Why the Guy in Charge of the Navy Wants Smaller, Lighter Aircraft Carriers

Kyle Mizokami
·3 min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite has called for the U.S. Navy to buy a half dozen light aircraft carriers.

  • The carriers would embark an air wing consisting of uncrewed drones.

  • The small carriers would “go to where the threat is,” squaring off against Russian or Chinese forces.

Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite has called on the service to build up to six light aircraft carriers, which would increase the number of aircraft carriers in the fleet in a cost-effective way.

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While speaking at a U.S. Navy Memorial event, Braithwaite proposed equipping the carriers with uncrewed aerial vehicles and sending them “where the threat is,” particularly against Russian submarines.

The Navy currently fields a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers: 10 Nimitz-class flat tops, and one of the new Gerald R. Ford class. The USS Ford cost a whopping $13 billion to produce, and is home to roughly 5,000 sailors who man the ship and operate the embarked air wing.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy - Getty Images
Photo credit: U.S. Navy - Getty Images

Although the Ford’s size makes it capable of generating a large number of air sorties per day, huge ships increasingly dominate the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, to the detriment of other types of ships.

Navy supporters, including the late Senator John McCain, have voiced support for a smaller class of aircraft carriers to complement the larger supercarriers. A smaller ship would embark fewer planes and generate fewer sorties, but could be available in large numbers.

In peacetime, a smaller ship could operate in conflict zones that don’t require a larger carrier, such as the 2011 intervention in Libya, or show the flag in places like the South China Sea. A smaller carrier could also team up with bigger carriers in the event of a major crisis, creating a formidable naval strike force.

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Braithwaite is likely the first Secretary of the Navy to openly support light carriers and advocate for deploying uncrewed aerial vehicles on their flight decks. This would mirror the Chinese Navy’s upcoming Type 076-class warship. Like the Type 075 amphibious assault ship, there’s evidence the People’s Liberation Army Navy plans to equip the Type 076 with catapults and arresting gear to operate uncrewed aerial vehicles.

Photo credit: Interim Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Interim Archives - Getty Images

The U.S. Navy has operated light carriers before. During World War II, it built the Independence-class light carriers that operated until the late 1940s, as well as several types of smaller escort carriers designed to offer air cover to lightly protected convoys. The Cold War saw World War II-era carriers such as USS Oriskany, USS Coral Sea, and USS Midway serving alongside their larger supercarrier counterparts. Although “super” in their own day, these ships were dwarfed by modern Nimitz-class ships. After the Cold War, the Navy standardized supercarrier-sized ships.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

It’s ultimately not clear how much traction the light carrier concept will get. Big carrier advocates dislike the idea, as it takes resources away from bigger ships. And depending on the outcome of the 2020 election, Braithwaite may not be Secretary of the Navy in three months.

However, if Braithwaite remains secretary in February 2020—or if his replacement in a Joe Biden administration also favors the concept—light carriers for the U.S. Navy could indeed become a reality.

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