheaper" smaller carriers.

The SCB-125 Essex boats.

I once wondered about doing an angle deck carrier based on an LHD and learned that 25% the cost isn't actually real.

You get 25% the capability with just 40% the costs. The reason we still have the LHDs is because of the big well deck on the back. The reason an LHD has a flat-top is because the Marines never surrendered organic aviation like the Army.

The prices rabidly get cherry picked to prove the point of the advocate of one class over another, much like "how much does and F-35B cost?"

You need to know exactly what is meant by "how much" and what's included in that price.

Angus McThag · February 23, 2020 at 7:28 pm

I found some of my notes!

It's not the price of the little carrier and it's operation that keeps it from being as cost effective. Not entirely.

Wasp is $1.5 billion per copy. Nimitz was coming in at $8.5 billion.

Lots of savings there.

An angled deck Wasp derivative should be able to handle 20ish aircraft which is about 1/4 what Nimitz can haul if you pack them in like Reagan was back.

Where the paradigm about these savings falls down is while the price of the carrier is lower, the escorts remain the same.

A CG ($1 billion each), three DDG ($1.8 billion each), an SSN ($3.2 billion each) and a 1/4 of an T-AOE (about $1 billion) for every group and with the four smaller carriers we need four times as many ships.

So we have almost $10 billion for the escorts.

CVN BG is $18.5 billion.

Four CVL BG are $45.4 billion.

Same capability in delivered air power for just over twice as much.

It gets worse! Unless we're going to make our Wasp derivative a CVLN… we're going to need a lot more T-AOE to run her. Historically the USN hates buying fast fleet replenishment ships, they're always overworked.

Then there's the escorts for the oilers so they can get to and from the supply bases to the ships…

It's a difficult budget sell.

By the way, I am saying all this as someone who LIKES the idea of a bunch of smaller carriers.

Angus McThag · February 24, 2020 at 7:09 am

I keep remembering things about this debate…

The reason the CVL needs to be angle deck and not just use Wasp is the Hawkeye.

Without the E-2, you lose a great deal of what makes a CBG so capable of projecting and defending itself.

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