The advantages of nuclear propulsion are well known. For a fixed mass penalty, nuclear propulsion allows a vessel to sail for 2 and a half decades in the case of American supercarriers. The Forrestals (CV-59 to CV-62) displaced around 60,000 tonnes, Kitty Hawks (CV-63 to CV-67) went a step ahead with 83,000 tonnes. The Enterprise CVN-65 set the bar at 93,000 tonnes with the Nimitzs (CVN-68 to CVN-77) taking that to 104,000 tonnes. Intetestingly, the Ford’s (CVN-78 onwards) displacement is very close to that of Nimitz. Considering that the Midways (CV-41 to CV-43) which preceded the Forrestals were 45,000 tonnes, we can see a clear plateauing in the carrier displacement graph post Enterprise.
There is a clear linear growth in the size of ships employed for other purposes. The title of world’s largest cruise ship, world’s largest container ship etc. have changed hands several times. So why the plateauing in carrier displacement?
When was the last time we saw a very costly weapon system which was formidable on paper but was taken out relatively easily?
The Death Star was a very potent weapon system due to its capability of destroying entire planets (R.I.P. Alderaan). This capability did not stop it from getting destroyed by ingenious ideas used by the Rebels (kudos to Galen Orso and Luke Skywalker). The reason for its destruction was simple. As a system, the Death Star had crossed the line of practicality in the bigger is better ideology. It was poorly protected against smaller craft which led to its eventual doom. The doom costed a lot to the Empire, which interestingly didn’t deter them from building a bigger one and failing at that as well.
So what are the exhaust port-esq issues with modern aircraft carriers?
The carriers are basically glorified mobile floating bases to be blunt. None of the carriers posses offensive weapons which can be deployed without the help of its aircraft except the Admiral Kuznetsov. They posses short to medium range air defense systems and no ASW capabilities. Their size makes them large targets which are difficult to manoeuvre. Air ops can be easily disrupted by one or two precise hits. Such precise hits are very much possible with modern precision guided munitions. Without its aircraft, a carrier is at the mercy of its escorts and one slip up can be costly.
Submarines are the biggest threats to carrier ops. This is one of the reasons that the Soviets never really invested into carriers till the 1980s. Although exercise results cannot be taken seriously, several foreign submarines have broke through CBG escort layers and scored simulated kills. A well placed $500 million sub could take out a multi billion dollar carrier if there is a slip up in ASW.
The actual exhaust port-esq weakness is the cost. Let us consider the cost of just a single USN carrier.
- Vessel: Nearly $9-$10 billion for Nimitz class, $13 billion for Ford.
- Aircraft: 24 Super Hornets, 12 Hornets, 4 Growlers, 4 Hawkeyes, 8 Sea Hawks. The total turns out to be $3.24 Billion
- Crew: 6000 well trained men and women, invaluable!
At this point we realise that the value of a single carrier without its accompanying fleet, without its supporting infrastructure is around $14 Billion to $16 Billion at the minimum number of embarked aircraft. We have listed 52 aircraft in the list, the usual number is around 70. Arrival of the F-35C will make carrier air wings costlier. Imagine losing one carrier?
A costlier carrier would be justified if there existed a potential adversary with on par or superior capability. The Nimitzs were designed in the 1960s. The adversary of that time i.e. USSR had the Kiev class of pseudo carriers which displaced half as much as the Enterprise. Their fighters were no where close to what the USN had.
The Fords came when a potential adversary, China has 1 65,000 tonne carrier in service with another similar carrier about to enter service. China plans to build larger carriers in the future, displacing close to a 100,000 tonnes. Their present generation naval fighter is slightly better than USN’s Super Hornet fleet in some areas but at a technological disadvantage against the F-35C. Future Chinese fighters might close in the gap but nothing concrete can be seen as of now.
Thus the USN realised that there is no incentive in building a larger carrier. At USS Nimitz they drew a line of practicality in the bigger is better idea. They decided to improve the existing design while developing the Ford instead of going even bigger. Secondly, there is no incentive in risking such a large chunk of tax payer money without a justifiable adversary. No one comes close to USN’s fleet of 11 supercarriers and several smaller amphibious carriers. If an adversary tries to start an arms race, we might see the a larger carrier in the future.
We do not indent to compare the US to Galatic Empire in anyway! This comparison is only made for humour purposes. We apologise for any hurt sentiments.
For more info about the Admiral Kuznetsov : USS Nimitz vs Heavy aircraft carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov
For more info about Chinese carriers : From HMAS Melbourne to Shandong: The Story of China’s Aircraft Carrier Programme
For more info about the USS Enterprise : Carriers of the US Navy: USS Enterprise
For more info about the USS Ford : Carriers of the US Navy: Ford class