American aircraft carriers will peak in 2024

U.S. flattops could increase from 19 to 23 in the next decade — hugely outnumbering foreign fleets

The United States possesses more, bigger and more heavily-armed warships than any other country. By some measures, the U.S. Navy maintains a 13-navy standard. In other words, it can deploy as much combat power as the next 13 largest fleets combined.

And in one very important respect, the American fleet is actually at a temporary low point — and will only grow more powerful in the coming decade. Today the U.S. Navy has 19 aircraft carriers capable of operating fixed-wing jets, down from a couple dozen in the 1990s.

But based on projections in the sailing branch's annual shipbuilding report, the American flattop fleet will grow to a whopping 23 ships by 2024 … before modestly declining in following years.

That's a lot of aircraft carriers. By comparison, today the rest of the world can deploy just nine flattops. That number might slightly increase in the next 10 years. But it's almost certain that in 2024, Washington will command an even greater proportion of the world's at-sea aerial firepower than it does in 2014.

The American carrier force includes big and small ships — although, in fact, the "small" vessels are still among the largest warships in the world. Today 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class supercarriers — each a thousand feet long and displacing 100,000 tons of water — comprise the big part. A Nimitz can carry 60 or more aircraft including four dozen F/A-18 fighters.

Nine non-nuclear amphibious assault ships complement the supercarriers. The eight 830-foot-long, 40,000-ton Wasp-class assault ship — plus a single, older Tarawa-class vessel — lack the Nimitz's catapults and arresting wires, so their only fixed-wing planes are short-takeoff, vertical-landing Harrier jump jets.

A normal Harrier complement is six planes, but in a pinch an assault ship can crowd 20 of the attack jets on its deck and in its hangar.

By 2024, two new Ford-class supercarriers will have joined the 10 Nimitzs. The single Tarawa will have decommissioned, replaced by three new America-class assault ships carrying F-35B stealth jump jets.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world will probably add a handful of new flattops, at most. France and Brazil are struggling to maintain just a single medium-size carrier apiece. Spain and Italy each have one Harrier-carrier. The U.K. is building two 60,000-ton non-nuclear flattops for F-35Bs but might keep only one of them. Australia is buying a pair of assault ships but hasn't decided yet whether to also acquire F-35Bs.

India has two second-hand medium carriers. China has one 50,000-ton example. Both countries are spending a lot of money trying to build brand-new large flattops. By 2024, China might have up to three new, 100,000-ton nuclear-powered carriers. Russia, today with one decrepit flattop, lacks the expertise to easily build a replacement vessel.

So leaving aside America's friends and allies, in the coming decade the 23-strong U.S. carrier fleet could face a rival force of maybe three vessels carrying fixed-wing planes. And if the whole world for some reason decided to attack America in 2024, the U.S. Navy could still meet the maximum combined force of 14 foreign flattops with a fleet half again bigger.

Now let's imagine Congress cuts the U.S. sailing branch's $100-billion annual budget. A draconian 20-percent reduction in spending a decade from now could shrink the American carrier fleet to 19 vessels.

That's right — the same number the U.S. possesses today.

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