Cities at Sea: How Aircraft Carriers Work

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11:54   |   Dec 26, 2018


Cities at Sea: How Aircraft Carriers Work
Cities at Sea: How Aircraft Carriers Work thumb Cities at Sea: How Aircraft Carriers Work thumb Cities at Sea: How Aircraft Carriers Work thumb


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  • A single aircraft carrier is enough to markedly change the level of a nation’s military
  • might.
  • 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 each 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 and more 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 were an 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.
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[1] https://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/10/18/how-many-people-live-near-the
[2] https://web.archive.org/web/20180906195559/http://www.nvr.navy.mil/SHIPDETAILS/SHIPSDETAIL_CVN_68_5151.HTML
[3] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/europe/cdg-design.htm; http://www.parisaeroport.fr/docs/default-source/groupe-fichiers/presse/cp_janvier-mars-2017/fr-cp-trafic-decembre-2016.pdf?sfvrsn=2
[4] https://www.navy.mil/navydata/ships/carriers/powerhouse/cvbg.asp
[5] https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/how-the-worlds-first-nuclear-powered-aircraft-carrier-19491
[6] https://web.archive.org/web/20120119091625/http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/The-Fleet/Ships/Future-Ships/Queen-Elizabeth-Class/Facts-and-Figures
[7] https://nimitznews.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/sail-mail-the-nimitz-post-office/
[8] https://www.embraercommercialaviation.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Embraer_spec_145_web.pdf
[9] https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/step-aboard-nimitz-class-aircraft-carrier-reason-why-us-navy-unstoppable-25356
[10] https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a24409627/aircraft-carrier-obsolete/

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