Aircraft Carriers & power projection

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Aircraft carriers are often regarded as ultimate power projection tools‭. ‬In the past decades‭, ‬it was predominantly the power of‭ ‬the United States‭ (‬US‭) ‬that was carried around the globe‭. ‬The impressive full-length flat deck ships made Americans much less dependent on worldwide bases‭. ‬Instead‭, ‬they could park a fully equipped floating airbase close to any theatre of conflict‭, ‬anywhere in the world‭. ‬Nowadays‭, ‬the US still has the largest fleet of carriers‭, ‬but other states have‭ (‬re)joined the club‭, ‬making the‭ ‬maritime domain ever more crowded and in certain places‭, ‬contested‭. ‬

The aircraft carrier‭: ‬a short history

The concept of aircraft carriers has been around for more than a century‭. ‬In 1910‭, ‬the first fixed-wing aircraft was launched from a US Navy cruiser‭. ‬In the 1920s‭, ‬a large number of flat deck ships was commissioned‭. ‬These included the Japanese Hosho‭, ‬the British HMS Hermes‭, ‬the French Béarn and the American Lexington-class‭. ‬World War II became their ultimate testing ground‭, ‬showing‭ ‬both the new operational opportunities‭, ‬but also the vulnerabilities and the massive losses that could occur when a carrier was‭ ‬attacked‭.‬

At the onset of the war‭, ‬the Japanese had the largest and most sophisticated fleet‭, ‬with ten aircraft carriers‭. ‬Their attack on‭ ‬Pearl Harbor‭ (‬1941‭) ‬was launched from six aircraft carriers and involved around 360‭ ‬Japanese aircraft‭. ‬At the closing end of the‭ ‬war‭, ‬it was the American’s turn to strike in the Pacific‭. ‬Using carrier-borne aircraft‭, ‬it brought down the two largest then-existing battleships‭, ‬the Japanese Musashi in 1944‭ ‬and the Yamato in 1945‭. ‬In the European war theater‭, ‬Britain was in the lead with seven carriers‭. ‬While the ships were helpful in preventing German domination of the Mediterranean‭, ‬Germany did manage to sink a number of British carriers with its superior submarines and battlecruisers‭. ‬World War II marked the first time in history that sea battles were not decided by ships‭, ‬but by aircraft‭. ‬Ever since‭, ‬aircraft‭, ‬and aircraft carriers‭, ‬have been key assets in the maritime domain‭.‬

Innovations in aircraft carrier design

The design of aircraft carriers has changed significantly due to engineering and technological innovations‭. ‬Aircrafts went from‭ ‬being propeller-powered to being jet-powered and became faster and heavier‭. ‬To launch and land such aircraft‭, ‬steam-powered catapult and arrestor gear were invented‭. ‬

The advent of nuclear power made the US build nuclear-powered carriers‭ (‬USS Nimitz‭). ‬France was the only power following that example‭, ‬which led to the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle‭. ‬Another important early innovation was that of the optical landing system‭, ‬which provided a constant glidepath correcting for rough seas‭. ‬A more recent innovation‭, ‬introduced in the American Ford-class carriers‭, ‬is the electro-magnetic catapult‭, ‬replacing the steam-powered catapult‭.‬

Global power competition leads to growing numbers of aircraft carriers‭ ‬

The US‭, ‬France and India are the only powers that have continuously kept carriers in operation for the past fifty years‭. ‬Of those‭, ‬only the US has been truly able to project power globally‭. ‬Others are now‭ (‬re)joining the club‭, ‬including China‭, ‬the UK and Japan‭. ‬

The US‭:‬‭ ‬the Ford-class headache and the Lightning carrier concept‭ ‬

Currently‭, ‬the US Navy operates 11‭ ‬nuclear-powered aircraft carriers‭ (‬10‭ ‬Nimitz-class‭, ‬1‭ ‬Ford-class‭). ‬Its aircraft carriers are‭ ‬by far the world’s largest‭. ‬The Ford-class carriers are supposed to replace the Nimitz-class ships planned for retirement by the mid-2030s‭. ‬The lead ship of the Ford-class‭, ‬the 90,000-ton USS Gerald R‭. ‬Ford has been suffering from technical issues and delays‭. ‬Coming at the‭ ‬procurement costs of‭ $‬13.3‭ ‬billion‭, ‬it was finally commissioned in 2017‭ ‬and is expected to become operational in 2022‭.‬

The construction of this first of the Ford-class has been a headache file for the US‭. ‬Last year‭, ‬this led to the launch of a Future Carrier 2030‭ ‬Task Force to study whether the US Navy should stick with the design‭, ‬but the study was halted by the Navy’s leadership‭, ‬which was unwilling to raise uncertainty‭. ‬The problems with the carriers and their current overstretch have put spotlights on the Navy’s 9‭ ‬amphibious assault ships‭, ‬which carry helicopters and‭ ‬“short take off and vertical landing”‭ (‬STOVL‭) ‬aircraft‭. ‬These American ships are as large as other state’s designated aircraft carriers and play an important role in the new‭ ‬“lightning carrier concept”‭. ‬The idea is that putting up to 20‭ ‬of the F-35B‭, ‬the STOVL variant‭, ‬on these ships‭, ‬as a good way to supplement the large-size‭ ‬carriers‭. 

China‭:‬‭ ‬between ambition and budgetary prudence

The People’s Liberation Army Navy‭ (‬PLAN‭) ‬currently operates two aircraft carriers‭. ‬A third one is nearing completion‭. ‬China’s ambition was initially to have at least six carrier groups by 2035‭, ‬four of them with nuclear-powered aircraft carriers‭. ‬Technical and financial issues have reduced the ambition to having four carriers‭, ‬none of them nuclear-powered‭, ‬for now‭.‬

The national carrier construction program has nonetheless shown a steep learning curve‭. ‬The first aircraft carrier‭, ‬the Type 001‭ ‬Liaoning‭, ‬was constructed on an unfinished carrier from Ukraine‭. ‬China’s second carrier‭, ‬the Shandon‭, ‬is a better version of the first carrier‭, ‬but with the same design‭. ‬The third carrier‭ (‬Type 002‭) ‬is expected to be more advanced‭, ‬much larger and reportedly will also feature electromagnetic catapults‭. ‬Despite the advancements‭, ‬China’s carriers may face serious threats operating in its region‭, ‬including the South China Sea‭, ‬as other Asian powers have heavily invested in submarine fleets‭, ‬some of them armed with sophisticated torpedoes and anti-ship missiles‭.‬

India‭:‬‭ ‬concerns about Indian Ocean security

India currently has only one operational aircraft carrier‭, ‬the INS Vikramaditya‭. ‬Aware of the increasingly precarious security situation in the Indian Ocean‭, ‬it aims for three‭, ‬even though budgetary pressures and technological difficulties are holding the‭ ‬Indian Navy back‭. ‬At the end of the 1990s‭, ‬India announced its ambition to produce its first home-built carrier‭, ‬the Vikrant‭. ‬Faced with delays‭, ‬it is said to enter sea trials in early 2021‭ ‬and is expected to be in service at the earliest in 2023‭. ‬

For its third planned carrier‭, ‬India has turned to more help from the UK and the US‭. ‬It concluded a Carrier-Capability Partnership with the UK in 2019‭, ‬in the same year that the US-India carrier-technology working group held its second session‭. ‬The third carrier will not enter service before the 2030s‭. ‬

Britain‭:‬‭ ‬rejoining the Great Powers and picking a fight with China‭?‬

In January 2021‭, ‬Britain officially became an aircraft carrier power again‭, ‬after having had a‭ ‬‘carrier gap’‭ ‬for the last ten years‭. ‬British politicians are hailing this as a demonstration of the return of a Global Britain‭. ‬Just days after the official Brexit‭, ‬it is not entirely coincidence that the full carrier strike group of the new HMS Queen Elizabeth was announced to have reached‭ ‬“very high readiness”‭, ‬meaning it can now be deployed within 5‭ ‬days of notice‭.  ‬A second carrier‭, ‬the HMS Prince of Wales‭, ‬will most likely be operational by 2023‭.‬

The Brits closely cooperate with the US around their new carrier and are also focused on building a strong relation with India‭. ‬Exercises with the HMS Queen Elizabeth included the formation of the largest concentration of 5th generation airplanes ever at sea‭, ‬made up of US Marine Corps F-35Bs and Royal Navy F35s‭. ‬The first deployment of the carrier is planned for later this year and will include the Indian Ocean and substantial interaction with India’s INS Vikramaditya‭. ‬It is also expected to cruise through the South China Sea‭, ‬a move that will most likely upset the Chinese‭. 

France‭:‬‭ ‬reaffirming its global status and its industrial base

The French national fleet’s flagship warship‭, ‬aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle‭, ‬has long symbolized the French global reach and power‭. ‬In December 2020‭,‬‭ ‬President Emmanuel Macron announced that its successor will also be nuclear-powered and is scheduled to replace France’s only carrier in 2038‭. ‬Referred to for now as the‭ ‬‘Porte-Avions de Nouvelle Generation’‭ (‬PANG‭), ‬it will be much bigger than its predecessor and also be nuclear-powered and most likely using electro-magnetic catapults and having plenty of landing space for STOVL aircraft‭. ‬It will be the most powerful capability in the EU‭. ‬

France operates the second-largest Exclusive Economic Zone‭ (‬EEZ‭) ‬in the world and with this decision and the proposed ship‭, ‬France’s objective is to remain a global player‭. ‬It is also eager to maintain rare industrial knowledge in shipbuilding and nuclear power‭. ‬Plus‭, ‬the French aircraft carrier‭, ‬given its nuclear strike capability‭, ‬contributes to the country’s nuclear deterrent forces‭.‬

Vulnerable or value for money‭? ‬

In the current global power dynamics‭, ‬oceans are subject to growing international tensions‭. ‬They might even become the most disputed parts of the world‭. ‬The coming decades‭, ‬the seas are to host a growing number of expensive aircraft carriers‭. ‬Some critics‭ ‬suggest that these large decks are too vulnerable in a‭ (‬future‭) ‬age of hypersonic missiles‭, ‬improved satellite capability‭, ‬quiet‭ ‬submarines‭, ‬anti-ship and other anti-aircraft weapons‭. ‬But clearly‭, ‬carriers remain of importance as status symbols and for the‭ ‬maintenance of a national military industrial base‭- ‬thus also contributing to a state’s economy‭. ‬Their operational value will nonetheless stand or fall with the quality of aircraft they host and with the protection‭ ‬they will receive from the other technologically advanced ships‭, ‬submarines and systems that are part of their carrier group‭. ‬●


‮»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Saskia Maria van Genugten
‭(‬A Senior Research Fellow in the MENA Peace‭ & ‬Security Prograamme of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy‭ (‬EDA‭) ‬in Abu Dhabi‭)‬

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