Six months ago, the Brazilian Navy announced that its aircraft carrier, NAe Sao Paolo was to be decommissioned and sent to the scrapyard. It’s a sad end for the Clemenceau-class carrier, which entered service with France in 1963, serving for 54 years.
What makes her unique is that the Sao Paolo is one of the last conventionally-powered aircraft carriers in service.
Most aircraft carriers today are nuclear-powered. The Foch and her sister ship Clemenceau — both named for French leaders in World War I — were to be replaced by a pair of nuclear-powered carriers. Only one of the new carriers was built, but France disposed of both carriers, selling the Foch to Brazil, and the Clemenceau to a scrapyard. The Foch was commissioned in 1963, and served with the French Navy for 37 years before she was sold to Brazil, where she served another 17 years.
The French had hoped to keep her in service until 2039, but the Foch was proving to be the maritime equivalent of a hangar queen.
The demise of the Foch is part of a larger trend. Most navies seeking a carrier that launch high-performance planes (as opposed to those that operate V/STOL jets like the AV-8B Harrier and Sea Harrier) have gone nuclear. The United States has 11 nuclear-powered carriers, France has one.
India, Russia, and China each have one conventionally-fueled carrier that launch high-performance jets, and India and China are building more. But Russia and China are planning to go to nuclear-powered carriers. The British are building the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, but they’re only flying the V/STOL version of the F-35 Lightning.
Why are conventional fuels like oil or gas fading out for supercarriers? It’s very simple: endurance matters. When you’re launching a conventional plane from a carrier, you need to get them up quickly or they go in the drink.
Aside from the fact that splash landings like those involving the Russian carrier Kuznetsov tend to draw lots of merciless mockery, they are also a good way to get a highly-trained naval aviator killed.
The Foch’s forward deck, showing some of the planes she operated in French service. (Wikimedia Commons)
To get those planes to climb quickly, carriers use catapults, but it helps when they can turn into the wind and go at speed. A nuclear-powered carrier can do that for years. Really, the only limits are how much ordnance and gas for the planes and food for the crew it can carry.
For a conventionally-fueled carrier, well… it’s got to refuel, too. That means you need to invest in a lot more ships.
So, as the Foch heads off to become razor blades, joining many other conventionally-fueled aircraft carriers not designed to use high-performance jets, it marks the departure of one of these magnificent vessels. The United States has been scrapping many of its old conventionally-fueled carriers, too. The fact is, if you want a carrier that can operate high-performance jets, you gotta have a nuke – and that leaves no future for ships like Foch.