The 355-ship Navy could become reality through a concept familiar to naval historians—the conventionally powered light aircraft carrier (CVL). The Navy operated escort and light carriers during World War II to make up for gaps in fleet carrier coverage and later to operate as independent naval air fleets. After the war, the Navy converted some to antisubmarine warfare carriers (CVSs) and built amphibious assault ships to meet the fleet’s needs for a smaller carrier platform. With ever- increasing numbers of adversaries spanning a wide range of technological and warfighting sophistication, the Navy should revisit its history of operating such carriers to supplement (but not replace) its nuclear-powered carrier force.
In 1939–40, with Europe embroiled in the “Phony War,” the United States quickly began modernizing its military, retooling factories to build the designs drawn during the 1930s. But the United States could not quickly produce aircraft carriers after Pearl Harbor—no new fleet carriers were scheduled for completion before 1944.1 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, proposed the development of escort carriers (CVEs) and CVLs to overcome the delay.2 By the end of the war, the majority of the Navy’s carriers were CVEs.3
To get capabilities similar to those of fleet carriers to sea fast, the Navy converted under-construction Cleveland- class cruisers into CVLs. These ships, the Independence-class, had the speed to keep up with fleet carriers and fast battleships, although they carried less than half the aircraft of an Essex-class fleet carrier. They filled critical roles supporting dozens of invasions during the Pacific island-hopping campaign, freeing fleet carriers for operations requiring larger decks. In addition, with their speed, Independence-class ships were able to operate with fleet carriers, serving as force multipliers for strikes and distributing the lethality of the carrier task force. Eight Independence-class carriers participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, providing 40 percent of the fighter aircraft that shot down the last of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s carrier air force.
Unlike the light carriers that were built on cruiser hulls, escort carriers were built on merchant hulls. Though President Roosevelt proposed the CVE, it was the Royal Navy that pioneered escort carrier technology, to counter German U-boats and the small but capable German surface fleet. Before HMS Audacity (a captured German merchant ship converted to be the Royal Navy’s first escort carrier) could be finished in mid-1941, the British already were requesting more CVEs from U.S. shipyards. The designs that followed possessed neither the speed nor armament to operate with “big deck” carriers but could be built much more quickly than fleet carriers at a time when convoys were being hunted by U-boat packs and the Japanese seemed invincible in the Pacific.
Of the 151 aircraft carriers built for the Navy during the Second World War, 122 were CVEs. They did more than fill gaps in deck space while the Navy ramped up fleet carrier production. CVEs often launched offensive strikes in support of both naval and amphibious operations while defending their own task groups.
In the Atlantic, the CVEs’ slow speed was no handicap when escorting slow merchant convoys, launching aircraft on antisubmarine patrols. In the Pacific, escort carriers proved their worth time and again. In the Battle of Samar, for example, six CVEs screened by destroyers—part of the famous task group known as “Taffy 3”—fought off a Japanese counterattack during the invasion of Leyte Gulf. The CVEs’ ferocity convinced a numerically superior Japanese force of four battleships and six heavy cruisers to withdraw in the face of what the Japanese commander believed to be the main U.S. carrier fleet.
The Navy recommissioned more than 10 CVEs in the late 1940s and early 1950s but realized the older designs had neither space nor speed to accommodate emerging technologies. The Navy studied building entirely new light carriers specialized for helicopter assault and antisubmarine warfare. The designs would have cost one-third the price of fleet carriers but were withdrawn to fund the Forrestal-class supercarriers.4 Instead, retired Essex-class ships were converted and modernized, then redesignated as attack carriers (CVAs), CVSs, and landing platform helicopter (LPH) ships—the precursors to modern amphibious assault ships. By the mid-1950s, the Navy again possessed dedicated platforms for antisubmarine warfare and amphibious and transport operations. These allowed it to test the “vertical assault” concept that became critical for the Marine Corps in Vietnam.
As the Vietnam War wound down in the early 1970s, the U.S. fleet began showing its age. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt proposed his “high-low plan.” In particular, he advocated introducing a smaller carrier design, the “sea-control ship,” to replace the capability lost with the retirement of the Essex-class CVSs. The new design was to carry vertical/short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) strike aircraft to counter enemy warships as the center of its own small task group.5 The proposed class also was to defend against the Soviet submarine threat and carry helicopters for the Marine Corps. The design, however, did not provide sufficient capability for even small conventional-takeoff fixed-wing aircraft, resulting in its termination in 1975.6 Congress also killed a follow-on concept, the VSTOL support ship, a few years later.
The lineage of light carriers lives on through today’s amphibious assault ships (LHDs and LHAs). The Tarawa-, Wasp-, and America-class ships are equipped to perform many of the missions of CVEs, from amphibious assault to sea control. But in terms of speed and armament, they are more comparable to CVLs.
The Navy recognizes the value of using the amphibs as light carriers to support the fleet. To make room for more aviation facilities and to support a dedicated secondary ASW role, the USS America (LHA-6) did not include a floodable well deck. One configuration of her air group would allow the America to carry up to 20 F-35B aircraft in a “small aircraft carrier” role for blue-water naval security operations.
The Navy should develop the America- class into a full-blown CVL as a cost- effective asset for power projection and presence. (See “From Wells to Wings,” pp. 66–70, December 2017.) Unfortunately, in the past decade, the Navy has struggled at times to maintain sufficient worldwide presence in the face of the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia, and the breakout of smaller conflicts that have demanded “90,000 tons of diplomacy” off a variety of coasts.7 Currently, the Navy fills presence gaps with guided-missile cruisers and destroyers (CGs and DDGs), able to attack targets from hundreds of miles away but armed with expensive and difficult-to-reload Tomahawk land-attack missiles (TLAMs). But at a cost of more than $1.8 million per missile, are TLAM-equipped ships really a more efficient way to strike?8
Instead of spending that much (never mind the $6.5 million daily cost to operate a carrier strike group at sea), there is an alternative.9 A CVL could be optimal for situations where lower-intensity strike activity is required—say, two dozen strike aircraft, guided by one or two airborne early-warning aircraft, and protected by a handful of search-and-rescue and ASW helicopters. A conventionally powered CVL also would be the perfect “mothership” for a task group of littoral combat ships (LCSs) conducting counter-terror or antipiracy operations anywhere in the world. Just as a nuclear-powered carrier (CVN) functions as a floating base, a CVL could keep LCS, CG, DDG, and future frigate platforms supplied at sea.10
Light carriers also would provide “scalable” options in a high-end fight, where multiple carriers could be grouped together into carrier task forces (TFs) similar to those of World War II. These TFs would provide an advanced network capability to link carriers with different aircraft distributions to project power against a sophisticated enemy.11 Distributing carrier lethality would reduce the risk of loss in capability if a single CVN were sunk, while enhancing the range at which carrier-based aircraft could strike by operating across a broad region. While CVLs would not bring 90,000 tons of diplomacy, is 90,000 tons in a single place better than 45,000 tons in each of several different places?
Moving beyond the Americas, new CVL designs should capitalize on advanced technologies developed since the end of the Cold War. Hybrid gas turbine–electric propulsion developed for the Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers, for example, would make future CVL designs much more efficient, reducing the frequency of refueling. Such a system also could power an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), giving a CVL a diversity of aircraft similar to what a CVN can support. Other technology from the Gerald R. Ford-class, such as its automated munition distribution system, would give light carriers additional tools to increase the smaller ships’ sortie rates.
Nuclear-powered fleet carriers are not going anywhere—they maximize lethality like nothing else in history, and large-scale operations against near-peer enemies will demand them. At the same time, a fleet of conventionally-powered CVLs can support a broad range of operations large and small more cheaply and with lower risk. CVLs could be a major part of the solution to problems with fleet size and strike capability while increasing the effectiveness, versatility, and economy of the U.S. Navy.
1. Norman Friedman, U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), 177.
2. Friedman, Aircraft Carriers, 159.
3. Robert C. Rubel, “The Future of the Future of Aircraft Carriers,” Naval War College Review 64, no. 4 (Autumn 2011), 18.
4. Friedman, Aircraft Carriers, 340.
5. Douglass V. Smith, One Hundred Years of U.S. Navy Air Power (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 338.
6. Friedman, Aircraft Carriers, 354.
7. Andrew B. Leatherwood, 90,000 Tons of Diplomacy: How the U.S. Navy Supports Naval Aviation (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2014).
8. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense — Comptroller, Program Acquisition Cost by Weapon System FY2017, 5–13.
9. Jerry Hendrix, “At What Cost a Carrier?” Center for a New American Security, March 2013, 6.
10 Rubel, “Aircraft Carriers,” 24.
11. Robert C. Rubel, “A Theory of Naval Airpower,” Naval War College Review 67, no. 3 (Summer 2014), 66.