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A Better Definition Is Badly Needed for Aircraft Carriers

By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University

What is an aircraft carrier? It is a warship that is capable of carrying, launching, and recovering aircraft while at sea, and it operates as a floating airbase. Yet determining what countries have aircraft carriers and even how many aircraft are owned by the United States is confusing, since there is no single definition of an aircraft carrier.

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Defining an Aircraft Carrier

Merriam-Webster defines an aircraft carrier as “a warship with a flight deck on which aircraft can be launched and landed.” The Cambridge Dictionary refers to an aircraft carrier as “a large ship that carries military aircraft and has a long, flat surface where they take off and land.”

But the definition of aircraft is also essential in this context. Merriam-Webster observes that an aircraft is “a vehicle (such as an airplane or balloon) for traveling through the air” or “a machine (such as an airplane or a helicopter) that flies through the air.” The Cambridge Dictionary notes that an aircraft is “any vehicle, with or without an engine, that can fly, such as a plane or helicopter.”

With these definitions of aircraft carriers and aircraft in mind, there are currently 14 nations with aircraft carriers. These countries are:

  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • China
  • Egypt
  • France
  • India
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Republic of Korea (South Korea)
  • Spain
  • Russia
  • Thailand
  • The United Kingdom
  • The United States

The United States leads the world with 20 aircraft carriers. But according to the U.S. Navy, America only has 11 aircraft carriers: 10 Nimitz-class and one Gerald R. Ford-class. The Department of Defense does not count the Navy’s nine Amphibious Assault Ships.

What Are Amphibious Assault Ships?

There are two variants of the amphibious assault ships, the America-class landing helicopter assault (LHA) and the older Wasp-class landing helicopter deck (LHD). Both types of ships carry a variety of aircraft to provide vital support for the various missions of the Marine Corps.

The LHS’s vehicle storage area typically accommodates a considerable variety of equipment and personnel. It can hold five M-1 tanks, 25 light armored vehicles, eight M-198 towed howitzers, 68 Humvees, ten logistics vehicles, 12 five-ton trucks, two water trailers, a fuel service truck, four rough terrain forklifts and two generator trailers, as well as 1,687 Marines and several landing/attack craft.

The ship’s well deck capacity can be changed as a mission dictates. It can hold three air-cushioned land crafts, six mechanized landing crafts, two utility landing crafts, 40 amphibious assault vehicles (normal) or 61 amphibious assault vessels (stowed).

The configuration of the ship’s air component depends on its mission. Some examples are:

  • Six AV-8B Harrier attack planes, four AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters, 12 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, nine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters and four UH-1N Huey helicopters
  • Six AV-8B Harrier attack planes, 12 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters and 9 CH53 Sea Stallion helicopters
  • 42 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters
  • 20 AV-8B Harrier attack planes and six anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters

The Wasp-class ships also have six fully equipped operating rooms and a 600-bed hospital. They provide the largest medical facilities at sea by far, except for hospital ships.

The America-class LHA does not carry tanks or troops. Also, it doesn’t have a well deck to launch hovercraft or other amphibious assault vehicles, a feature on all earlier LHAs and LHDs.

Instead of the well deck, the LHA has an extended hangar deck with two overhead cranes. From all appearances, it is dedicated to carrying a multitude of aircraft that the Marine’s expeditionary units typically rely on, rather than traditional amphibious assault ships.

According to Captain Michael Baze, former commanding officer of the USS America, this type of ship “truly provides unmatched flexibility in supporting the Marine Corps’ current and future fleet aircraft and was designed with enhanced aviation capabilities in mind to optimally sustain and support the Marine’s newest aircraft — the MV-22 Osprey and the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter — during extended global deployments.

“For example, our hangar bay is about 40 percent larger than past similar platforms and includes a second high-bay hangar crane area to improve aviation maintenance capabilities. USS America also carries more aviation fuel and possesses more space for aviation repair activities. In addition to supporting the MV-22 and F-35B Lightning, we can support a wide range of Marine aircraft such as the AV-8B Harrier II, CH-53D/E Sea Stallion, UH-1N Iroquois, and AH-1W Super Cobra, as well as Navy helicopters such as the MH-60S. For RIMPAC, USS America is also embarking MH-60R helicopters that will participate in both anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.”

Should Amphibious Assault Ships Be Classified as Aircraft Carriers?

According to the 2019 issue of an authoritative journal on military forces around the world, “The Military Balance,” only five nations have aircraft carriers: China, France, India, Russia and the United States. It also lists the United Kingdom as having the Queen Elizabeth as a future aircraft carrier that is currently in trial status.

The Queen Elizabeth will have the capacity of deploying 24 F-35B Lightning II and 12 Merlin HM2/Wildcat HMA2/CH-47 Chinook helicopters. The ship is to sail to the United States later this year for operational trials with its F-35B fighter jets and is on track to begin operational deployments in 2021.

China’s Liaoning, France’s Charles de Gaulle, India’s Vikramaditya, Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov, and the United States’ Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John C. Stennis, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald R. Ford are all capable of launching either conventional fixed-wing or vertical and/or short take-off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft. Consequently, The Military Balance recognizes these ships as aircraft carriers.

But the United States’ America is not classified as an aircraft carrier by The Military Balance. Nor are the eight Wasp-classed ships that carry up to six Harrier or F-35Bs Lightning aircraft, Italy’s Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi, or Spain’s Juan Carlos I. But by the definitions provided by Merriam-Webster and the Cambridge Dictionary, these ships fit the traditional definition of aircraft carriers.

Australia’s Canberra-class ships, Brazil’s Bahia or Atlantico, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nassar-class ships, France’s Mistral-class ships, Italy’s San Giorgio and San Giusto-class ships, Japan’s Hyuga, Izumo, and Osumi-class ships, the Republic of Korea’s Dokdo class ship, and Thailand’s Chakri Naruebet could also be classified as aircraft carriers. They either carry helicopters or have carried aircraft in the past.

Out of the non-aircraft classed ships, only Italy’s Cavour and Giuseppe Garabaldi, Thailand’s Chakri Naruebet, Japan’s Hyuga and Izumo, and the United States America-classed ships do not have the capability to carry armored vehicles (such as tanks, armored personnel carriers or landing craft) or a large contingent of troops. That capacity clearly separates them from the rest of other dual-purpose ships.

What Defines an Aircraft Carrier in the US?

While The Military Balance only classifies the ships of five countries as aircraft carriers, other sources such as Business Insider list the Cavour, Giuseppe Garabaldi, and Chakri Naruebet as aircraft carriers.

However, in the United States, 10 U.S. Code § 5062 appears to be the determining document on exactly what America can define as an aircraft carrier. According to this code, the U.S. Navy must have not fewer than 11 operational aircraft carriers and maintain a minimum of nine carrier air wings. Since aircraft carriers that are temporarily unavailable are counted as operational, they do not require an air wing.

In the United States, it is the presence of an air wing that makes a ship an aircraft carrier. According to the United States Naval Institute, a modern carrier wing has up to nine squadrons with a combined 70 or more aircraft when at full strength. These aircraft include F/A-18E/F Super Hornets air-to-air and air-to-ground fighters, EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, E-2C Hawkeye early warning aircraft, C-2A Greyhound transports, and MH-60 Seahawk anti-submarine, surface warfare, and resupply helicopters.

What Exactly Are the Wasp- and America-Classed Ships?

Are the America- and the Wasp-class ships actually light aircraft carriers? David Axe, in The National Interest, questions if they are.

In referring to these ships as a Lightning carrier, he mentions that they could embark on missions with 16-20 F-35s, less than half of what our other aircraft carriers have onboard. Likewise, they would be limited in the number of sorties per day by roughly 25 percent of what our new Ford-class aircraft carrier is to sustain.

Axe quotes a Marine Corps representative who stated that “while the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier, it can be complementary if employed in imaginative ways.” The Marine Corps representative also stated, “A Lightning carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities.”

When the USS Wasp deployed to the Indo-Pacific region with at least 10 F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters, Axe commented that the “Wasp is helping to prove a concept the Marine Corps seriously has been mulling over for years now — transforming amphibious ships into light aircraft carriers.” During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. had four Wasp-classed ships with up to 20 Harriers and the senior chief aviation boatswain’s mate on the USS Bonhomme Richard stated, “This is not the norm for an amphib…Our air assets dictate that we operate more like a carrier.”

Why Aircraft Carriers Matter

According to 10 U.S. Code § 5062, the United States must maintain 11 operational carriers. Earlier this year when the Navy wanted to decommission the USS Harry S. Truman, 24 years earlier than its estimated lifespan, in order to save costs associated with its mid-life overhaul, it led to many comments by Congressional lawmakers on why the Navy wanted to decommission it so early while at the same time wanting to grow to at least a 12-carrier fleet. Ultimately, the decision to decommission the ship was stopped.

The America, with a cost of $3 billion (less than 25 percent of the new Ford-class carriers) could help solve some of the Navy’s issues. With the America lacking a well deck to launch landing craft, that belies its classification of a landing helicopter assault ship and places it closer to that of an aircraft carrier, except for having a complete air wing.

However, in a RAND 2017 report, some experts believe that a light carrier could ultimately be an alternative replacement for some of the Navy’s carrier fleet. However, the U.S. could not rely on solely on them since they would not be able to carry special aircraft such as early warning, radar-jamming, or tankers.

RAND concluded their analysis with the concept of a two-to-one replacement, such as two America class for one Ford-class carrier. This strategy would allow the Navy to have more carriers at less cost while still maintaining its force projection mission.

Light carriers could, according to Business Insider military experts, “theoretically take over operations in low-end conflicts, potentially freeing up the “supercarriers” to focus on higher-end threats such as Russia and China. . . . You can turn the light amphibious ships into sea-control, sea-denial, or even strike assets in a meaningful way to distribute the force and bring this concept of distributed lethality to bear.”

The presence of the Queen Elizabeth, Vikramaditya, and the Liaoning — all with the capacity to carry around 24 aircraft — and the Charles de Gaulle with the capability to transport up to 40 aircraft can pave the way for smaller, lighter American aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, our nation’s Nimitz and Ford-class carriers continue to be the backbone of our Navy.

About the Author

Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.

Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.

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