Large carriers are a foolhardy venture. US Admiral Hyman Rickover, when asked about how long the US carriers would survive in a confrontation with the Soviet Union, replied “About two days”. Carriers, in naval warfare, are little more than targets for submariners’ target practice. Instead, main use of aircraft carriers is to support the amphibious landings with their aircraft, and defend the surface assets from airborne attack by enemy land-based aircraft. AEGIS system is nearly useless against low-flying aircraft and missiles, as well as in the coastal areas with heavy civilian air traffic, so carrier-borne air arm may be the fleet’s only defense against the air threat unless ground-based aircraft are located nearby.
Sea control is responsibility of the submarine force. In the Pacific theatre of World War II, US submarines have sunk 1.300 Japanese merchant ships totalling 4,9 million tons, and 200 warships including 8 aircraft carriers and 1 battleship, while a minor British submarine force has sunk over 100 vessels, including a dozen warshups. In fact, out of 2.782 Japanese ships lost, submarines sank 1.314, surface craft 123, air attack 1.232, while remainder were sunk by combined attacks, mines, shore batteries or unknown causes. Half of the ships sunk due to the air attack were lost to the land-based aircraft. How grave situation was can be shown by the fact that after the 1943 Japanese Navy did not start a construction of a single ship bigger than a destroyer, choosing to focus exclusively on merchant and anti-submarine ships. But the war in Pacific was not won by any single factor – including the atomic bombs. It was won by US and USSR Army and Navy through neutralizing Japanese land and naval forces. Red Army neutralized 32% of the Japanese Army, and that brought about the end of the war.
Main usage of aircraft carriers is in supporting land bases, providing air cover for surface ships (warships and transports alike), as well as providing close air support to amphibious landing and combat operations near the shore. To quote Chuck Myers:
“I’d like to try to clarify the primary value of aircraft carriers (long forgotten by my deep-strike oriented Navy/MC and USAF):
(1) establish air superiority (killing enemy pilots in the air) over areas where we are trying to transition from sea-to-land and/or where we have troops in contact with the enemy ground forces
(2) under the cover of our fighters, perform MAS for our grunts. That’s primarily it.”
This reality is reflected in CV(X)’s air group. However, no carrier will have a standard air group coupled to it. Instead, Navy squadrons will be placed on carrier as needed for the mission, and carrier may also serve for transporting the ground troops and supplies.
Small carriers are not necessarily less capable than large ones. Due to funding issues, 90.000 ton Nimitz class carriers typically carry an air wing more suited to the 45.000 ton Midway class (typical Nimitz air wing is 60 fighters while ship’s capacity is over 100) and number of carriers themselves may drop from 9 to 6. And huge costs of nuclear-powered supercarriers hinder replacing its aircraft with more modern (and hopefully better, though two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand) aircraft. Nuclear carriers can stay at sea for long periods of time, but they are still limited by perishables (aircraft fuel, food and ammunition), and refuelling the reactor takes up to 3 years. Reactor itself adds at least 600-800 million USD to ship’s price tag.
Several small carriers are always better than one large carrier. One ship can only be in one place at the time, and having several carriers limits the damage if one is sunk. As World War II has also shown, aircraft carriers will get sunk. Japan has lost 16 fleet and light carriers (10 to aircraft, 1 to surface ships, 5 to submarines), UK has lost 5 fleet and light carriers (1 to aircraft, 1 to surface ships, 3 to submarines), and US have lost 6 fleet and light carriers (4 to aircraft, 0 to surface ships, 2 to submarines). What this ignores (lies, damn lies and statistics) is that those carriers that were lost to aircraft were oftentimes only disabled, and later sunk by torpedoes – either from their own escort ships or from submarines that targeted them while under the tow. Those that were sunk by the aircraft were either sunk by a combined dive bomber / torpedo bomber attack, or (more rarely) were unlucky enough to suffer an ammunition / avgas fumes explosion. But nowadays only submarines carry torpedoes, so combined with far greater effectiveness of modern torpedoes, it can be expected that statistics would move towards the submarines. Also, torpedoes were defective for much of the World War II – some torpedoes would only detonate at precise 90* angle, and some would detonate at all angles except 90*. Most however were simply straight duds. Further, one of carrier’s jobs is hunting for submarines and enemy ships – and that is only possible by having large number of relatively small carriers so as to cover the vastness of the sea (United States had a total of 124 carriers in the World War II – 22 fleet, 9 light and 93 escort). That being said, a carrier does not have to be sunk to be out of the action – a single bomb or a cruise missile punching a hole in the flight deck can stop all flight operations, turning the carrier into a worthless box. Yet despite all the advantages of small carriers, and despite the military being run by the “professionals”, a civillian leader (Roosevelt) had to order the US Navy to do what common sense demanded and start converting civilian craft to escort carriers, as well as to convert several heavy cruiser hulls to light Independence class carriers (US Navy opposed both measures).
Carriers are also needed to provide aircraft that will shoot down enemy anti-submarine aircraft out of the air. Germany which didn’t have any carriers lost 994 submarines (though major part was played by Enigma having been cracked); no other country lost more than 200, and only Japan came close to it, loosing 190 submarines. UK, France and US all lost less than 75 submarines each. During the Cold War, Canadian CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft could find both Soviet and US nuclear submarines through their wake; but such tactic does not work as well against small, slow conventional submarines.
This carrier will use the FLX and AX. FLX has a takeoff distance of 204 meters and latter of 427 meters; however, a naval variant of the FLX, while heavier, will be fitted with thrust vectoring, reducing takeoff distance to approximately half of the standard one (assumption: 65%), or 132 meters. As naval versions will be heavier, ALXs normal takeoff distance will be assumed to be 500 meters. Takeoff with catapult will be assumed as 100 meters.
Airgroup will consist of a minimum of 12 FLX and 12 ALX. Both combat aircraft have maximum combat radius on internal fuel of over 1.200 km (1.240 km FLX, 1.250 km ALX) which is far better than the F-18C/D (740 km on AtA mission) or F-18E/F (722 km on interdiction mission). If needed, ALX will also carry sensor (radar etc.) pods, torpedoes and other anti-submarine equipment, and part or entirety of normal complement can be replaced with OLX, which has a takeoff distance of 400 meters without catapult, or 80 (?) meters with catapult. Naval versions of the FLX, ALX and OLX will all be capable of using podded versions of AN/APY-10 radar and AN/ASQ-81 magnetic anomaly detector for anti-submarine purposes, and ALX will be equipped with AN/ARS-2 sonobuoy receiver and up to 70 sonobuoys.
Minimum length of 160 meters will allow FLX to take off without catapult, thus reducing the reaction time if carrier ever comes under the attack. This length will also allow two catapults to be fitted one behind another, improving takeoff rate. Length of 220 meters would allow both catapults to be used for launching the ALX. For comparision, HMS Invincible is 210 m long, Charles de Gaulle is 262 m long, Queen Elizabeth is 284 m long while Nimitz is 333 m long. Independence class carriers were 190 m long. Longer length may also allow the FLX to take off with external fuel tanks in order to maximize the time in the air during the CAP. Angled deck will have to be long enough to allow the aircraft to accelerate and reattempt a landing if it does not manage to catch the wire, and its angle will be 9 degrees. Width will be no more than 32 meters so the carrier can fit through the Panama canal; length limit for the canal is 294 meters. As FLX is 12,7 meters long with 10,4 meter wing span, and ALX 12,6 meters, 24 meter hangar width is required. Hull width will thus be 30 meters (2,5 meters of boarding on both sides). As fineness ratio of 9:1 is required for best sailling performance, 30 meter hull (not deck) width results in a 270 meter length. Reducing the ratio to 8:1 results in a length of 240 meters.
Bi- and Tr- -maran designs are not a good option since they are not very maneuverable, and lack the volume for the same deck space. Carrier will be conventionally powered – some carriers may be nuclear-powered but their aircraft are not. As a result, they have to regularly resupply and refuel.
Carrier will have a typical angled deck for aircraft recovery, while aircraft launch will be carried out from bow with catapults. Power plant has to be near the center of the hull, with exhaust stacks located on the side of the ship near the plant, and bridge superstructure built around them.
Length is 246 meters, hull width is 30 meters, and maximum flight deck width is 58,5 meters. This allows the FLX to take off without using catapult or necessitating usage of a complex thrust vectoring nozzle. Deck width might prevent it from using the Panama canal. Displacement will be 31.000 tons maximum and 20.000 tons standard, with speed of 32 knots. Cost will be estimated at 850 million USD, somewhat above the Invincible class carrier’s cost.
As it can be seen, its standard air group consists of 20 FLX and 16 ALX. This will allow it to launch 40 FLX and 48 ALX sorties per day, compared to Nimitz’s ability to launch 43 F-18 sorties per day (up to 156 sorties per day with maximum complement, but such complement is almost never carried). If only hangar deck is used, it will carry 12 FLX and 12 ALX, for 24 FLX and 36 ALX sorties per day. Maximum FLX complement is 30 aircraft, while maximum ALX complement is 36 aircraft. Alternatively, it will be capable of ferrying 30-100+ Leopard II tanks (36+ in hangar, 60+ on flight deck, though realistic number is somewhere in the middle as it will have to carry heavy-lift helicopters to transport tanks to the shore), or several thousands tons of supplies.
Comparation with modern carriers
On average, Nimitz class carries 24 F-18 strike fighters, 5 EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft, 5 EA-2C AWACS, and 7 anti-submarine helicopters, for a total of 41 aircraft. Maximum air group is 130 F-18s or up to 90 aircraft of different types.
Length is 332,8 m overall and 317 m waterline, beam is 76,8 m overall and 40,8 m waterline, and displacement is 102.000 t.
Each Nimitz class carrier has a construction cost of 4,45 billion in FY1995 USD, or 6,93 billion in FY2014 USD. This means that for 50 billion USD, one can have 7 carriers with up to 910 aircraft providing 1.092 sorties per day.
Charles de Gaulle
Typical air group is 20-40 aircraft. If all aircraft are assumed to be Rafales, then it can provide up to 80 sorties per day.
Length is 261,5 m, beam is 64,36 m, and draught is 9,43 m. Displacement is 42.000 tonnes full load and 37.085 tonnes standard.
Charles de Gaulle had cost 4 billion USD in 2003, or 5,15 billion USD in 2014. This means that for 50 billion USD, one can have 9 carriers with up to 360 aircraft providing 720 sorties per day.
Compared to the above, CV(X) carries 36 aircraft providing 88 sorties per day. With cost of 850 million USD, 50 billion USD gives 58 carriers with 2.088 aircraft providing 5.104 sorties per day.