Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact. The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.
In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
At the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier emerged as the apex of naval prestige and power projection. Unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers in themselves are relatively benign actors, relying heavily on their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
Despite claims by strategic policy think tanks and individual academics, both the US and China continue to invest heavily in the potent power projection capabilities provided by aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious warfare ships. While the US enjoys a substantial quantitative and qualitative lead over the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), with a fleet of 11 nuclear powered supercarriers and two currently under construction, China's strategic planners know that they don't need to exercise global maritime hegemony in the way the US does.
In response, both South Korea and Japan have recently initiated their own modernisation programs supporting the development of fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities with modifications to their respective navy's fleets of large-deck amphibious warfare ships to develop their own aircraft carriers. Defence Connect has provided extensive coverage of the rapidly developing aircraft carrier arms race in the Indo-Pacific and options available to Australia.
However, the rapidly growing cost of contemporary aircraft carriers, namely the US Navy's Gerald R. Ford Class, has prompted many in the US establishment, including the late-senator and chair of the Senate committee on armed services John McCain to revive the Cold War-era concept of the Aircraft Carrier (Medium), or CVV, first revealed in the early-to-mid 1970s.
Medium aircraft carrier – Designed to complement and supplement super carriers
Developed in response to the doctrine established by famed Second World War Admiral and Cold War-era Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the CVV concept was designed to be a smaller, cheaper aircraft carrier to complement the larger Nimitz Class aircraft carriers then in the early stages of operation and construction.
With a planned displacement of between 50,000-60,000 tons (comparable to the Royal Navy's new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers), length of 278 metres and a conventionally powered top speed of 27-29 knots and carrier air wing of between 55-65, compared with the 90 aircraft carried by the larger, nuclear powered Nimitz Class, the CVV would be capable of supporting a suite of conventional carrier fighter aircraft.
It was planned that the CVV concept would provide a complement and supplement to the larger nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with a scalable, adaptable and flexible carrier platform for forward deployment when a supercarrier would be considered too expensive a platform to place in harms way or was unavailable in event of tactical or strategic requirements during the Cold War.
While the election of the Reagan administration eventually put an end to the CVV concept during the late 1970s – recent cost increases in the Gerald R. Ford Class has prompted many within the US strategic establishment to propose a reinvention of the CVV concept, with late-senator McCain identifying the growing need for the US Navy to invest in smaller, more deployable and cheaper aircraft carriers in his white paper Restoring American Power.
"The Navy should also pursue a new ‘high/low mix’ in its aircraft carrier fleet ... Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat near-peer competitors, but other day-to-day missions, such as power projection, sea lane control, close air support, or counter-terrorism, can be achieved with a smaller, lower cost, conventionally powered aircraft carrier," McCain's report posited.
Allied carrier fleets
Despite the growing prevalence of advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems being developed throughout the Indo-Pacific, a number of US allies, namely Japan and South Korea, have initiated the development of their own aircraft carrier capabilities in response to the ever growing capabilities of the PLAN.
While the proposed modified large-deck amphibious vessels would serve as an introduction to fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities – the reintroduction of a medium-sized aircraft carrier capable of supporting traditional conventional take-off, barrier assisted (CATOBAR) aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-35C, Boeing's F/A-18E/F series Super Hornets and the like provides an invaluable power projection resource in an increasingly contested region.
Traditional aircraft carriers serve as significantly more capable platforms when compared with large-deck amphibious warfare ships like the Japanese Izumo Class, South Korean Dokdo Class or Australia's Canberra Class vessels, and would serve as a powerful resource for regional powers like Australia, Japan and South Korea – freeing up large American carriers to conduct larger-scale deterrence operations.
Additionally, the introduction of a 'high/low' carrier mix would further support the individual allies by spreading the supply chain, research and development, and acquisition costs, with each of the individual nations being able to leverage the strengths to ensure that the capability package delivered integrates into a broader, regional carrier fleet.
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for Japan, South Korea and Australia – these similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Promoting greater interoperability and duplication of capabilities serves to support the broader regional order, while also serving to share the tactical and strategic burden between key US allies at a time when the current US administration is placing increasing emphasis on allies sharing the financial, personnel and material burden of maintaining the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order.
The notion of Australia acquiring a third, F-35B dedicated Canberra Class LHD has been discussed at great length by both strategic policy analysts and politicians since the RAN acquired the vessels. Currently, the HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide lack a number of structural and technical modifications that would enable the ships to safely and effectively operate the aircraft and any third vessel would need to incorporate the modifications from the keel up, in a similar manner to the Turkish Navy's recently launched TCG Anadolu (based on the Canberra/Juan Carlos Class vessels).
Despite the apparent structural limitations of HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide, the vessels' base design, the Juan Carlos I, was designed from the keel up to accommodate a fixed-wing naval aviation capability. The Spanish vessel, when acting in the light carrier role, is capable of accommodating 10-12 AV-8B Harrier IIs or Lockheed Martin F-35Bs combined with an additional 10-12 helicopters by using the light vehicles bay as an additional storage space.
Meanwhile, despite continuing issues with Turkey's access to the F-35, Turkey fully expects to operate a small fleet of the Lockheed Martin F-35B from the TCG Anadolu. Despite the relative success of the platform in the light carrier role, it is important to recognise the limitations of the LHDs in the carrier capacity and role, and identify alternatives that would better suit the introduction of a dedicated aircraft carrier role.
The introduction of a dedicated aircraft carrier benefits Australian industry as well, through increased procurement programs for support and escort vessels, larger F-35 supply chain contributions and larger sustainment and maintenance contracts, which are key to keeping the Navy 'battle ready and deployed'.
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for both South Korea and Australia – these similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Recognising this changing regional environment – what carrier options are available to Australia should the nation's leaders elect to pursue a return to fixed-wing naval aviation for the Royal Australian Navy?