Last week the U.S. Navy accepted USS America, first of the America-class amphibious assault ships, into service. Unlike most recent amphibious assault ships, USS America and her sister USS Tripoli lack well-decks, instead focusing on aviation facilities. When fully operational, America and Tripoli will operate as many as 20 F-35Bs, potentially playing a critical role in what the Navy projects as the future of air superiority.
Inevitably, the delivery of USS America rekindles the ongoing conversation over what, precisely, constitutes an aircraft carrier. In the United States, we endure the polite fiction that the USN’s 45,000 ton aircraft carriers are not aircraft carriers, but rather some other kind of creature. USS America is roughly the same size as the French Charles De Gaulle and the INS Vikramaditya, although a bit smaller than the RFS Admiral Kuzetsov or her Chinese sister, the Liaoning. America is considerably larger than recent aircraft-carrying ships constructed for the Korean, Japanese, and Australian navies.
As an educator, I can attest to some frustration in relating to students that the United States operates ten aircraft carriers, plus another nine ships that we would refer to as aircraft carriers if they served in any other navy. And while I appreciate the desire of analysts to differently categorize the capabilities of Wasp and Nimitz-class carriers, I wish that people had a firmer grasp on the abject silliness of claiming that a 45,000 ton flat-decked aircraft-carrying warship is not, in fact, an aircraft carrier. Think of the children.
The distinction between aircraft carrier and amphibious assault ship began when the typology of USN flattops was considerably more complex than today. The Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ships entered service in 1961, sharing the sea with Forrestal-class supercarriers, Midway class semi-supercarriers, and a variety of configurations of Essex-class carriers. Unfortunately, the name stuck even as amphibs gained the capacity for launching VSTOL fighters, and as the number of carrier variants dwindled.
But today, no one benefits from an accurate characterization of the Navy’s amphibious flat-top fleet. The USN prefers to fight its budgetary battles on the basis of the 11 carrier fleet, not the much more impressive sounding 19 carrier fleet. Naval aviation advocates are surely correct when they point out that the America and Wasp-class carriers fall far short of their Nimitz-class counterparts, even if they sometimes grudgingly grant that the smaller ships can carry out many of the same roles as their nuclear cousins.
And so what’s the problem? Who cares if the United States effectively disguises nearly half of its carrier fleet? The deception may not hold forever. At some point, skeptical legislators may choose to acknowledge the existence of the USN’s other nine carriers, and consequently the overwhelming superiority of USN aviation over any potential foe. It would be better to get ahead of this game, and develop a more appropriate way of talking about the USN’s light carrier fleet. The best choice might be to skip “light carrier” or “sea control ship” and go straight to “assault carrier,” a term that is sometimes used in British naval circles to describe HMS Ocean and her predecessors. Such a designation would make for a considerably more intelligible naval vocabulary.