The Decline of the Light Aircraft Carrier


the decline of the light aircraft carrier

An Independence class light carrier of the Second World War. Built on cruiser hulls, these ships were less capable compared to the fleet carriers, but were cheap and easy to produce.

     During the Second World War, aircraft carriers established themselves as the major naval power. While the power of these warships is well known, the various types of carriers are not. Supplementing the giant fleet carriers were smaller aircraft carriers known as light carriers. Cheaper and easier to produce than their larger brethren, the light carrier served as an intermediate class. They carried less aircraft than the fleet carriers, but they were faster and more combat capable compared to the even smaller escort carriers.

Today, the carrier fleet of the United States is made up entirely of large super carriers. These giant fleet carriers are the most expensive weapon system currently in operation. Floating cities capable of projecting power across the globe, these behemoths are not without issue. They are extremely expensive and difficult to maintain. Their complexity has caused many to investigate alternatives. A smaller, more affordable light aircraft carrier seems like an excellent idea at a time when a single fleet carrier can cost billions of dollars. However, following the Second World War, the light aircraft carrier concept steadily declined. Today, the United States no longer operates dedicated light aircraft carriers. In this article, we will examine the decline of the light aircraft carrier and identify the primary reasons why they were removed from service.

The Decline of the Light Aircraft Carrier

The decline of light aircraft carriers can be traced to three specific issues. These issues are the progressive increase in size of aircraft, greater difficulty in handling aircraft, and logistical issues. Only the largest carriers could reliably address these issues and as a result light carriers were slowly faded out of service.

Larger Aircraft

the decline of the light aircraft carrier

The large F-14 Tomcat was a regular aircraft on the large Nimitz class carrier. However, its size meant that its use on smaller ships was restricted.

One of the largest factors for the decline of light aircraft carriers was increasing aircraft sizes. Larger aircraft take up more space on the deck and in the ship’s hangars. Larger aircraft force carriers to carry less aircraft as well as increase the difficulty in moving them about the ship. Larger aircraft also require more space to launch and recover, something that smaller carriers had not provide.  Even during the Second World War, aircraft grew enough that certain carriers were prevented from carrying the newest types. A good example would be Vought F4U Corsair. The size of the Corsair coupled with its trickiness to handle ensured that it was only deployed on carriers of sufficient size. Escort carriers and smaller light carriers were forced to use the less capable, but safer F6F Hellcat. Having to field separate aircraft for carriers makes no sense as cost increases and logistics become more difficult.

The arrival of jet aircraft helped to seal the fate of the WW2 era light aircraft carriers. Large, heavy, and requiring a lot of space for air operations, the jet aircraft were incompatible with light carriers. The US Navy F-14 Tomcat was a staple on larger carriers like the Nimitz class. However, smaller carriers like the 60,000 ton Midway class could only handle Tomcat fighters in training role with light fuel loads and no weaponry. These smaller carriers had to make due with older aircraft that did not offer the performance of the newest models available to the super carriers. Today, only the lightest of jet aircraft or VTOL variants regularly operate from smaller carriers. As these aircraft offer less performance than their larger brethren, their viability in combat is debatable.

Logistical Issues

the decline of light aircraft carriers

The Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Despite being half of the size of a US fleet carrier, it still cannot offer half of the performance.

The second major reason for the decline of light aircraft carriers is logistical issues. An aircraft carrier is essentially a floating airfield. It needs to carry the provisions to supply aircraft, carry the equipment to repair them, and have the space to house the pilots. In addition, the ship also has to be large enough to accommodate the rest of the crew, defensive weaponry, and supplies. A larger ship can carry more fuel, weaponry, aircraft, and equipment. More capacity means more time on station and less time heading to port for supplies. Light aircraft carriers were much more restricted in the amount of supplies that they could carry. They could not remain on station for the same duration as larger carriers as they could not carry large amounts of weaponry or fuel for their aircraft. This also meant that they were more directly tied to supply chains to ensure their aircraft, fuel, and weaponry were  maintained.

An excellent example of the advantages in larger ships can be seen in deployment durations. During the opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Nimitz class carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt set the record of 159 days underway. This was accomplished on the other side of the globe from its Homeport. In contrast, the smaller Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov struggled to last for two months on deployment off Syria, in the vicinity of a major Russian naval base. While part of this can be explained on the perfection of carrier usage by the United States, the ships ability to carry a greater amounts of supplies is decisive advantage.

Sortie Rates

the decline of the light aircraft carrier

A Nimitz class carrier launching multiple F-18 aircraft in quick succession.

Sorties rates are the biggest reason for the decline of the light aircraft carrier. A sortie is a combat mission an aircraft undertakes upon liftoff. A carrier’s sortie rate is the number of combat missions a carrier can sustain. Sortie rates are measured by how fast a carrier can recover and resupply aircraft before launching them again. This is directly influenced by a carrier’s size, ease of moving aircraft on deck, and the amount of supplies that it can carry. A larger carrier can facilitate higher sortie rates through its ability to handle aircraft more easily than a smaller ship.

The US Navy has said that sortie rates are the primary justification for larger fleet carriers. A Nimitz class carrier manage 240 sorties per day for a brief period, though 120 sorties per day is the average for extended operations. In comparison, the 42,000 ton French carrier Charles De Gaulle can manage a brief period of 100 sorties per day and half that for extended operations. Based on this figure, the Navy believes that a single large ship is vastly cheaper when examined by its cost per sortie compared to using multiple light carriers to achieve the same sortie rate. Numerous studies have appeared to examine the possibility of utilizing light carriers, but no successful design has emerged yet that offers a better overall cost.

Final Thoughts

The decline of the light aircraft carrier came about due to a number of reasons. Unfortunately, these problems are not easily solved. It would have to take a large leap in technology to allow smaller aircraft carriers to handle current aircraft or for aircraft to be able to utilize smaller carriers. However, the era of the light carrier does not appear to be over yet, several governments are investigating new designs. Perhaps the leap in technology is closer than we think? A future article will discuss a recent US push for light carrier designs. To stay informed of new articles, follow us on social media like Facebook or Twitter. If you would like to read about another vessel that might serve to supplement carrier forces, check out this article examining the possibility of a modern battleship design.

Chris Knupp

A student of military history, I am working to make history more interesting and accessible for everyone.