The return of light aircraft carriers

Days of Future Past

In the decades immediately after the Second World War, light aircraft carriers progressively decreased in number, becoming the solution for those navies that could not afford to maintain true fleet carriers. This trend became even more pronounced with the end of the Cold War and the decommissioning of many of the last exponents still in service. Now, faced with a new scenario of great power competition in which naval supremacy is no longer assured for the US and its allies, and with the impossibility of operating more Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford class supercarriers, the light carrier concept is regaining much of its appeal. This is not only because of the possibility of access – at least for some US partners – to the F-35B, but also as a platform from which to operate fixed-wing drones, something that China and Turkey, among others, are working on.

Before getting into the subject, it is necessary to make some reference to the differences between light aircraft carriers, escort aircraft carriers and, of course, fleet aircraft carriers, as they are concepts that are often used interchangeably. This is especially so in the case of the first two, even though their origins and functions were different. We can define them, in a very unorthodox but rather didactic way, as follows:

Fleet aircraft carriers: Represented by ships such as the conventional Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carriers and the nuclear aircraft carriers of the US Enterprise, Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford classes. This group could also include ships such as the French Charles de Gaulle or the future Chinese Type 003, even though they are not comparable in other respects. Even the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov and its derivatives, although both their origins and capabilities are somewhat different. What is important here is that these are ships with a clear strategic vocation (hence the inclusion of the Russian one, as demonstrated by its role in the Syrian war). True modern-day capital ships (a role that is increasingly being disputed by submarines), they are of CATOBAR design – or STOBAR in the case of Soviet designs – which allows their on-board aircraft to take off using steam catapults (pending EMALS) and land using brake cables or a ski-jump ramp as a substitute for the former. This makes it possible to adopt navalised versions of the fighter-bombers in service with their air forces instead of resorting to specific VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) models such as Sea Harriers, Yak-38s or F-35Bs. In the case of those using catapults, they can also operate fixed-wing early warning aircraft such as the E2 Hawkeye or the future Chinese KJ-600. In addition, their design and size also have an impact on the operational tempo they can cope with and the take-off weight at which these aircraft can start their missions. This in turn affects the number of equipment and munitions they can mount and their radius of action. Given that their fundamental mission is naval air combat and the projection of this over land, they need a significant escort, generally made up of cruisers and destroyers and, to a lesser extent, frigates, as well as submarines.

The «Big-E», USS Enterprise (CVN-65), with its eight nuclear reactors, inaugurated the era of nuclear propulsion applied to aircraft carriers. However, it was not the first US Navy fleet carrier to bear this name. Its predecessor, the CV-6, would play a starring role in the Battle of Midway during World War II, sinking the Japanese carriers Kaga and Akagi with its aircraft. Source – US Navy.

Light aircraft carriers: In this case, their fundamental mission remains the same as that of fleet carriers: to project naval air power. However, on a smaller scale. They also adopt secondary missions depending on the navy in which they serve. Thus, for example, for the US, they could be useful both for use in secondary theatres and to increase the number of aircraft available at certain times to support the CVNs. They are significantly smaller in length, beam and displacement by between 25 and 50 per cent compared to US supercarriers. Naturally, the number of aircraft they can embark is smaller, too. Moreover, although this has not always been the case (for example, the former French Clemenceau and Foch, equipped with catapults), they are generally forced to use aircraft with short take-off and vertical landing capabilities. In any case, this size limitation not only imposes a slower operational tempo, but also makes it necessary, among other things, to dispense with early warning aircraft. In addition, they also need escorts for their protection. This was the case in the Spanish Navy in the days of the now defunct «Grupo Alfa», which consisted of the aircraft carrier «Príncipe de Asturias» and the 41st Escort Squadron. All in all, they are versatile platforms from which naval air power can be projected. They offer anti-ship and anti- submarine capabilities, the possibility of launching CAP missions, CAS as support for amphibious landings or SEAD, etc., but without the cost of their bigger brothers.

With a displacement of just over 13,000 tons, the British Colossus- class light aircraft carriers could carry up to 48 aircraft. Eight were built  that ended up serving in navies as diverse as those of Brazil, the Netherlands and Argentina. In the picture the HMS Ocean (R86), in 1952. Source – Royal Navy.

Escort aircraft carriers: In this case the basic premise was to save time and money. Their purpose, while they were in use, was to provide escort, as their name suggests, for convoys, amphibious forces, etc. They were at their peak during World War II and all sorts of tricks were used to build them, such as using hulls from civilian transport ships to reduce costs. As ships born in such a specific context, most of them were decommissioned after the end of the conflict. As a consequence of their civilian origin they suffered from major problems such as lack of speed and structural weakness.

British escort carriers of the Avenger class, such as HMS Avenger (pictured), were built from American C3 merchant ships and were a cheap solution to a specific problem; the defence of convoys carrying vital goods between the US and Britain during World War II. At best they could carry about fifteen aircraft and reach a maximum speed of 16.5 knots, but it was sufficient to provide protection for the convoys.     Source – Royal Navy.

Of course, this is a «broad brush» classification that could be done in many other ways. For instance, by considering the way the aircraft takes off and land. After all, there are many cases that hardly admit of a clear classification. Starting with the Admiral Kuznetsov itself, passing through the Chinese Liaoning and Shandong or the Indian Vikramaditya -very similar to the first-, and reaching the British Queen Elizabeth class. All of them are ships with a larger displacement than traditional light aircraft carriers to the point of being larger in length, beam and displacement than the French Charles de Gaulle. Moreover, in the British case if it is not a CATOBAR aircraft carrier is due to unforeseen circumstances, since the original project was to have catapults. Something they had to give up for purely economic reasons. On the other hand, many aircraft carriers were designed for specific missions such as anti-submarine warfare and as the strategic and operational environment changed, they adapted their role to new missions. For example, this happened with our Príncipe de Asturias, conceived in the United States as a kind of escort aircraft carrier, but used by the Spanish Navy for anti-submarine warfare missions, offering air support in landing operations, etc.

This image, which distinguishes the types of aircraft carriers according to the take-off and landing mechanism, shows the difference in size between various ships highlighting the enormous differences between aircraft carriers that are – or were, since some have passed on – of the same type.

These changes and continuous evolution are no exception. It should not be forgotten that the history of aircraft carriers was initially quite complex. Evolution that included experiments ranging from modifying other warships to using seaplanes that were deposited and lifted from the surface of the sea by cranes. The concept would be perfected in the inter-war period – especially through lessons learned during the Second World War- and would reach its zenith with the Forrestal class and its successors to the present day. Along the way, the design of aircraft carriers, even light ones, would steadily increase in size and complexity until reaching its peak with the Ford class which is about to enter service.

Engineers – trying to meet the requests of sailors and aviators – have always sought to design ships that are more suitable in terms of speed,  autonomy or structural resistance. Especially, they kept in mind the number of missions they could launch, the variety of types of aircraft they can operate and the capacity to sustain operations over time. This has inevitably led to a continuous growth in their displacement and complexity. Besides, these changes have been closely related to the parallel evolution of its on-board wing which has been marked by phenomena  such as the following:

  • The incorporation of electronic equipment of all kinds (bigger radars, pods, communications…).
  • The need to carry a much wider range of weaponry.
  • Changes in propulsion, as the advent of jet aircraft multiplied the requirements in terms of fuel storage capacity, hangar size and the equipment needed to provide adequate maintenance.

This is best understood with concrete examples. If a Mitsubishi A6M Zero had a length of 9.06 metres and a maximum take-off weight of 2,796 kilograms, the US Navy’s current Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet has a length of 18.3 metres and a maximum take-off weight of 21,320 kilograms. Figures which in the case of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 grow to 21.94 metres and 33,000 kilograms. Whereas a Zero fighter could carry two 60 kg bombs or one 250 kg bomb, which were also very limited in size, a Super Hornet has 11 anchor points through which it can use various bomb and missile configurations, giving it a total payload capacity of 8,050 kg. In other words, 32 times more. Dealing with this      complexity has not been easy and has required:

  • Introducing modifications to larger and larger devices, such as the wing folding system which facilitates on-board operations (use of lifts, storage, etc.).
  • Adapting the size of ships so that they could continue to operate an adequate number of aircraft, which has been reflected in their size. This is best illustrated by the evolution of US CV/CVNs from 45,000 tons for the Midway class to 83,000 tons for the Kitty Hawk, 94,700 tons for the Enterprise and approximately 100,000 tons for the Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford.
  • To go for V/STOL aircraft such as the British Aerospace Sea Harrier and its later developments, such as the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II in the Western case. Beyond the Iron Curtain, huge resources were spent on the defenestrated Yak- 41, a first attempt to create a supersonic STOVL fighter-bomber. Interestingly, its propulsion system would serve as the inspiration for the F-35B after Lockheed Martin acquired the production rights to these aircraft, which is not to say that the F- 35 is a Russian design, as some claim.

The latter option made it possible to maintain decent naval aviation capabilities for countries that would otherwise have been forced to give up their aircraft carriers. And with notable success, as witnessed by the role of British Harriers in the Falklands War and AV-8Bs in the Gulf War and Yugoslavia. In fact, several ships – such as our Daedalus (ex-USS Cabot) – were adapted for the occasion, while new classes of aircraft carriers designed specifically to operate this type of aircraft were entering service. Unfortunately, over time, the obsolescence of the Harrier and its evolutions and with no future option other than the F-35B  -an expensive aircraft developed as part of a programme that has given and still gives many problems despite its good qualities-, the fever for light aircraft carriers seemed to have subsided, leaving the CATOBAR or STOBAR carriers as the only option.

The latter, which avoid incorporating complex and expensive catapults, have experienced a boom since the end of the Cold War, not for economic reasons or because of their value as aircraft carriers, but because of happy – or unhappy, as in the British case – coincidences. Both Russia and Ukraine had half-built or prematurely decommissioned hulls. These were an ideal option as an intermediate step, so that countries aspiring to have their own aircraft carrier programme could shortcut the path by reverse-engineering on the one hand and receiving technical assistance on the other. The idea has been a success, despite cost overruns and setbacks, as demonstrated by the cases of India and China, both powers with significant naval aspirations.

These two countries have used two Soviet ships (Baku and Varyag) as the basis for their Vikramaditya and Liaoning. They can be understood as a stepping stone     to launch designs based on the previous ones, but totally national (Vikrant and Shandong). Moreover, being fully consistent with their position, economic, industrial and technological power and ambitions. In both cases they worked on the basis of what they had learned, on new, much more modern and capable developments. This time they were totally original (IAC-2 and Type 003). In the case of embarked aviation, the path is somewhat different, for while so far, they have opted for Russian or derivative aircraft (MiG-29K/Shenyang J-15), India continues to evaluate which aircraft to choose from among different Russian, French and American options, while the development of the naval variant of the HAL Tejas continues, and China seems to be concentrating on its Shenyang FC-31.

The United Kingdom, as we said, has followed the opposite path, having gone from considering a CATOBAR aircraft carrier in collaboration with France to having two monstrous 65,000 tons STOVL aircraft carriers fully loaded. However, it does not seem that many other countries are willing to go for this option, most preferring to opt for much lighter designs, in many cases derived from amphibious  LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) type ships.

The size of naval fighters has been growing, multiplying in the process    the requirements for fuel storage, spare parts and armament compared to the past.
The Su-33s, with a length of almost 22 metres and a wingspan of 14.7 metres (7.4 in the picture, with wings folded) can carry up to 6,500 kilograms of bombs compared to 250 for the Japanese Zero of World War II.

The end of the supercarriers?

If, as we shall see, most states that are joining the carrier craze are doing so by building new light aircraft carriers or modifying LHDs so that they can fulfil this role, does this mean the decline of supercarriers? Certainly not, for the reasons explained below.

A few months ago, in these same pages, Guillermo Pulido explained the reasons why US CVNs were not going to be decommissioned and also how in the future war, their role will continue to be key. Shortly before, Alejandro A. Vilches Alarcón spoke about the structural resistance of warships and the undeniable advantages of operating large ships. He also spoke of the mistake it is for a navy to resort (except in specific cases related to the denial of the sea) to multi- purpose ships of small tonnage in order to save money, as it is a false  economy.

Nowadays there are many who, even within the US Navy, seem to question the validity of the supercarrier concept. However, this is a misunderstood debate, as most experts are in no way talking about definitively abandoning these ships, but rather theorising about the role they should play within the fleet, which is quite different. Discussions revolve around several related issues:

  • Is a paradigm shift underway? Although many take it for granted, especially on Russian and Chinese websites with a clear interest in pushing for this, it is not at all clear that CVNs will give up their place as capital ships any time soon. Neither will they do so with respect to submarines armed with supersonic anti-ship missiles (which is the idea held by critics), nor to any other type of vessel now under consideration, such as autonomous vessels. It is constantly claimed that submarines are harder to detect and sink, but those who argue this may be working on flawed information, as ASW capabilities have been declining in recent years, but could (and are) recovering in leaps and bounds, largely eliminating this supposed advantage. While this is an example to be taken with all due caution, as a curiosity, during World War II, the US Navy lost 52 of its 263 submarines, or 19.8 per cent. In the case of aircraft carriers (and including light and escort carriers), 15 out of 99 were lost, or 15.2 per cent. Then there are several other factors to consider, such as the inability of submarines to exercise positive sea dominance, provide early warning, support landing operations or the almost non-existent self-repair capability. This means in practice that for safety reasons, after suffering almost any incident, they must return to base for examination and repair. After all, the number of crew members on submarines is very limited, there are no large-scale workshops or space for spare parts. As a result, the capabilities of the repair section are minimal. Of course, the structural strength of submarines is lower and there are still major problems, for example, in communicating with them, which prevents them from taking on the role of command vessels, among other things.
  • Could the same be done with less risk by opting for more but smaller ships? In this case, for example, the 11 supercarriers currently in service with the US Navy could be replaced by a mix of supercarriers and light aircraft carriers. To say one of the many possible combinations, for example, six supercarriers and 18 light aircraft carriers. Logic would seem to tell us that yes, more ships could operate the same number of aircraft, but multiplying the enemy’s dilemmas by providing a greater number of targets, being able to operate from different positions, allowing operations to continue if a ship is damaged, and so on. The real, more counter-intuitive answer is no. There is too great a capability differential between one option and the other, given the number of aircraft that light carriers can operate, the range and weapons-carrying capacity of those aircraft (which must be launched without catapults) and the number of sorties per day that can be flown. Especially, if operations are to be sustained over time. Even if the number of light aircraft carriers is doubled in relation to the supercarriers, overall capabilities are lost, some of which, such as radius of action are decisive. In addition, smaller ships, once again, means weaker ships, each of them needing an escort similar to that of a current CVN, which would require a greater number of destroyers or, failing that, frigates, and would end up increasing the total cost.

The big issue in this debate is not about the present or future utility of supercarriers, but about the means needed to maximise their lethality and survivability. All of this bearing in mind that we are returning to a scenario of neer-to-peer or even peer-to-peer competition in which the US Navy will not operate as freely as it did in the 1990s, when with impunity they were able to close the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis by sending three aircraft carriers to the area.

This is where light aircraft carriers come into play as the perfect complement for diversionary operations, to maintain a naval air presence in secondary scenarios or even to reinforce, if necessary, the CVNs during their operations, adding their air wings to those of the CVNs. The same imperative that leads to the construction of Constellation-class frigates to complement the Arleigh Burke destroyers and Ticonderoga cruisers, or to increase the armament of the LCS or to build autonomous ships. This is the same concept we talked about when we referred to Distributed Lethality. A concept that, as we have seen, will lead the CSGs (Carrier Strike Groups) to act in the rear of the SAGs (Surface Action Groups) in search of offensive control of the sea.

The underlying idea of Distributed Lethality, beyond its objectives of 1) Achieving  Offensive Sea Control; 2) Prevailing in the Salvo/Blitzkrieg Competition; and 3) Mastering Electronic Warfare, is to multiply the dilemmas facing the enemy. Put another way: if the platforms from which the enemy can be attacked and the directions of attack increase significantly, your reconnaissance and command and control capabilities will be overwhelmed, and the range and effectiveness of your ballistic and anti-ship missiles will not be sufficient to meet the threat. Even more simply, if instead of launching      missiles or air patrols from three platforms, we launch them from fifteen, the chance of beating them all will diminish, while the chance of being attacked from more avenues of approach than we can control will increase. This will force us to divert our efforts in trying to protect ourselves as much as possible and, in the case of planning offensive actions, these will be limited by the difficulty of controlling so many important targets.

In this context, and returning to fleet carriers and light aircraft carriers, the questions to be raised have to do solely with the ratio between one and the other, with some arguing that 9, 12 or even 15 CVNs are needed and others calling for increasing the number of light aircraft carriers to similar numbers, starting with the conversion of the America class LHAs into real baby carriers.

Unfortunately, far from being a purely technical debate, based on simulations and prospections, it is influenced by political factors such as the need to distribute the workload between some shipyards and others, the different sensitivities regarding defence (which can be translated into different positions of strength, as well as the budget amount that one or the other is willing to approve).  Even with the message that one wants to convey to friends and enemies, perhaps trying to avoid an arms race which, moreover, seems to be underway in areas such as Southeast Asia.

In short, the question is not whether or not supercarriers are necessary – they are indispensable – but the following:

  • How many are needed?
  • What is the correct ratio between these and other types of aircraft carriers?
  • How do we arrive at this ratio?

Achieving this will not be easy. The armed forces are generally institutions that find it difficult to react to change because of the enormous inertia and resistance to change they carry with them. At least in times of peace, where there is no «incentive» of blood to spur the system. In the case of navies, this reaches unimaginable heights. Ships such as aircraft carriers are designed to serve for about half a century. The same goes for some types of submarines, such as SSBNs (for example the future French SNLE 3Gs are expected to remain in service until the last decade of this century). This is an outrage in terms of life-cycle planning and its implications for future fleet architecture redesigns.

After all, when you have carefully designed a fleet that revolves around a certain type of ship, launched the industrial programmes, invested tens of billions of dollars between the construction of the ships and the air wing, -and all this without adding the cost of training personnel, auxiliary equipment, doctrine development, etc.-, making changes is not only unpalatable, but also sometimes practically impossible. In other words, it is not possible to invest 13 billion dollars in building a ship like the Gerald R. Ford and then decide, a few years later, that it is no longer useful and proceed to an accelerated decommissioning. It is one thing to cancel a programme, take the lessons learned and start a new programme knowing that what has been built to date (Zumwalt, Seawolf…) will enter service and serve as a basis for subsequent programmes, and quite another to build a ship of such a size and decommission it before it has reached the end of its operational life. Furthermore, leaving aside the purely military aspect, cancelling a programme is always complex and costly, as it normally involves redundancies (with the political pressure that this entails), compensation, etc.

The question here, especially for the Americans, given that more light aircraft carriers will be needed in the short term (in fact they are already needed) to complement their CVNs, is how to «enlist» a good number of them while affecting the US Navy as little as possible. In addition, doing this preferably without giving up a single supercarrier, since exchanging these for a greater number of light aircraft carriers would be, as we have explained, a false economy «by the book». This is where the ships in service that could be adapted to this role, new designs, partners and  the use of unmanned aircraft come in, which we will discuss below.

This image shows the DDH «helicopter carrier destroyer» (a beautiful euphemism) «Izumo» of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force, during conversion work aimed at converting it into a genuine light aircraft carrier designed to operate the STOVL F-35B fighter-bombers. For the time being, the country will have 42 units. It cannot be ruled out that in the near future the country will decide to build its own light aircraft carriers designed as such from the outset, along the lines of South Korea’s plans. Source – Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force.
The picture shows one of Hyundai’s proposals for the South Korean light aircraft carrier programme. It will have to compete with Daewoo, which has submitted a very similar design. Source – Navy Recognition.

Light aircraft carriers and drones

When we think of aircraft carriers, we usually think of Super Hornets taking off from their decks, or Su-33s. Even the most nostalgic ones will recreate in their heads the image of the unsurpassed -at least in terms of beauty- F-14 Tomcat. The F-35B and F-35C, despite their spectacular shapes and attributes, are still «more of the same», in the sense of being manned aircraft. However, many things have changed in recent years as progress has been made in the introduction of autonomous systems on the battlefield, especially in the air, and this is beginning to be reflected in the case of aircraft carriers and aircraft carriers.

Of course, it is inevitable to talk about Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray, which just a fortnight ago managed to refuel aircraft in flight for the first time. It is true that, as designed, it can only operate from US Navy supercarriers. However, once the technology is mature, it seems logical that either VTOL variants of this aircraft or specific developments capable of operating from light aircraft carriers, LHA, LHD and whatever else may come along will be developed.

Leaving this aircraft aside, there are several projects underway that are worthy of consideration and could change the way light aircraft carriers are conceived. First, there is the Turkish case. As we know, the country was left out of the F-35 programme in response to its decision to purchase Russian-origin S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft systems. This has undoubtedly been a hard blow for a country that in May 2019 launched its first LHD, the TCG Anadolu, designed by Navantia and a sister ship of our BPE Juan Carlos I. Logically, Turkey’s medium-term plans were to equip this vessel with the F-35B, which would be an unbeatable tool for continuing to implement its «Blue Homeland Doctrine» (Mavivatan).

As every crisis brings with it an opportunity, the country has taken advantage of its developments in recent years and has thrown itself headlong into working on how to adapt the UCAVs in service so that they can operate from the deck of the Anadolu. In recent months we have seen various renders and images, for example of Baykar’s TB-2s on board the Turkish LHD, as shown in the image below.

Of course, this solution is not a panacea. The type of drones Turkey intends to embark, despite its successes in Syria, Libya and Nagorno- Karabakh, cannot be compared to today’s manned fighter-bombers. First, their reduced payload, which limits both the quantity of weapons to be carried and the number and quality of the equipment mounted on the drone. Then, there is the speed, the service ceiling and manoeuvrability. Not to mention the impossibility of carrying out CAP, CAS or SEAD missions under the right conditions. In the end, these are relatively easy targets, which may not matter in the proxy wars in which Turkey is often involved but would matter in high-intensity scenarios against minimally equipped opponents. Nonetheless, it is a promising first step in terms of inland naval air power projection, especially given the pace at which Turkey’s designs are advancing. In this sense, they can be a very useful vector in some campaigns where, for whatever reasons, Turkey must provide support from the sea, something we have seen in Libya in multiple ways.

Interpretation of what a TB-2 drone would look like on the deck of the TCG Anadolu. Source – Forbes.
Infographic of the TCG Anadolu with TB- 2 Bayraktar drones on board.

Another case in point is China. The Asian giant, which is constantly launching new warships at a furious pace, is already on its third Type 075 landing ship, comparable to the American America class. Precisely for this reason, and aware of the country’s lack of VTOL aviation, speculation has been rife in recent months about a hypothetical Type 075B or Type 076 whose design would maximise the ability to operate drones for both ISR and strike tasks, including using electromagnetic catapults (EMALS). In relation to the above, more or less fanciful interpretations of the probable design of a light aircraft carrier based on the aforementioned Type 075 LHDs have not ceased to emerge.

Unsurprisingly, the same interpretations have also been made about the drones that are candidates for embarkation. There are many digital images shown by Chinese public television in which a model similar to the American X-47B, or the Chinese GJ-11 itself, can be seen on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Of course, there is still a long way to go before these images materialise, but the intention seems clear. In the meantime, they are content to test the possibilities of rotary-wing drones such as the AR500C or Camcopter S-100, of which they are also users.

The inset shows what appears to be a mock-up of an AR500C or Camcopter 100 rotary-wing drone, intended for testing integration on board a Type 075 LHD.
Capture taken from a Chinese video showing a sort of copy of the US Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAV. Source – Militarywatchmagazine.
Image of the X-47B during its first tests aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bus (CVN 77). Source . US Navy.
Light aircraft carrier model based on the Type 075 LHD.
Artist’s view of the design of a future light aircraft carrier or assault ship capable of employing attack drones based on the current Chinese Type 075 LHDs. Author – HI Sutton.

As might be expected, the Chinese and Turks are not the only ones thinking about the concept of a drone carrier, not only in the form of a light aircraft carrier or a hybrid ship between a light aircraft carrier and a heliborne landing ship. In recent years, for example, such reputable companies as the French shipbuilding giant Naval Group or the British company Bae Systems have published several designs of what a hypothetical carrier ship designed for surveillance and attack missions would look like. We have seen models such as the «Ocean Avenger» and «BAE UXV», which would combine a 155mm gun, VLS cells and two decks, as can be seen in the following images.

BAE UXV Drone Carrier Warship variant armed with a 155mm gun, VLS cells and ASROC launchers. Source – Naval News.

Of course, models like this have little chance of coming to fruition now, but they are significant in a growing trend towards incorporating drones into warships in increasing numbers. Everything points to the fact that in the coming years we will see an increasing variety of specialised ships – let’s call them light aircraft carriers once again – designed to operate not manned aircraft, but drones in all their variants. It is possible, in fact, that we may be living through a period of ferment similar to that of the inter-war period, for with such a disruptive technology, it will take many efforts, most of them doomed to failure, before the right design can be found to make the most of drones.

Infographic of the Naval Group’s «Ocean Avenger». Source – Mer et Marine.

The new batch of light aircraft carriers

In recent years, the market for light aircraft carriers, if it can be called that considering that the only new-build example that has been exported was the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, built by Navantia in the 1990s for the Thai Navy, has been boiling over. More and more countries are interested in this type of ship, and if up to now almost all the transactions have involved second-hand vessels, it seems that this will soon change. Without going any further, the United Kingdom is making significant efforts to export the design of its Queen Elizabeth, something it has tried to do with India and is also trying to do with South Korea. It is not out of the question that, at the very least, it will end up licensing some of the technology so that it can be implemented in other ships.

As we have explained, much of the «blame» for this boom in light aircraft carriers has to do with the expansion of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. Thus, in October 2019 a US Navy heliborne assault ship, the USS America, set sail for the Pacific with at least 13 Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II fighter-bombers on board, all belonging to the Marine Corps. It was, so to speak, a first step in the efforts of both the US Navy and the USMC to develop new procedures and tactics for the employment of these 5th generation fighter- bombers. It also aims to recover some of the know-how that has been lost since the once numerous light aircraft carriers in service were gradually decommissioned. In this vein, it is only a first step, while they continue to study the role that light aircraft carriers could assume within the fleet and, based on this, the exact design that would best suit their interests.

While they decide on one option or the other, the need to multiply the number of platforms equipped with stealth fighter-bombers is still there and that is the direction in which all efforts are being directed, promoting high-level agreements between US, Japanese, South Korean and Australian planners. After all, no one can doubt at this point that the Japanese and South Korean decision to acquire F-35B fighter- bombers has much to do with the US interest in ensuring that its main partners in containing China have naval aircraft on board. Furthermore, and beyond that, that they are fully interoperable with its own. By the same token, it would not surprise anyone if Australia were to take the same path in the near future. Regardless of the interest per se of these countries in having their own light aircraft carriers, it is vital for the US to be able to operate its own F-35Bs from the decks of its allies, hence the emphasis on their construction and the numerous exercises designed to ensure interoperability.

In this way, Tokyo has managed, in record time, not only to convert a helicopter carrier destroyer -the Izumo- (if this trick worked for the Soviets, the Japanese will be no less) into a genuine light aircraft carrier but, more importantly, to impose the decision on its public opinion, which, like some of its political parties, is always reticent about anything that involves acquiring offensive capabilities. Thus, they were first sold on the need to have the possibility of accommodating allied aircraft in the event of conflict, and then gradually introduced the idea of the advantage this would bring for the fleet’s self-defence capability. Finally, completely ignoring what people might say, signed up to the acquisition of 42 F-35Bs.

For its part, South Korea, after introducing into service its new amphibious ship, the Dodko, which will soon have a sister ship, and after numerous rumours about the intention of equipping itself with aircraft carriers. Even of the CATOBAR type it seems to have finally taken the middle path and with its future LPX-II it will have a STOBAR type ship with a size halfway between the Japanese Izumo class and the British Queen Elizabeth. In this way, the Asian country will have a powerful battle group headed by a light aircraft carrier and protected by destroyers equipped with the AEGIS combat system, as well as frigates. What is more, if their plans go ahead, they could even have nuclear submarines, maximising their oceanic capabilities, which is curious for a country wedged between the East China and Japanese seas and the Japanese archipelago itself.

Even if they were to remain within the parameters of the America class, we would still be talking about ships with up to twenty fixed-wing aircraft (normally 16) between their decks and holds. It means approaching aircraft carriers such as the French Charles de Gaulle, which normally operates with an embarked wing composed of 18 Rafale fighter-bombers and two E2-Cs, as well as helicopters. Not to avoid that the latter is  an important advantage, although we should not forget the observation and reconnaissance capabilities of the F-35s themselves. To provide operational data, the US Marines estimate that an America-class ship should be capable of 40 sorties per day during the first few days of the mission, with this rate then naturally decreasing. By comparison, a Ford-class CVN should be capable of 160 sorties in the early days, although in this case it is a ship with catapults, workshops, a huge spare parts carrying capacity and, of course, much more expensive.

Apart from Japan and South Korea, it seems that the club of users of this type of vessel will soon expand. In countries such as Australia, the pressure to equip themselves with real aircraft carriers, beyond the two twin LHDs of our BPE and built by Navantia, is only growing. It is expected that some reference will be made in the new defence white paper to be approved in 2021, replacing the one currently in force, which dates from 2016. Even Russia, even though on numerous  occasions it has presented models and monstrous projects, very similar to the American CVNs, it is possible that it will end up opting for a more versatile and reasonable option, halfway between a real aircraft carrier and the LHDs it now has under construction, although not having a STOVL aircraft penalises them. Consequently, it forces them to adopt STOBAR-type solutions.

Lastly, we cannot fail to mention Italy, which has recently sent its aircraft carrier, the Cavour, to the United States, where it has been certified to operate with the F-35B. This ship, together with the Trieste, currently under construction (33,000 tons at full load), will be the bases          on which Italy will develop its «Infinite Mediterranean» strategy, in which the F-35B will play a major role.

This image from the 1990s clearly shows the difference in size between a fleet carrier such as the decommissioned CV-66 America (Kitty Hawk class), with 84,914 tons at full load, and the Italian C551 Giuseppe Garibaldi, with just 13,850 tons. Source – US Navy.
Magnificent image in which we see, from bottom to top, our R-11 Príncipe de Asturias, the USS Wasp and USS Forrestal and, lastly, HMS Invincible. It is possible that in a few years we will see comparable groupings again, although with Spanish participation, given the problems in renewing fixed-wing embarked aviation. Source – US Navy.

Conclusions

The future belongs to light aircraft carriers. In a world where no one but the US and China can afford expensive supercarriers and where countries like France will maintain nuclear-powered fleet carriers but at the cost of opting for a much smaller size and a single unit, with all the problems that entails, the alternative must be different. The case of the United Kingdom, regardless of the outcome of the Queen Elizabeths, does not seem representative, as the project has been weighed down from the outset by successive changes in British strategy.

We have mentioned the cases of Japan, South Korea and Italy, all of which are quite conventional, but it is difficult to believe that the increase in the number of ships of this type in service will slow down here. On the contrary, there is a growing incentive to join this race in which states such as Australia are likely to enter. It is possible that in a few years others, such as Brazil, which has had aircraft carriers in the past, will be encouraged to do so again, and even others, such as Egypt, could take advantage of the LHDs in service to transform them into a kind of light aircraft carrier by adopting fixed-wing aircraft in the form of drones. After all, one aspires to be the hegemonic power – always obviating the US – in South America and the other is immersed in a strategic competition with Turkey that forces it to keep pace with Ankara in this aspect as well. In any case, it will be an exciting future.

Furthermore, a future in which, as happened at the beginning of the «aircraft carrier era», numerous attempts to innovate will coexist, with new aircraft carrier concepts appearing as drones evolve. In this regard, the steps that China may take with its Type 076 LHD or Turkey with its Anadolu TCG are only the beginning of a long road. It will take time and a lot of effort and money to get it right, but the first steps have already been taken.

Christian D. Villanueva López
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2 Comments

  1. Me parece muy bien que publiquéis artículos en inglés. Pero me gustaría disfrutar al cien por cien de un excelente trabajo como este. En español quiero decir. Es una de las razones por las que me suscribo a la revista. Gracias.

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