The small carrier concept has resurfaced at a time when actual carrier operations in the Indian Ocean are demonstrating once again the wisdom of having large carriers propelled by nuclear power.
Why the renewed concern for carriers? The United States had faced a series of crises, from the Caribbean to the Arabian Sea -- critical situations in which the carrier proved to be the best, and sometimes only, effective instrument of national power. But when the carriers were called upon, it became clearly apparent that the neglected carrier force levels had dropped to a point where our most critical national requirements could not be satisfied.
Of perhaps even deeper concern was the growing size and operation capabilities of the Russian Navy. Already three times as large as the US fleet, and acquiring nuclear powered attack submarines and antiship missile-carrying Backfire bombers on a production line basis, the Soviet Navy was introducing aircraft carriers and nuclear- powered battle cruisers to its seagoing forces. Only the fact that the US Navy has 13 carriers and the Russians only two, permits the margin of naval superiority to reside in US favor, thin as that advantage may be.
This expanding realization that the aircraft carrier force of the US Navy is the measure of difference that retains maritime supremacy for it has prompted a fresh interest in the whole area of sea-based aviation.
How do we know Essex class carriers are too small? Because we have operated Essex size carriers in the past -- lots of them -- and we have taken a very tough look at how well they could do with the aircraft we have today and expect to have in the future.
Current estimates put the cost of the aircraft at about 70 percent to 80 percent of the total life cycle costs of the carrier-air wing weapon system. So it is evident that when a new carrier is designed, it must be able to operationally accommodate the current and projected aircraft inventory. The nominal air wing complement for the next decade at least, will include F-14s, F/A-18s, A-6s, and E-2s. All of these are in production and will be around for a good while. An air wing comprised of these aircraft cannot operate from an Essex sized carrier.
In 1977, the Navy was told to develop a carrier of approximately 50,000 tons displacement (Essex was about 33,000 tons in her initial design configuration) as a substitute for the nuclear powered Nimitz version which had been proposed from within the Navy. After only several months of preliminary design investigation, the Navy concluded that a carrier of 50,000 tons could not operationally handle (for reasons mainly of aircraft operating considerations) the nominal air wing projected for the '80s.
From the marine architect's calculations it became evident that the smallest size hull which could accommodate a 900 foot length angled flight deck came to about 60,000 tons displacement. The Department of Defense analysts were understandably upset and found it hard to believe that a ship of that size was required. It is true that all of the aircraft in the nominal air wing could take off and land on the flight deck of a modern Essex conversion, but only under ideal circumstances of weight, wind over the deck, and pilot skill. There was no margin for the increased payloads, and variations in conditions imposed by fleet pilots flying around the clock under combat operating conditions.
There is a definite place in our future fleet inventory for small carriers, but not as a replacement for the big decks. Small carriers will not be able to effectively handle first-line combat aircraft any better in the future than now.
The trend if anything is toward larger, not smaller aircraft, the miracles of miniaturization not withstanding. Warfare in all its functional areas is constantly moving toward greater standoff distances. This means missiles with greater range which translates into larger propellant and guidance components. Radars must be able to detect targets farther out, which means larger antenna dishes and more power, which in turn increase the aircraft's cross-section and causes overall growth. Demands for the higher speeds needed to intercept missiles cruising at high altitudes in the Mach 3 to 5 regimes, drive engine sizes and fuel requirements up dramatically to again increase airframe dimensions. It is hard to see a flattening of this growth spiral in the next two decades, so the Navy must be prepared to live with it if Soviet weapons technology is to be matched.
Although a medium-sized carrier of about 60,000 tons could operationally accommodate a modern air wing, its marginal performance and poor return on the fiscal investment make it an unattractive choice from all aspects.
For the present, therefore, Americans must rely on their current carrier designs and concepts if they are not to abrogate their position of maritime supremacy through gross misjudgment and neglect of our responsibilities as leader of the free world.