Death and Rebirth of the Supercarrier

By Andrew Toppan

May, 1996


Immediately following the conclusion of World War Two the United States Navy sought to develop capabilities for strategic (nuclear) bombing. The Navy wished to create a permanent strategic role for itself to establish its importance in the nuclear and Cold War eras. The ship that was developed to meet this goal was the supercarrier USS United States. It was a huge ship specifically designed to carry a few strategic bombers and their nuclear weapons. The new carrier represented a major break from previous US Navy practice, which had called for large numbers of small aircraft. Construction of the ship started in 1949, but five days later she was abruptly canceled by the Secretary Of Defense. Stunned by the cancellation of the ship, naval leaders quickly moved to regroup and resume carrier construction. Within a year work on the supercarrier's replacement was underway. Within six years the new carrier had joined the fleet, and additional carriers were being built. The death of the supercarrier project was caused by uncertainty in defense policy, inter-service rivalry and politics. The sudden revival of aircraft carrier construction was the result of the Korean War, a change from the strategic-only role of the supercarrier to a multirole mission for the new carrier, and advances in technology. The new carrier, while superficially resembling USS United States, was significantly different in design, due to technological advances and the shift from a strategic role to a multi-mission role.

The Supercarrier

The supercarrier USS United States, a top-priority project from 1946 to 1949, was a radical departure from previous US aircraft carrier designs. She was intended to operate a relatively small number of very large nuclear-armed strike aircraft. The aircraft and their bombs were intended for strikes against enemy land masses, rather than the traditional naval sea control role. Further, plans called for production of only four such supercarriers. Previous US carrier doctrine had called for large numbers of carriers, each operating a large number of small aircraft. The older carriers were primarily meant to attack enemy warships and merchant shipping; they only had a limited capability to attack land installations. This role was the traditional naval role of sea control carried out with carrier aircraft instead of battleship guns. The role of carriers from their inception through World War Two may be characterized as "tactical," while the planned role of United States can be described as "strategic." The tactical role called for attacks on specific naval targets, while the strategic role specified large-scale raids on enemy military installations, industrial facilities and population centers, often using nuclear weapons.

The first use of aircraft carriers in a strategic attack role probably was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The plan for this attack called for destruction of the US drydocks, repair shops, fuel storage facilities and air bases, in addition to the US warships. The intent was to force the United States out of the war in a single massive surprise attack [1]. The first employment of an American carrier in a strategic role was the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April 1942. This raid was carried out by Army B-25 bombers flying from the carrier USS Hornet. It marked the first use of carrier based aircraft in a long range attack on an enemy landmass. The raid was useless in military terms, but was a valuable boost for morale at a low point in the war. It was a one-time operation, using Army aircraft temporarily embarked on the carrier [2]. After the raid strategic roles for US carriers were largely ignored while the battle for tactical supremacy in the Pacific was fought. The beginnings of modern strategic roles began to appear late in the war when carrier based aircraft conducted raids on the Japanese mainland. The raids were carried out against specific targets, unlike the Army's widespread bombing [3]. For the first time US carrier aircraft raided the enemy's industrial facilities and other non-naval targets. The role of attacking the enemy's industrial base and similar targets previously had been reserved for the Army's heavy bombers.

These raids showed that carriers could operate against enemy landmasses, but that improvement was needed. The carrier aircraft could not carry bombs heavy enough to inflict major damage. Further, carriers could not carry enough aviation fuel to conduct sustained strikes for more than a few days. Except for the Doolittle raid, all carrier based strategic attacks were strikes against specific military objectives located relatively close to the coastline. The Army's heavy land based bombers conducted widespread strategic attacks, raining destruction on widespread area, rather than attacking specific targets. The Navy attacked specific targets; the Army bombed large areas of enemy territory. Thus the Navy and Army Air Corps raids worked as complements to each other, not as competitors. Naval planning had always emphasized the use of a smaller number of bombs dropped on targets of great importance, due to the limited number of bombs that could be stored aboard a ship [4]. The Air Force, not having to worry about the availability of bombs, preferred to use a large number of weapons to destroy an entire area.

In the postwar years the Navy was eager to establish a permanent capability in the strategic bombing arena, traditionally an Army/Air Force area. There was little doubt concerning the power of heavy bombers, especially those carrying nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons were perceived to be the universal weapon of the future; they would be used in virtually any war. Any military force without nuclear weapons would be unable compete with other services for budget dollars, and would be helpless against nuclear-armed enemies [5].

With an eye to carving out a new role for the navy in the postwar years, naval leaders turned to the carrier based long range nuclear bomber. Adding a nuclear/strategic component to the Navy was seen as insurance against shrinking budgets in the postwar military drawdown. The new role was especially important in light of the worldwide naval situation. With the demise of the Japanese and German navies, there no longer was an open-ocean threat to the US Navy. The Soviet navy did not start to build up a modern surface fleet until 1955 [6], and even then it remained a primarily land-based power [7]. Because there was no threat upon the seas, the US Navy sought to expand its capabilities for participating in a large-scale land oriented war. The Navy wished to be able to project power beyond the coastal areas to which carrier based aircraft had previously been limited. During World War Two, and later in Korea, naval aircraft were limited to attacking targets relatively close to the coastline. The small carrier based aircraft simply did not have the range to conduct strikes away from the coast. The range restriction was not a major problem during World War Two or during Korea because most enemy territory lay near the coast, within range of the carrier aircraft. However, the potential enemies of the 1940's and 1950's, the Soviet Union and China, were large countries with relatively little coastline and few targets within range of carrier aircraft. The carrier based strategic bomber was a means to give the Navy the ability to attack these countries, which otherwise would have been immune to carrier aircraft [8].

Contributing to the rise of the strategic role was a lack of guidance from the Presidential and cabinet level regarding which services would have nuclear weapons. Because there was no policy stating which services should have nuclear arms, all the services developed weapons for delivering such weapons [9]. The Navy's weapon was the strategic aircraft carrier; the Air Force's weapon was the B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber. The design of two weapons systems for what appears to be a single role reflects the difference between the Navy's view and the Air Force's view of a future war. The Navy saw itself as a partner to the Air Force, much as the situation had been during World War Two. The Navy believed that future wars might start with very little notice, rendering land based aircraft useless as their bases were overrun. The perceived role for the Navy was rapid-intervention strikes to stop enemy advances, strikes in areas the Air Force's land based bombers could not reach, and securing areas for the Air Force's aircraft to operate from as the conflict progressed. This scenario was quite similar to the events of World War Two, when the Navy and Marines secured island bases for Army B-29 bombers. The Air Force's view was that wars would start with enough notice that overseas bases could be established before the conflict started. Aircraft operating from these bases would be used to stop the enemy's advance soon after the war started [10]. The Army could then move in to occupy enemy territory, leaving no need for the Navy or Marine Corps. With defense budgets shrinking in the postwar drawdown, both services saw the fight for nuclear weapons as the fight for the service’s survival. Each service saw their weapon as their highest priority project, and the future of each service was embodied in the new weapon. The uncertainty in nuclear policy and each service's desire to have a nuclear weapons system rose again in the Air Force's opposition to construction of the supercarrier.

From the new strategic role was born the concept of the supercarrier or strategic attack carrier, a ship dedicated to carrying nuclear armed strategic bombers. Planning called for construction of four supercarriers. Each would operate in a battlegroup composed of one supercarrier, one modified World War Two era Midway-class heavy carrier and two reconstructed World War Two era Essex-class fleet carriers [11]. The carriers would be escorted by smaller ships, but would be required to make a significant contribution to their own defense. Therefore the carriers were designed with heavy batteries of defensive guns. It was planned to rotate three of the battlegroups through the Mediterranean Sea. At least one group would be in southern Europe/Middle East area at all times, while the other two groups would be engaged in maintenance or training. The fourth group would provide an intermittent presence in Pacific Ocean areas [12].

The carrier battle groups would operate as partners to the Air Force heavy bombers, as previously discussed. The Navy maintained that the carriers could operate bombers in areas that would not be accessible to Air Force bombers, such as the Indian Ocean and some Pacific Ocean areas. Also, the carrier based bombers could respond more quickly to rapidly developing wars, and were more flexible in the type of operations they could undertake. Where a large land based bomber was limited to dropping large nuclear weapon or large quantities of conventional bombs, carrier based aircraft could deliver a strike more closely tailored to the situation at hand. Under the Navy's new strategic focus, traditional naval and carrier roles such as anti-shipping strikes and tactical bombing were relegated to second-place status [13].

The warship proposed to meet these new roles and requirements was something dramatically different from previous US carriers. Initial planning called for the supercarrier to carry 16 to 24 strategic bombers and their associated weapons [14]. Smaller aircraft such as fighters were perceived as having no offensive value in a nuclear environment, so they were not to be carried on the new ship. The design of the supercarrier was dictated entirely by the requirements of the aircraft she was to operate. The aircraft was the ADR-42, a new carrier based heavy bomber developed starting in 1945. This bomber was to have a maximum weight of 100,000 pounds, a range of 2,000 miles and the ability to carry either heavy conventional bombs or nuclear weapons [15]. In their early form nuclear weapons were heavy and bulky, requiring a large aircraft to carry them. Early plans for modifying existing carriers to carry nuclear weapons included provisions for handling “a package 15 feet long and weighing 16,000 lbs. [16] This indicates the immense size and weight of the weapons being considered. In contrast, the largest bomb used by US carrier-based aircraft during World War Two was 2000 pounds, and most bombs were 500 pound weapons [17].

Design and construction of the supercarrier was officially proposed to the Chief of Naval Operations on December 28, 1945, in a memo from Rear Admiral H. B. Sallada, head of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics. He suggested that "serious consideration immediately be given to the development of an additional type [of carrier ... that will accommodate aircraft of about 100,000 lbs with a 2000 mile radius. The ship may be rather radical in design with, for example, no island and no hangar. [The] flight deck would accommodate about 14 planes.... 500,000 gallons of gasoline...would permit each plane about eight full-range flights." [18] The elimination of island and hangar reflect the large size of the aircraft involved. The ADR-42 was thought to be too large to fit in a hangar, and the island would restrict the aircraft's wingspan. Provision of fuel for only eight flights per plane reflects the intent to use nuclear weapons. After each plane had flown eight nuclear-armed bombing missions, there would be no targets left for them to bomb. The proposal was given added support by the Deputy CNO (Air), Admiral Mitscher. On January 8, 1946, he suggested that the carrier should accommodate 16 to 24 aircraft with fuel for four to six flights each [19].

On the basis of these memos design work began. First informal, then formal, designs were drawn up and evaluated. One of the earliest changes was the addition of a hangar. The Bureau of Aeronautics suggested a hangar on April 19, 1946, and subsequent designs made provisions for a hangar [20]. The hangar was initially intended to accommodate defensive fighters. The dimensions of the hangar were later modified to allow storage of heavy bombers belowdecks. This change was made because keeping the bombers on the flight deck at all times was undesirable due to maintenance concerns. Also, the flight deck, and thus the ship, would have been excessively large if the deck had been wide enough for all aircraft to be stored on deck. All the designs showed an unusual feature, the exclusion of an island superstructure. The Bureau of Aeronautics was strongly opposed to having an island due to the restrictions it imposed on flight deck arrangement and aircraft wingspan. The no-island design introduced problems in locating boiler exhausts, radar and communications antennae, the navigating bridge and a flight control station, but these drawbacks were accepted in light of the aviation advantages of a flush deck [21].

Other features of the design included powerful catapults, a heavy gun battery and large aviation fuel storage capacity. The gun battery was seen as the ship's primary defense against air attack. The guns were much larger and heavier than World War Two guns, due to increasing size, weight and speed of the aircraft they would be expected to destroy. A battery of eight five inch guns and two dozen three inch guns was initially proposed. Catapults and a huge fuel storage capacity were due to the nature of the aircraft the ship carried. Aircraft of the era consumed fuel very quickly, requiring large fuel bunkers--500,000 gallons were to be carried. The large bombers also required catapults to get airborne; the catapults were a major factor in devising flight deck arrangements. All of these features forced the carrier to become larger and more expensive, eventually contributing to its cancellation.

After the conflicting requirements of cost, size and capability had been reconciled, the final design for the supercarrier emerged. She would displace 83,249 tons full load, her length was 1088 feet, beam was 190 feet. Her aircraft complement was 18 100,000 pound bombers and 80 fighters; she was defended by eight five inch guns, 16 three inch guns and 20 20 millimeter guns. She carried 2,000 tons of aircraft ordnance (bombs and rockets) and 500,000 gallons of aircraft fuel [22]. By way of contrast, the Essex-class carriers, the standard US carriers of World War Two, displaced 36,380 tons full load; they were 872 feet long and 147.5 feet wide. They carried up to 90 aircraft, none heavier than 28,000 pounds, and 231,650 gallons of aviation fuel [23].

Construction of the new carrier began on April 19, 1949, amidst great fanfare. The ship was the most important project for the Navy, and was seen as the embodiment of the future of naval warfare. Unfortunately, the future was put on hold within days.

From the start the supercarrier had been surrounded by controversy. The expenditure of a large sum of money on a new weapons system is never without controversy, but USS United States had more than her share. The supercarrier quickly found itself at the center of an intense disagreement over roles and means of nuclear weapons delivery. Due to uncertainly and lack of leadership in nuclear weapons policy in the immediate postwar years, the Navy and the Air Force had each developed weapons systems for delivering atomic weapons. The Navy's weapon was the supercarrier; the Air Force's weapon was the B-36 strategic bomber. The two weapons systems were soon pitted against each other in competition for Congressional budget dollars, the nuclear role, and the survival of their respective branch of the armed services. This dispute is popularly called the "Carriers vs. Bombers" or "Navy vs. Air Force" controversy.

In the postwar years there was great uncertainty regarding nuclear weapons. There was no established policy stating which services would have nuclear weapons, and for what purposes. The newly independent Air Force felt that it should be the only service with nuclear arms. The Army supported the Air Force’s position. The Navy believed that no single service should be given all the nuclear weapons [24]. Because of the confusion resulting from creation of an independent Air Force in 1946 and a general reorganization of the defense establishment, there was little leadership from the Presidential or cabinet levels concerning distribution of nuclear weapons among the services. The reorganization had unified the four services under the Secretary of Defense, stripping the individual services of their cabinet-level representation. The Secretary of Defense was supposed to ensure that all services worked together, but it proved to be virtually impossible to meet this goal in the years immediately after the reorganization. Thus the services were left to fight among themselves for roles, weapons and budget dollars.

Adding to the confusion was the lack of a clearly defined enemy. The Soviet Union was not firmly established as an enemy for several years. This led to a period in which the entire US military was searching for an enemy to justify its existence. The Navy in particular was in need of an enemy, as there was no naval threat from the Soviet Union or any other nation. Because there was no enemy and no leadership, each service was on its own in estimating future threats and developing weapons to counter them [25].

Because the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines had been theoretically unified under the Department of Defense, there were calls for cooperation between the services. Many people believed that the nuclear role should be given to a single service for the sake of economy, efficiency and "unification." The natural choice for the nuclear role was the Air Force, because of its experience with strategic bombing during World War Two. To make matters worse, the Air Force saw the Navy as a competitor, not a partner. The Navy saw itself as a partner to the Air Force, much as the situation had been during World War Two. As discussed above, the Navy saw its role as rapid response to developing conflicts, intervention to halt enemy attacks, and securing bases for the Army and Air Force. Thus, the Navy and Air Force would cooperate.

The Air Force sought to have no such cooperation. In their view the nuclear role was theirs and theirs alone. They saw no need for the Navy to secure forward bases for the Air Force's bombers. With the defense budget shrinking, both services saw the fight for nuclear weapons and the strategic role as the fight for the service’s survival. The Navy’s biggest concern was a joint Army-Air Force attack on the sea services. The Army called for a dramatic reduction of the Marine Corps, saying the Marines duplicated the Army's function of occupation and control of enemy territory [26]. The Air Force called for a dramatic reduction of the Navy, citing duplication of aerial roles and the supposed obsolescence of seapower [27]. The real reason behind calls for elimination or dramatic cuts of one or more services was budgetary. The United States was engaged in a massive demobilization following World War Two. Each service was facing force level and budget reductions. Any role or mission one service could take from another was a way of increasing that service's share of the budget. Because of this budget situation, both the Army and the Air Force wished to take over the roles then held by the Marine Corps and Navy [28].

Thus the Navy and Marine Corps were faced with an attack on two fronts, with the enemies cooperating amongst themselves. The Air Force’s argument was centered on the supposed superiority of the bomber over the carrier. It was stated that heavy bombers had longer range, greater payload, greater accuracy and more flexibility than carrier borne aircraft [29]. The Air Force maintained that the heavy bombers could serve equally well in nuclear or conventional wars. By limiting production of atomic weapons to extremely large devices that could only be carried by land based bombers, the Air Force hoped to force the Navy out of the nuclear role [30].

Propaganda coming from the Air Force's more radical voices was even more critical of the Navy. It was stated that the aircraft carrier, and indeed all seapower, was already obsolete. Supposedly this was clear to everyone other than those within the Navy. Billy Mitchell had made the same statement shortly after World War One, but his position had not found widespread support. Jimmy Doolittle, famous for his 1942 raid on Tokyo, was among the harshest critics. He stated that "We can't deter Russian aggression with Navy weapons" and that, upon the completion of the Air Force's heavy bomber program, "we will not need carriers." [31] The extremists even went so far as to state that the Air Force was primarily responsible for victory in the Pacific during World War Two, a claim they were unable to justify. Under the radicals' proposals, the Navy would have been reduced to a minimal blockade and escort service with no strategic weapons [32].

The last straw in the carriers vs. bombers fight was the new Secretary of Defense. James Forrestal had resigned as Secretary of Defense on 22 March 1949 due to his declining mental health. President Truman replaced Forrestal with Louis Johnson, a loyal politician. Johnson was a long-time friend of air power, having played an important role in the development of the B-17 bomber during 1937-1940. He was key in Truman's reelection campaign, and Truman owed him a cabinet position. With the sudden departure of Forrestal, Johnson became the second Secretary of Defense. Johnson had little experience or expertise regarding military matters. He was universally hated by those in uniform. One officer said "He was an idiot, a perfect idiot." [33]

Johnson saw himself as an expert on strategic air power. He also hated the Navy, a belief that grew from his supposed expertise on matters of air power. Once he said "The Navy has built its last big carrier." Another time he said that he would let the Navy keep only one carrier "for the old admirals to ride around on." [34] Johnson as under political pressure to make "unification" work and he felt a personal desire to reduce the defense budget [35]. Due to his dislike of the Navy and desire to cut the budget, Johnson selected the supercarrier for elimination. Due to its size, the supercarrier was very expensive. The ship was expected to cost about $189 million [36]. A B-36 bomber cost $5.7 million, [37] so the carrier was equivalent to the cost of 33 such bombers. The defense budget for the year was $10.9 billion [38], and the supercarrier represented almost 2 percent of that budget. The Air Force preferred the use an inflated cost of $500 million for the supercarrier to promote their goal of stopping its construction. The high cost of the carrier, even using the uninflated figures, could be used to justify its cancellation on budgetary grounds, rather than admitting that the ship was canceled for political reasons.

On 28 April 1948, just days after taking office, the Secretary canceled construction of USS United States. He did not consult with the Secretary of the Navy or the Chief of Naval Operations, or anyone else in the Navy, before eliminating the service's most important project [39]. President Truman declined to become involved in the inter-service squabbling, leaving the Secretary of Defense to do what he wished [40]. A few days after canceling the carrier the Secretary continued his attack on the Navy by announcing that Marine Corps aviation would be transferred to the Air Force [41]. This plan did not come to fruition, but it shows his devotion to decimating the Navy and Marine Corps. The supercarrier was dead, at least for now. What little steel had been assembled in the six days between the start of construction and the cancellation was cut up for scrap. The concept of the large aircraft carrier was, however, to rise again within a short time.

The Return of the Aircraft Carrier

Soon after the cancellation of USS United States the Navy began an effort to resume construction of new aircraft carriers. The naval aviation community still saw the need for a heavy carrier based bomber, with the resulting requirement for large carriers. Throughout the supercarrier controversy Congress had been willing to fund the ship, despite its cancellation by the Secretary of Defense. Congress had also put up strong opposition to Secretary of Defense Johnson's attempts to strip the Marine Corps of their aircraft. Considering this Congressional support, Representative Carl Vinson, a strong supporter of the Navy, suggested that Congress would fund a smaller aircraft carrier. He suggested a maximum displacement of 60,000 tons, setting the basic size parameters of the new carrier design [42]. Even with Congressional support the Navy could not build a new carrier, due to the Secretary of Defense’s opposition. It took the Korean War to change the Secretary's opinion on carriers.

When North Korea invaded the South on 25 June 1950, the US Navy possessed the only forces capable of rapid intervention. The Air Force aircraft based in Japan were short ranged jets, almost totally unsuitable for operations in Korea [43]. Because of the great speed with which the North Koreans advanced, it was impractical to set up extensive land bases for US aircraft in Korea. Within days of the first hostilities, US vessels were assisting in the rapid withdrawal to the south in the face of the North Korean attack. A carrier group centered on the World War Two era Essex-class carrier USS Valley Forge was the centerpiece of US naval forces in the region. One carrier was not enough to fight a war, so US and foreign ships quickly poured into the region. They served to blockade North Korea, assist in the withdrawal of troops in the south, evacuate US civilians, support the South Korean and US troops on the ground, and they were prepared for whatever additional duties might arise.

The cruiser Juneau bombarded North Korean positions around Mukho on 29 June, just four days after the start of hostilities. Valley Forge's aircraft went into action on 3 July, conducting an enormously successful raid on targets around Pyongyang [44]. More raids were carried out in the following days. Meanwhile, troops and equipment for a ground campaign were being brought into the region on sealift ships.

The immediate lesson from early naval operations in Korea was that naval forces, specifically carrier groups, could react almost instantly to regional conflicts [45]. Carriers were completely independent of the availability of land bases. Once in position, the carriers could conduct a wide range of operations that heavy bombers flying from land bases could not. A carrier's aircraft could fly protective air cover over friendly forces, support troops in battle, make pinpoint strikes on short notice and stand ready to quickly react to new situations. Land based bombers, on the other hand, were limited to large, pre-planned strikes on large, fixed targets. It was also obvious that massive nuclear strikes were not the solution in all cases. Indeed, massive nuclear bombing was only applicable in case of war between the superpowers. In other cases conventional weapons would be used. The effects on the carrier program were immediate. On 11 July the Joint Chiefs of Staff voted to stop reductions in carrier force levels [46]. The next day Secretary of Defense Johnson, the man who had killed the supercarrier project, told the Chief of Naval Operations [47] that "I will give you another carrier when you want it." [48] Such a dramatic reversal of his position can only be attributed to the powerful lessons being learned in Korea. The Navy's budget priorities were being adjusted accordingly. The 31 August 1950 draft of the Fiscal Year 1952 shipbuilding budget showed two carrier modernizations as the number four priority item, but no new heavy carriers. When the revised budget was approved by the Secretary of the Navy on 30 October, it contained a new heavy carrier as the eighth priority and the conversions in the sixth spot [49]. The higher priority items were vessels urgently needed for the war in Korea. From Fiscal Year 1952 onward the Navy sought to build one new carrier per year [50]. This rapid change in budget priorities reflects the increased importance of the aircraft carrier as a result of events in Korea. The future of aircraft carriers in the US Navy was secure, at least for the immediate future.

While the political issues were being dealt with in Washington, the carriers continued to prove themselves in Korea. Much of the war followed the pattern established in the first month of conflict. Carrier aircraft raided enemy bases, supported friendly troops on the ground and destroyed enemy aircraft in the air. Gun ships -- battleships, cruisers and destroyers -- bombarded enemy positions in support of friendly troops while being protected by carrier aircraft. Amphibious forces landed troops behind enemy lines and evacuated friendly troops when the were trapped by the enemy, again operating under the protection of carrier aircraft. Throughout it all, the value of a strong navy, and carriers in particular, was made abundantly clear. Above all naval forces were extremely flexible, able to shift from one role to another on short notice. The same could not be said of land based bombers. The simple presence of a carrier offshore, with its enormous striking potential, served as an intimidation factor and gave the seaborne force the chance to initiate action on its terms.

The Korean War taught several important lessons about the Navy and its role in future conflicts. First, it became obvious that small scale regional "brushfire" wars would still be fought. Since the end of World War Two planners had predicted that the next war would be a global nuclear conflict. Even if smaller wars were fought, the would be fought with nuclear weapons. Thus, military planning had centered on nuclear weapons, and conventional weapons systems were allowed to fall by the wayside. The Korean War ended this school of thought. It was seen that regional wars would be fought with conventional weapons, even in a nuclear Cold War environment. Planning was modified accordingly, and conventional weapons were again seen as important.

The next lesson of the Korean War was that forces capable of quickly reacting to a developing crisis were needed. These forces would have to be flexible, so they could take on a variety of missions as the situation required. The war showed that the ideal weapon for this role was the aircraft carrier. The opening weeks of the war proved that carriers could react quickly and could undertake a wide variety of missions such as support of troops in battle, combat air patrol and strikes on enemy supply lines. The Air Force's heavy land based bombers were relatively useless in a regional conflict, being limited to large-scale area bombing. Land based fighters and tactical strike aircraft were crippled by the need for an airfield near the area of operations. When nearby bases were not available the Air Force was virtually powerless. Aircraft carriers sidestepped these problems by carrying the airfield, aircraft and support facilities in a single package.

Another lesson of Korea was that a general modernization of the military was needed. Although World War Two era weapons were available in great abundance, they were aging and were being surpassed by new weapons and technologies. The result was a general increase in purchases of new equipment for all the services. In addition, the Soviet navy showed the first signs starting to become a viable seagoing force in the 1950's [51]. The start of the Soviet buildup led to the US Navy building up forces in response.

An additional factor in the return of the aircraft carriers was the National Security Council policy study known as NSC-68, which became the basis of US Cold War strategy. This policy, under development when the Korean War broke out, called for major changes in US defense policy. It proposed a change from an all-nuclear defense policy to a mixed nuclear and conventional policy. It also proposed that the US begin mobilization to fight a general war in 1954. The policy was quite close to the Navy's vision of future war and was far from the Air Force's vision of using massive nuclear strikes in every situation. When the Korean War broke out, NSC-68 became the immediate mobilization plan, and its 1954 force level goals became the immediate goals. NSC-68 had supported a strong Navy even before Korea, and the events of the War only served to improve the Navy's standing in the policy document. The carrier force in 1950 consisted of only seven ships. After changes due to the Korean War, NSC-68 called for 12 carriers to be in service by 1952. Even this goal was surpassed, with 16 ships being in service at the end of 1952 [52].

Secretary of the Navy Francis P. Matthews approved construction a new aircraft carrier on 30 October 1950 [53]. Many within the Navy hoped that the carrier would turn out to be essentially the same as the canceled USS United States. The ship that emerged from the design process did bear some resemblance to the canceled strategic carrier, but it was different in many ways, especially in its intended role. Most obviously, the new carrier was smaller than United States. Also, it was a multirole carrier, while United States had been a single role nuclear strike carrier. Both changes were caused by a combination of political and technological factors. The new carrier was named USS Forrestal in honor of James Forrestal, the deceased ex-Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy.

When Representative Carl Vinson suggested that Congress would support construction of a 60,000 ton aircraft carrier, he set the basic size of what became the Forrestal design. In 1949 the Navy has selected a 70,000 pound bomber, the A3D, to be developed as the large carrier based bomber [54]. This aircraft was 30,000 pounds lighter than the aircraft for which USS United States had been designed, so it could operate from a smaller ship. In fact, it was capable of operating from the existing World War Two-era Midway-class aircraft carriers (45,000 tons). The initial proposals for post-United States carrier construction suggested a ship of Midway size. It proved impossible to accommodate all the equipment and facilities needed for modern carrier operations in a 45,000 ton ship, but the desire to build a smaller, less expensive carrier was clearly present.

Meanwhile technology and improved design had reduced the size of aircraft needed to carry a nuclear weapon. From the time of the first atomic bomb detonations in 1945 to the revival of carrier construction in 1950, the size of nuclear weapons had decreased greatly. The first nuclear weapons were so large that only the huge B-29 bomber could carry them. By 1950 the size of nuclear weapons had been reduced to the point that bombs suitable for fighter-sized aircraft would soon be available [55]. As the bombs shrank the aircraft needed to carry them also shrank. Aircraft were also becoming more efficient. Early postwar aircraft were voracious consumers of fuel. Within a few years aircraft had become more efficient, though a large supply of jet fuel was still needed aboard ship. The resulting reduction in aircraft size was dramatic. Late-1940's planning assumed that only a 100,000 pound bomber could effectively carry nuclear weapons. In 1950 the Bureau of Aeronautics proposed a small nuclear-capable attack aircraft, later to become the A4D Skyhawk [56]. This aircraft weighed 22,500 pounds fully loaded [57]. Obviously, a much smaller aircraft such as the A4D did not require a ship as large as the 100,000 pound bomber. Alternately, a carrier large enough to carry a small number of 100,000 pound bombers could carry a much larger number of the smaller aircraft.

Other factors helped to reduce the size of carriers. One major factor was the development of better catapults. To launch the 100,000 bombers, United States had been designed with four H-9 hydraulic catapults. The H-9s were extremely heavy, requiring extensive structural support. This supporting structure had negative effects both in terms of its weight and the space it occupied. In addition it was uncertain whether the H-9 would be powerful enough for its task [58]. Further, hydraulic catapults were known to have serious safety defects, which caused 33 deaths aboard the World War Two carrier Leyte and 104 aboard her sistership Bennington [59]. Forrestal was designed to use the new C-10 explosive powder operated catapult, which was lighter, and more efficient, compact and reliable. Still, the C-10 presented a safety problem in the 400 tons of powder charges it used, and storage of the charges took up valuable space [60]. Ultimately the steam catapult was developed by the British and installed on Forrestal. Steam catapults had the good qualities of the C-10, but eliminated the dangerous powder charges and their storage space. Further, the steam catapults were more powerful, applied force to the aircraft in a more uniform fashion and were easier to adapt for heavier aircraft [61].

Another technological innovation of the Forrestal class was the angled flight deck. All previous carrier designs featured an axial flight deck, in which landing aircraft ran the risk of smashing into aircraft parked on the forward part of the flight deck. The new deck arrangement angled the landing deck to the side, so the landing aircraft would not interfere with parked aircraft. Further, the arrangement allowed aircraft to land and take off simultaneously. Angling the deck had another advantage: it put the landing aircraft well clear of the island superstructure, eliminating concerns over aircraft hitting the island. Because of this change a large island structure could be constructed. A large island had several advantages: it provided a place to locate multiple radar and communications antennas, an excellent location for a navigation bridge and flight control center, and a suitable place for boiler exhausts [62].

Forrestal was designed with an axial deck and modified to an angled deck while under construction. Her original design included a very small retractable island to avoid conflicts between aircraft and the superstructure. The retractable island was a complex and expensive arrangement. The island would have been prone to breakdowns due to its complex mechanical retraction system and the electrical connections it required. In addition it was ill-suited to use in navigating or as a position for controlling flight operations. Antennas had been distributed around the edges of the flight deck in a rather unsatisfactory arrangement. Boiler exhausts were routed through eight folding smoke pipes along the deck edges, an arrangement sure to cause smoke interference with aircraft operations. By adopting the angled deck and the large island it allowed, all of these problems were solved, and the carrier's aviation capabilities were greatly improved [63].

Forrestal differed from United States in more than technology. She was intended for a dramatically different role than the canceled supercarrier. Between 1946, the start of the supercarrier project, and 1950, the start of the Forrestal project, naval planning changed dramatically. The idea of operating a small number of very large nuclear-armed long-range bombers from four huge carriers was discarded due to the lessons of the Korean war and technological advances. In place of the old ideas came the concept of operating a large number of smaller aircraft, armed with nuclear or conventional weapons, from many smaller carriers [64]. This change had come about as a result of the experience in Korea and technological improvements that made small nuclear-armed aircraft possible. The concept of a heavy carrier bomber was not dead--the Forrestals were designed to operate 70,000 pound bombers, but extremely large aircraft had ceased to be the overriding concern in carrier design [65].

The new mission of the aircraft carrier was actually many missions. It was intended to operate strategic nuclear bombers, tactical strike aircraft carrying nuclear or conventional weapons, a fighter force with an offensive rather than purely defensive role, and a variety of specialized aircraft. The carrier would conduct long-range nuclear and conventional strikes against enemy targets, tactical strikes in support of ground forces, air cover operations for ground or sea forces, attack enemy shipping, and contribute to its defense. The change in role was strongly reflected in the amount of fuel the ship carried. The strategic carrier concept had called for only a few missions to be flown by each aircraft, as there would be no targets left after several nuclear strikes. Thus, United States carried 500,000 gallons of aircraft fuel. Forrestal's aircraft were each intended to conduct many dozens of missions, so more fuel had to be provided. Forrestal carried over 1.5 million gallons of aircraft fuel, three times the load carried by the larger supercarrier [66]. Forrestal was meant to stay on station in a given area for long periods of time, leading to large magazine and fuel capacities, and to nuclear power for some later carriers.

Some of these missions were very similar to the missions carried out by World War Two carriers, but some roles were new to carriers. There were more new roles: rapid reaction to regional crisises and "showing the flag" in foreign troublespots. A carrier was capable of bringing its impressive capabilities to the scene of a developing crisis much more quickly than land-based forces could respond. Further, a carrier hovering offshore near a troublespot was a powerful tool in influencing diplomatic events in favor of the United States. The threat of military action inherent in a carrier was often enough to bring a crisis to a peaceful resolution in the United States' favor. If the parties involved refused to settle the matter, the carrier could be called into action to apply whatever force was required.

The concept of the carrier battlegroup also changed with the new carriers. Earlier planning had called for four battlegroups, each consisting of one supercarrier and three smaller carriers. New planning called for 12 battlegroups, each centered on a Forrestal-type carrier and protected by a force of cruisers and destroyers. An individual battlegroup was less powerful under the new arrangement, but a larger number of groups could be in more places at the same time. This improved coverage of areas around the world was critical in the carrier's new role in showing the flag and as a rapid reaction force. Another more subtle change was the defensive armament of the carrier and her escorts. The United States and ships of her era were designed with heavy gun batteries as defense against aircraft. By the time Forrestal came into service, guided missiles were coming into service as antiaircraft weapons. Early missile systems were extremely large, so they had to be carried on specially designed escort ships. An aircraft carrier could not carry the missiles, and guns were becoming less useful against modern aircraft, so Forrestal was designed with an armament of only eight defensive guns, compared to United States' 44 guns. The primary defensive weapons of a carrier group were the carrier's fighter aircraft and the escort's missiles. The missiles and aircraft extended the carrier's protective umbrella far beyond the range of guns.

As the Forrestal design was worked out, much of the improved technology went to carrying more aircraft and more supplies for them, rather than reducing the size of the ship. Forrestal was not dramatically smaller than United States: 72,500 tons vs. 79,000 tons design displacement, 1039 feet long vs. 1088 feet. Her capabilities, however, were far superior to those of the earlier ship due to the adoption of steam catapults, the angled deck and a large island.


With the commissioning of USS Forrestal on 1 October 1955, the Navy had come full circle. The concept of a strategic aircraft carrier, embodied as USS United States, had grown and died over a period of four years. The project was killed by a combination of uncertain defense policy, inter-service rivalry, and politics. A year after the death of the supercarrier, the Navy had embarked on a new aircraft carrier design, meant to fill the whole left by the canceled supercarrier. The new project flourished where the supercarrier had died because of the Korean War, because the role of aircraft carriers had changed from strategic bombing to a multi-mission role and because of technological advances. The product of the new carrier project, USS Forrestal, was superficially similar to USS United States, but it was very different in concept and in design, due to the change in role and advances in technology.


[1] Paul S. Dull, A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945) (Annapolis: US Naval Institute, 1984), 3-20.
[2] Edwin P. Hoyt, Carrier Wars: Naval Aviation From World War II to the Persian Gulf (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989), 64-66.
[3] Ibid., 226-231.
[4] Norman Friedman, US Aircraft Carriers (Annapolis: US Naval Institute, 1983), 18-19.
[5] Ibid.
[6] John Jordan, Soviet Warships: The Soviet Surface Fleet 1960 to the present (Annapolis: US Naval Institute, 1983), 11.
[7] Friedman, 19.
[8] Roger Chesneau, Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present (Annapolis: US Naval Institute, 1984), 263.
[9] Michael T. Isenberg, Shield of the Republic: The United States Navy in an Era of Cold War and Violent Peace (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 146.
[10] Friedman, 18-19.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 240-241
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid,. 240.
[16] Ibid., 291.
[17] Ibid., 383-384.
[18] Ibid., 241.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 242.
[21] Ibid., 243-244
[22] Ibid., 396
[23] Ibid., 394
[24] Isenberg, 146-147.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., 153.
[27] Ibid., 152-153.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 149.
[30] Ibid., 146.
[31] Ibid., 149-150.
[32] Ibid., 150.
[33] Ibid., 152.
[34] Ibid., 153
[35] Ibid., 152.
[36] "Professional Notes," US Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1949, 1196-1198.
[37] Daniel Ford, "B-36: Bomber at the Crossroads," Air and Space Smithsonian, April/May 1996, 42-51.
[38] Isenberg, 150.
[39] Friedman, 252-253.
[40] Isenberg, 162.
[41] Ibid., 153.
[42] Friedman, 256.
[43] Isenberg, 180.
[44] Ibid., 182-183.
[45] Ibid., 337
[46] Friedman, 256.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Isenberg, 337.
[49] Friedman, 256.
[50] Ibid.
[51] Jordan, 11.
[52] Friedman, 20-21.
[53] Ibid., 256.
[54] Ibid., 255.
[55] Ibid.
[56] Ibid.
[57] John S. Rowe and Samuel L. Morison, Ships and Aircraft of the US Fleet, 9th ed. (Annapolis: US Naval Institute, 1972), 172.
[58] Friedman, 259.
[59] Isenberg, 340.
[60] Friedman, 259.
[61] Ibid. 265.
[62] Friedman, 263-266.
[63] Ibid.
[64] Ibid., 255.
[65] Ibid., 256.
[66] Ibid., 396-397.


Chesneau, Roger. Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present. Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute, 1984.

Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945). Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute, 1978.

Ford, Daniel. "B-36: Bomber at the Crossroads." Air and Space Smithsonian, April/May 1996, 42-51.

Friedman, Norman. U.S. Aircraft Carriers. Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute, 1983.

Hoyt, Edwin P. Carrier Wars: Naval Aviation From World War II to the Persian Gulf. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Isenberg, Michael T. Shield of the Republic: The United States Navy in an Era of Cold War and Violent Peace. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Jordan, John. Soviet Warships: The Soviet Surface Fleet 1960 to the present. Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute, 1983.

"Professional Notes." US Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1949, 1196-1198.

Rowe, John S. and Samuel L. Morison. Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 9th ed. Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute, 1972.

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