“One of the first questions I always asked as Commander-in-Chief when American interests were threatened around the globe was ‘Where are our aircraft carriers?’”
– President George H.W. Bush – 2010
In 1890, the renowned American naval historian and strategist, Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan, wrote “Whoever rules the waves rules the world.” He argued that national prosperity and power depended on control of global sea lanes.
For centuries, the world’s most formidable navies fought to govern the oceans and commerce by building their fleets around large warships with powerful guns. These mighty vessels, fueled originally by wind, then coal, and later oil, were the dominant naval presence on the high seas.
One hundred years ago, however, battlewagon supremacy entered its final chapter when a new, and eventually more lethal, capital warship entered the picture – the aircraft carrier. Within two decades, the carrier went from being an experimental curiosity to supplanting the battleship as the foundation of U.S. naval task forces.
“Aircraft carriers became the centerpieces of Navy strike groups, away from battleships, because of their power-projection capabilities — firepower, reach and persistence,” said retired Capt. Denny Irelan, the commanding officer of the USS Independence (CV-62) from 1993-1995 and now a volunteer docent at the USS Midway Museum.
The U.S. Navy began exploring the potential of aviation not long after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. San Diego was established as the birthplace of naval aviation when Lt. Theodore Ellyson became the first “Navy Air Pilot” while training at North Island in 1911.
“Carriers provide a spectrum of sustained responses to any trouble spot around the world in just a matter of days, from humanitarian relief to a full-military response.”
After several years of research, testing and concept demonstrations, the Navy commissioned the USS Langley (CV-1) in 1922 as the country’s first aircraft carrier. Converted from the coal transport ship, USS Jupiter, the Langley arrived in San Diego two years later.
World War II ultimately demonstrated the superior capabilities of the aircraft carrier. The Battle of Midway, where U.S. Navy aircraft sunk four of Japan’s fleet carriers, was not only the turning point of the war in the Pacific, but continued the Navy’s move away from the battleship as the fleet’s focal point.
“The Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 was actually the first Navy vs. Navy at-sea battle where the ships involved never got within sight of one another,” said retired Capt. Gil Rud, also a Midway docent volunteer who commanded the USS Constellation (CV-64) from 1993-1994. “With greater range and flexibility, the carrier was proving to be more efficient than battleships.”
“The ability of naval aircraft to extend power projection over the horizon fueled the shift from battleships and a predominantly visual fight to one where naval forces could engage one another from greater distances,” said Capt. Walt Slaughter, the commanding officer of the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) from 2019-2021. “This shift was proven at the Battle of Midway and the evolution of naval warfare turned the tide of World War II.”
By the end of the war, battleships were relegated to more of a support role.
During the nearly half-century-long Cold War, aircraft carriers continued to be the U.S. military’s “tip of the spear.”
“Carriers provide a spectrum of sustained responses to any trouble spot around the world in just a matter of days, from humanitarian relief to a full-military response,” said retired Capt. Larry Ernst, who commanded the USS Midway (CV-41) from 1991-1992. “Just having a carrier strike group on scene provides deterrence.”
In the post-Cold War decades, carriers have been instrumental in supporting conflicts in the Middle East as well as more localized engagements around the world. During the Gulf War in 1991, aircraft from the USS Midway flew nearly 3,400 combat missions over Iraq without suffering a single casualty.
With the continued advancement in weapon and warfighting technologies proliferating across the globe, there are those who feel aircraft carriers may be too vulnerable in the future and become increasingly irrelevant. This is not the view held by America’s National Command Authority.
“The claim that carriers are vulnerable makes little sense in relation to a stationary airfield anywhere in the world,” said Gil, who also served as the commanding officer of the Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron. “In addition to the carrier’s own self-defense capability, the protection provided by the cruisers, attack submarines, and guided-missile destroyers in the carrier’s strike group is formidable.”
The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), was commissioned in 2017. With newly designed nuclear reactors, aircraft catapults and arresting gear systems, along with upgraded radar capabilities, the Ford-class carriers are positioned to lead naval aviation for the next five decades.
“Aircraft carriers are designed with the inherent adaptability to support advanced technologies such as directed energy and unmanned systems to remain at the cutting-edge of warfighting across a 50-year service life,” said Walt, who has more than 4,500 flight hours and 1,100 carrier landings. “The defensive systems aboard carriers will continue to upgrade and evolve, allowing them to maintain superiority on the high seas.”
“Carriers as the centerpiece of a strike group will continue to be an important part of the nation’s warfighting toolbox,” said Larry, who flew nearly 50 different military aircraft.