By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
This year began with another gap in the US aircraft carrier presence in the Middle East, while China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, conducted exercises in the South China Sea. The former underscored the continuing strains in the US Navy’s under-strength carrier force, the latter the symbolic significance of China’s carrier ambitions, albeit still with limited capability for now.
But in March 2017 the first new-design US carrier for more than four decades, the USS Gerald R. Ford, should finally begin delayed contractor’s sea trials. Delivery to the US Navy is pencilled in for April – restoring the carrier force from ten to 11 ships. The Ford’s innovative design elements, including the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), should bring significant capability enhancements over the Nimitz class. At least two sister ships are planned, but there could be further evolution in US carrier design as controversy continues over Ford-class programme costs, while debate continues over the operational concept for carriers in a more challenging maritime domain.
The launch of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier should also take place this year. The ship is an incremental enhancement of the Liaoning, which was previously intended for the former Soviet Navy as the Varyag. The speed of the new ship’s construction is a testament to China’s commitment to its carrier programme. Like the Liaoning, the new ship will not have catapults or arrestor gear, limiting its potential. But there are growing indications that the next vessel to be built will be so equipped.
In the United Kingdom, the first of the Royal Navy’s new 65,000-tonne carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, should finally enter service, although sea trials have been delayed. However, a key remaining question is whether the delivery and deployment plans for the UK’s F-35B Joint Strike Fighters will enable a carrier strike capability to be restored in the early to mid-2020s. The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will also be officially named and ’flooded-up’, or launched, this year.
After a lengthy building period, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, will also near completion this year, with a planned acceptance into the Indian Navy in 2018. As with China, India’s Vikrant looks like a stepping stone towards a follow-on design that will have catapults and arrestor gear.
Amid these developments, Russia and France both experienced some of the issues involved in trying to sustain only single carriers in service. The Russian Navy’s Admiral Kuznetsov returned from a deployment off Syria which had only limited operational impact, and saw two aircraft lost. Meanwhile, the French Navy’s Charles De Gaulle, although operationally more effective, is now disappearing into a two-year refit that will leave France without a carrier for the period.
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