USS United States: The Aircraft Carrier Mistake the U.S. Navy Avoided

November 22, 2023 Topic: military Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: USS United StatesAircraft CarrierU.S. NavyNavyCold War

USS United States: The Aircraft Carrier Mistake the U.S. Navy Avoided

The cancelation of the USS United States didn't mark the end for the supercarrier. Instead, just five years later the U.S. Navy moved forward with the more conventionally figured USS Forrestal-class.

 

The USS United States Would Have Been Wrong in So Many Ways - Since the founding of the United States Navy on October 13, 1775, there has been only a single vessel named USS United States – it was one of the original six frigates that served as the core of the U.S. Navy in the first half of the 19th century. Three other vessels were to bear the name, and that included a Lexington-class battlecruiser that was canceled due to the Washington Treaty when just slightly over 10 percent complete.

Much more recently, the U.S. Navy's ninth nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the eighth in the Nimitz-class was to be named USS United States – but her name was changed to honor President Harry S. Truman in February 1995 at the direction of then-Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton.

 

President Truman it should be noted had approved the construction of five new "supercarriers" in July 1948 and the proposed class was to be for the United States. It was never to be, and that's likely for the best.

USS United States: An Overly Ambitious Carrier Program

The USS United States (CVA-58) was meant to be the lead ship of a new class of supercarriers developed after the Second World War. It remains unclear why it had the CVA designation, but it was either for attack or atomic.

Its design was seen as ambitious and even cutting edge but was likely entirely impractical and as a result just five days after her keel was laid down, the program was canceled.

Truman approved the construction of the new class of carriers after funds had been provided in the Naval Appropriations Act of 1949. The design was quite the radical departure from the World War II-era flattops and in some ways evoked the "streamline modern" of the Art Deco architecture and design movement that became common with post-war automobiles and aircraft.

It truly was a flattop in the literal sense, as the proposed 65,000-ton carrier (83,000 tons fully loaded) would feature a flush deck that was designed to launch and recover large aircraft of 100,000 pounds, which in turn could carry the nuclear weapons of the era that weighed as much as five tons.

The chief proponent for the proposed supercarrier was Admiral Marc Mitscher, who saw the need for the warship to be able to handle the latest and most effective aircraft of the day.

A Floating Airbase for Bombers

The vessel was to be 1,000 feet long, without an island, and equipped with four aircraft elevators and four catapults, while the flight deck was axial, not angled.

That flush deck was meant to provide more space for large bombers – such as the B-29 Superfortress or its successor – although those aircraft would have to be secured to the flight deck as it would have been impossible to move them up or down in an elevator to the hangar. In addition, a small hanger was to have been provided for the fighter escort. As the design evolved, additional space was given for those escorts.

It was planned that the vessel's air wing would be made up of about a dozen bombers as well as nearly fifty fighters.

Whereas the primary mission was to carry long-range bomber aircraft, the United States-class was also intended to provide tactical air support for the air and amphibious forces, as well as to conduct sea control operations.

A Floating Island Without an Island

The lack of an island on the flight deck presented a number of issues that the designers had to deal with. 

First, it meant the ship lacked a position for radar, but also other command and control capabilities. A small tower-like platform could help direct movement on the flight deck, but radar, navigation, war planning, and other operations would have been relegated to a specially outfitted command ship cruiser.

As a result, instead of being the flagship of a strike group, the USS United States and the other carriers of the class would have been floating airfields or arsenal ships.

The U.S. Navy's bombers would have had to remain on the flight deck during an entire voyage. That would have been a serious concern for the carrier during high winds – a fact noted in July 2022 when a F/A-18 Super Hornet flew off the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) while the carrier was deployed to the Mediterranean.

Then there was the issue of how the smoke from the power plants and how it would be diverted away from the flight deck had to be resolved.

The Imperial Japanese Navy's light carrier Ryūjō had proved that a flush flight deck presented such problems and it addressed the smoke by moving the funnels higher up the side of the hull and curved them downward. The Japanese warship was noted for not being particularly stable in rough seas, however.

Massive Size That Would Have Massive Costs

Designed as a conventional carrier, as nuclear technology was still in its infancy, the USS United States would have required eight Foster-Wheeler boilers and four Westinghouse turbines, which could produce 280,000 hp while four screws could allow the massive vessel to reach speeds in excess of 33 knots.

Construction costs were estimated to be around $190 million ($2.4 billion in 2023 dollars), while the cost of the task force to accompany the massive warship would have driven the total price tag to more than $1.265 billion in 1948 dollar – more than $16 billion in 2023 dollars.

The Program Ended Just After It Began

As noted, the USS United States was canceled just five days after the keel was laid down – in no small part due to pressure from the United States Air Force, which had viewed the carrier as an embodiment of the U.S. Navy's nuclear aspirations. The Joint Chief of Staff and then Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson seemed to agree that such an aircraft carrier's main function would only serve to duplicate the role of the Air Force.

After the program was scuttled, then Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan immediately resigned, while the subsequent "Revolt of the Admirals" resulted in Admiral Louis Denfeld being relieved of his position as Chief of Naval Operations.

USS United States and the Birth of the Modern Supercarrier

The cancelation of the USS United States didn't mark the end for the supercarrier. Instead, just five years later the U.S. Navy moved forward with the more conventionally figured USS Forrestal-class.

As nuclear weapons shrank in size it was also determined that a massive warship designed to accommodate bombers wasn't actually required. In fact, during the 1950s, nuclear weapons were sent to sea on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt – a carrier far smaller than the planned USS United States.

Though some look back on the USS United States as a missed opportunity, it should be seen that the U.S. Navy really dodged a torpedo-sized bullet. The flush flight deck carrier wasn't a step forward.

 Art Deco was fine for cars and architecture – it was simply wrong for a carrier.

Author Experience and Expertise

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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