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The U.S. Navy’s Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers represent the newest chapter in a story that began a century ago with the commissioning of USS Langley (CV 1), the nation’s first aircraft carrier, on March 20, 1922. The story of naval aviation, however, can be said to go back even further, to Nov. 14, 1910, when an intrepid aviator named Eugene “George” Ely strapped bicycle inner tubes across his chest as a crude flotation device and, so equipped, flew his Curtiss pusher aircraft off a temporary deck rigged over the bow of the cruiser Birmingham. Two months later, on Jan. 18, 1911, he landed on the cruiser USS Pennsylvania, whose fantail had been partly covered by a temporary deck equipped with what we might now call arresting gear ropes. Senior U.S. officers were impressed; they understood that aircraft could change naval warfare by giving fleet commanders much wider vision. However, landing-on and flying-off decks at both ends of a ship were seen as an excessive sacrifice. Instead, work proceeded on a catapult whose fixed track would cover the after guns of a large cruiser. Several ships were so modified, carrying large seaplanes that would land alongside when they returned.

Eugene Ely stands beside the Curtiss Pusher biplane he landed aboard the USS Pennsylvania on Jan. 18, 1911. Note his jury-rigged life vest made of bicycle inner tubes tied together across his torso. His primitive arresting gear, composed of ropes with sandbags tied to each end and strung across the wooden deck, nevertheless influenced later U.S. Navy arresting gear design.

At about the same time in 1911, other navies were experimenting with launching aircraft from ships. Several, most notably the British, converted merchant ships into primitive aircraft carriers during World War I. The British in particular demonstrated that carriers (and shipboard aircraft in general) had become a necessary part of fleets. They seemed so important that the Royal Navy chose to complete a new battleship, HMS Eagle, as a carrier (her sister ship was the battleship HMS Canada). The “large light cruiser” Furious received first a flying-off deck forward (in place of one of her two 18-inch guns) and then a flying-on deck aft. She was the scene of the first British carrier landing, in 1917, but the air eddying around her superstructure caused serious problems, including the death of the first carrier-landing pilot. The British also laid down a cruiser-size carrier, HMS Hermes. The first ship to be designed as a carrier from the outset, she showed her importance to the Royal Navy in that the resources she consumed could alternatively have gone into a heavy cruiser. At the same time, all British capital ships were fitted with flying-off platforms for fighters.

Ely dives down toward the water to gain speed and lift after leaving the deck of USS Birmingham on Nov. 14, 1910. Despite the Curtiss Pusher touching the water and splintering its propeller tips, Ely made it to shore after recording the first takeoff from a ship. Having proved it could be done, the next step was to begin designing or adapting ships to exploit the promise of naval aviation.

Naval aviation clearly mattered. The Germans used Zeppelins for scouting; in August 1916, a Zeppelin’s warning saved their High Seas Fleet from interception by the British Grand Fleet. The lesson the British took was that they had to take fighters to sea to shoot down Zeppelins (which were outside the range of ships’ guns). This was not too different from the later understanding that it took carrier fighters to destroy enemy bombers, ships’ anti-aircraft weapons generally driving them off or dealing with missiles they launched. The British seem uniquely to have appreciated the offensive potential of their sea-based aircraft. By 1918, it seemed clear that the German fleet would remain in harbor, tying down the British, preventing them from using their sea power offensively. Airplanes offered a unique way to get at the Germans despite their unwillingness to go to sea. In 1916, the British began to develop torpedo bombers. In 1918, they had enough carrier decks, either ready or in prospect, to plan a recognizably modern carrier raid on the German fleet in harbor. They revived the idea in the 1930s when they had to face war against Italy, and they executed just such a raid against the Italian fleet base at Taranto in November 1940. It, in turn, may have helped inspire the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which had much the same aim.

The Royal Navy’s HMS Furious was the scene of the first British carrier landing in 1917, but the centrally located superstructure presented a great hazard to her pilots. Notice the dual taxiways extending from the landing-on deck astern to the flying-off deck forward.

American naval officers attached to the British Grand Fleet were well aware of the potential of this new kind of warship. They reported home extensively. Too, during World War I, British naval constructor Stanley Goodall was attached to the U.S. Navy. He brought with him plans for British carriers, and he helped frame the first requirements for a U.S. carrier. Like several other navies, the U.S. Navy was determined to experiment with this new kind of sea power.

The Royal Navy light aircraft carrier HMS Hermes underway off Yantai, China, in 1931. Laid down on a cruiser-size hull, Hermes was the first ship to be designed as an aircraft carrier from the outset.

The first U.S. approach was to convert the large collier Jupiter into the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier; she was commissioned as USS Langley in 1922. Affectionately nicknamed the “Covered Wagon,” Langley was slow, and she had limited hangar capacity. Though her limited size and speed made her unsuitable as a fleet carrier, she tested out everything from various types of arresting gear to aircraft catapults as well as concepts of aircraft carrier operations.

U.S. naval aviation might well have gone nowhere but for two lucky breaks. One was legal. After World War I, the United States and Japan were building large new battle fleets. Many thought that prewar naval rivalry between Britain and Germany had helped touch off World War I. The U.S. government sought a way to stop the building race with Japan (and, to some extent, with Britain) by calling a naval disarmament conference in November 1921. The resulting Washington Treaty canceled most of the new battleships and battle cruisers then on order. One clause allowed each signatory to convert two of them into carriers. Because the hulls being built were so massive, the carriers that resulted (in the U.S. case, Lexington and Saratoga) were far larger – and far more capacious – than any carriers that might have been designed as such at this time, when carrier aviation was so largely experimental.


The same treaty allowed each of the large navies what might seem an unusually large carrier tonnage, given that such ships were still experimental. It happened that the British demanded this tonnage because their own experience showed that a fleet required a large carrier-borne air arm, and that they believed – as it happened, wrongly – that no carrier could operate many aircraft. This clause made it possible for the U.S. Navy (and also the Japanese) to build carrier arms powerful enough to dominate the early months of the Pacific War. Ironically, the British found themselves saddled with experimental carriers they had begun during World War I. Even though they knew these ships were obsolete, they doubted that a cash-strapped British government would willingly replace them. Thus the Royal Navy could not begin its own massive carrier-building program until the overall tonnage limitation lapsed in 1937. This effort proved too late; it was overtaken by World War II.

The U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1), with a Vought VE-7 landing aboard. Converted from the collier Jupiter, Langley was slow and lacked even a proper hangar, but she served as an experimental platform for tactics and technologies that would transform U.S. naval aviation.

Without any overhang of obsolete tonnage, the United States built the carrier Ranger as the first of five that it hoped would give it the best compromise between carrier capability and total aircraft numbers (it was thought at first that relatively small carriers were best). Indeed, it seemed, before they had been completed, that the big Lexingtons would be white elephants. They turned out to be anything but, partly because the U.S. Navy concluded that carriers would have to operate individually (a conclusion overturned during World War II). Ranger turned out to be too small to be very useful. Before she was completed, U.S. designers were working on a new ship about 50 percent larger: Yorktown. She and her sister ship Enterprise were followed by a third, improved ship, Hornet, once the interwar limitation had lapsed. These were extremely successful ships. Enterprise fought in every Pacific battle, surviving the war. The others were sunk in 1942, but only after they had helped destroy the Japanese carrier force at Midway. Hornet demonstrated the reach of carrier air power when she launched Army B-25 bombers to strike Tokyo in April 1942. Although damage was limited, this raid is widely credited with convincing the Japanese that they had to destroy the U.S. Navy’s surviving carriers, the result being the Battle of Midway – which proved fatal to four of their carriers. Moreover, U.S. industrial capacity could more than replace the four (of seven prewar) carriers lost in 1942, whereas Japan’s could not replace her losses. Newly built U.S. warships dominated the Pacific War from 1943 on.


The other lucky break was that the U.S. Navy of that era tested its ideas on the game floor of the Naval War College, (i.e., not only at sea). Thus the ships and aircraft involved could adopt whatever characteristics seemed relevant to future warfare. Officers could see what the aircraft of the future (rather than existing, relatively primitive ones) might contribute to a naval battle. The games showed how important it was to operate aircraft rapidly. Capt. (later Adm.) Joseph Reeves took this lesson with him when he assumed command of the aircraft of the Battle Force, which at the time meant mainly the few assigned to Langley. At the time, U.S. naval aviators followed the British practice of stowing each airplane in the hangar before the next landed onto the carrier, much as aircraft on land would be taxied to their hangars to clear a runway. That made for slow operation and limited numbers (hence the British insistence on large numbers of carriers at Washington in 1921). Reeves asked his pilots to land on much more quickly. He understood that aircraft capacity depended on the tempo of air operations, so this was also a matter of how much airpower he could pack into his small ship. Reeves found that airplanes did not need the whole deck on which to land. Instead of being stowed below, they could simply be wheeled forward, protected from landing aircraft by a wire barrier. In this way, aircraft could be taken on board much more quickly, and they could be massed more easily for attack. Langley ultimately operated about four times as many airplanes as she had before Reeves arrived.

USS Saratoga (CV 3) with two O2U Corsair planes overhead, on May 3, 1929. The big converted battlecruisers Lexington and Saratoga, with their ability to operate large numbers of aircraft, had a strong influence on the American carriers to follow.

The contrast between Reeves’ view and that of the Royal Navy deserves comment. The difference may have been that the Royal Navy surrendered its aircraft to the new Royal Air Force in 1918. When it decided to run tests to see how many aircraft a carrier could operate, it deferred to the expertise of the pilots, who naturally had little interest in risking a crash into parked aircraft as they landed. They were much less interested in providing the mass of aircraft that a fleet commander might want. Reeves had a much broader outlook. He needed numbers, and the pilots were naval officers responsible to him. Their instincts as pilots were secondary. The new method of operation demanded tight discipline and careful control; it was no accident that U.S. officers visiting British carriers in the 1930s were struck by the looseness of their practices. Nor, probably, was it coincidental that U.S. naval aviators understood, and accepted, that theirs was a very dangerous business (the British view was quite different).

The Yorktown-class U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6) steams toward the Panama Canal on Oct. 10, 1945, while en route to New York to participate in Navy Day celebrations. The Enterprise was the only one of the three prewar Yorktown class to survive World War II.

On board U.S. carriers, the number of aircraft depended on the size of the flight deck, on which all of them would be parked before taking off, or after having landed. The U.S. Navy therefore favored long flight decks. It thought of carrier hangars mainly as places where aircraft could be repaired. The British tended instead to emphasize hangar capacity. When they could not get enough on a relatively short hull, they developed double-level hangars. Before World War II, they became interested in armoring the hangar, which included part of the length of the flight deck. U.S. carriers could not have accommodated a similar degree of protection, the theory being that their light wooden flight decks could simply be repaired at sea. Indeed, the U.S. Navy adopted light flight decks in its later prewar carriers specifically because flight deck damage was common in war games; hence it was vital to be able to repair a carrier’s flight deck within hours rather than weeks, and in a combat area rather than at a base. The light deck design explains why the carrier Enterprise was able to fight in all the Pacific carrier battles, despite suffering damage. When carriers of both navies suffered kamikaze hits in 1945, many U.S. officers were impressed by the British designs, commenting that they simply hosed off what was left of the kamikaze and resumed operations. They did not notice a price the British paid. During World War II they were compelled to adopt U.S.-style flight deck practices in order to operate enough aircraft, but their designs made for short flight decks. Shorter flight decks made for many more aircraft missing arresting gear wires and bouncing into (or even over) barriers – and many more dead pilots. U.S. carriers were not nearly so dangerous.

A Fairey Albacore torpedo bomber is struck below to the hangar deck aboard HMS Indomitable in 1940. The armored flight decks of Royal Navy aircraft carriers were admired by U.S. Navy personnel when the two fleets operated together in the Pacific, but exacted a price in shortened flight decks and cramped hangars below.

Given Reeves’ innovation, the two much bigger U.S. carriers Lexington and Saratoga operated about 100 aircraft each. With such numbers, they could demonstrate the full potential of carrier aviation, to an extent far beyond what the British, who had invented the carrier, could imagine. For example, during her first big fleet exercise in 1929, Saratoga made a surprise attack on the Panama Canal, showing that carriers could extend the reach of the fleet beyond attacking other fleets. The evolving U.S. strategy for a war against Japan, which was considered the most likely enemy, involved seizing island bases as the fleet moved west. Carrier aircraft could provide the Marines with the edge they needed when going ashore. One consequence was that all U.S. naval fighters were designed to carry bombs. By 1929, U.S. strategists understood how important carriers would be in such a war, and they began to discuss converting merchant ships – particularly fast liners – to swell carrier numbers.

The Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Antietam (CV 36) underway off the east coast of Korea, while operating with Task Force 77 during the Korean War. She has Air Group 15 embarked. Typical of the air groups of the era, she has a mixed group of propeller-driven and jet aircraft, including AD Skyraiders, F9F Panthers, and F4U Corsairs. Two dozen Essex-class carriers were built during World War II, with enough growth margin that they could be heavily modernized to adapt to new aircraft and missions. Several served through the Vietnam conflict and beyond.

Large carrier capacities justified a large naval air arm with considerable effect on the U.S. aircraft industry. Naval officers realized that carriers and naval aviation had a future as bright as that of the battleships, which were then the core of the fleet. It helped that Congress passed a law requiring that commanders of carriers and other naval aviation activities be aviators. By the late 1930s, the Navy’s General Board, responsible for advising the Secretary of the Navy and formulating U.S. warshipbuilding policies, was asking when aviation technology would mature to the point that carriers would replace battleships. By that time, the main brake on U.S. carrier building was the treaty structure of the interwar years, the irony being that the 1921 treaty had provided an unusually large allowance for the time. That was because, even though the Washington Treaty lapsed in 1936, the pre-World War II U.S. naval buildup was based on a legal requirement to maintain a modern fleet of the size imposed by the treaty (a 1938 law, passed in response to Japanese aggression in China, increased treaty ratios by 20 percent). Looking back, the interwar U.S. carrier force may seem inadequate, but to contemporary observers, the U.S. Navy was the most air-minded in the world. After their defeat, a senior Japanese admiral said that in developing their own carrier air arm, the Japanese had followed the U.S. lead.


The foundation built between the wars made it possible for the U.S. Navy to shift toward a carrier-centered World War II fleet. Thus the very successful wartime Essex class, 24 of which were eventually built, was in effect an enlarged and expanded version of the prewar Yorktown, which was unusually large for its time because Lexington and Saratoga had demonstrated the value of massive numbers of aircraft on board each carrier. As the United States came closer to war in 1941, work began on converting merchant ships into escort carriers, inspired to some extent by British experience. Once the war began, it seemed urgent to convert warships under construction into carriers. Projects to convert battleships were considered but rejected as grossly inefficient. However, nine new light cruisers became the Independence-class light carriers, fast enough to serve alongside the larger Essexes. Neither Britain nor Japan could build carriers at anything like this pace. The priority accorded carriers became clear early in 1942, when projected battleships were cancelled due to a perceived shortage of steel. Carriers were not.

A U.S. Navy North American AJ Savage of Composite Squadron VC-6 Fleurs launches from the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CVA 41). In the background are two Grumman F9F-6 Cougar fighters from Fighter Squadron VF-174 Hell Razors. The Midway-class carriers were larger than the Essex class, and introduced armored flight decks. The big AJ Savage was designed to be a carrier-borne nuclear bomber that could operate from existing U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

The huge prewar U.S. naval air establishment was relatively easy to expand to train tens of thousands of new pilots and other personnel. It also trained the senior officers to command a much-expanded carrier fleet. By the end of the war, the U.S. Navy had more than 100 carriers, compared with the seven of the 1941 fleet. Most of them were quick and relatively inefficient conversions of merchant ship and cruiser hulls, but they provided needed air support in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

These ships showed just how flexible naval aviation could be. Before World War II, the main role of naval aircraft was to defeat the enemy’s fleet. Prewar fleet exercises did show valuable potentials for supporting amphibious landings and for attacking enemy shore installations (the U.S. carriers often raided the Panama Canal, Pearl Harbor, and Los Angeles), but they were secondary. By 1945, with the Japanese fleet essentially destroyed, U.S. carriers raided Japanese targets, including Tokyo itself. The Navy staff pointed out that carriers could mount strategic attacks comparable in volume to what the Army Air Force was delivering using its heavy bombers. In the Atlantic, small carriers proved invaluable in fighting German U-boats. At the end of the war, the Navy commissioned the first of three large Midway-class carriers. Compared to the wartime Essex class, they were longer and had armored flight decks, but they were intended to operate the same type of aircraft (it took a much larger hull to accommodate the sort of armor the British had on their carriers and embody U.S. requirements).


Modern carriers like the Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford classes were born in the aftermath of World War II. With the defeat of Japan, it seemed unlikely that the United States would soon again face a major sea power. It seemed likely that the Soviet Union would be the next enemy. What would the Navy’s role be in a war against that land power? The Soviets had had the world’s largest submarine fleet in 1941, and many argued that the main future naval role would simply be to fight a future Battle of the Atlantic. Would the big carriers even feature in such a war? The new U.S. Air Force, founded in 1947 but clearly nascent in 1945, argued that they would be useless. Its strategic bomber men contended that the future of war belonged to long-range bombers armed with nuclear weapons. The main role of the U.S. Navy in such a war should be to defeat Soviet submarines that would threaten supply to the overseas bases from which bombers would fly. To this, one Navy rejoinder was that if the Soviets adopted the new kinds of submarines the Germans were introducing at the end of the war, the best countermeasure might well be attacks on their bases – air attacks mounted by carriers.

Even before the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy convened a panel of experienced officers to ponder the future of the carrier, which it now saw as its primary weapon. They soon concluded that the main value of a future carrier would lie in its ability to deliver heavy bombs, for example to destroy enemy submarine bases. Many must also have remembered the enormous impact of the 1942 carrier raid on Tokyo. Unlike land bombers flying from fixed bases whose location an enemy knew, carrier aircraft could come from almost anywhere; the threat of such attacks would force the Soviets to spread out their air defenses and thus to pay much more heavily for any level of defense they wanted. This sort of leverage might reduce the resources available for any attack into, for example, Western Europe. The U.S. Navy unsuccessfully touted the Navy’s value as a flanking force, but when he became the first NATO supreme commander in 1950, Gen. (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower took much the same approach. He likened Western Europe to a peninsula down which a Soviet army might try to surge, the carrier-supported Navy on its flanks. Throughout his presidency he saw the mobility of U.S. sea power as the best counter to the massed manpower that the Soviets and the Chinese could deploy.

USS Essex (CVA 9) takes spray over the bow while steaming in heavy seas, Jan. 12, 1960. A Grumman TF-1 (C-1) Trader COD plane is readied for launch from the angled flight deck. Several Douglas AD-6 and AD-5W Skyraider and Douglas F4D-1 Skyrays are parked behind the island. The large size of the Essex class allowed them to be heavily modernized with angled decks, steam catapults, and other innovations that permitted the operation of heavier, faster naval aircraft as they were developed.

It happened that a carrier-based heavy bomber could also drop atomic bombs, but that does not seem to have been the key consideration in 1945-46. Because the bombs in question were about four or five times as heavy as those carried by existing carrier bombers, the carrier of the future would have to operate much larger aircraft. It would have to be much larger. By 1948, a massive new carrier, more than twice the size of the wartime Essex, had been designed. Although the keel of this USS United States was laid in 1949, it was cancelled almost at once, a victim of tight funding and, it was said, a campaign by the Air Force to preserve its monopoly on heavy (i.e., atomic) bombing. However, the Navy had already received authorization to use such weapons in war, and by 1949, it was close to having a rudimentary atomic attack capability on board the Midway-class carriers, in the form of large Neptune patrol planes, normally land-based. A carrier nuclear bomber, the Savage, was being developed. In effect the largest such airplane that could operate from existing carriers, it did not approach the capability that had been planned for the new carrier.

Meanwhile, work began to modify existing Essex-class carriers to operate jets. That involved new catapults and provision for jet fuel. However, the earliest naval jet fighters could operate even from the unmodified ships still in service in 1950.

USS Forrestal (CVA 59) at sea on Aug. 29, 1959. Designed with all that had been learned from previous classes of aircraft carriers, and embodying the postwar innovations of the angled deck, steam catapults, and optical landing systems, Forrestal was the first of the “supercarriers.”

The Navy had always argued that the value of the carrier lay in its flexibility. That was dramatically demonstrated in June 1950, when U.S. and British carriers provided much of the critical air support when the North Koreans invaded South Korea, overrunning airfields. Later, jets operating from the U.S. carriers challenged the Russian-supplied (and often -operated) MiG-15s supporting the Chinese and the North Koreans. The project for a big carrier was revived, although at least in theory it was a flexible tool of limited war rather than a strategic weapon. The first of the post-World War II carriers, USS Forrestal, was a slightly reduced version of the abortive supercarrier of 1949, USS United States. Attempts to shrink the postwar carrier fleet were reversed, war-built Essexclass carriers were returned to service, and others were modernized specifically to operate jets and Savages.

By 1954, moreover, nuclear weapons were small enough to be carried by fighters. There was no longer any question that U.S. carrier aircraft launched from around the periphery of Eurasia could devastate the Soviet Union and its allies. They formed an important part of any nuclear offensive the United States would mount. Entering office in 1953, the Eisenhower administration much preferred the deterrence carriers could help exert to deploying U.S. troops in sensitive places like Vietnam. Thus, when the French were being defeated there (at Dien Bien Phu), the only U.S. support even considered was a carrier air strike (which the administration rejected). Given the value the carriers had shown in Korea, a new carrier was authorized each year between 1952 and 1958, culminating in the nuclear-powered Enterprise. Because her plant was a prototype, she was followed by the non-nuclear America; another nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would be authorized when experience had been gained with her. Then new carrier construction lapsed, money going into the crash program to build strategic missile submarines. They took over the carriers’ strategic nuclear mission, but not their mission in support of the United States in crisis areas around the world.

The great lesson was that the crisis mission was paramount. Thus, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, a skeptic, felt compelled to approve a new carrier given the experience of valuable carrier strikes in Vietnam. As the U.S. Navy had argued immediately after World War II, simply by expanding the area from which attacks could come, they enormously complicated an enemy’s task of air defense. At the end of the Vietnam War, only carriers could come to the rescue of the American merchant ship Mayaguez, which had been seized by Cambodians. By that time, the United States no longer had air bases in the area. Administration after administration found that it faced surprise crises in which carriers were the only available air bases. That is why Gerald R. Ford and three sister ships have been authorized. They are, in effect, third-generation nuclear carriers, the second generation being the 10 Nimitzclass carriers.

The new carriers and rebuilt Essex- and Midway-class ships were viable in the face of modern land-based aircraft because of two innovations adopted from the British: the steam catapult and the angled deck. They are why the new Forrestal could remain on the front line through several generations of naval aircraft of increasing sophistication and performance. She and her improved sister ships (in all, eight carriers) set the very successful flight deck design that we still see in Gerald R. Ford, more than 60 years later.

Carriers were successful because they were, in effect, the first modular warships: They could operate successive generations of naval aircraft without needing radical reconstruction for each change. As it happened, the outer limits on size, landing speed, and takeoff speed set by the postwar nuclear bombers sufficed for later aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat fighter and the A-6 Intruder bomber. The current F/A-18 Hornet is smaller than either, and the F-35 is still within these limits. The Navy has tested a large, carrier-capable unmanned airplane, the X-47B, and it is often said that the electric catapults of the Ford are particularly adapted to the broad range of aircraft weights and stall speeds associated with a new generation of aircraft. Among them is the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial system, which is slated to take over flight refueling duties from the F/A-18 Super Hornets now on carrier decks.

In a very broad sense, a carrier is a broad flight deck and an open hangar deck ready for whatever aircraft she can launch. She still needs to carry specialized support equipment for each new airplane, but that entails far less effort than the sort of reconstruction surface warships need to accommodate new weapons. The most important internal change to accommodate a new generation of aircraft was the installation of computer combat direction systems, which began in the 1960s. It radically changed carrier/air group capability, but again it was relatively easy to accommodate from a physical point of view. The same basically modular ship has supported multiple generations of air weapons, of self-defense weapons (beginning with 5-inch guns and now using short-range missiles), and of radars. Thus, the same ship has offered dramatically different capability over the years.

That Gerald R. Ford resembles the Forrestal of 60 years earlier does not reflect conservatism. The U.S. Navy has periodically looked at radical alternatives. They included different flight deck arrangements, a smaller carrier, and a carrier equipped only with STOVL (short takeoff and vertical landing) aircraft, which would be so much smaller that it could be built in larger numbers. The first look at flight deck alternatives came as early as 1955, when the first nuclear carrier, USS Enterprise, was being designed. A Forrestallike arrangement was selected instead of exotica such as two-level flight decks and decks with the carrier island in the center (with an angled deck on either side). The flight deck has been modified over the years, with the island pushed aft, but such changes look cosmetic alongside the more radical ones evaluated.

The Gerald R. Ford class differs from Forrestal in being nuclear powered. Carriers were an obvious possibility when the U.S. Navy adopted nuclear power, beginning with eight reactors in USS Enterprise, completed in 1962. They offered enormous advantages, but at a high price. Thus the first carrier to be built after Enterprise was completed, John F. Kennedy, reverted to conventional steam power. While that ship was being built, the naval nuclear reactor organization strove to cut the cost of a nuclear plant by cutting the number of separate reactors a carrier needed. The next carrier, Nimitz, needed two rather than the eight of Enterprise, making for many fewer special personnel and a simpler overall design. Gerald R. Ford introduces a new reactor with a power output almost three times that of the reactors used aboard the Nimitz class.

The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78, right) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean, June 4, 2020, marking the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier operated together underway.

Carriers are expensive, so periodically it is suggested that smaller ones should be built. Such proposals have failed for several reasons. First, any carrier needs certain basic equipment, such as her combat direction system and radars. Hull steel is relatively inexpensive. Shrinking a carrier saves surprisingly little money. On the other hand, a smaller carrier operates fewer aircraft, and the cost per airplane can rise dramatically. Moreover, carriers typically operate one by one. That makes it unwise to cut the number of aircraft they can accommodate. Current carrier air wings are smaller than earlier ones, the argument being that the emptier flight deck makes for faster turn-around and hence for more sorties per day and more targets hit per day. However, the large flight deck can still be filled if a carrier must make a more concentrated attack. That would be impossible on a smaller carrier. The question right now is whether the basic hull adopted three decades ago in the Nimitz class should be enlarged, not shrunk.

Periodically it is suggested that the future really lies with much smaller carriers operating STOVL aircraft. Other navies have certainly taken that route. This option seems first to have been suggested in 1955, in connection with a hoped-for STOVL fighter that could operate both from carriers and from large surface ships, and thus could be distributed through a fleet. That would have reduced carriers to attack aircraft, which at the time seemed not to demand so much in the way of catapults and flight decks (it seemed that long-range nuclear attack could be assigned to fleet missiles). Technology developed the wrong way. The STOVL then expected never materialized, and it turned out that a new generation of fighters required every bit of carrier capability provided in the first place for long-range bombers.

The STOVL idea returned about 1970, inspired by the success of the British Harrier jump-jet. The U.S. Navy seriously considered building a small carrier it called a Sea Control Ship, which was conceived either as a more affordable replacement for big carriers or primarily as a means of dealing with submarines in mid-ocean. The main question was whether a high enough performance STOVL could be built, and the answer at the time turned out to be no. Spain built a Sea Control Ship (and a smaller version for Thailand), but the U.S. Navy did not. The current F-35B does offer high STOVL performance, but while several navies operate smaller carriers and either operate or plan to operate the F-35B aboard them, no revived Sea Control Ship was proposed for the U.S. Navy. It may be true that a small ship can support a few F-35Bs, but a few such aircraft offer relatively little striking power. The smaller the ship, the less it provides each airplane, for example in terms of weapons and maintenance capacity. In order to provide as much net striking power as a single large carrier, the U.S. Navy would have to build several times as many small ones, and the overall cost would be far higher. So would vulnerability: It takes a large hull to absorb damage.

The Russian, Indian, and Chinese navies all operate catapult-less aircraft with ski-jump flight decks to launch conventional aircraft. With sufficient power, a jet can take off from a ski-jump – but its payload is severely limited. As a consequence, the Chinese in particular seem determined to build catapult carriers in the future.