Time For a Better “Naval Vocabulary”

Recent examples show that naming conventions for various warship classes are far from imperfect.

The “China has an aircraft carrier, but no aircraft,” talking point had a very short shelf-life.

Just as the PLAN has begun to conduct flight operations, the Indian Navy learned that it will not receive its next carrier (the converted Admiral Gorshkov) until late 2013, and its next (the indigenously constructed Vikrant) until 2018. The Chinese achievement, impressive in context, achieved some mainstream media notice. However, the progress of the Liaoning (and the lack thereof of India’s two carriers) serves to illustrate that we still lack a good vocabulary for comparative evaluation of naval achievements. In the popular press, Thailand’s Charkri Naruebet, China’s Liaoning, and the USN’s Ronald Reagan are all “aircraft carriers.” In reality, these vessels obviously have dramatically different capabilities.  The analytical community should work to develop and propagate a standardized nomenclature for discussing modern aviation warships.

Navies do a poor job of developing such a nomenclature, in part because they have good reasons to avoid standardized ship designations.  Civilian policymakers don’t like to hear that they’ve devoted a substantial portion of the government treasury to building a buying a light carrier (CVL); they’d prefer to think that they’ve invested state funds in an aircraft carrier comparable to those operated by the United States. On the other hand, the terms “aircraft carrier” and “destroyer” can have idiosyncratic negative political implications, pushing navies to refer to ships as “frigates” or “helicopter destroyers.” 

Whatever its other merits, the Washington Naval Treaty  and its follow up agreements established an international standard for ship types. By defining the terms battleship, aircraft carrier, heavy cruiser, and light cruiser, the treaty system created a warship typology that allowed relatively easy comparison across states.  Giving the typology legal and normative substance surely created some odd incentives, including a Japanese effort to build fleet carriers of less than 10,000 tons and a multinational “light cruiser” competition involving ships bristling with 6” guns and displacing in excess of 10,000 tons.  Nevertheless, it resulted in a system of de facto standardization, and consequently of defense acquisition transparency. 

Bob Work’s missile ship rating system establishes a framework for comparing and evaluating modern surface warships.  A similar system for aircraft carriers (borrowing from U.S. Navy terminology in World War II) would recognize that the world’s navies currently sail four different types of aircraft carriers. The Nimitz class nuclear supercarrier (CV) remains the cream of the crop, with range, speed, and capacity that substantially exceed any foreign contemporaries. The next tier, which we will term (CVL), includes all vessels capable of launching fixed wing aircraft, whether by ski-jump or catapult.  The third tier (CVE) includes vessels primarily geared towards sea control. These ships can launch vertical and/or short take-off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft and helicopters, but are generally much smaller than CVLs and have considerably less combat capacity. Finally, the last tier includes amphibious warships with aviation capability (LHA).

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Drawing borders invariably creates borderline cases. Modern USN amphibious warships have aviation capabilities in excess of most foreign CVEs; this will especially be true of the USS America and the USS Tripoli, which are specifically configured for aviation. The French Charles de Gaulle operates CATOBAR aircraft, giving it an edge over the ski-jump CVLs operated by other navies.  The Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales will, despite displacing over 60,000 tons, only operate VSTOL aircraft. 

The development of such a nomenclature may seem irrelevant to the analytical community; most people with knowledge of maritime affairs appreciate the limitations of the Liaoning.  However, to the general public (and even the relatively well-informed public) the use of multiple, ambiguous, overlapping terminology to describe modern naval vessels can be confusing.  Having a transparent conversation about naval affairs requires a vocabulary capable of facilitating comparisons between different navies.