Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War
Though aircraft carriers were in service by the early 1930’s in the navies of Britain, Japan, and the United States, the Second World War saw the development of the modern conception of a carrier battle group - one or more aircraft carriers escorted by (at least) cruisers and destroyers for anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection.
The Japanese attack on Pear Harbor began the role of the carrier battle group as the dominant force in naval combat. To strike the American fleet in Hawaii, it sent six aircraft carriers - the Akagi, Kaga, Shokaku, Zuikaku, Hiryu, and Soryu - with over three hundred aircraft to deal a mortal blow to the US Pacific Fleet. Alongside these six carriers were only two fast battleships and a small cluster of escorts. The striking power of this carrier battle group was incredible, and led to the complete destruction of two American battleships with five more put out of action for varying lengths of time.
The dearth of battleships caused by this disaster led to the United States itself
adopting the carrier battle group as its primary strike force. The Lexington, Saratoga, Enterprise, Yorktown, Hornet, and Wasp led the US Navy in the first year of the Pacific War, and they fought the first naval battles conducted solely through the medium of carrier based aircraft. Though only the Enterprise and Saratoga survived the war, lessons learned from their use led to the construction of 24 Essex class fleet carriers that carried the carrier battle group into the Cold War.
Carrier Battle Group Development in the Cold War
Although World War Two saw the aircraft carrier eclipse the battleship as the primary instrument of naval power, aircraft carrier battle groups were not defined as such until the lessons of the war were fully assessed. During the Second World War, carriers were grouped into huge task forces often comprising eight or more large carriers. This force packed quite a punch, but the introduction of atomic warfare made such massed fleets vulnerable.
As the new queen of the seas, the aircraft carrier became the focus of combat and the most important target. The Second World War taught that even though hundreds of aircraft might be fielded, the carrier was still vulnerable to air attack and submarine attack. Indeed, of the aircraft carriers lost in the Atlantic theater of the war, most were destroyed by submarine attack. So aircraft carriers faced two threats which were best engaged as far from the carrier as possible: The submarine and the aircraft - plus, as the Cold War ran on, the guided missile.
The carrier battle group concept seeks to protect the carrier with multiple layers of defenses. In the Second World War heavy cruisers and battleships were incorporated into carrier task forces to provide anti-aircraft support, and destroyers were massed in and around carrier battle groups to ward off submarine attack. As the Soviet Navy during the Cold War focused on building a powerful submarine fleet and subsequently armed it with cruise missiles, the roles of escorts in the carrier battle group changed to meet the evolving threat.
The Carrier Battle Group in the Late Cold War to the Present
By the 1980’s, aircraft carrier battle groups all had at their core one aircraft carrier, which was guarded by at least one or two cruisers or large destroyers which had as their primary role anti-aircraft defense. Three or four additional escorts in the form of frigates and destroyers provided an anti-submarine screen. In addition, a carrier battle group was generally accompanied by one or two attack submarines to aid in defending against enemy subs.
How many ships are in a aircraft carrier battle group depends on the mission of the group and the expected threat. In the example of a Cold War carrier battle group off Russia, the CVBG (shorthand for aircraft carrier battle group) had to expect an attack by upwards of a hundred land based bombers each carrying multiple cruise missiles plus dozens of Russian submarines and surface vessels similarly armed. In such circumstances it was expected that up to four CVBG formations would be grouped together, and each would incorporate two or three cruisers and half a dozen destroyers for maximum protection.
Carrier Based Aircraft - Different Theories from Pearl Harbor to the Jet Age
Though the ship composition of a typical CVBG is important and always has been,
the true heart of any carrier battle group is its airwing. The aircraft operating from the carrier are its raison d’etre, its reason for being, and its primary offensive and defensive strength.
The early carriers operated by the Royal Navy were equipped with a combination fighter-dive bomber aircraft called the Skua as well as biplanes armed with bombs or torpedoes such as the famous Swordfish. The function of the air wing on a British carrier was to provide scouting support to the primary battleship force as well as basic air cover from the anticipated main threat, high altitude land based bombers.
Japanese carrier based aircraft sacrificed armament and protection for extreme range and maneuverability. Japanese naval theories concentrated on using carriers to attack supply depots and to attrite American battleship fleets pushing west to attack Japanese held islands. This range and maneuverability advantage stood the Japanese in good stead throughout the early years of the war, but as it wore on deficiencies in protection and armament made Japanese carrier based aircraft terribly vulnerable to interception and anti-aircraft fire.
Development of Carrier Based Aircraft into The Cold War
As a nation with historically quiet northern and southern borders and a lot of ocean between it and other major powers, US military planners by the middle of World War Two had realized the combined power of aircraft carrier battle
groups, carrier based aircraft, and amphibious assaults on enemy held islands. Initially carrier based aircraft were tailored to the vessels they would fly from - widely acclaimed fighters such as the F4U Corsair were long relegated to land based Marine squadrons because of their teething difficulties when initially flown from aircraft carriers.
But the experience of the war taught that large, survivable aircraft were at a premium for carrier battle groups, because unlike air wings on land carrier based aircraft squadrons could not be quickly reinforced in order to replace losses, and a lack of aircraft could quickly mean the destruction of a threatened carrier. By the end of the Second World War US carrier based aircraft were growing in size and attack power, as well as in the size of facilities needed to operate them safely. At this point, aircraft carriers began to be designed with the needs of large aircraft and eventually jet aircraft in mind.
So the Supercarrier was born. Jet aircraft are maintenance intensive and require significant hangar facilities and better launch and recovery systems than were built into World War Two carriers. Angled flight decks were introduced to allow simultaneous takeoff and landing operations, catapults were installed to allow heavier jet aircraft to get airborne, and most armament was stripped from newer designs like the Forrestal class.
Nuclear Power, Tomcats, Hornets, Flankers, and Rafales: The Essentials of Modern Carrier Based Aircraft and CVBGs
The Cold War brought carrier development to its current heights. Carrier based aircraft have evolved with
these potential threats. The Vietnam War and later years saw epic aircraft such as the F4 Phantom, A7 Corsair, and A6 Intruder all operated by carrier battle groups. Perhaps the most famous carrier aircraft ever deployed was the F-14 Tomcat, which allowed a CVBG to dominate the skies for hundreds of miles around the carrier itself, giving new meaning to the idea of sea control.
In the post Cold War world, the aircraft carrier battle group and carrier based aircraft have played an essential and continuing role in naval power projection. The United States maintains eleven nuclear powered aircraft carriers and is building a replacement for the current Nimitz Class named the Gerald Ford class, and all currently fly fighter-bombers like the F-18 Hornet, AWACS aircraft like the E2 Hawkeye, and Anti-submarine aircraft like the S3 Viking. Russia operates one carrier - flying the excellent SU-33 Flanker - and
is expected to build more. Future Chinese aircraft carriers may number as many as four or more also flying the Flanker, India plans to perpetually operate 2 or three carriers, and both Britain and France intend to maintain two carriers of their own, the former flying the F35 Joint Strike Fighter and the latter flying the Dassault Rafale.
Current and Future Aircraft Carrier Battle Group Operators
- United States Navy: 11 nuclear powered aircraft carriers of the Enterprise and Nimitz Classes. These will be replaced by the Gerald Ford class aircraft carriers throughout the 21st century. They currently operate F18C/D and F18E/F multirole fighters as their primary carrier based aircraft, and the F35C variant Joint Strike Fighter will begin to replace the former within a few years.
- United Kingdom Royal Navy: Currently operates one Invincible class carrier (out of three built) capable of launching Harrier fighters as well as helicopters. Two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are under construction and will be equipped with an F35 variant.
- French Navy: One Charles DeGaulle class nuclear powered aircraft carrier, will be eventually be joined by a new aircraft carrier currently being designed. The Dassault Rafale is the primary carrier based aircraft.
- Russian Navy: The aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov carries the SU-33 Naval Flanker, and the Russian Navy plans to construct around four additional carriers by 2050. A variant of the MIG-29 Fulcrum may replace the SU-55.
- Indian Navy: Currently operates one small carrier formerly in UK service, but it is around 50 years old. It will be replaced by a heavily modified Kiev class carrier formerly of the Soviet Union. India is also constructing one indigenous aircraft carrier with a larger version under design. They currently operate a variant of the Mig-29 but may upgrade to a navalized variant of the Gripen.
- Chinese Navy: The ex-Russian Varyag, renamed Shi Lang, will soon be operational and will fly the J-15, the Chinese variant of the SU-33. Two indigenous carriers are reported to be under construction, with a target of 4-6 in total to be built.
- Brazil: Operates a small former French carrier equipped with A-4 Skyhawks.
- Italy, Spain, Thailand, Japan - all operate small helicopter carriers.
Sources and Image Credits
Jean-Pierre Montbazet: Super Carriers, 1985 Osprey Publishing
George Sullivan: The Day Pearl Harbor Was Bombed, 1991 Scholastic Inc
John Jordan: An Illustrated Guide to the Modern Soviet Navy; 1982 Arco Publishing
A Wordsworth Colour Guide Modern Warships; 1993 Wordswordh Editions LTD
The Great Book of Fighter Planes, 1990 Beekman House
All images are courtesy of the United States Government and are in the public domain courtesy of Wiki Commons