n increasing number of navies find aircraft carriers as viable platforms for projecting national power – now there are nine countries which have aircraft carriers in support: Brazil, France, India, Italy, Russia, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom and the USA. It’s intriguing that the People’s Liberation Army – Naval (PLAN)- in China doesn’t yet actually have a carrier in service, though this is expected to change in the not too distant future. The total number of carriers in service globally is now twenty two, with half of that fleet being in US service. At least eight nations have new carriers in the concept, design, bought used and refurbishing or construct stages. Spain has been successful selling its’Principe de Asturias’ design to many navies, and China, Japan and India are developing a carrier build capacity – in China’s case, even a nuclear powered platform for its new generation planes. VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircraft – the UK Harrier derivatives are used for example by India, Spain and Italy, has enabled these nations to deploy viable carrier power. The US F35D carrier variant – a STVOL configuration – can only increase demand for carriers among’western’ countries.
Many strategists see the aircraft carrier as a keystone of military doctrine, despite the substantial concentration of power and investment (both political and financial) in what is a highly visible and, arguably vulnerable target.
It spans 11 time zones – almost halfway around the world. With a fleet of modern land-based aircraft and effective missile technology, it can arguably project its power without the need for a large carrier fleet, at least in the northern hemisphere.
What is an Aircraft Carrier?
A floating, self-propelled airbase, though not capable of managing large transport planes like the C130 Hercules. This definition is generally taken to include any vessel capable of managing fixed wing fighter/bomber aircraft, of which there are several types.
Types of Aircraft Carrier
Supercarrier: these are generally higher than 50,000 tons loaded displacement, usually nuclear powered, and able to handle fast jets
Fleet Carrier: mid size typically 20,000 tons upward, oil/steam, gas turbine as well as gas powered, the’typical’ size in a country’s fleet.
Light Aircraft Carrier: smaller than the fleet carrier.
As can be seen, this method of classifying navy aircraft carriers is subjective to a country’s fleet configuration. The French might well describe the Charles de Gaulle as a supercarrier – steam catapults, nuclear powered, but is it really a supercarrier when compared to, say, US aircraft carriers like the US Nimitz Class George W Bush, of nearly 100,000 tons displacement and carrying well over 100 fixed wing aircraft?
CATOBAR: catapult launch of fixed wing aircraft but detained recovery.
STOBAR: Short take off but arrested recovery. Presently, these have been using the UK Sea Harrier VTOL aircraft in STOVL mode using a’ski jump’ launch.
As with STOBAR, but vertical landing. Less attractive on account of the extra fuel (equals less armament load) required for the landing phase, and flight deck damage problems because of its down directed exhaust jet during landing.
Entry Barriers to the Aircraft Carrier Club
Operational Capability Development takes a whole lot of time and money. Second-hand carriers and infrastructure requirements can be purchased or hired. A new branch of naval operations has to be set up. This isn’t trivialA major task – training institutions have to be installed and operated, replenishment, repair and logistics operations have to be established, for instance, and even an entire career structure for officers and ratings.
A nation must develop its strategic and strategic policies to efficiently operate and present its own carriers in line with its national strategic objectives in a credible manner.
Even the fundamentals – setting the 24 x 7 operational tempo of running a carrier need to be developed, implemented and rehearsed exhaustively if the installation of a carrier force is to be credible – bad weather night launches and landing, crew rescue procedures, anti-submarine steps, re-arming and weapons handling, coordinated carrier protection – the list is extensive. Some countries cooperate in this respect. For example Brazil is helping China to develop its operational capacity in exchange for technological assistance in the areas of nuclear power and defence electronics.
Aircraft Carriers – The Future
The future of this carrier is assured. The arrival of a new generation of STOVL aircraft, and the emergence of India and China to the serious carrier club (with Pakistan also making noises) means that prior to the mid 21st century, the carrier arms race will be accelerating and world tonnage increasing.
Britain is building bigger carriers – the Queen Elizabeth Class supercarrier. These new UK aircraft carriers will be almost 3 times the size of their preceding generation;’cast-off’ carriers are increasingly being bought by smaller nations, so the operational global tonnage is bound to increase – average annual new construct tonnage is higher than scrappage; the US is building a new generation – The Gerald R Ford Class. Countries which have an operational aircraft carrier never relinquish that capacity.
Electromagnetic launch systems – easier, lighter, stronger than steam catapults are being designed. These will have the ability to launch unmanned aircraft at G forces which human pilots couldn’t tolerate. Aerial battles fought by unmanned airplanes flown by carrier-based (or even land-based) jocks via secure data link are a real possibility before the end of the century.
New carrier-busting missiles like the Chinese Dong Feng 21D (NATO CSS 5 Mod-4) will result in improved defensive technology developments.