The Surprising Return of the Aircraft Carrier
Aircraft carriers; those 20th Century behemoths of naval warfare, are suddenly back in vogue among the great powers. The world’s navies are in the midst of a new carrier race that shows no signs of slowing down.
Leading the carrier revival is the nation that invented the ships in the first place; the United Kingdom. The largest ship ever launched by the Royal Navy; the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is scheduled to begin sea trials this summer.
Queen Elizabeth will be the first big carrier to sail in Her Majesty’s fleet since the 1970s and she’s huge. The new carrier is 918.64 feet long and 262.47 feet wide, Wired UK reported. That’s three times the size of the carriers she replaced the Invincible class.
The Queen will pack a lot of firepower in the form of 36 F-35B fighter jets and four Merlin helicopters. She won’t be alone; her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales is scheduled to go into service in 2019.
Next Generation Aircraft Carriers
The Queen Elizabeth class might serve as the model for a new generation of aircraft carriers around the world. They can be built relatively fast, because they are assembled in pieces partially by robots.
There is also a much smaller crew; 733 sailors compared to 3,200 on an American Ford class carrier. The crew is smaller because the Queen Elizabeth class is powered by diesel generators and gas turbines rather than nuclear reactors like US carriers. That means less maintenance, and fewer sailors to feed, pay and train.
Others savings are made by a high level of automation that includes moles that transport munitions; and a system of scanners and cameras that allows the crew on the bridge to monitor every inch of the ship. Another innovation that cuts down on time and resources is short take off and vertical landing (SVTOL) aircraft which can use a smaller runway.
Even the name Queen Elizabeth is suggestive of a new class of ship. The first HMS Queen Elizabeth was the beginning of the class of battleships that formed the backbone of the Royal Navy during the two world wars of the 20th Century.
The New Carrier Race Takes Shape
The Queen Elizabeth will not be alone on the world’s seas. Several other powers are planning or building new carriers. Some examples of the new warships include:
- Japan – The Maritime Self Defense Force; the modern name for the Imperial Japanese Navy, has deployed the Izumo to support U.S. operations in Korea. The Izumo is an 817 foot long carrier euphemistically called a “helicopter destroyer” to get around provisions of Japan’s constitution that prohibit offensive weapons. The Izumo is as large as Japan’s World War II carriers, The Japan Times reported. She can also be easily reconfigured to carrier STOVL jets like the F-35B.
- United States – The US Navy’s newest nuclear powered carrier the USS Gerald R. Ford is undergoing sea trials. The Ford will carry 75 aircraft and be powered by two nuclear reactors. A second Ford class the John F. Kennedy is on order. Ford class carriers will be around 1,106 feet in length.
- China – The People’s Liberation Army is preparing to launch its Type 001A aircraft carrier, Forbes reported. The Type 001A will be 1,033 in length and carry 36 planes and 16 helicopters. This will be the second Chinese carrier after the Russian built Liaoning.
- South Korea – The Republic of Korea has started work on the second Dokdo class carrier, Sputnik News reported. This ship will be 654.20 feet in length and 102 feet wide. Like the Izumo these ships are euphemistically described as “helicopter carriers,” but they can easily be reconfigured to deploy STOVL jets.
- India – India has is planning to launch the INS Vikrant its first domestically built carrier in 2018. The Vikrant will be 860 feet long and 300 feet wide. She is supposed to carry 30 jets and 10 helicopters. A second Vikrant class called the Vishal is supposed to be ready in 2023.
- Russia – The Russian Navy is planning to start work on the world’s largest aircraft carrier – the Shtorm, The Daily Star reported. The nuclear powered Shtorm might be capable of carrying up to 100 planes. It is supposed to be slightly larger than the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers, Business Insider reported.
- Australia – Two helicopter carriers the HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide are in service with the Australian Navy. Both are 757.30 feet long and 105 feet wide. Like many of the so-called “helicopter carriers” these ships can easily be reconfigured to carry STOVL fixed wing aircraft. Currently they can carry up to 18 helicopters. Like a lot of the new assault ships like the Izumo these “helicopter carriers” have a ski jump bow designed for the launching of jets.
- France – The French Navy has three Mistral class assault ships; helicopter and tank carriers, two of which were built for the Russian Navy. These ships can carry up to 16 helicopters, four landing barges, 450 soldiers, 70 vehicles up as many as 13 tanks. These augment France’s nuclear powered big carrier the Charles De Gaulle which is 858 long and 211 feet wide. The Charles De Gaulle can carry 42 planes four helicopters.
- Egypt – The Egyptian government bought two Mistral class assault ships that were built in France for the Russian Navy. Several other countries including Canada, Brazil, India, Vietnam, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, China and even New Zealand were also potential customers for the Mistrals, Fox Trot Alpha reported. The Mistrals are 653 feet long and 105 feet wide so they can easily accommodate STOVL jets if reconfigured.
Why Carriers? Why Now?
The world’s navies are clearly engaged in a new carrier race, but why a sudden surge of interest in these 20th Century icons now? There are a few interesting reasons; some of which should make us, shudder including:
- Modern carriers; especially amphibious assault ships like the Mistrals, can be used to deploy a lot of troops fast. Even the Captain of the Queen Elizabeth Commodore Jerry Kyd admitted told Wired his ship can haul marines. This allows for quick military intervention by helicopter.
- Carriers; especially nonnuclear ones, can actually be built rather quickly and cheaply in countries with extensive manufacturing capacity like Britain, China and South Korea.
- A number of navies; including Britain’s, have concluded that the U.S. Navy can no longer be relied upon to the police the world. So they’re adding capacity to take up the slack.
- A carrier is essentially a mobile military base that is far easier to protect and deploy than a land base. This option becomes even more attractive as guerrilla warfare and terrorism makes it more expensive and politically difficult to build new land bases in parts of the world. Nobody needs to deploy thousands of troops to protect a carrier. Strangely enough the U.S. experience in Iraq encouraged this development. As does the growing intolerance of the voting public for prolonged military deployments.
- The use of drones will enable carriers to deploy far more firepower in the near future. A carrier like The Queen Elizabeth can carry just 36 fighter jets, but might be able to haul 100 to 200 or more drones. Since drones are smaller and lack pilots they would be cheaper and easier to deploy. This might be how the Shtorm will be able to carry 100 planes; she’s being designed as the first drone carrier. Kyd mentioned the possibility of using the Queen as a drone delivery platform.
- Beyond drones there are robotic weapons systems such as tanks. An example of these is Russia’s Uran-9 small robot tank; several hundred of which can easily be carried in an assault ship and delivered to the battlefield via helicopters or barges.
- Next generation technologies like 3D printing and robot manufacturing might make carriers into floating factories capable of building custom built weapons systems straight to the battle field.
Why the New Carrier Race Should Scare You to Death
Those familiar with history will see an eerie similarity between new carrier race and the so-called “battleship race” before World War One. Back then several nations including the United States, Germany and Japan went all out to construct new dreadnoughts to fill the vacuum left by a retreating Royal Navy. Some historians think the battleship race helped trigger the First World War.
There’s also the false sense of security provided by carriers. Such giant ships might be very vulnerable to a wide variety of weapons and tactics including missiles, drones, remote controlled speedboats, submarines, artillery, suicide attacks, sabotage, cyberattack, mines and torpedoes. They might be hard or impossible to protect in today’s world which would lead to mass casualties in war.
Watch the carrier race carefully because it might be beginning of a scramble for naval power among the world’s nations which can have disastrous results. Perhaps the world’s leaders should stop focusing so much time and energy on nuclear disarmament; and take some efforts to halt or reverse the proliferation of aircraft carriers. They might be the weapon with which the next war is fought.