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Tuesday, July 14, 2020, 08:11 (GMT+7)
Development trend of US aircraft carriers
Aircraft carriers, which represent the symbol and combat power of the US Navy, are deployed across oceans with the aim of realising US’s strategy of “deterrence” and “interference.” Therefore, despite high costs of construction and operation, the Pentagon still enhances investment in the research and development (R&D) of new-generation aircraft carriers.
Overview of the US’s aircraft carriers

 Currently, the US possesses the most powerful aircraft carrier fleet in the world, which is far higher than other major powers in terms of quantity and combat strength. This fleet consists of 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers operating across international waters and the US’s military bases. These aircraft carriers enable the US military to rapidly deploy its forces to anywhere if they deem that the US’s “strategic interests” are being threatened. The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are designed for an approximately 50-year service life with just an overhaul and mid-life refueling. The first of this class, USS Nimitz (CVN 68), was commissioned and put into active service on May 3rd, 1975 and the last one, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), was commissioned on January 10th, 2009. The Nimitz-class carriers have a length of 332.8m overall, flight deck width ranging from 76.8m to 84m, and a full-load displacement of about 97,000t, which are twice bigger than Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth and 68% bigger than those of Russia, China, and India.
According to international military experts, combat power and flexibility of the US’s carriers are primarily vested in their air wings. A typical air wing abroad a US Navy aircraft carrier usually contains both rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters) and fixed-wing aircraft (jet planes) and is capable of launching 150 air attacks against 700 targets a day. It can also protect US’s allied forces, conduct electronic warfare, support special operations, participate in search and rescue operations, and so on. In addition, each Nitmitz-class carrier can launch independent airborne operations or serve as a command in joint and combined operations. A carrier air wing usually contains 24 F/A-18C Hornet, 24 F/A-E/F Super Hornet, 5 E/A-18G Growler, 5 E-2D Hawkeye, 2 C-2 Greyhound, and 6 Seahawk helicopters.
For safety, each Nitmitz-class aircraft carrier is often deployed with some escorts, forming a carrier strike group. The escorts, which are composed of 2 cruisers, 2 Aegis destroyers, and 1 attack submarine, are tasked with protecting the carrier against threats from the air, underwater, and on the surface as well as providing supporting combat power for the strike group. Additionally, there is a supply ship to transport military supplies, weapons, and other essential equipment.
The US Navy believes that, it needs at least 15 aircraft carriers to provide timely support for traditional waters, including the Western Pacific Region, Mediterranean Sea, and the Persian Gulf should armed conflicts occur. However, due to high costs of building (about USD 10 billion) and long-term replacement plans, it is impossible to increase the number of carriers. Consequently, the US has had a long-term plan for the development of next-generation aircraft carriers.
Development trend
The US military deems that aircraft carriers will be still the trump card in its strategy to dominate oceans in the future. Thus, despite possessing the most powerful Nimitz-class aircraft carrier fleet, the US still speeds up its Ford-class R&D programme to gradually replace the Nimitz-class fleet. The next-generation carriers are built in the increasingly modern direction and capable of executing independent operations at sea in a long period of time and modern operational environment as follows:
First, the next-generation aircraft carriers will be equipped with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to extend their reach. In fact, the UAVs will maximise combat power and ranges of these carriers. Given their outstanding ranges and stealth capabilities compared with manned systems, the UAVs is game changer in the combat coordination between the air force and navy in the future, deeply affecting military strategies of the US and other countries. Today, the US Navy is staying ahead of other navies in this field when it speeds up R&D, experiment, and delivery of the UAVs for the next-generation carriers.
Second, research and development of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) to enhance operational capabilities and speed of takeoffs and landings on aircraft carriers. The system launches carrier-based aircraft by means of a catapult employing a linear induction motor with superior features, which makes it easy to correctly control electric currents. It can launch one aircraft after another and both manned and unmanned aircraft. The accelerating force generated by an electromagnetic aircraft launch system can be adjusted depending on the weight of the aircraft. Thus, the system can launch heavier, faster aircraft or smaller and lighter UAVs. This helps to extend life cycle of carrier-based aircraft, reduce the strain on pilots, time, and costs of maintenance.
Third, improving survival of next-generation aircraft carriers, especially capability to counter threats posed by missiles and submarines, and stealth. Anti-submarine warfare capability will be a new point in the design of next-generation carriers. Besides, the shape of these carriers will be designed in a way that can remove square, sharp angles, and edges, and be covered by a layer of radar-absorbing paint to reduce the radar cross-section. Moreover, the carriers are equipped with fifth-generation fighter aircraft such as F-22 Raptor, F-35B and F-35C.
Fourth, further enhancing independent operation of carriers and maintaining their “first come, last leave capability,” contributing to reducing the costs of persistent, high-intensity wars. The US is focusing its efforts on R&D of high-tech carrier-based weapons such as electromagnetic railgun, high-energy laser weapon systems, and so forth. The electromagnetic railgun demonstrates launch velocities in the 2.5 km/s range, can hit targets at the distance of 340 km, and tens of times superior to existing close-in weapon systems (CIWS).
Following the aforementioned development trend, the Pentagon continues to implement the Ford-class aircraft carrier programme, which aims to construct 12 carriers to gradually replace 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. The time span for completing the construction of a next-generation carrier is from 3 to 5 years. It is estimated that the US will complete the replacement by 2058. The first ship of this class, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), was delivered to the US Navy in July 2017 for sea trials before becoming a fully operational aircraft carrier by 2022. The USS Gerald R. Ford are approximately 100,000 tons, nearly 337 m in length, has a flight deck of 78 m in width, can house 75 modern aircraft such as F/A-18 E/F, EA-18G, etc., and the fifth-generation fighters (F-22 Raptor, F-35). This is the first time an aircraft carrier has used electricity to power all of its onboard systems, which helps to remove steam pipes, reduce the need of maintenance, and increase corrosion control. Furthermore, the new design of the USS Gerald R. Ford incorporates two A1B nuclear reactors, making it have 2.5 times the electrical capacity of Nimitz class, EMALS, Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), and Dual Band Radar (DBR). The innovative technical features make it possible for the ship to accelerate takeoff/landing speeds by 15% and operate effectively with almost 700 fewer crew members than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.
The USS Gerald R. Ford is armed with RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) Block 2, and 20mm CIWS Phalanx to enhance its defense. During sea trails and operation, the following innovation will be introduced to the other Ford-class aircraft carriers (John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) and Enterprise (CVN 80)), which are to be completed in the next few years. Each Ford-class aircraft carrier will save 4 USD billion in its 50-year life cycle compared to a Nimitz-class carrier.
According to observers, given its long-term development plan, the US’s aircraft carrier fleet will continue to maintain superiority over its potential adversaries in the coming years. This superiority will enable the US to promote its presence and deterrence in various regions in the world. When tension between the US and China is on the rise, Washington is likely to send more aircraft carriers to the East Sea and East China Sea to deter Beijing’s increased military activities and presence of the Liaoning aircraft carrier task group in these waters.
Aircraft carriers may be still vital for the US Navy in confrontation at sea. Therefore, it is understandable why the US continues to spend a huge budget on the development of next-generation aircraft carriers. This definitely causes great concern to the international community about an arm race when major powers continue to increase their defence budgets to reduce the military capability gap and compete for influence with the US, raising the risk of conflict around the world.
Phung Chat – Pham Binh

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