Carriers are mammoth vessels. Why?
This isn’t a trick question but it’s one that we never think about. The answer is that the carrier’s size is determined by its air wing.
The air wing needs an immense flat area simply to park its aircraft on. That area must also be able to launch and recover aircraft while not interfering with the storage (parking) of the aircraft. That adds immensely to the area. More flight deck room is needed to move aircraft in preparation for launch or maintenance.
For example, the entire bow area of the carrier is there because that much room is needed for the catapults. If the aircraft were all vertical takeoff, you wouldn’t need the bow of the carrier and you could lop off the entire area from the bow cats forward. Relax, vertical take off is not where we’re going with this. I’m just illustrating that the size of the carrier is determined by the requirements of the air wing. The same reasoning applies to the huge recovery area that constitutes much of the aft half of the flight deck.
The air wing also needs to maintain itself. Thus, we have a huge hangar for maintenance, many repair shops, lots of spare parts storage, etc.
The air wing needs munitions and lots of them. So, a large chunk of internal carrier volume is devoted to magazines and munition handling areas and elevators.
The air wing needs fuel and lots of it. The carrier, despite being nuclear powered, needs immense fuel tanks for the air wing’s aircraft.
The air wing also needs the mundane things like berthing, heads, showers, food and water storage, galley space, mess decks, laundry, waste treatment, etc.
Take away the air wing and all its requirements and what do you have? A small, nuclear powered tugboat.
Okay, so now we’ve thought about why a carrier is the size it is. So what?
Well, let’s keep going and think a bit deeper. Having asked why a carrier is the size it is, let’s now ask why the air wing is the size it is.
Again, this is not a trick question but it is one that is examined even less than the carrier size.
The air wing is the size it is because of the tasks it is asked to perform. What are those tasks? Here’s a list of a tasks and a typical air wing’s assigned aircraft to accomplish those tasks
- Strike and Fighter – 38x F-18 Hornets
- Aerial Tanking - 6x F-18 Hornets
- AEW – 4x E-2 Hawkeyes
- ECM – 5x EA-18G Growlers
- ASW/ASuW/Logistics – 12x MH-60(x) Seahawks
That gives us an air wing of 65 aircraft – our modern air wing.
Okay, so now we’ve thought about why an air wing is the size it is. So what?
Well, do you recall the recent post on distributed costs and the resulting change in force structure? We said that we need to reverse the trend towards ever larger, ever more expensive, ever fewer ships and go (return) to smaller, simpler, less individually capable, cheaper, more numerous ships. Do you recall an overarching theme of ComNavOps calling for more numerous and cheaper, smaller, single function ships like dedicated ASW vessels and dedicated MCM vessels and narrowly defined AAW escort ships and so on? Well, the same applies to, and is interlinked with, carriers or, more precisely, carrier air wings.
If we had a more numerous force structure of smaller, single function ships what impact might that have on carrier air wings?
Instead of the Navy’s current carrier escort of three or four Burkes, each with a single helo, providing ASW, imagine if we had 16 smaller, dedicated ASW vessels, each with a single helo for a total of 16 ASW helos. We wouldn’t need the carrier’s helos. The requisite number would be distributed throughout the escort. So, the air wing’s helos could be reduced from 12 to 2 (for plane guard duty).
Suppose we were to distribute the air wing’s capabilities across two carriers instead of one. That would mean each air wing would have 2 Hawkeyes instead of 4 and 2-3 Growlers instead of 5.
We don’t want to distribute the air wing’s strike/fighter capabilities, however. Quite the opposite. We’d like to increase the number of strike/fighter aircraft. So, what if each of our notional two carriers had an air wing of 38 Hornets, 6 Hornet-tankers, 2 Hawkeyes, and 2 Growlers? That would give us an air wing of 48 total aircraft with the exact same combat capability as a current air wing!
Because the air wing is only 48 aircraft, a 26% reduction in numerical size, the carrier needed to operate the air wing could be substantially smaller.
Let’s go still further. If we’re willing to accept a slight reduction in launch capacity, our notional carrier could be equipped with only 2 catapults instead of 4. All four catapults are rarely (almost never) operated simultaneously. They’re mainly useful for full strike launches which is less and less a viable operation. A reduction of two catapults gives us a significant reduction in equipment and required flight deck space. Remember earlier in the post when we noted that if it were not for the two bow catapults we could lop off the entire bow section of the carrier? And with a wing of only 48 aircraft the bow flight deck area wouldn’t even be needed for parking.
You can see where this is going. A smaller air wing means less flight deck area, less hangar space, fewer repair shops, less personnel berthing, etc. In short, it means we can have a much smaller carrier. In this concept, we would actually have two carriers instead of one and they would pool their Hawkeyes and Growlers to have the capability of a full air wing today plus twice the strike/fighter numbers. This would result in a force of 20 carriers as opposed to today’s 10, resulting in distributed cost, distributed and increased lethality, twice the combat aircraft, and, most importantly, distributed risk so that we would actually be willing to commit carriers to combat.
So, why is the carrier the size it is? The answer is, for no good reason.