Would the US Navy ever consider a smaller, medium aircraft carrier? What would the costs be versus the capabilities lost by going smaller? Given that the United States Navy’s USS America (LHA-6), at 45,000 tons under full load, is larger than many aircraft carriers in the service of many foreign navies it is easy to see why she might be confused with an actual carrier.
However, America is actually an amphibious assault ship, and her mission is to act as the flagship of an expeditionary strike group or amphibious ready group.
Yet, in the 1970s the U.S. Navy considered a conventional-powered carrier that was to be smaller and more importantly cheaper than the contemporary nuclear-powered Nimitz-class. Thus was born the Aircraft Carrier (Medium) (CCV) program.
Medium Aircraft Carrier: Not Quite Supercarriers
Facing a reduced budget following the war in Vietnam, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt proposed to maintain a large U.S. fleet while at the same time utilizing a mix of very high-end ships and lower-end ships – which even extended to carriers as the Navy looked to replace its aging Midway-class carriers.
The result would be the so-called “Aircraft Carrier (Medium),” meant to supplement the Navy’s existing supercarriers. With just a 908-foot flight deck and able to carry only up to sixty planes – it would be significantly smaller than the supercarriers, but in addition, the carriers would be conventionally powered even as the Navy was going all-in on nuclear-powered carriers.
There would be a few other notable concessions including just two steam catapults instead of the four that were on the supercarriers, which meant that the medium-sized flat tops could only launch planes at half the rate. Likewise, there would be just two elevators instead of three, whilst the smaller airwing would mean the carrier wouldn’t have as great a number of air defense and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. Instead, the focus of the CVV would be on its striking power and in that regard, the medium carrier was to be on par with that of a true supercarrier.
Yet, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for the CVV program despite the fact that it had the support of both Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The price tag was a factor.
It was expected that the first of these carriers could cost about $1.5 per ship compared to the $2.4 billion for a fourth Nimitz-class carrier. But it was also determined that the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) – the last conventionally powered large carrier built for the U.S. navy – only cost about $100 million more than the CVV, and was far more capable. It was suggested by then-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in 1978 that the Navy move forward with another John F. Kennedy-class carrier instead.
That idea was rejected by President Carter, who noted that the lower life-cycle costs that came with a smaller ship and smaller airwing. At the same time a fourth Nimitz-class carrier was approved in the Fiscal Year 1981 (FY81) budget – while the election of President Ronald Reagan changed everything. Reagan pushed for – and received – a larger defense budget and the Navy moved forward with nuclear-powered supercarriers. That sank the CVV program.
The 21st Century Medium Carrier
Even as the United States Navy maintains a fleet of eleven supercarriers, many navies around the world have sought to do more with less when it comes to flat tops. The Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth II is comparable in size and capability of the proposed CVV, while the navies of Japan and South Korea are also exploring smaller yet still highly capable carrier designs.
These smaller aircraft carriers can operate with short/vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (S/VTOL) including the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, and thus provide many of the strike capabilities of a larger flagship.
The late Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) was among the supporters of Zumwalt’s concept including the “high/low mix” of the aircraft carrier fleet.
“Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat near-peer competitors, but other day-to-day missions, such as power projection, sea lane control, close air support, or counter-terrorism, can be achieved with a smaller, lower cost, conventionally powered aircraft carrier,” McCain stated in his white paper to lawmakers, Restoring American Power.
Given the fact that the latest U.S. Navy carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, has faced numerous delays while it has gone over budget should make it clear that bigger isn’t always better – especially when hypersonic “carrier killer” missiles pose such a threat today. The cost, maintenance schedule, and last year’s outbreak of Covid-19 on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which took the carrier out of service for months, also should serve as warning signs why even with nearly a dozen carriers in a conflict the U.S. Navy could come up short by placing so much emphasis on the supercarriers.
There was a case for the CVV program in the Cold War, and an even better case for the medium carriers today.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
James M Blaszak
February 9, 2022 at 2:25 am
I read stuff like this and laugh. These articles always try to shift stuff without and logistical knowledge. Medium carriers are not needed anoee for 2 reasons. The Ford was built to increase sortie times and efficiency. Building Medium carriers with only two catapults lowers this to clearly useless levels. In addition the Amphibious assault ships are already being equipped with F35s and perform as a light carrier for quick strike small profile ops. They also are excellent support air operation units for fleet ops away from the big flat tops. Medium carriers will occupy a space in between and you have to ask yourself is the cost worth the decreased capability of a full sized carrier.its isn’t. The Assault ships can capably fill a CAP role in small fleet ops and frankly their versatility trumps the Medium carrier concept hands down.
Frankly the Navy would be better served by researching a truly modern armored battleship concept with rail guns and heavy armor. Most anti ship weapons are designed for modern navies that went away from heavy armor after WW2.The Soviet admirals admitted they were scared to death of the overhauled and modernized Iowas because the missles of the time wouldn’t have scratched them. New updated designs would be near impossible to kill and would eat up enemy resources trying to counter them. With modern anti aircraft and proper air support an armored ship with that kind of firepower that couldn’t be shot down or jammed would be a frightening proposition for any potential enemy if they could be built. Research would determine if they are possible.
The navy has ALWAYS been a stodgy bunch when it comes to change. The relied on old battleships concepts too long and failed to see the power of the fleet carrier. Now the carriers vulnerability its a problem that a new generation of heavily armored warships could counter. But they will insist armored battleships are obsolete despite the fact the Tech exists to make them viable again….they won’t be perfect but China and Russia would think twice about jacking with one…
February 9, 2022 at 3:06 am
Not a totally new idea. In WWII, Navy had CVLs and CVEs. I believe some were still operational in the Korean War when I served in Bennington (CVA-20), an Essex class carrier.
Clark T Schoening
February 9, 2022 at 4:03 pm
It’s as much about congressional campaign contributions/ defense contractor profits as need.
February 9, 2022 at 4:08 pm
The problem with the smaller carrier design is one Navies have struggled over before. It’s for all purposes a capital ship, but it cannot be used as a capital ship. The British ran into this with their Battlecruisers, as did the Germans with such hybrid ships as the Graf Spee in WWII.
One of the Crown Jewels of American sea power is the carrier catapult. Complex and requiring experienced expertise to operate, they are the envy of foreign fleets. Building a 45,000 ton carrier with but two is like building a battleship with two turrets. Totally wasteful.
The smaller escort carriers of WWII fulfilled a need for numbers, but following the war their strategic value was questionable. It should also be noted such ships required pretty large complements, as does the modern America.
As for the vulnerability of modern carriers, the brutal truth is none have been tested in combat.
At Midway the far better run Japanese flight operations were getting their planes off the deck in as little as ten minutes. The American carriers flight operations took as much as forty-five. Yet tactical decisions, superior intelligence and a lot of guts and luck gave the less experienced side a resounding victory. The critical point is you never know how things will turn out until tested in the crucible of conflict. At Midway the Japanese fleet carriers fell prey to attack from dive bombers, a primary fear the surviving Japanese staff all mentioned in postwar interrogations. It would be enlightening to know what most worries today’s US Navy tactical officers.
February 9, 2022 at 5:13 pm
I’m not with you entirely james. This is an age old argument that when the study was enacted in the late 70’s. The concept of a medium carrier was valid back then if the navy only knew what kind of aircraft we would be flying today and tomorrow! Back then we needed super carriers as having served on all types I have first hand experience. Guess which class Carrier to this day holds the fastest launch and recovery time?
The smallest essex! Yes! However we were flying 10 different airframes back then. Today it’s 3 not counting vertical lift! Do we really need an all Ford class fleet? This is debatable. Only time in combat will tell this. Can a medium class Carrier fit in? Sure however the cost would be similar but not skyrocketed. I would say in the future when the technology in the Ford is totally proven so some of them can be incorporated in a medium carrier. Why have an 1100′ carrier with only 60 aircraft!!??.
As for the LHA class the Navy made the mistake of building the America class right off the Wasp class platform without the well deck. Now following ships will have a smaller well deck after the Tripoli. In a straight deck platform the ship should of been made 900′ long as apposed to 844′. Now we really have a low cost medium carrier. Make the island smaller & you can fit two full squadrons of F-35B’s and vertical lift aircraft of the commanders choosing. Not to mention a bigger hanger bay area and room for fuel and stores. Of course the engineering power plant would need to be uprated in power output. In the event the ship is needed or close by to a strike distance the ship can have enough sustainable capability without needing a Carrier on station.
February 9, 2022 at 5:29 pm
Sounds great in pure theoretical concept… but composition of ships should follow strategies +tactics not the other way around.. which means high command must predict how future conflicts will be fought.. strength vs weaknesses..
Big slow moving targets dont seem survivable when given modern missiles & drone attacks.. does that MEAN building a defensive fortress at sea ? Or go smaller, Faster, stealthier, maneuverable, defendable… with lesser firepower but more based upon modern drones, missiles, lazzer, vertical lift planes, etc ? Projecting What China’s strategy & tactics& tech capabilities is key to what us navy needs…ie.. spies. INTELLIGENCE… it’s the same with fast acting ground troops..&internet, all acting together..
Slow moving big targets without high defense capacity is of no use if its taken out pretty easily by china’s ( likely enemy in fact) drones, missiles, lasers, stealth planes, etc…
Same with half size carriers… the timeless equation remains the same.. tactics need to follow intelligence of enemies’s projected potential powers and lead to ship designs to support our projected tactics… so what designs fit into our tactics to defeat chinese aggressive battle tactics ?
Anything less than the time memorial equation is just folly… and babble..
February 9, 2022 at 6:38 pm
Wars aren’t won on theory!! Agreed. However even with Half or pocket carriers our military tactics are way ahead of the game of china and Russia!! As long as history doesn’t prevail us we’re ahead of the game!
February 9, 2022 at 7:26 pm
Remember the Essex class of WW2. Besides the number game, the fleet can cover many areas around the globe. The current Ukraine and Taiwan crises show the Russia And China gangup against the US…
So to answer the question ” Where are the carriers ?”, The Essex classes will be the answer.
The US won over Japan and German based not only the technology but on the numerical superiority.
February 9, 2022 at 9:16 pm
I was actually thinking that if a medium aircraft carrier class is what is needed and wanted, then the US Navy needs to dust off the plans for the post WW-2, angled flight deck Midway class,and put them back into production. They could use the 7 remaining “unused” Essex class, the 3 remaining Midway class, and the United States’ hull numbers for them.
February 10, 2022 at 8:42 am
I agree about the Essex class! Best class of carrier built in my opinion. I served on two! Strength is in numbers and we had all that & more from 44-45. The Essex class filled a nitch for a span 50 years in many capacities. It helped with the development of jet aircraft through the jet age a critical time in aviation. Especially with a wooden deck. Could a modern Essex class be valuable today? Maybe however built with a steel angle deck from the start. How many is the question. Alot of support ships would be needed to sustain them all which we don’t have the infrastructure for let alone with what we have now. Just a pipe dream!
February 10, 2022 at 8:48 am
Earl I see you did some research with knowing how many hill were cancelled post WW-2. However the United States class never made it past paper and finally became the Forrestal Class which I also served on!