Let’s face it. Gerald R. Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are pretty damn expensive. According to Popular Mechanics, the ships cost $13 billion to build and also involved another $4 billion in research and development costs.
So why not build a smaller, cheaper carrier?
Well, let’s lay it out. The British were able to use the Invincible-class carriers, which came in at about 20,500 tons, according to naval-technology.com. It could carry up to 24 V/STOL aircraft and helicopters, including nine Sea Harriers or Harriers.
These ships were enough to win the Falklands War, but it was still a close call.
Here’s what a Ford-class carrier displacing about 100,000 tons can bring to the table: Four squadrons of multi-role fighters (one with 12 F-35Cs, three with 12 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets), plus an electronic warfare squadron (five EA-18G Growlers), an airborne early warning squadron (four E-2D Hawkeyes), and a pair of C-2 Greyhound cargo planes. There’s also a helicopter squadron with a mix of MH-60R and MH-60S helicopters.
So, what about a somewhat smaller carrier, like France’s Charles de Gaulle or the Russian Kuznetsov? Well, naval-technology.com notes that the 42,500-ton de Gaulle can carry up to 40 planes, including the Rafale M, Super Etendard, and three E-2C Hawkeye, plus helicopters. The 58,500-ton Kuznetsov carries 18 Su-33 Flankers and 17 Kamov Helix helicopters according to MilitaryFactory.com.
How long would either carrier last in a fight with the Ford? Well, after the Kuznetsov Follies, it’s hard to give a wooden nickel for the Russian carrier’s chances. Hell, a Midway-class carrier would likely take the Kuznetsov down. The French carrier would be toast as well.
Why? Because their air wings would still be much smaller than what a Ford-class carrier could bring to the fight. That is ultimately why the United States is sticking with its big carriers. A carrier’s primary weapon is its air wing. The bigger the carrier, the more planes it can have in the air wing.
Large aircraft carriers clearly have an advantage, but the US Navy is trying to harness the best of both worlds with future smaller, lighter carriers.