What Happened to the Nuclear-Armed Forrestal-Class Aircraft Carrier?

Key point: All of the services in the early Cold War jockeyed over who would get what. The fight over the cost of super aircraft carriers and having nuclear weapons was one of them.

In the wake of the mushroom clouds that blossomed over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it swiftly dawned on political and military leaders across the globe that warfare between superpowers would never again be the same. But what exactly were the implications of nuclear weapons when it came to planning military force structure?

In the United States, it was assumed that nuclear weapons would be widely employed in future conflicts, rendering conventional land armies and fleets at sea irrelevant. The newly formed Air Force particularly argued that carrier task forces and armored divisions were practically obsolete when (ostensibly) just a few air-dropped nuclear bombs could annihilate them in one fell swoop.

The Air Force touted it soon-to-be operational fleet of ten-thousand-mile-range B-36 Peacemaker nuclear bombers as the only vital war-winning weapon of the nuclear age. This logic resonated conveniently with the postwar political program mandating sharp cuts to U.S. defense spending and force structure—which the Air Force naturally argued should fall upon the Army and Navy.

The Army responded by devising “Pentomic Divisions” organized for nuclear battlefields, with weapons ranging from nuclear-armed howitzers and rocket artillery to bazooka-like Davy Crockett recoilless guns. The Navy, meanwhile, sought to find a way to integrate nuclear bombs into its carrier air wings. However, early nuclear bombs were simply too heavy for World War II-era carrier-based aircraft.

In 1945, the Navy began commissioning three larger forty-five-thousand-ton Midway-class carriers which incorporated armored flight decks for added survivability. The decks were swiftly modified to angular, effectively lengthened configuration for jet operations. Neptune P2V-C3 maritime patrol planes converted into nuclear bombers could take off from Midway-class carriers using rocket-pods but would have no way landing on the carrier deck.

Therefore, the Navy decided it needed huge supercarriers from which it could operate its own fifty-ton strategic bombers. These would displace over 40 percent more than the Midway at sixty-eight thousand tons, and measure 12 percent longer at 330-meters. In July 1948, Defense Secretary James Forrestal approved plans for five such carriers, the first named USS United States with hull number CVA-58.

The naval heavy bombers (which didn’t exist yet) were expected to have such wide wings that naval architects decided that CVA-58 would have a completely flush deck without the standard “island” superstructure carrying a radar and flight control tower. Instead, the carrier would feature side-mounted telescoping smokestacks that could be raised should smoke impeded flight operations, and a similarly retractable wheelhouse that could be extended to observe navigation and flight operations.

The ship’s air wings would include twelve to eighteen heavy bombers that would mostly remain parked on the flight deck, exposed to the elements. Four side-mounted elevators would ferry forty to fifty-four jet fighters between the hangar and flight deck to escort the bombers. Eight nuclear bombs per heavy bomber would also be stowed in the hangar. The combined ship’s company and airwing would total 5,500 personnel.

The carrier’s oddly-shaped deck included four steam catapults—two for use by bombers, and two axial “waist” catapults.

Because the ship would be effectively blind without an elevated radar and control tower, a separate cruiser was intended to serve as the carrier’s “eyes.” Nonetheless, CVA-58 still incorporated eight 5-inch guns for air defense, and dozens of rapid-fire short-range cannons.

The “Revolt of the Admirals”

Though theoretically capable of contributing to conventional strike and sea control missions, the heavy bomber-equipped CVA-58 was clearly an attempt by the Navy to duplicate the Air Force’s strategic nuclear strike capabilities.

This put giant crosshairs on the program during an era of sharp defense cuts. After all, deploying strategic bombers at sea was many times more expensive than basing them on land.

Following his reelection in November 1948, President Harry Truman replaced Forrestal—a naval aviator in World War I, and former secretary of the Navy—with Louis Johnson, who had fewer qualms about enforcing defense spending cuts.

In April 1949, just five days after CVA-58’s fifteen-ton keel was laid down in Newport News, Virginia, Johnson canceled the mega-carrier. He also began advocating dissolution of the Marine Corps, starting by transferring its aviation assets to the Air Force.

This upset the Navy bigwigs so much that Navy Secretary John Sullivan resigned, and numerous admirals began openly opposing the termination of a project they viewed as essential to validating their branch’s existence in the nuclear age.

This “Revolt of the Admirals” developed into a crisis in civil-military relations, as the Navy’s top brass defied the authority of their civilian commander-in-chief and resorted to covert methods in an attempt to influence public opinion. The Op-23 naval intelligence unit formed by Adm. Louis Denfeld secretly circulated a memo called the Worth Paper alleging that Johnson had corrupt motivations due to being a former director of Convair, manufacturer of B-36 bombers, which were also claimed to be deficient.

The bitter inter-service rivalry, and the utility of land-based bombers versus carriers, was publicly litigated in congressional hearings. The Army also piled on against the Navy, and public opinion turned against the sea-warfare branch as Op-23’s activities were revealed.

As Gen. Douglas MacArthur would later discover, Truman had no qualms about squashing military leaders that questioned his authority. His new secretary of the Navy, Francis Matthews, torpedoed the career of several admirals that spoke against the CVA-58’s termination despite an earlier promise that those testifying before Congress would be spared retaliation.

The irony of this tempest in a teacup, which resulted in the political martyrdom of many senior Navy leaders, was how misguided both sides swiftly proved to be.

In June 1950 the Korean War broke out, and the U.S. found itself desperately short of the necessary conventional land, air and sea forces. U.S. aircraft carriers and their onboard jet fighters soon bore the brunt of the initial fighting, and continued to play a major role until the end of the conflict.

And the Air Force’s vaunted B-36s? They never dropped a single bomb in anger—fortunately, as they were only intended for use in apocalyptic nuclear conflicts.

It turned out that plenty of wars were liable to be fought without resorting to weapons of mass destruction.

However, the Navy also had cause to count itself fortunate that the CVA-58 had been canceled. That’s because in just a few years the size of tactical nuclear weapons rapidly decreased, while high-thrust jet engines enabled hauling of heavier and heavier loads. By 1950, nuclear-capable AJ-1 Savage hybrid jet/turboprop bombers were operational on Midway-class carriers, starting with the USS Franklin Roosevelt.

These were soon followed by nuclear-capable capable A-3 Sky Warrior and A-5 Vigilante bombers, A-6 and A-7 attack planes, and even multirole fighters like the F-4 Phantom II. Carriers with these aircraft were far more flexible than a CVA-58 full of B-36 wannabees ever could have been. Arguably, by the 1960s the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines would amount to scarier strategic nuclear weapons than any aircraft-based delivery system.

The schematics for CVA-58 nonetheless informed the Navy’s first supercarriers, named rather appropriately the Forrestal-class, laid down during the Korean War. But the heavy-bomber carrying United States remains notable as the supercarrier the Navy absolutely thought it needed—but which with literally just a couple years more hindsight it discovered it truly could do without.

(This article appeared earlier this year.)

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared earlier and is being posted due to reader interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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The Korean War Gave America’s Nuclear-Armed F-84 Thunderjet Its Global Debut

In 1944, Alexander Kartveli, designer of the legendary Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter, began working on a jet-powered successor. Kartveli’s tubby-looking “Jug” proved a tough, hard-hitting ground attack plane and a fast, far-flying escort fighter in World War II. Unable to cram a turbojet in the Thunderbolt airframe, the Georgian engineer drafted a clean-sheet design dubbed the XP-84 Thunderjet with a J-35 turbojet spanning the fuselage from the intake in the nose to the tailpipe, with fuel stored in wingtip tanks.

Though a prototype briefly set a national speed record in 1946, early model Thunderjets (re-designated F-84s) required excessive maintenance and proved unstable due to weak wing spars for the thick wings and shaky wingtip fuel tanks. The Pentagon nearly canceled the jet prematurely when Republic finally introduced the F-84D model addressing the most glaring flaws by introducing sturdier wing spars, revised fuel tanks, a functioning ejection seat and a more powerful J-35A-17 engine.

Like the P-47, the Thunderjet was a “heavy”-feeling plane with high takeoff and landing speeds. It required longer mile-long runways and was less maneuverable than the Air Force’s earlier F-80 Shooting Star jet fighter. However, the F-84 was faster at 610 miles per hour, had a greater range of 800 miles, and was a hard-hitting and stable gun platform: in addition to its six extra-fast-firing M3 .50 caliber, it could lug thirty-two five-inch high-velocity rockets or two tons of bombs. Once the early models’ flaws were corrected, the Thunderjet also proved highly maintainable, its guts designed for easy access to mechanics.

However, Karteveli’s design used traditional straight rather than swept wings, which delay the formation of shockwaves when approaching supersonic speeds. This left the Thunderjet slower and less agile than the near-contemporary swept-wing F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG-15, which could attain speeds of around 680 miles per hour

Six months into the Korean War in December 1950, F-84Es of the 27th Fighter Escort Wing were dispatched to Taegu Air Base in South Korea to escort four-engine B-29 strategic bombers on raids targeting the Chinese border with North Korea. The F-84E model was lengthened fifteen inches to carry additional fuel and incorporated a radar-assisted gunsight

Thunderjets first encountered MiGs on January 21, 1952, when eight F-84s raiding Chongchan bridge were bounced by two flights of MiG-15s which shot an F-84 down. A MiG was claimed in return, but Soviet records reveal no corresponding losses. Two days later, F-84s and B-29s launched a massive raid targeting the airfield at Pyongyang. The MiGs, which excelled at high altitudes, were forced to dogfight strafing Thunderjets on the deck; three Communist jets were shot down and two more crippled.

However, thereafter the faster MiG-15s mostly engaged F-84s at high altitudes while escorting B-29s, repeatedly breaking through screens of up to fifty to 100 Thunderjets to ravage the B-29s they were escorting.

Henceforth, the UN forces in Korea switched heavy bombers to less-accurate night raids. F-86s focused on the MiG threat, while F-84s were relegated to ground attack missions, their tremendous firepower unleashed to strike frontline troops, blast rear-area depots, artillery batteries and convoys, cover helicopter search-and-rescue operations, and bombard key infrastructure targets. Over the course of the war, Thunderjets flew 86,000 missions and dropped 61,000 tons of bombs and napalm canisters—by one tally, accounting for 60 percent of ground targets destroyed by the U.S. Air Force during the war. The F-84’s robustness proved an asset, allowing it to survive punishing hits from heavy communist flak.

In June 1952, eighty-four Thunderjets obliterated 90 percent of the Sui-ho Dam complex, knocking out electricity throughout all of North Korea for two weeks. However, the raid, intended to pressure North Korean peace negotiators, backfired—inspiring anti-war opposition in the British parliament while conversely causing hawks in the U.S. to complain that the raid should have taken place sooner.

Nonetheless, in 1953, F-84s were hammering dams at Toksan and Chasan—causing huge floods that swamped bridges, railway lines and roads, and badly damaged crops. By then, the final F-84G model had arrived in theater, bringing with it an uprated J-35 engine and revolutionary new in-flight refueling capability. F-84s could connect their wingtip tanks to a probe trailed by a KB-29 tanker, allowing them to fly missions over Korea from bases in Japan.

Of 335 F-84Ds, Es and Gs lost to all causes during the Korean War, at least 135 were destroyed by flak. U.S. records claim a further 18 were shot down by MiGs, while Soviet and Chinese fliers claimed 65. A side-by-side comparison of loss records (broken down here) suggests a number closer to twenty-five F-84s lost in aerial combat (including a “maneuver kill,” two crashes due to battle-damage and one incident of mutual mid-air collision) in exchange for seven to eight MiGs.

But F-84s and MiG-15s continued to battle on other fronts of the Cold War. On March 10, 1953, a MiG-15 encountered a two-ship F-84 patrol apparently straying into Czech airspace near Merklin. Czech pilot Jaroslav Šrámek told an interviewer:

They banked sharply and flew off at full throttle. But because the MIG 15s were better the F-84s we were able to turn easily and manoeuvre into a position where I could fire a warning shot. The warning shot hit his backup tank on the right-hand side. Fuel started escaping from it. He tried to escape to the south. In view of the fact that I was higher than him I was able to catch him easily and my second round disabled him. After firing the shot I saw flames coming from his craft so I stopped and headed home.”

Pilot Warren Brown ejected, and his crashed jet was found ten miles into the German side of the border.

The Republic of China Air Force received 246 F-84Gs which clashed repeatedly with their communist counterparts over the Taiwan Strait. In a series four 4-on-4 engagements in 1955 and 1956, ROCAF Thunderjets claimed five MiG-15 for no loss, though two Thunderjets were shot down in smaller-scale dogfights, and a third was lost to flak. However, on July 29, 1958, newer, ultra-maneuverable MiG-17s bounced four F-84s and shot down two over Nan’ao island, helping trigger the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Of three-thousand F-84Gs built, Washington transferred over 200 each to Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Norway and even Communist Yugoslavia as part of the MDAP military assistance program. Particularly prolific operators included France (335) and Turkey (489), while Iran, the Netherlands and Thailand received smaller numbers.

F-84Gs became the first fighter operated by the Air Force’s Thunderbirds aerobatics in 1953. Thunderjets stationed in Europe, meanwhile, became the first single-engine aircraft modified to deliver a nuclear weapon—the 1,680-pound Mark 7 nuclear bomber with an adjustable yield as high as 61 kilotons. To avoid getting caught in the apocalyptic blast, the Thunderjet employed a Low Altitude Bombing System to semi-accurately “toss” their nuclear payload while climbing, then bank sharply to the side as the deadly warhead arced away.

The sturdy and steady F-84 also served as a platform to test new concepts—most importantly pioneering aerial refueling of jet fighters. But some of the ideas didn’t exactly pan out. An attempt to modify the F-84 to be towed behinds the B-29s it was meant to escort (and this extend range by saving fuel) ended in a deadly collision. F-84s were also tested with rocket-boosters so that they could perform “zero-length” takeoffs from truck trailers should a nuclear war destroy all the airfields.

By 1954, the superior swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak model entered service, largely replacing the Thunderjet and also spawning the RF-84F Thunderflash photo-reconnaissance model, with intakes in the wing roots instead of the nose. Powered by a more powerful but finicky J65 turbojet, the Thunderstreak could attain speeds just shy of 700 miles per hour.

By the late 1950s, the Air Force began retiring all models of the F-84 in favor of the supersonic F-100 Super Sabre and F-105 Thunderchief, though F-84s served in Air National Guard units until 1970 and Portuguese Thunderjets saw action in a colonial war in Angola until 1974. The last Thunderflash was finally retired by the Greek Air Force in 1991—a long career for a tough jet that had seemed outdated nearly as soon as it entered service.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Wikipedia.

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Britain’s Nuclear-Armed Submarines Are Ready For Any Threat

Here’s What You Need To Remember: UK missile submarine crews, like their American counterparts, maintain two crews per boat to increase ship availability. Under a program known as Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) at least one submarine is on patrol at all times, with another coming off patrol, another preparing for a patrol and a fourth undergoing maintenance.

The United Kingdom maintains a fleet of four ballistic missile submarines with the ability to devastate even the largest of countries. This fleet came into being after its ally, the United States, canceled a key weapon system that would have been the cornerstone of London’s nuclear arsenal. Fifty years later, the UK’s missile submarine force is the sole custodian of the country’s nuclear weapons, providing a constant deterrent against nuclear attack.

The United Kingdom’s nuclear force in the early 1960s relied upon the so-called “V-Force” strategic bombers: the Avro Vulcan, Handley Page Victor and Vickers Valiant. The bombers were set to be equipped with the Skybolt air-launched ballistic missile, which could penetrate Soviet defenses at speeds of up to Mach 12.4 (9,500 miles an hour). Unfortunately technical problems plagued Skybolt, and the U.S. government canceled the missile in 1962.

Skybolt’s cancellation threatened to undo the UK’s entire nuclear deterrent, and the two countries raced to come up with a solution. The United States agreed to offer the new Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile to replace Skybolt. The United Kingdom had no missile submarines to carry Polaris—it would have to build them.

A study by the Ministry of Defense concluded that, like France, the UK would need at least five ballistic missile submarines to maintain a credible deterrent posture. This number would later be reduced to four submarines. Like the French Le Redoutable class, the submarines would bear a strong resemblance to the U.S. Navy’s Lafayette-class ballistic missile submarines, with two rows of eight missiles tubes each behind the sail. Unlike Lafayette and Le Redoutable, the new submarines of the Royal Navy’s Resolution-class would have their hydroplanes on the bow, with the ability to fold up when parked along a pier.

Most of the submarine was British, with two built by Vickers Armstrong at Furness and two by Cammel Laird at Birkenhead. The missiles, missile launch tubes and fire control mechanisms, however, were built in the United States. Each submarine was equipped with sixteen Polaris A-3 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Polaris had a range of 2,500 miles and was originally equipped with a single British warhead. A midlife improvement for the missile, Polaris A-3TK, replaced the single warhead with two Chevaline warheads plus penetration aids.

The first submarine, HMS Resolution, was laid down in 1964 and commissioned in 1967, followed by Repulse and Renown, commissioned in 1968, and the aptly-named Revenge in 1969. Resolution first successfully launched a missile off the coast of Florida in February 1968.

In the early 1980s, it became clear that the Resolution class would eventually need replacement. Despite the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet threat, London held firm and built all four ships. The UK again decided to build its own submarines and outfit them with American missiles. The result were the four Vanguard-class submarines: Vanguard (commissioned in 1993), Victorious (1995), Vigilant (1996) and Vengeance (1999). Vanguard carried out her first Trident II missile firing in 1994, and undertook her first operational patrol in 1995.

At 15,000 tons displacement, the Vanguards are twice the the size of the Resolution class that preceded them. Although each submarine has sixteen launch tubes, a decision was made in 2010 to load each sub with just eight American-built Trident II D-5 submarine launched ballistic missiles. The Trident II D-5 has a range of 4,600 miles, meaning it can strike targets across European Russia with ease. Each D-5 carries eight multiple independently targetable warhead 100 kiloton warheads, giving each submarine a total of 6.4 megatons of nuclear firepower.

UK missile submarine crews, like their American counterparts, maintain two crews per boat to increase ship availability. Under a program known as Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) at least one submarine is on patrol at all times, with another coming off patrol, another preparing for a patrol and a fourth undergoing maintenance. According to the Royal Navy, CASD has not missed a single day in the last forty-eight years without a submarine on patrol.

In 2016, the Ministry of Defense announced the next generation of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, dubbed Successor, would be the Dreadnought class. The Royal Navy will build four Dreadnought-class subs, each weighing 17,200 tons, with construction beginning in September 2016. Each will have twelve missile tubes instead of sixteen, and the subs will recycle the Trident II D-5 missiles from their predecessors. The Dreadnought boats are expected to enter service in the 2030s and have a thirty-year life cycle. The ministry expects the new submarines to cost an estimated $39 billion over thirty-five years, with a $12 billion contingency. The introduction of the third generation Dreadnought class will provide the UK with a powerful strategic deterrent until the 2060s and possibly beyond.

At any one time, at least sixty-four of the UK’s nuclear weapons are somewhere at sea, ready to launch within minutes of warning. While nowhere near as powerful as the U.S. strategic deterrent, the nuclear weapons are more than enough to prevent any opponent from launching a surprise attack. The Royal Navy’s ballistic missile submarines carry on the service’s centuries-old mission of protecting the country from the sea.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This first appeared in 2018.

Image: Reuters.

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