A look at light carriers

Lawmaker Calls for Study on Small Carriers


“I think we need to have a working group that’s involved in a more deliberate consideration” of the issue of reducing the size of traditional aircraft carriers to enable procurement of more vessels that may be smaller, but can be distributed across the globe, House Armed Services projection forces subcommittee Chairman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) said.

The lawmaker’s comments are in part based on discussions from a closed-door roundtable held last week where subcommittee members, Defense Department officials, Navy leaders and defense analysts discussed “the benefits and limitations of smaller carrier platforms as an alternative to the supercarrier,” according to a July 7 panel memo.

The light carrier concept has been discussed previously on MO at Comparing carriers and at European CVLs. I think that the idea has some merit, especially if the F-35 turns out to work as advertised, but I’d caution against writing off the super carrier any time soon. (Comparison pics below the fold)

A port beam view of, from top to bottom, the amphibious assault ship USS GUAM (LPH-9), the aircraft carrier USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV-67) and the British aircraft carrier HMS ARK ROYAL (R-07) underway. Camera Operator: PHCS D.W. HOLMES Date Shot: 18 Feb 1993

Pic from DVIC.

A view of four ships of the battle group gathered for the NATO exercise Display Determination ’91. The ships are, from foreground to background: the Spanish aircraft carrier PRINCIPE DE ASTURIAS (R-11), the amphibious assault ship USS WASP (LHD-1), the aircraft carrier USS FORRESTAL (CV-59) and the British light aircraft carrier HMS INVINCIBLE (R-05). Camera Operator: PH2 R.C. WITHAM Date Shot: 7 Oct 1991

Also from DVIC.

More from the story:

The issue of building smaller carriers has emerged periodically over the last few years, with the most recent instance coming last year when OFT [the Office of Force Transformation], under the leadership of then-director Arthur Cebrowski released an Alternative Fleet Architecture Design study, which proposed building smaller warships and aircraft carriers to distribute Navy assets more widely across the seas.

Shrinking an aircraft carrier was also considered as part of an analysis of alternatives conducted in the late 90s before efforts to develop the Navy’s next-generations carrier, CVN-21.

Bartlett believes it is time to revisit the issue because the increased used of precision guided weapons that raise the probability of destroying a target, may be reducing the need for carriers that in the past launched multiple planes to ensure a hit.

“I’ve been asking the question, with the vastly improved capabilities and weapons today, why do we need a carrier that is larger than the minimum size necessary to launch and retrieve a plane,” Bartlett said.

Small carriers mentioned include a 57,000-ton medium-sized carrier, a 13,500-ton high-speed carrier, and the 6,000 ton ‘Corsair’ pocket carrier. The Nimitz-class super carriers weigh in at about 97,000 tons.

I’m not sure what the plan is for the Wasp-class LHDs when the F-35 comes online. Right now, LHDs usually carry six Harriers, but can max out at about twenty if they forgo helicopters. I imagine that the number of F-35s is going to be similar. Maybe additional LHDs, with some of them dedicated to air power first (and carrying about a dozen F-35s and a lighter load of choppers and Marines), might be a smarter way to approach this. The Wasps are 40,000-ton ships.


  1. John Lehman’s (ex Secretary of the Navy), details the many good reasons why replacing large carriers w/ small versions is a bad idea. One of the major problems is that the power of the air wing is not just in its fighters, but also in its AEW planes, helicopters, refuelers, and all of the other things you can fit on a big carrier.

  2. This is an idea whose time has come. Besides their increasing vulnerability to precision weapons and super-sonic cruise missiles, the rising cost of the giant ships are gutting the British and American fleets. As warfare moves from blue water operations to the littorals, the navy should be looking at ships which can operate safely in these waters. The Wasp LHDs and British Invincibles are a good example of what can be done with a smaller ship, but can even these survive against stealthy new d/e submarines which may be armed with the sub-sonic SHKVAL torpedo? In the end I think the future lies with armed UAVs and cruise missiles which can be launched from any vessel. Swarms of these fired from Admiral Mullen’s ‘thousand ship fleet’ would be an upstoppable and invulnerable force in future sea combat.

  3. The problem with light carriers, in addition to lacking those force multipliers mentioned above, is that you still have to escort them. It takes just as many escorts for a small carrier as it takes for a big deck.That means you have to spend whatever you save on the big deck on Burkes or DDG-1000s. There is no money saved, and your force projection goes down. With a CVN-21, you get an economy of scale with the carrier, and don’t have to buy twice as many escorts.

  4. Seems like an idea that works better with UCAVs as opposed to piloted aircraft. How close are we to having such aircraft? Seems like they should be built with such a carrier in mind and the carrier should be built with the UCAV in mind. Command and control of the UCAV might be dispersed in the fleet/marine units so that the investment is not so concentrated. I presume there’ve been USNIP articles on this.

  5. LHA/LHDs are CVLs in all but name. We have 12 of them. Wasting more money on studies that have been done repeatedly since the 60s…

  6. I think there is a lot of merit to this recommendation. Rarely has combat favored larger and slower. They simply make better targets. These huge carriers are merely monuments to massive egos. Their existance makes little sense when it comes to winning a war. I think especially when you look at the potential that unmanned aircraft bring, it tips the balance toward smaller carriers. The Navy has never been exactly light on it’s feet when it comes to embracing new technology or new ideas.

  7. Larger and slower? Geez man. The nuclear powered aircraft carriers are some of the fastest ships in the fleet. Hell, they can run at top speed and leave their escorts in its wake. I’m sorry, but anyone who says a small carrier can do the job of today’s big ones… well, I cant respect their opinion. Large carriers just have so many assets available to them. While the F-35B is nice and all, you still dont get the same bang for your buck as the F/A-18E/F and the F-35C. Also, UAVs, while nice an all, won’t be replacing manned aviation any time soon. Me thinks that humans will be doing most of the fighting and bombing for many decades to come. UAV’s should assist in human wars, not fight them for us. War is hell for a reason, lest we grow to fond of it.

  8. Way back in the late ’70s this idea was floated, and it was sunk by the Navy and their friends in Congress. The main reason was that folks quickly realized that instead of getting 4 or 5 (or 20) of the small carriers for one large one the Navy would have ended up getting one small carrier in place of one large one, cause Congress would insist the funds would be needed for entitlement programs. A second problem is that small carriers aren’t that much cheaper. I got into a discussion with someone on one of the modelling boards about it and did a bit of research. I found that the Andrea Doria cost something like $2.5B to CV-77’s $7B at the time. There was no way 2.5 Dorias could do the job of 1 CVN. The max number of aircraft the Dorias could carry was 30 and the CVN could carry 86, and much more capable one’s at that.

  9. One other thing. USNI Proceedings had an article about a year ago about the use of an LHD or LHA as a Harrier Carrier off the coast of Iraq in 2003. There were a couple of serious problems that came out. First, the vessel did not have the magazines and fuel bunkerage to support daily operations. The ship had to do an unrep and fueling (canceling operations because the unrep tied up the flight deck) every third day. This also meant munitions were stored in the hangar because magazine space was not available. Secondly, the sortie rate was not very high. I don’t remember the specifics. To compensate, they would stage aircraft to holding pads ashore. My gut feeling is that there is an efficiency ratio of some kind that shows that (to a point at least) the greater the tonnage them more efficient operations are and the greater the sortie generation is.

  10. Precision weapons have increased the striking power of individual navy bombers a hundred fold since WW 2, yet we still insist we need 100 plane supercarriers. Why haven’t the size and cost of these ships decreased since in the introduction of modern weapons? It is all for status symbols, and to keep jobs in certain politicians districts rather than real power. Were we to lose one of these with their 5-6000 crewmembers, it would be a national catastrophe. Lastly, since no other nation can match the number of carriers the US possesses, we continually justify the need to support land troops, as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, in the World War this job was given to small, cheap, and expendable escort carriers. These baby flattops held their own against the main Japanese battlefleet at the battle of Samar, and I believe could do so against modern threats.

  11. Yeah, we need more carriers, but they are too valuable to put in harm’s way. That makes a hell of a lot of sense. You make a good point about the precision weapons too. It doesn’t take 4 B-52s to take out a bridge any more. As for cost, it never ceases to amaze me how everyone always justifies every stupid thing we do by saying it costs less. As far as I know, no ships ‘cost less’ today. None of them. And, frankly, I’d rather pay more for weapons that would do the job than those that compensate for some Admiral’s lack of God given endowment.

  12. What a spirited discussion! Dfens: Having a bad week? You don’t sound terribly happy.

  13. No, just a small psychotic episode. I’m back on my meds now and feeling no pain. I should find things to think about when I’m not at work that don’t remind me so much of work.

  14. Mike, A carrier is no longer about tactical warfare, it is about power projection. Going back to the early ’60s, whenever a crisis occurred anywhere in the world the President’s first question was usually ‘Where are the carriers?’ What makes the big carriers significant is sortie generation. A big carrier normally generates around 150 sorties a day, and can surge to about 250 depending on type and target. A smaller carrier like an Invincible or Garibaldi can only generate about 15-20 fixed wing sorties a day, with a surge to about 30. Add to that the Harrier (aircraft of choice of the small carriers) is much less capable than an F/A-18 or an EA-6B. Now, consider that a Doria (the new Italian baby carrier) costs more than a third of what a new CVN costs and it readily becomes apparent you don’t get the same bang for the buck. Do you think Congress would spring for 8 baby CVs to replace one CVN? I doubt it. Now that is just military capability. On the humanitarian side, carriers offer a unique capability. They can supply more fresh water than any other ship on the planet. They can provide almost as much medical capability as a hospital ship. If the local airfields have been flattened they can provide a forward staging field for helos and can tranship needed relief supplies. Look at the impact the CVN (Truman or TR?) made on supporting relief operations in Indonesia after the Tsunami a couple of years ago. The bottom line is that the big CVNs get a lot more of each dollar spent and provide a lot more capbility. The baby carriers may look neat, but they don’t get you what you need in a crisis.

  15. If the point is to be cost effective, then let’s get rid of the military. If you can’t make an arguement for why it is more effective, then you have no arguement to make. Supercarriers are supertargets. If you design all of your aircraft and infrastructure around them, then sure, you’re going to get a better sortie rate out of the ships the system is designed to support. Half the sorties are tanker aircraft, taking off to fuel the F-18s, but I guess that’s what’s called creating your own need, which is what the US armed forces seem to specialize in these days.

  16. Can these ‘baby’ carriers haul their own AWACS? Elint? EA-warfare? ASW? support the fleet? Supercarriers are what makes it impossible to challenge the US Navy at sea. 1. Supercarriers are fuel bunkers for the fleet. Like it or not, while logistics systems are in place, the Supercarrier carries fuel to supply its escorts. 2. Supercarriers can launch a wide array of missions. The F-35B is great and all, but it cannot do as many roles as the F/A-18E/F can, nor carry the same combat loads. Nor fly further. 3. Because of #2, we can carry the awesome F/A-18E/F and launch missions with any loadout needed. So, Dfens, tell me… the USN will be down to 4 main fixed-wing airframes in about a decade. The F/A-18E/F, C-2, E-2, and F-35C. This, in addition to improved design and engineering, allows for cheaper overall service. It also means that the carrier is more flexible than ever. As I said before: No one here can make a worthwhile argument about getting rid of the supercarriers and replacing them with small ones. Try it, and your ignorance is proven.

  17. That is a ridiculous argument, Dfens. The point is to be as cost effective as you can be and still provide the needed force. If some day smaller carriers can do that, then great. Their only real advantage seems to be that you can spread the force around some. But that doesn’t make up for their horde of inferior traits as outlined repeatedly here. And of course you have to fly refuelers. You have to do that no matter what rig you fly planes from. Someone already pointed out how well that worked out.

  18. And what I’m telling you is, today is the day. UAVs are great for the AWACS or ASW mission. They radiate, so they’re never going to be stealthy. They are self illuminating targets. Also, they already use a huge amount of bandwidth relaying info to other aircraft and the ship. Take out the pilot and crew and there is no net resource cost. What I wonder is, why do you think an AWACS airplane has to be so huge as to justify a supercarrier? Have you not been paying attention to what has been happening in the radar world? Supercarriers are about superegos. They have nothing to do with keeping the US safe. It’s sad that a Congressman has to be the one requesting the smaller carrier study.

  19. To pick at an old scab, though, the UAV is not appropriate for all rolls. Check out this quote regarding the Air Force’s new bomber: The idea of developing an F-22 bomber variant, first championed by former Air Force Secretary James Roche, was still being considered, Thompson said, noting the aircraft’s radar-evading characteristics and its supersonic speed could be attractive features for a new bomber. He predicted that the new bomber would be manned, despite increasing speculation about an unmanned aircraft that could be remotely piloted like the Predator flying missions over Iraq daily, or fly autonomous like the Northrop Global Hawk, which has also been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘No amount of software is going to allow you to cope with all the things that come up in combat. You need a real pilot,’ Thompson said. The right tool for the right job. That’s the key, just like it always was.

  20. Dfens said ‘The right tool for the right job. That’s the key, just like it always was.’ In almost all cases the right tool for power projection (for aid or combat missions)is a super carrier. How many baby carriers did Europe deploy to the Asch Tsunami? How many sorties did an RN carrier fly during the fight for Afghanistan?

  21. Its also called ‘capability overlap’. Back in the 50s, the USAF basically said its bombers can do all the work. The Army said its missiles would make planes obsolete. They called the supercarrier ‘obsolete’ then. How hath history proven them wrong. And today, everyone says UAVs will replace manned-air-flight. HAH! They we’re wrong then, and theyll be wrong now. UAVs will always fill a supplementary role. Never a dominant one. Why? You cant troubleshoot when you cant talk to the damn things. At least a pilot can do everything and then some to do the mission, or save his aircraft, etc. Which… brings me to the main issue: Carriers are the queens of the sea. They are massive projects. They have massive capability. And today, with precision weaponry… this capability has expanded exponentially. 90+aircraft. 1-ship.

  22. And yet history has that god-awful habit of repeating itself… Rest of you? Buddy, you’re the only one here who thinks some tin can with a flat top can do better than the status quo. Even with future technologies, supercarriers are prepared to launch and maintain said assets. They have the space for storage, support, and launching. But I stand by what I said earlier… we will be using manned flight for many years to come. Possibly forever.

  23. Skrip is for the status quo? Did anyone else see that coming? I know I didn’t. What’s next, banannas will turn yellow, oranges will, ah, turn orange, human sacrifice, dogs and cats, living together… mass hysteria.

  24. Small carrier and microcarrier talk is premature because none of the roles that carrier aircraft fill have yet been performed by UAVs, and the STOVL F-35 may yet fall by the wayside due to chronic weight problems. Right now that is the one and only new airframe that’s suitable for a small deck carrier. It may or may not see production and there is no fallback airframe. Even if it’s carrying a single smart bomb, you can’t launch an F-18 from a small deck. Going beyond the F-35, the X-47 is a heck of an interesting prototype and absolutely worth the cost of development, but operating even a single armed X-47 off a carrier is still a decade away, at least. Air superiority and fleet defense UCAVs? Nowhere in sight, not even as a prototype. And for the foreseeable future, the equivalent to a Hawkeye is going to be a Hawkeye. Some things just need a big deck spot and a long runway. I don’t think either the F-35 or UCAVs in general are at the point where the next carrier can be a small carrier.