Why The Navy Chose Super Aircraft Carriers Over Medium Aircraft Carriers

Kyle Mizokami

Key point: Aircraft carriers aren't going away anytime soon.

The United States Navy’s ten nuclear supercarriers are the largest warships on the high seas. Home to more than five thousand sailors and Marines, the Nimitz-class carriers are nuclear-powered and can carry nearly ninety combat aircraft. Still, it didn’t have to be this way: had the Navy taken a different tack several decades ago, the gigantic ships would have been supplemented with smaller, more cost effective flattops—the Medium Aircraft Carriers.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy operated two types of carriers: larger fleet carriers and escort carriers. The larger carriers comprised the main offensive striking power of the fleet, carrying a mixture of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. The escort or “jeep” carriers were an economy of force measure, smaller ships with smaller air wings designed to provide air support to convoys and fill in for fleet carriers when the bigger ships were operating elsewhere.

After the war the Navy operated a range of carriers, from full-sized nuclear-powered fleet carriers such as USS Enterprise to the smaller attack carriers and antisubmarine carriers of the wartime Essex class. Gradually however as the older, smaller carriers aged out they were replaced by supercarriers. No smaller carriers were built, and by the mid-1980s almost all of the U.S. Navy’s carriers were at least a thousand feet long, with the exception of the USS Midway and USS Coral Sea.

The drift towards large carriers was a mixture of politics and practicality. Although defense dollars flowed relatively freely during the Cold War, it was safer to propose buying one large carrier in one year than two smaller carriers in back-to-back years. An unforeseen budgetary emergency could result in the second carrier being cancelled.

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