Aircraft Carriers in the Cold War
At the end of World War II, the United States Navy was unchallenged on the seas. Its fleet of almost 2,500 major combatant vessels (aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, and submarines) and amphibious transports was nearly twice the size of the British and Dominion navies put together. Its aviation component numbered 99 aircraft carriers and more than 41,000 aircraft. To reach key Soviet targets, the Navy developed long-range aircraft that could carry both conventional and atomic bombs, modified its aircraft carriers to handle the first-generation of nuclear weapons–capable planes, and planned a new, 65,000-ton flush-deck “supercarrier” that could operate even larger and more powerful aircraft.
The Korean War (1950-1953) marked the beginning of a national security policy in which the U.S. sought to maintain superiority in weapons and military strength in order to wage or deter war and to contain communism within the lines of demarcation established at the end of World War II. This policy was characterized by a nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union and a series of conventional wars and limited engagements where smaller countries, with the assistance of the major nuclear powers, fought to establish communist or democratic governments. It continued until 1989 when the communist governments of Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed. The guaranteed mass destruction of nuclear weapons did serve to prevent a direct confrontation between the two superpowers and the Soviet policy to promote communism and the U.S. policy advocating democracy was carried out indirectly through the political struggles of other nations.
After 1945, the U.S. Navy, as well as the Army and Air Force (established as an independent service from the Army in 1947) began to develop strategies to address the growing tensions of the postwar world and to implement the nation’s security policy. As such the Navy sought to build a fleet capable of waging or deterring war, one which would complement the Army and the Air Force's ability to deliver nuclear weapons against land-based targets.
World War II firmly established the role of aviation within naval operations and carriers replaced battleships as the Navy’s primary weapon of force. As well, by the late 1940s, nuclear weapons could be delivered by carrier bombers or guided missiles carried on submarines, cruisers, or carriers. Thus, carrier aircraft, which had transitioned from propeller to jet propulsion, were initially the preferred means for the Navy to carry out nuclear bombardment of strategic sites. To meet this objective, the Navy began to center its fleet on the carrier attack force. Postwar developments in carrier design thus involved the construction of larger carriers capable of supporting heavier jet aircraft and nuclear weapons. In addition to increased size, three major design changes reflective of these needs would be developed and incorporated into postwar carrier designs. These included an angled flight deck which allowed simultaneous take-off and landing of carrier air groups, steam catapults which provided the additional boost jets needed for take-off, and mirrored landing systems which assisted the jet pilot in carrier landings.
Due to restricted defense budgets in the first years following World War II, the Navy was not authorized to construct new carriers. However, conversion of existing vessels and completion of vessels begun under wartime appropriations were authorized. As such, the 24 Essex-class carriers remaining at the end of the war provided the Navy with its initial fleet of postwar attack carriers. Most of these ships were modernized under various conversion programs beginning in 1948 and continuing into the 1960s in which they received angled decks, steam catapults, and upgrades in weapons and fire control systems. These modifications allowed them to meet the postwar naval mission until replaced by new carriers and re-designated to serve in anti-submarine, training, or other carrier support roles.
Although the Midway class of carriers was developed during World War II none were completed before the end of hostilities. Unlike the Essex design that was based on pre-war Yorktown class, the CVB large carriers were not limited by 1922 treaty-imposed restrictions in displacement. Thus, the Midways were much larger than the Essexes and incorporated an armored flight deck to protect against surface fire and aerial bombardment. With these characteristics, the Midways were the only carriers that could operate postwar weapons and early jet aircraft without any modifications until the late 1950s at which time they received upgrades that included angled flight decks and steam catapults. The Midway class bridged the transition from the pre-jet, treaty-limited carriers of World War II and the large postwar type “supercarriers” designed to accommodate heavier aircraft and weapons.
The USS United States was to be the first postwar class of large supercarriers. Development of the design, the size and shape of the hull, and angled flight deck was to be determined primarily by the characteristics of the heaviest aircraft the carrier would operate.
In acquiring a long-range, carrier-based nuclear weapons delivery capability, the Navy ran afoul of the newly independent Air Force, which viewed such activities as infringing on its responsibility for strategic air operations. Whatever the Navy’s intent with respect to strategic bombing, the development of systems such as the flush-deck supercarrier that enhanced its ability to deliver nuclear weapons appeared to many in the other services, in Congress, and in the general public to duplicate unnecessarily the capabilities of the Air Force’s strategic bombers, especially the long-range B–36. Consequently, in April 1949, Louis Johnson, who had become secretary of defense only the previous month, suddenly ordered a halt to construction of the flush-deck supercarrier, designated United States, without consulting the Navy’s civilian and uniformed leadership.
Several of the Navy’s highest-ranking officers, including Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, the chief of naval operations, sharply criticized the B–36 and strategic bombardment, and vigorously affirmed the value of the supercarrier and naval aviation. This episode, known as the “revolt of the admirals,” resulted in the firing of Admiral Denfeld, who had publicly contradicted not only the views of the secretary of the Navy, his immediate civilian superior, but also those of the secretary of defense.
The perception that the Navy’s effort to develop a capability to deliver nuclear weapons by air stemmed from rivalry with the Air Force contributed to decreases in funding for operation of the Navy’s attack carriers. In FY 1949, 11 attack carriers were in service; in FY 1950, Congress appropriated money to support only 8; and for FY 1951, Secretary of Defense Johnson planned to cut the number to 4. Furthermore, the cancellation of United States meant several years’ delay in providing the fleet with a new attack carrier. The supercarrier had been scheduled for completion in 1952; the carrier Forrestal, its replacement, would not be commissioned until 1955.
In the early 1950s, technology borrowed from the British enabled the carrier to keep pace with the jet. The most important innovation was the angled deck, described by one former naval aviator as the “savior of the tailhook Navy.” In this configuration, the carrier’s flight deck became, in effect, two runways. One was the traditional axial arrangement paralleling the island superstructure. The second runway, the angled deck, was coincident with the axial deck at the aft end of the ship but proceeded at an angle to the left and away from the island superstructure. This angled-deck arrangement created more deck space, permitted the simultaneous launch and recovery of aircraft, and made flight operations much safer. In 1952, the Navy began modifying its attack carriers with angled decks, including Forrestal, already under construction. A second British technological innovation adopted by the Navy was the steam-driven catapult that was capable of propelling a 70,000-pound aircraft to a speed in excess of 140 mph.
Although Congress cancelled construction of the United States in 1949, the concepts of the design were carried over into the Forrestal class and subsequent carrier designs. The four ships of the Forrestal class, completed 1955-1959, were the first large postwar supercarriers built from the keel up, incorporating angled deck, steam catapults, and the capacity to launch nuclear and conventional strikes. After Forrestal, the U.S. Navy brought nuclear propulsion to carrier operations with the construction of Enterprise, completed in 1961. The Navy returned to conventional power with the Kitty Hawk class, completed 1961-1968, which was essentially an improved version of Forrestal. With the Nimitz class, completed 1975- 2001, the Navy returned to building nuclear-powered carriers.
Development of the attack carrier forces would also involve advances in anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and anti-submarine weapons to provide protection to the carriers. Designs in cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts evolved to carry these nuclear or conventional weapons and focused more exclusively on protection duty. Ultimately the submarine would become the Navy vessel most suitable to deliver long-range nuclear warheads. The Regulus I and II, long-range cruise missiles designed to be launched from submarines and adapted for cruisers and carriers, were used from 1954-1964 and provided a means for delivering nuclear warheads to land targets. Regulus II was cancelled in favor of developing the Polaris intercontinental ballistic missile system. Polaris differed from earlier submarine-launched missiles in that it could be fired from underwater. Polaris was followed by the Poseidon (early 1970s) and Trident (early 1980s) systems.
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