The U.S. Navy is examining potential light aircraft carrier designs to determine project feasibility from both a cost and engineering standpoint. The Navy would also like to determine if smaller carriers would be able to compliment larger aircraft carriers and offer additional capabilities via a more distributed naval presence.
The United States operates what is by far the world’s largest mix of aircraft carriers, landing helicopter docks (LHD), and landing helicopter assault (LHA) ships. The crown jewel of American carriers is the Ford-class carrier, currently represented by a single hull, the Gerald R. Ford.
Thanks to the Ford’s nuclear propulsion, endurance is only limited by onboard food for the ship’s crew. The Ford’s top speed is over thirty knots, and the carrier is noted for the high sortie rate it can sustain. Arguably one of, if not the most capable aircraft carrier in the world, virtually its only drawback is its price tag—nearly $13 billion.
But there are cheaper and smaller alternatives already in service with the U.S. Navy.
One suggestion has been to modify the Navy’s existing LHA design, the America-class, to fill in as the Navy’s light carrier. Though smaller than the massive Ford-class and Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers, the American class is comparable in size to aircraft carriers in other navies, such as the French Navy’s nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, though its role is significantly different. Rather than accommodating fixed-wing aircraft, the American class launches helicopters and V/STOL aircraft like the F-35B.
One of the drawbacks to the current LHA design is their lower, twenty knot speed, necessitated by the class’ well decks and adequate ballast needed to squat into the water and pick up amphibious vehicles, like the Marine Corps’ new ACV. Taken together, these design features give the America-class a less streamlined design when compared to other, larger aircraft carriers.
One option could be a sort of Ford-class-lite that preserves some of the class’ desirable features, perhaps long endurance, but cut others for a more cost-effective and smaller platform. Even if the final “carrier-lite” isn’t a perfect platform, the protection gains via a more dispersed force could offer significant benefits.
While the United States’ current aircraft carriers are the world’s preeminent carrier designs, they relied on blueprints that were drawn up at least a decade ago. As the Navy and U.S. military writ large starts transitioning toward unmanned flying vehicles, the Navy may find that today’s carriers might not be optimal for those kinds of vehicles. Who knows, small carriers of the future may also be unmanned.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.