Contents of this section:
Section E.1: Which aircraft carriers are in service?
Section E.2: What happened to the former USSR's aircraft carriers?
Section E.3: Composition of a carrier battle group
Section E.4: Major carrier fires since WWII
Section E.5: Naming of USS Franklin
Section E.6: Was USS Franklin repaired after she was nearly lost in 1945?
Section E.7: Decommissioning/disposal of older US carriers
Section E.8: The mysterious LPH 1
Section E.9: Why starboard side islands?
Section E.10: USN plans for future carriers
Section E.11: The Royal Navy's Future Aircraft Carrier (CVF) Program
This is only a summary; see http://www.hazegray.org/navhist/carriers/ for full details and histories of the ships in question. Also see E2 (Russian carriers) and D.10 (carrier air wing information).
The three major postwar USN carrier fires are subject of much discussion. Briefly, the fires were as follows:
USS Oriskany (CVA 34), 26 October 1966:
The ship was operating off Vietnam at the time of the fire. Two sailors were storing flares in a space at the starboard forward corner of the hangar deck. One of the flares lit accidentally, and the sailor threw it into the locker and closed the hatch. The locker contained 650 flares, which quickly lit. The resulting fire caused fairly extensive damage to the ship and killed 44 men.
USS Forrestal (CVA 59), 29 July 1967:
Forrestal was operating off Vietnam at the time of the fire. A Zuni rocket was accidentally launched on deck (due to an electrical problem), hitting a parked A-4 and igniting its drop tank. The fire then spread to other aircraft, and bombs began to explode on deck. The fire burned for 13 hours, killed 134 crew and caused the loss of 21 aircraft (some of which were pushed overboard before the fire reached them). 7 holes were blown in the flight deck. Repairs took 7 months, requiring complete removal and reconstruction of the aft section of the ship down to the hangar floor. This was the worst carrier fire in postwar years. The ship has carried the nickname "Forrest Fire" ever since.
USS Enterprise (CVAN 65), 14 January 1969:
The ship was operating off Hawaii at the time. The sequence of events was similar to the Forrestal fire, starting with a Zuni rocket overheating due to exhaust from a flight deck vehicle and "cooking off". The fire was put out within 4 hours; damage was less extensive than the Forrestal fire.
The Essex-class carrier USS Franklin (CV 13) was not named for Ben Franklin. That much is known, but the true source of her name is still somewhat uncertain.
The other ships of the Essex class were named for famous battles and famous ships; many of the "famous ships" had been named named for famous battles. Based on the names of other ships in the series, many people think that Franklin was named in honor of a previous USS Franklin. The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships agrees with this view.
However, a plaque installed aboard the ship states that she was named for the Civil War battle of Franklin. It is possible that the building yard (Newport News) installed an incorrect plaque, or that "conventional wisdom" is wrong. The answer rests only in the minds of the people who selected the name in the first place, and they're probably long dead.
Franklin was severely damaged by Japanese aircraft 19 March 1945. The ship was nearly lost; virtually the entire flight deck and hangar were destroyed. She was repaired at New York Navy Shipyard and was decommissioned 17 Feb 1947 upon the completion of repairs, without resuming flight operations. Many people believe that her early decommissioning means she was only "patched up", presumably because damage was too extensive to repair fully. This is not the case. She was completely repaired; the entire flight deck and hangar (except the forward flight deck and the island), were removed down to the floor of the hangar and rebuilt.
She was decommissioned only because there was a surplus of carriers at the time. If the damage has been too severe to repair, or if she had been judged to be not worth the time and money, she would have been stricken and scrapped. Instead, she was retained in reserve for many years. A survey found her to be in the best condition of any Essex class carrier; she remained laid up awaiting the "ultimate" Essex-class conversion. It turned out that the "ultimate" conversion never materialized (because the Essex design was fundamentally too small for modern aircraft), and eventually she was stricken (1964) and scrapped (1966-68 at Norfolk).
The decommissioning and disposal of older US carriers has generated a good deal of controversy. Totally outside the issue of how many carriers should be in service, people wonder why certain ships were decommissioned and why they were not reused in some way or kept in reserve.
The major reason certain ships were decommissioned before older vessels is the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), which added 10 to 15 years to the life of a ship. A 30 year old carrier that has been modernized under SLEP has a 15 year service life remaining, while a 25 year old unmodernized carrier only has 5 years left (nominal lifetime without SLEP is 30 years).
As the carrier force was drawn down from 15 to 12 ships, 3 vessels (CV 59, 60, 61) were retired without replacement; the remainder of decommissionings were scheduled replacements at the end of the ships' lifespan.
Lexington (AVT 16), the training carrier, was decommissioned in 1991, due to her age and the expense of maintaining the ship. She was replaced in the training role by Forrestal (AVT 59, ex CV 59). She is permanently moored at Corpus Christi, TX, as a museum.
Coral Sea (CV 43) had her decommissioning delayed many times and finally went out of service in 1990. She was completely worn out and was not capable of operating a full wing of modern aircraft. She was replaced by Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). She was sold for scrapping in 1993, and by 2000 this work was finally nearing completion.
Midway (CV 41) was decommissioned in 1992. Stripped of all weapons and sensors, she was laid up in reserve as a potential replacement for the training carrier [Forrestal (AVT 59)], if that ship was recalled to active duty. Midway had been replaced by George Washington (CVN 73). She was stricken in 1997 and may become a museum. Her hulk remains at Bremerton, Washington.
Forrestal (CV 59) was downgraded to a training carrier (AVT 59) in 1992 due to force reductions. The AVT program was eliminated in 1993, so she was decommissioned and stricken. When decommissioned, she was half way through a major overhaul; the expense of "putting her back together" for retention in reserve would have been prohibitive, so she was discarded. She was not repaced in the CV or AVT role. Her hulk was stored at Philadelphia, and is now at Newport, RI, pending disposal.
Saratoga (CV 60) was decommissioned in 1994 as part of force reductions; she was not replaced. Due to her poor condition at the time of decommissioning, she was not suitable for retention in reserve, and was discarded. Her hulk was stored at Philadelphia, and is now at Newport, RI, pending disposal.
Ranger (CV 61) was decommissioned in 1993, also as part of force reductions. She was not replaced and is laid up in reserve at Bremerton.
America (CV 66) was decommissioned in 1996. She was at the end of her service life; she had not received SLEP. She was replaced by John C. Stennis (CVN 74). After a brief period in reserve she was stricken; her hulk is stored at Philadelphia, pending disposal.
Independence (CV 62) decommissioned in September 1998; she was been replaced by Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). She is in reserve at Bremerton.
Constellation, Kitty Hawk, Kennedy and Enterprise are scheduled to be retired in 2003, 2008, 2018 and 2013, respectively. They will be replaced by CVN 76, 77, 78 and 79, respectively.
Re-use of the carriers in other roles is impractical, due to the cost of conversion, cost of operation, the generally poor condition of retired ships, and the fact that the carriers are much larger than is needed for virtually all potential new roles.
Disposing of the retired carriers has become a major problem. Coral Sea was sold for scrapping as if she was "just another warship", but the financial and environmental issues that have delayed her scrapping prove that carriers cannot be dealt with like average warships. Given the problems associated with scrapping a ship as large as a carrier, it is unlikely that any scrap dealer will bid on the surplus CVs.
Forrestal and Saratoga are currently in storage pending disposal; disposal was authorized 28 Feb 1996. During spring 1996 the Navy planned to "quietly" scuttle Forrestal and Saratoga offshore in deep water. By summer 1996 the plan had changed to sinking Saratoga as a live-fire target, with Forrestal to follow. The entire plan was cancelled by late July 1996.
Due to the need to clear out the piers at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Saratoga and Forrestal were moved to storage at NETC Newport, Rhode Island.
Iwo Jima, the first built-for-the-purpose LPH, was numbered LPH 2. Converted carriers and Iwo Jima class vessels fill the series through LPH 12, but there doesn't seem to be an LPH 1. LPH 1 did exist, but the ship was never commissioned with that designation.
USS Block Island (CVE 106), a Commencement Bay class escort carrier, was redesignated LPH 1 on 22 Dec 1957, while she was laid up in reserve. She was scheduled for conversion and reactivation as an LPH, but the conversion was cancelled in June, 1958. She resumed her CVE designation 17 Feb 1959, was redesignated as an aircraft transport (AKV 38) 7 May 1959, stricken 1 July 1959 and sold for scrapping. Block Island had been in reserve since 1954; she was never reactivated nor was any conversion work done.
Why are aircraft carrier islands always on the starboard side? There are several reasons. Initially the island was placed on the starboard side because early (propeller) aircraft turned to the left more easily (an effect of engine torque). Obviously such an aircraft can execute a wave-off to the left more easily, so the island was put to starboard to be out of the way. There may also be other, minor contributing factors.
Once the starboard side position was established and a few carriers were built in that configuration, it became difficult to change. Pilots used to landing with the island to their right would be confused on a ship with the island on the other side. There was nothing to be gained by moving the island, so it stayed in the same place. Once angled decks were introduced this became even more important, since the deck angle would have to be changed to move the island.
There were, however, two carriers with their islands to port. The Japanese Akagi and Hiryu were fitted with port-side islands. Each was meant to work in a tactical formation with a starboard-island ship (Kaga and Soryu respectively); it was thought that putting the islands opposite sides would improve the flight patterns around the carriers. The idea was scrapped after two ships were so fitted, and all later carriers had starboard islands.
Until mid-1998, USN planned to continue construction of the Nimitz class carriers through CVN 77, then build a new class of carriers, known as CVX. CVX would have been a completely "clean sheet" design, redefining not only the ship, but possibly the entire concept of what a carrier was supposed to do. Design concepts initially considered included everything from small cruiser-carriers to offshore bases many thousands of feet long. As the project went on efforts concentrated on more "conventional" carrier types, although the design still would have been completely new. It was intended that CVN 77, the last Nimitz, would serve as a "transition" ship between the CVN and CVX designs, introducing much of the new CVX technology to the fleet.
In mid-1998, however, the CVX program was redefined as the CVNX program. It had already been decided that the CVX would be a large-deck nuclear-powered ship, and there wasn't enough funding for the massive design effort that would have been required to create a totally new ship. Thus, it was decided to base the new designs on the existing Nimitz design, but with numerous improvements. CVN 77 will be a "transitional" ship between Nimitz and CVNX, incorporating new technology and concepts applicable to CVNX. Follow-on CVNX construction will build on CVN 77's changes, and will include more radical changes such as a new power plant and electomagnetic catapults.
"CVNX 1" (i.e. CVN 78) is planned for construction starting 2006 for completion in 2013, and will replace Enterprise. "CVNX 2" (i.e. CVN 79) is planned for construction starting 2011 for completion in 2018, and will replace John F. Kennedy. Further CVNX construction will continue to start replacing the Nimitz class ships approximately 2025.
For several years the Royal Navy has been considering options for replacing the Invincible class VSTOL carriers. Options included a life extension for the existing ships, construction of 3 VSTOL carriers roughly the same size as the existing ships, or construction of 2 or 3 larger carriers. The 1998 Strategic Defense Review favored the construction of two larger carriers.
Current plans call for construction of two carriers, each around 40,000 tons displacment and carring about 50 aircraft. The first ship is to be completed in 2012, and the second in 2015. Although no official decision has been made, it is generally thought that the CVFs will operate Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) in a conventional takeoff/landing (CTOL) mode, or perhaps in a short takeoff/arrested landing (STOBAR) mode. These will be the largest warships ever constructed in the UK.
Two competing teams are currently engaged in initial conceptual studies for the CVF program. One team is lead by BAE Systems, with Rolls-Royce and Harland & Wolff as team members; the other team is lead by Thomson-CSF with Raytheon Systems Co. and BMT Defense Services, LTD. The final contractor choice will be made late in 2003, and the ships will be ordered early in 2004.