The Navy Is Obsessed with Big Aircraft Carriers

The United States Navy’s ten nuclear supercarriers are the largest warships on the high seas. Home to more than five thousand sailors and Marines, the Nimitz-class carriers are nuclear-powered and can carry nearly ninety combat aircraft. Still, it didn’t have to be this way: had the Navy taken a different tack several decades ago, the gigantic ships would have been supplemented with smaller, more cost effective flattops—the Medium Aircraft Carriers.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy operated two types of carriers: larger fleet carriers and escort carriers. The larger carriers comprised the main offensive striking power of the fleet, carrying a mixture of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. The escort or “jeep” carriers were an economy of force measure, smaller ships with smaller air wings designed to provide air support to convoys and fill in for fleet carriers when the bigger ships were operating elsewhere.

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After the war the Navy operated a range of carriers, from full-sized nuclear-powered fleet carriers such as USS Enterprise to the smaller attack carriers and antisubmarine carriers of the wartime Essex class. Gradually however as the older, smaller carriers aged out they were replaced by supercarriers. No smaller carriers were built, and by the mid-1980s almost all of the U.S. Navy’s carriers were at least a thousand feet long, with the exception of the USS Midway and USS Coral Sea .

The drift towards large carriers was a mixture of politics and practicality. Although defense dollars flowed relatively freely during the Cold War, it was safer to propose buying one large carrier in one year than two smaller carriers in back-to-back years. An unforeseen budgetary emergency could result in the second carrier being cancelled.

Large carriers were more cost effective. One hull with a six-thousand-man crew was cheaper to operate than two hulls that required a total of nine thousand men—but collectively had just as many planes. A single carrier also required only one set of cruisers, destroyers and frigates as escorts. Finally, larger carriers could also generate more air sorties than a smaller carrier, and could operate more and larger aircraft.

Still, large carriers are extremely expensive, both to buy and to operate, and elements both inside and outside the Navy searched for alternatives. During the 1970s, then chief of naval operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt struggled with the twin problems of a declining post-Vietnam defense budget and the obsolescence of large numbers of World War II–era Navy ships. If Zumalt didn’t do something, he risked a huge drop in the number of battle-force ships.

Zumwalt’s proposal to keep the size of the fleet large was to create a high-low mix of ships split between very capable high-end ships and less capable low-end ships. This extended to carriers, and Zumwalt proposed a so-called “Medium Aircraft Carrier” to supplement the existing supercarriers. The Medium Aircraft […]