As the Navy begins transitioning from its Nimitz-class aircraft carriers to the more capable Ford class, some critics are reviving an old debate about the supposed virtues of smaller carriers. Like Nimitz, the Ford class displaces about 100,000 tons of water and is nuclear-powered. The smaller carriers might be only half as big, and would run on fossil fuels. However, there is almost no operational or fiscal logic that supports diverting scarce shipbuilding funds to a new class of small, conventionally-powered carriers. Small carriers offer less speed and endurance, are harder to sustain, generate far fewer aircraft sorties per day, are less safe, and less survivable. They also have less storage space for aviation fuel and munitions, less growth margin, and much less capacity to generate electricity. Small carriers can’t accomplish multiple missions simultaneously, can’t substitute for land bases the way large-deck carriers can, and on close examination don’t even save money across the lifetime of the vessel. I have written a commentary for Forbes here that explains why it would make more sense to accelerate construction of the Ford class than to embark on construction of smaller aircraft carriers.
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