Why aircraft carriers may be good for parking cars but not landing new jets
Sailors' cars fill the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during transit up the U.S. West Coast.
January 16th, 2012
11:33 AM ET

Why aircraft carriers may be good for parking cars but not landing new jets

As this third week in January starts, we're learning three things about the U.S. military aircraft carrier program:

– The Pentagon may be looking at reducing the number of carriers in the U.S. fleet from 11 to 10 to save money.

– The military's new F-35C Joint Strike Fighter may not be suitable for carrier use.

– Aircraft carriers make fine automobile transports.

On the first point, The Washington Times reports, citing unnamed sources, that the U.S. Navy may be trying to cut one of its 11 carriers to save money.

Congress has mandated by law that the Navy maintain 11 carriers. But the Pentagon is also under orders from the Obama administration to cut $488 billion from its budget within the next 10 years, Rowan Scarborough reports in the Times.

Cutting a carrier, along with the other forces that make up and support a carrier battle group, could save the Navy billions of dollars, according to the Times report.

An F-35C test aircraft launches from a test catapult in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

As for the F-35C, reports have begun circulating that the aircraft the military says is "the most affordable, lethal, supportable and survivable aircraft ever to be used by so many warfighters across the globe" won't be able to land on aircraft carriers, apparently because its tailhook is too short and is situated too close to its landing gear for the plane to properly grab the arresting cables that enable planes to land on aircraft carriers.

The report was first seen last week on the website aviationintel.com and was backed up by a report in London's Sunday Times that has been picked up by press across Britain.

Aviationintel.com reported that the design flaw is not fixable because there's just not enough space on the belly of the F-35C to move the tailhook back.

British naval sources said the flaws could place the entire JSF program in jeopardy, according to a report in The Daily Telegraph. Britain was expected to buy about 50 of the planes, the Telegraph reported.

Jim Murphy, the shadow defense secretary, said, "An island nation like ours should be able to operate aeroplanes from an aircraft carrier. The government must come clean on the full impact of the defense review. It's essential we know how long we will be without carrier strike capability," according to the Telegraph report.

Just last week, the U.S. Marine Corps reported it welcomed its first F-35B into its fleet. The first Marine jets will be used for training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the Corps said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the website Jalopnik reports that aircraft carriers also make great automobile carriers and save the Navy money in the process.

Photos from the USS Ronald Reagan show its flight deck loaded with the personal vehicles of sailors as the carrier travels along the West Coast to Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Washington, where the carrier will undergo maintenance.

And the saving money part?

"First, the only other way to get vehicles owned by Navy sailors to their final destinations is to put them in another ship. Second, if they didn't send soldiers' vehicles they'd have to pay for transportation at the final destination. Both of which would absolutely cost more money," Jalopnik points out.

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Filed under: Marines • Military • Pentagon • U.S. Navy • United Kingdom
soundoff (455 Responses)
  1. Aero Designer

    I am an aerospace engineer that works on defense programs, although not fighter jets anymore. I suggest you dig into this fellows site deeper, especially on the F-35 topic, before accusing him of not knowing what he is talking about. He writes for major magazines you can buy in any book store and I hear him on national radio programs here in NYC. He is correct, some of the comments here are sad as they do not look at the problem critically. A longer hook will necessitate a redesign of the bottom of the F-35, which is more complicated than in conventional designs prior that were not configured where every curve, every angle, and every coating is optimized for stealth. This is a very complicated process. Plus, if you redesign one version (there are 3) you have to redesign at least parts of all of them, and considering there are many that have already been built or are on the production floor or the components are in production this is a massive change order that would result in billions of cost overruns most likely and some airframes will never be operationally viable. You are dealing with multiple issues here, a hook that is not long enough, not shaped right, does not have the right tension, and scariest of all, one that is not far enough back from the mail wheels. This is not something you can change without scrapping the design of the jet in full. YES, maybe a telescoping version could be designed, but this is a piece of the jet that pilots and ground-crew bet their lives on aboard carriers. It needs to be over-engineered and super robust, moving parts are not something you want included in the design considering the massive loads that are induced on the component every time the jet lands.

    Another key point, many just blow this off saying the Navy can just buy the version that lands vertically, this is not possible. Our carriers are built at great cost to benefit from catapult and and barrier fixed wing operations. The Marines B model that can takeoff in short distances and land vertically is much less of an airplane than the Navy's C model. The B model cannot carry 2000lb class weapons internally, this basically takes large key targets off its target list for deep strike. Instead it can carry only 1000lb class weapons internally, fine for the marines mission but not for the Navy's. Second, it has much less fuel. The C model has a larger wing and much greater range, allowing it make deep strikes on the enemy and loiter for decent amount of times, whereas the B is more of a "beach and back" aircraft similar to the Harrier it replaces, although more capable. Finally the B model is much more expensive to purchase and operate and much more complicated overall. These are apples and oranges folks, they may look similar but they are actually different jets. I hope this helps clear up some issues.

    January 17, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thunder

      As a civilian contractor I witnessed tests a Lakehurst NAS of the F35C. There are no issues with the US style system, A I recall Britain went to smaller carriers for there jump jet aircraft. These had small ramps to aid these jets to "hop" into the air, the arresting systems are on the takeoff runways, so the cables are on "the Deck". this is the issue. US carriers do not have any problems.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Otto

      Thanks for some real thinking on this issue. Too many 'commenters' have no idea what they are talking about, these are complex technical issues that rarely have simple fixes.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:37 am | Report abuse |
  2. DC2(SW) USNR

    Doesn't the writter of this article realize that the Navy has always used any ship with a sizeable flight deck for POV transportation? Even an older Austin class LPD can carry vehicles on the flight deck, well deck, upper and lower vehicle. I would know, I have seen it first hand bringing sailor's vehicles back from Hawaii onboard USS Denver. The Navy has always saved money this way, even though I watched a prestine '66 Mustang's chrome ruined on the flight deck by salt spray. I would suggest hitting the books again as suggested by Aero Designer.

    January 17, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Aero Designer

    I don't get it, what is wrong with loading sailors cars onto a flattop when when it is re-basing itself for a prolonged period of time? Its the least we could do for our sailors who work 6-7 day, 12 hour a day, work weeks and live inside coffin sized racks for months at a time. Hell the Navy should transport more commercial freight for these repositioning cruises as there is no flight ops and a carrier has a MASSIVE amount of space in its hangar bay for freight.

    January 17, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Axinex

    May I note that the source of the "tail hook too short" bit of this article is a British naval official. The design of the British carrier arresting gear is substantially different (and not even a completed design, may I note) from the American carrier arresting gear. As for the American segment of the F-35C project, there has been no delay. However, I can't say the same for the international segment of the project with any amount of certainty.

    January 17, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Chuck

    This is a common practice and has been going on for years. Saves the taxpayer tons of money in travel costs! Geez people get over it!

    January 17, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ChrkeePrde

    Yeah well lets see: Cost of 1 NimizAircraft carrier = $4.5 B
    Cost of 1 F-35 = $185 M

    So roughly 1 Nimitz = 25 F-35s

    Insane.

    January 17, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • dbarak

      You're dealing in dollar amounts from different eras, my friend. $4.5 billion is in 1997 dollars, while the contract for CVN-78, in 2005, was $5.2 billion. So adjust for six years' inflation and then compare it with the price of a single aircraft and you'll get a much more accurate figure you can whine about.

      January 18, 2012 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
  7. Testecles

    Why is it allowable in this bad government period we have lived in for 50 years, that a new multi billion dollar plane is so poorly designed..I say place the designers..aviation executives and a few admiral's in front of a firing squad..end of problem...

    January 17, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      Did you even read ANY of the above responding posts? This may not work for the Brits but its fine on an American Carrier.

      January 18, 2012 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  8. Johnny boy

    I think I figured out a way to save billiions...Just have a guy on each end of the arresting cable hold it up in the air when the jet comes i to land.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
  9. Marco

    Everybody... this article is intended for those who cannot think for themselves (CNN?) or who cannot do research for themselves.
    But if you are interested...:

    http://www.defensenews.com/article/20120117/DEFREG02/301170010/Design-Blamed-F-35C-Tailhook-Issues?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE

    January 18, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
  10. Aero Designer

    Axinex- This was all detailed in the leaked DoD report, you are totally wrong. Why mislead?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:28 am | Report abuse |
  11. 4commonsensenow

    The future, the future...of warfare? Thats what we are talking bout right? Only 11 carriers? hmm doesnt sound like much, I mean to go round the world as a saviour. As most of the disinformation stories go, its a soft play to lend more support to the drone force, the future. Just need a base for those, no carrier. When it comes to saving money, doesnt matter what the subject, waste is obvious, then ask how long does it take to get a task done, is that inefficient. Personally thought planes would have gotten smaller like cars by now :)

    January 18, 2012 at 4:37 am | Report abuse |
  12. Nayem

    Okay... stupid question... can't they put the tailhook in a spot on the plane where it will fit given the plane's configuration, and have it be telescoping, so when it drops, it also shoots out a ways? Seems to me that it simply cannot be that hard to fix this. Admittedly, I am not an AEROSPACE engineer, but I do know there's more than one way to skin a cat. If a telescoping tailhook doesn't do it, how about a rear-ward firing combination sandbag and grappling hook set. It shoots out the back on a cable (to get is far enough behind the plane) the sandbag absorbs impact energy with the deck, (not literally a sandbag, it would have to be MUCH more durable) but to keep it from bouncing or ricocheting, and have the sandbag ringed with a whole bunch of hooks, to catch the wire. OR... make it have retractable flaps that extend so far that it has a stall speed with full flaps of like... 50 mph. Or convert it to sea plane, and have it land next to or behind (perpendicular to) the carrier, and recover it with a crane... Surely with all the money they had, and spent making it a JOINT strike fighter, they can overcome a MINOR problem like this. How about fitting the carrier with a different cable, or even... OOOOHHHH! How about this... have the deck retractable, so the deck the plane takes off from slides out of the way revealing... basically what is on a runaway truck ramp... gravel or somesuch. You could even refit the carrier so the deck is completely gravel, and just fit the fighters with skids for take-off to slide over the gravel, or replace the deck with gravel and retractable trays, that the planes would take off using, that would be free of gravel... since the plane's path OFF the deck is probably fairly predictable, (compared to landing, where there is leeway in either direction) the part that has to be smooth is a lot smaller for a plane taking off than landing, hence the tracks idea.

    Of course, I've always wondered why they don't just have them all be sea-planes, take off and land from the water... or use VSTOL, then the runway is not really even relevant. Just duct the thrust and make it so it can lift straight up.

    Here's one more crazy idea, then I'll go. What if you simply attached the plane to a pole, (a big pole, obviously) and let it take off just flying in tight little circles, playing out the line as the craft accelerates, letting it go once it gets up to speed, like the reverse of a tetherball wrapping itself around the poll. Probably would have to give the pilot extra air-sickness bags for takeoff...

    But someone should look into the gravel idea. If gravel can stop an 80,000 pound vehicle that was going 70Mph, it should be able to slow one enough that weighs a lot less... wait, how much does the JSF weigh? :) 27,000? Way lighter. But anyway...

    January 18, 2012 at 5:07 am | Report abuse |
    • v3rlon

      A telescoping tailhook has issues (see the real aerospace guy above for that). Moving anything on a stealth plane is a big deal, nevermind the aerodynamic implications at mach speeds. You cannot simply lift the wire because the actual landing gear might catch it. A rearward firing anything introduces multiple points of failure in something that is already so dangerous many pilots think of aerial combat as a distraction from the risk. It is also more easily damaged than a solid hunk of metal in combat should your fighter do any fighting. Larger flaps reach a point of diminishing returns, nevermind more redisigning and more weight for less performance and less fuel. You cannot land a seaplane in as rough weather as you can a carrier based plane, they are much harder to maintain, and you still have to get them all the way up to the carrier somehow. Then there is salt in the turbine (how many sea plane jets have you seen? Think there might be a reason), someone would mention environmental concerns, and you still have to redesign the entrire airplane even more extensively than just modding the tailhook which is difficult enough as it is. Does that cover it?

      January 18, 2012 at 7:27 am | Report abuse |
  13. Nayem

    Corollary idea: Cover the deck in a sort of ultra-heavy-duty tarp, and when a plane is taking off, have it just lay against the deck. When a plane is getting ready to land, inflate it with water, or some other viscous fluid. The wheels pushing the fluid out of the way will absorb the kinetic energy going forward. With enough drains, the deck could be cleared in seconds after a landing for another take-off. Of course, the tarp would have to be EXTREMELY heavy duty. Or you could always just make the top a very shallow water-container. You'd have to use that much more force on the catapult for takeoff, but hey... it could de-necessitate the cable, and therefore also make the tailhook obsolete, so having a tailhook that's too short becomes a non-issue. The good part is the US Navy only has, what 11 of these things? So you'd only need to build this modification less than a dozen times, plus a few more for allies' navies, if they have carriers, and then problem's solved.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:22 am | Report abuse |
    • v3rlon

      I was tempted to write "go buy a cessna and try this. Your widow can report on the results," but that might be a bit harsh. What you are suggesting here is about like landing on an unimproved runway IF (big, big IF) you can get all the kinks worked out. Is the tarp heavy duty enough, how do you make SURE it does not wrinkle and kill someone, etc. Landing gear has to be redesigned to land on unimproved runways as the gear is put under more stress than normal. You still have to the same problem, but larger, than redesigning the tailhook.

      January 18, 2012 at 7:34 am | Report abuse |
  14. JDavis

    The F-35 program is projected to cost one trillion dollars over its lifespan–and that's before the usual 300% cost overruns. It's the most expensive boondoggle the military has going, and should be scrapped immediately.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:54 am | Report abuse |
  15. Mohammed Goldberg

    The US Navy has three things. Targets that float, targets that sit on land, and submarines.....

    January 18, 2012 at 7:25 am | Report abuse |
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