The Return of Modern Light Aircraft Carriers?

Just recently, the Navy’s newest supercarrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, was brought into active service. Nine more sister ships are expected to follow along behind her over the coming years. While the Navy is firmly committed to its larger fleet carriers, the US government seems to be pressing for more variety. The Senate Armed Services Committee has just allotted 30 million dollars to create basic designs for a modern light aircraft carrier. Could the United States see the return of modern light aircraft carriers?

Over the decades since World War II, light carriers had fallen from use in the United States Navy. However, several proposals popped up over the years to reintroduce the light carrier concept. No doubt the studies from these ships will place a significant role in the design process of the next generation light carrier.

Previous Designs for Modern Light Aircraft Carrier

Sea Control Ship

the return of modern light aircraft carriers

One of the first major light carrier proposals came about in the late 1960s. The US was fearful of the effect that Soviet submarines and their support aircraft would have against convoys. It was determined that the best method of protecting them would be a light carrier. It could carry a compliment of anti-submarine helicopters as well as a small number of fighters to intercept the Soviet patrol aircraft. When Admiral Elmo Zumwalt became Chief of Naval Operations, he became an enthusiastic supporter of the light carrier concept and incorporated them into his “High-Low” plan. He intended that a large number of cheap, simple light carriers would supplement the fewer but more advanced fleet carriers. The resulting design, called the Sea Control Ship, would carry 14 helicopters and 3 VTOL aircraft. Eight of these 620′ long ships could be built for the price of a single fleet carrier. They would use two gas turbines driving a single shaft to propel them at a modest 25 knots.

USS Guam was outfitted as a trial version of the Sea Control Ship and operated successfully for over three years. Despite promising tests, the Navy heavily opposed the design, believing that it would detract from fleet carrier production. Congress didn’t believe the design offered enough and rejected it in 1975. Finally, Admiral Zumwalt was replaced as CNO which effectively killed the design. However, it would live on elsewhere as several countries built small carriers based on the Sea Control Ships.

VSTOL Support Ship

the return of modern light aircraft carriers

In the late 1970s, the new Chief of Naval Operation,  James L. Holloway III, proposed a larger, more capable light carrier design. They could escort convoys like the earlier Sea Control Ships, however they also had the speed needed to partake in some fleet actions. To achieve this higher speed (roughly 29 knots) they were designed with four gas turbines driving two shafts. They would carry 14 helicopters and 4 VTOL aircraft. At 690′ in length, the design could carry a larger hanger and more fuel to support greater numbers of air operations. The design was then reworked into an ever larger variant that had a full hangar and more aviation fuel. This version was intended to carry more fixed wing aircraft. It was soon replaced by a new variant that could operate on the front line. It was 720′ in length and was more heavily armored. In addition to its aircraft, it carried a bank of anti-ship missiles.

While the VSTOL Support Ship was supported by the United States Senate, it was opposed by the US Navy. Again, it was believed that the carrier would threaten the production of fleet carriers. It was also known that the VTOL aircraft the light carrier would carry would be inferior to typical fixed wing aircraft.

Medium Aircraft Carrier Medium (CVV)

the return of modern light aircraft carriers

The closest we have come to a dedicated light carrier came about in the 1970s in the form of a “Medium Carrier”. Aware of the fact that VTOL aircraft were inferior in performance to current fixed wing aircraft, the Navy sought a design that could operate conventional aircraft. It was hoped that these ships would supplement the vastly more expensive nuclear powered Nimitz class carriers. They would be 912′ in length and displace 62,000 tons at full load, making them comparable to the Midway class in size. They were lightly armored, but with 100,000shp they were capable of steaming up to 29 knots, fast enough to operate with standard fleet carriers. The medium carrier would carry an aircraft compliment of 60 aircraft, about 2/3 that of normal fleet carrier. Unlike previous designs, they had the equipment to operate conventional fixed wing fighters. The Navy now had a design for a capable light carrier that could operate the same aircraft as a larger fleet carrier.

While this design had the backing of the Navy, Congress became convinced that all major ships should be nuclear powered. Both Presidents Ford and Carter attempted to have the medium carrier put into production. Carter even vetoed the funds for a fourth Nimitz class ship in favor of two CVV carriers. The final nail in the medium carrier coffin came with the election of President Ronald Reagan. He approved a much greater budget for the Navy. Now able to afford more Nimitz class carriers, the Navy decided to pursue a completely nuclear powered carrier fleet. The medium carrier concept died immediately.

The Future Modern Light Aircraft Carriers

the return of modern light aircraft carriers

The USS America, leadship of the America class amphibious assault ships. They can carry up to 20 aircraft if need be.

So far the goal of this new potential light carrier is the exact same as the earlier Sea Control Ship. A carrier designed for the protecting sea lanes, dispatching submarines, and other roles not suitable for larger fleet carriers. The biggest factor is cost and it is hoped that multiple ships could be built for the cost of a single large carrier. How would the Navy go about building a ship to fulfill those roles?

The first option would be to utilize an existing design. The new America class amphibious assault ships are designed to perform landing operations, however the lead ship, USS America, was built to a new specification that optimized aircraft usage. Testing showed that she can operate up to twenty F-35 aircraft if need be. In theory this would allow two light carriers based on the America design to match a Ford class carrier in its fighter compliment. At 3.4 billion per ship, they would be vastly cheaper than the 10 billion dollar cost of the Ford class. If multiple ships of the America design were laid down, it would actually drive the unit price down further. However, as the previous design studies showed, an America class carrier would be limited to lesser VTOL aircraft. It would also be handicapped by its ability to carrier avgas and weaponry for its aircraft.

the return of modern light aircraft carriers

The French carrier Charles De Gaulle. A modern light carrier would be roughly the same size and could carry 40 aircraft.

The other option would be for a lighter, but more traditional CATOBAR carrier that can operate standard fixed wing aircraft. This idea would be useful in that carrier aircraft can operate on both light carriers and supercarriers, increasing flexibility and logistics. However, the initial cost would be more expensive as a new design would have to be researched and placed into production. However, even this should not be too difficult as the Navy has the data from the Kitty Hawk class and other conventionally powered aircraft carriers to go off of.  A 45,000 to 55,000 ton ship, similar in size to the French Charles De Gaulle or Russian Admiral Kuznetsov, would allow for almost half the aircraft capability as the larger Ford class. The Navy could even opt to resurrect the medium carrier concept from the 1970s.

Final Thoughts

Whatever route the proposed carrier takes, it will face the same challenges that previous light carriers did. Funds will have to come from somewhere to pay for this new class of ship and many will fight to keep those funds where they are. The Navy will most likely be the biggest challenger as these ships will likely take away from the construction of the larger, more capable Ford class supercarriers.

Do you think the Navy should pursue a light carrier design? Leave a comment below or on our social media channels. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with all the latest articles and News.

Chris Knupp

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