An increasing number of navies find aircraft carriers as viable platforms for projecting national power – currently there are nine countries that have aircraft carriers in service: Brazil, France, India, Italy, Russia, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom and the USA. It is intriguing that the People’s Liberation Army – Naval (PLAN)- in China doesn’t yet actually have a carrier in service, though this is expected to change in the not too distant future. The total number of carriers in service globally is now twenty two, with half of that fleet being in US service. At least eight countries have new carriers in the concept, design, bought used and refurbishing or construct stages. Spain has been successful selling its’Principe de Asturias’ design to many navies, and China, Japan and India are creating a carrier construct capability – in China’s case, even a nuclear powered platform for the new generation planes. VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircraft – the UK Harrier derivatives are used for example by India, Spain and Italy, has enabled these nations to deploy viable carrier power. The US F35D carrier version – a STVOL configuration – can only increase demand for carriers amongst’western’ countries.
Most strategists see the aircraft carrier as a keystone of military doctrine, despite the substantial concentration of power and investment (both political and financial) in what is an extremely visible and, arguably vulnerable target.
It spans 11 time zones – nearly halfway around the world. With a fleet of modern land-based aircraft and efficient missile technology, it can arguably project its power without the need for a large carrier fleet, at least in the northern hemisphere.
What is an Aircraft Carrier?
A floating, self-propelled airbase, though not capable of managing large transport planes such as the C130 Hercules. This definition is generally taken to include any boat capable of handling fixed wing fighter/bomber aircraft, of which there are many types. For these purposes, we exclude pure helicopter carriers, as even cargo ships can carry these as was the case from the Falklands War.
Supercarrier: these are generally higher than 50,000 tons loaded displacement, usually nuclear powered, and able to handle fast jets
Fleet Carrier: mid size typically 20,000 tons upward, oil/steam, gas turbine as well as diesel powered, the’average’ size in a country’s fleet.
Light Aircraft Carrier: smaller compared to the fleet carrier.
As can be seen, this way of classifying navy aircraft carriers is subjective to a country’s fleet configuration. The French might well explain the Charles de Gaulle as a supercarrier – steam catapults, nuclear powered, but is it really a supercarrier when compared to, say, US aircraft carriers like the US Nimitz Class George W Bush, of nearly 100,000 tons displacement and carrying well over 100 fixed wing aircraft?
CATOBAR: catapult launch of fixed wing aircraft but detained recovery.
STOBAR: Short take off but detained recovery. Presently, these have been utilizing the UK Sea Harrier VTOL aircraft in STOVL mode using a’ski jump’ launch.
STOVL: Short take off and vertical landing. As with STOBAR, but vertical landing. Less attractive on account of the extra fuel (equals less armament load) required for the landing stage, and flight deck damage issues because of its down directed exhaust jet through landing.
Operational Capability Development takes a whole lot of time and money. Second-hand carriers and infrastructure requirements can be purchased or hired. A new branch of naval operations must be set up. This is not trivialA major job – training establishments have to be set up and operated, replenishment, logistics and repair operations have to be established, for instance, and even a whole career structure for officers and ratings.
A nation must develop its strategic and strategic policies to effectively operate and present its carriers in keeping with its national strategic objectives in a credible manner.
Even the fundamentals – setting the 24 x 7 operational tempo of running a carrier have to be developed, implemented and rehearsed exhaustively if the deployment of a carrier force is to be credible – bad weather night launches and landing, crew rescue procedures, anti-submarine steps, re-arming and weapons handling, coordinated carrier protection – the list is extensive. Some nations cooperate in this respect. For example Brazil is assisting China to develop its operational capacity in exchange for technological aid in the fields of nuclear power and defence electronics.
Aircraft Carriers – The Future
The future of this carrier is assured. The arrival of a new generation of STOVL aircraft, and the development of India and China to the serious carrier club (with Pakistan also making noises) means that before the mid 21st century, the carrier arms race will be accelerating and world tonnage increasing.
Britain is building bigger carriers – the Queen Elizabeth Class supercarrier. These new UK aircraft carriers will be nearly three times the size of their preceding generation;’cast-off’ carriers are increasingly being purchased by smaller nations, so the operational worldwide tonnage is bound to increase – average annual new build tonnage is higher than scrappage; the US is building a new generation – The Gerald R Ford Class. Countries which have an operational aircraft carrier never relinquish that capability.
Electromagnetic launch systems – easier, lighter, stronger than steam catapults are being designed. These will be able to launch unmanned aircraft at G forces that human pilots couldn’t tolerate. Aerial battles fought by unmanned airplanes flown by carrier-based (or even land-based) jocks via secure data link are a real possibility before the end of the century.
New carrier-busting missiles such as the Chinese Dong Feng 21D (NATO CSS 5 Mod-4) will lead to enhanced defensive technology developments.