The Small Carrier Problem

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2024-02-13 00:00:08

The USN's supercarriers are extremely capable, but also very expensive, and even the USN can only afford a few. As a result, every few years, the suggestion of building smaller, cheaper carriers comes up. In recent years, these have gotten louder, driven in large part by the development of the F-35B, which can operate without the need for catapults or arresting gear and offers capability unmatched outside the F-35 family. There have even been tests with USS America, normally an amphibious helicopter carrier, serving as a "Lightning Carrier". Unfortunately, there are serious practical problems with all of this. The simple fact is that there are major economies of scale in carrier aviation, and STOVL isn't going to remove them, nor is something like America, lovely though she is, a good substitute for the CVNs.

But where do these economies of scale come from? The first and simplest is the fact that steel is cheap and air is free. What really costs is not size, but capability. A full-capability carrier is going to need radar, big engines, defensive weapons, mission-planning systems and fancy communications gear, all of which costs a lot more than the bare hull, regardless of the size of the carrier. Not to mention things like catapults, arresting gear, and heavy maintenance facilities, all of which need to be onboard to make a conventional carrier regardless of the size of the air group. Nor is the air group going to scale linearly. Sure, you can cut the fighter complement from four dozen to two dozen, but there's going to need to be some minimum number of fighters kept for self-defense, and since the threat doesn't halve for a smaller carrier, that might not be something you can cut too much, leaving fewer than half of the previous complement for strike missions. Things are even worse for the rest of the air wing. The complement of E-2 Hawkeyes (typically 4-5) is set by the need to keep one airborne at all times while allowing maintenance, and the size of the MH-60R detachment similarly comes from the need to keep a helicopter or two active to hunt subs. The EA-18G and MH-60S detachments could be cut, but you're still looking at needing more than half of the carrier wing for less than half the capability.

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