Cities at Sea: How Aircraft Carriers Work

These ships are one of the strongest single assets a military can have. In general, under international law, aircraft carriers can legally position themselves up to 14 miles or 22 kilometers from any country’s coast. Clearly, the strategic influence of being able to place a military airbase just miles from any coast in the world is enormous especially given that 80% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles or 100 kilometers from the ocean.

While plenty of military vessels are capable of launching helicopters, there are just 19 aircraft carriers worldwide currently in service capable of launching fixed-wing airplanes. China, Thailand, India, Russia, and France each have one; Italy has two; and the US has the eleven largest in the world. These largest carriers require over 6,000 people to operate and often stay deployed for up to a year. They are fully fledged cities at sea. The most advanced aircraft carriers like the French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle are capable of launching an aircraft every 30 seconds. That means that, for a brief period, when launching aircraft at its maximum rate, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle becomes busier than Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

To be able to achieve such a capability on a moving ship is no easy feat. While the operation of these vessels gives militaries enormous strategic advantage, they also represent one of their greatest operational challenges. An aircraft carrier’s offensive weapon is its aircraft. Onboard, carriers tend to only have a small number of defensive weapons such as surface-to-air missiles and machine guns. But of course, just like any powerful military asset, these carriers are big targets. It is for this reason that carriers never travel alone while on deployment. While the exact composition can change depending on the mission, the carrier strike groups American carriers travel with are typically made up of a guided missile cruiser equipped with tomahawk missiles, two guided missile destroyers, an attack submarine, and a supply ship.

An aircraft carrier is the flagship of this strike group meaning that, in it’s command area, it not only has a bridge and air traffic control center, it also has a flag bridge where an admiral commands the entire strike group. Each of the group’s ships serve some combination of offensive and defensive roles. The only exception is the supply ship. Most aircraft carriers don’t need regular refueling. All eleven American carriers and the French one are nuclear powered meaning they can sail an unlimited distance for twenty-five years without refueling. Even conventionally powered aircraft carriers like the UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth can travel up to 12,000 miles or 18,000 kilometers without refueling making the need for stops infrequent.

While an American or French carrier could hypothetically sail nonstop for years or even decades, what they can’t do is carry enough food, which is always needed, and aviation fuel, which is needed for combat operations, to stay at sea for more than a few weeks at a time. It would be inefficient and place the carriers in a position of vulnerability to have to visit a port every few weeks to restock especially during combat operations so they don’t—they restock while at sea. The supply ships that move as part of the strike group will sail off to a nearby port to take on fuel, ammunition, food, and mail, sail back to the strike group, then match speed and maneuver alongside the carrier. From there the two ships will shoot lines across to each other.

These lines are used to pull hoses over to the carrier which are used to transfer aviation fuel. To transfer solid supplies, there are two methods. The first is attaching pallets to dollies that wheel cargo across to the carrier like a zipline. The second method, which is considered simpler yet more dangerous, is using helicopters to pick up pallets from the resupply ship and flying them over to the carrier. These transfers bring both crucial supplies like food and some less crucial items like mail but this isn’t the only way mail arrives on American aircraft carriers. Each carrier actually has a mailing address just like any building in the US. For example, this is the USS Gerald R. Ford’s address. Families of sailors can send mail to these addresses in the same way that they would to to any other and, in fact, it costs the exact same as a shipment to any other US address—even if the ship is on the other side of the world.

Sailors can even order packages online to their ship. Expedited mail often makes it from an address in the US to a carrier sailing somewhere around the world in just ten days. Having this speed requires more frequent deliveries than those of the logistics ships but conveniently, carriers are airports at sea. American carriers currently use a fleet of C-2 Greyhound’s as cargo aircraft providing a high-frequency, often daily connection between carriers and shore. When cruising in the South China Sea, for example, as the USS Ronald Reagan did in November, 2018, mail might be sent to Singapore via conventional means.

A C-2 Greyhound would then fly from the ship to Singapore, pick up the mail, and fly back to the ship. As carriers sail around the world, the pick-up points of the C-2 Greyhounds are continuously shifted to nearby friendly nations. While mail does wonders for increasing crew morale, that’s actually the lowest priority cargo for the C-2 Greyhounds. The aircraft are integral for bringing on spare parts for all the carrier’s aircraft and transporting VIP’s, press, and other individuals to and from the carriers.

This C-2 Greyhound is about the same size as an Embraer 145—a civilian aircraft capable of carrying 50 people—so it’s not tiny. The longest aircraft carrier in the world, which also happens to be the newest, is the USS Gerald R. Ford but even she is only 1,106 feet or 337 meters long. With commercial airports, a runway of 5,000 feet or 1,500 meters, like the one at London City Airport in London, is considered short while large airports like London Heathrow will have runaways longer than 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters. So how do C-2 Greyhounds and other aircraft on carriers deal with having runways of only 1,100 feet or 330 meters long?

They don’t. They take off with just 325 feet or 99 meters of space. All US and French carriers use a system of catapults to get aircraft up to takeoff speed within three to four seconds. This allows these carriers to launch decently sized aircraft, like the C-2 Greyhound, with their relatively short decks. Other carriers, like the Chinese and Indian ones, don’t have catapults so they can only launch lighter, shorter range aircraft capable of taking off with a very short runway. Both these two types of carriers have arrestor wires that aircraft catch on landing to decelerate with the short distance given.

Every other aircraft carrier out there can only operate with aircraft capable of vertical landing. What takes place on the flight deck is carefully choreographed chaos. On American carriers, everyone’s job is easily identifiable by the color shirt they wear. Yellow shirts deal with navigating aircraft around the deck. Blue shirts are assistants to yellow shirts driving tugs, operating elevators, delivering messages, and more. Red shirts do all the handling and mounting of ammunition. Purple shirts manage aircraft fueling. Green shirts are worn by a few different groups including catapult crews, maintenance personnel, cargo handlers, and more. White shirts are also worn by a mix of personnel including those helping aircraft land, working as medical personnel, and more. And lastly, brown shirts are worn by plane captains who are not those that fly the aircraft—they’re individually in charge of overseeing all work for getting an aircraft ready for flight. The flight deck is a dangerous place given its small size. It’s so small that all the carrier’s aircraft can’t fit on it but of course just below the flight deck is the hangar.

A large carrier can carry up to 100 aircraft so massive elevators bring aircraft from the flight deck to the hangar for storage when not in use. About 6,000 people work and live aboard eac American carrier. 3,200 of them have jobs relating to running the ship itself. That includes everything from working in the engine room, maintaining the nuclear reactor, cleaning the decks, to actually working up in the bridge commanding the ship. Many of these jobs are below deck and, since all the above deck space is used for flight operations, many onboard can go weeks without seeing sunlight. 2,500 other personnel are part of the carrier’s air wing.

If this was an airbase on land, these would be everyone working there including air traffic controllers, aircraft mechanics, fuelers, pilots, and more. The few hundred remaining personnel work assorted other jobs. In terms of personal space, enlisted personnel, the vast majority of those onboard, only get a single bunk in a room with sometimes more than a hundred others. Higher ranked individuals, though, of course have more spacious accommodations. As long-term homes for thousands of people, these ships also have a few small luxuries like stores, gyms, barber shops, lounges andmore but space is at a premium when 6,000 people are packed into one floating hull and the mission is paramount. Since their heyday in World War Two, some have started to question the place aircraft carriers have in modern warfare. Every operating country aside from the US tend to, at any given moment, have their ships either in combat, in training, or at home. The US tends to use its carriers for a forth function—power projection. At any given moment, there is almost certainly an American carrier cruising somewhere in the world. In fact, January 2017 was the first time since World War Two that there was not an American aircraft carrier on deployment.

 Even if there wasn’t an aircraft carrier on deployment, they’re fast. They have a top speed of 35 miles or 56 kilometers per hour meaning that a Norfolk, Virginia based carrier could get to the Middle East in just a week. In the Pacific, the US has an even greater advantage since it has the USS Ronald Reagan based in Yokosuka, Japan from where it could reach the shores of North Korea, for example, in just 29 hours. American carriers spend plenty of time just cruising around the world’s oceans reminding other country’s of the US military’s power. For example, the USS Ronald Reagan returned from a four-month deployment from August to December 2018 during which it saw zero combat.

It spent much of the time cruising around the South China Sea—an area in which China is attempting to assert military control much to the US’ displeasure. Elsewhere in Asia, American carriers also regularly make visits to the Korean peninsula to remind North Korea of their presence. This reached a peak in November 2017 as tensions with North Korea reached a peak when three American carriers loomed near the Korean shores. With their enormous power, though, aircraft carriers represent an enormous target especially in the era of stealthy drones and precise missiles. The sinking of a single US aircraft carrier could result in more American military deaths than the entire Iraq war in addition to the loss of tens of billions of dollars in military assets.

While no aircraft carrier of any nation has been sunk since World War Two, it’s potentially more possible than one would think. US carriers regularly participate in war games where combat conditions are simulated with allies. There have been two concerning incidents in 2005 and 2015 where Swedish and French submarines, respectively, have “won” the games against US carriers. What this means is that the two country’s submarines approached close enough to the carriers where they could have, if they werean enemy in real combat, launched torpedoes and potentially sank the carriers.

This, in essence, proves that aircraft carriers, with all their defense, are not as unsinkable as some may say. Meanwhile, the US has already received the first of ten in a new class of carriers while China, India, and the UK each have carriers under construction so, despite their possible obsolescence, we can be sure that the aircraft carrier won’t be leaving the world’s oceans anytime soon. I have a logic question for you. Suppose there are two doors and the first has a sign on it saying, “If this door is safe, the other door is deadly.” If that sign is false, what do you know about the doors?

Which are deadly and which are safe? Take a moment to think about it and, if you figure out the answer, leave it in the comments. This is a question from's logic quiz which teaches you analytical skills through logical puzzles. That’s just one of many superbly designed courses on Brilliant through which you can learn about dozens of topics including group theory, multivariable calculus, statistics, number theory, machine learning, and more. They’re experts on teaching scary, complicated subjects in a way in which you can actually understand them by breaking them down into their fundamental principles.

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