The two 50,000-metric-ton conventionally powered carriers now under development for Britain's Royal Navy are expected to cost a minimum of $2.5 billion each.
Aircraft not included.
But, a British conventionally powered carrier looks a lot more like an American amphibious assault ship like the Tarawa and Wasp class amphibious assault ships. The American ships typically carry six Harrier STOVL fighters and a couple of dozen helicopters, while the British carriers currently carry eight Harrier fighters and a dozen helicopters, which is a complement of aircraft that the American ships could accommodate instead. Like the American Tarawa LHA class ships and the Wasp LHD class ships, which are both about 40,000 tons each (v. 50,000 for the British ships), the British ships will be conventionally powered rather than nuclear powered. The American amphibious assault ships are also closer in cost. "The projected price-tag for the last of the Wasp class is approximately $1.8 billion." This ship, the LHD-8, is scheduled to enter service in 2007.
The aircraft carriers of Italy, Spain and Thailand are all quite similar to the British ones. The aircraft carriers of Russia, Brazil, France and India are larger than the British ones, but have about half the capacity of the American CVNs. All of these countries have just a single carrier. Britain currently has three.
The United States has twelve CVNs (soon to be eleven, the Kitty Hawk is due to be replaced in 2008 by the George W. Bush and budget planners are seriously considering retiring the John F. Kennedy sooner than planned without a replacement) and five Tarawa (one of which will probably be retired when the eighth Wasp class ship is completed next year) and seven Wasp class ships. The U.S. Navy would like to begin construction on a first replacement for the Tarawa class ships called the LHA(R) in 2007, but doesn't even have specifications for the proposed ship yet.
American CVN aircraft carriers, in contrast, which are nuclear powered and run about 97,000 tons, can carry up to about 85 aircraft, mostly more conventional fighter aircraft, although they are usually not filled with the maximum possible compliment of aircraft (fighters don't come cheap). Typically, at least forty fighter aircraft are carried, along with about thirty other supporting aircraft, anti-submarine/anti-surface ship planes, and helicopters. The argument for having this large class of ships is that for only twice as much ship, you get four times the capacity to carry aircraft, and that a nuclear powered ship can have a thinner supply line than a conventionally fueled one. But, prices apparently track aircraft carrying capacity more closely than they do the raw number of tons in the ship.
Substituting a larger number of Wasp/British carrier type ships, for a plan to maintain the status quo in the U.S. Navy is one issue being seriously considered by Congress. Building two, three or even four smaller "Harrier carriers" would be cheaper than building one full sized American CVN carrier, and the STOVL version of the F-35 called the F-35B which the smaller carriers would carry, is also projected to be less expensive than the simpler F-35C version designed for CVNs.
The linked story has a lot about Chinese ambitions to get an aircraft carrier, but that is for another story.
This story was linked at Murdoc Online, a military blog, where readers posed a number of questions. Some go beyond the scope of this post by cutting to the chase on the issue of whether or not this is a good idea, rather than simply comparing the facts about the options, as this post does, without really taking a position one way or the other. But, one question that did come up concerns the cost of the aircraft and questions about how many crew each option would involve. I posted a comment there to respond to those questions and reprint it here for my regular readers:
A Nimitz class carrier has a crew of about 5900 people (ship's crew and air crew combined). A Wasp class ship has a 1146 member crew in addition to 1893 Marines. Something on the order of 600 Marines are probably air crew, most of them are probably not (carried aircraft require on average about 20-30 crew each). Thus, the crew of a Wasp class vessel configured simply to be a mini-carrier instead of a full fledged troop ship, would probably be about 1750.
By comparison, an Invincible class British VSTOL carrier has a crew of 1089. The combined air and ship's crew for an Italian Harrier carrier (exclusive of their version of non-air crew Marines) is about 880. Spain's Harrier carrier has a crew of 764. France's Charles De Gaulle (which is intermediate in aircraft capacity) has a crew of 1950 exclusive of troops, which is still a third of the crew of a Nimitz. India's VSTOL carrier has a crew of 1550. Thailand's Harrier carrier has a crew of 601. Brazil's Sao Paulo carrier (transferred from France) has a crew of 1800-1900. Even Russia's Kuznetsov Supercarrier has a crew of 2,586, about half of that of an American Nimitz class carrier.
All crew data from here for sake of consistency.
Thus, you could staff at least three (and maybe four) mini-carriers with the same number of crew it takes to staff one supercarrier, a lower ship acquisition cost, a comparable aircraft cost per aircraft.
Global Security.org pegs the costs as follows: "Current program estimates peg the recurring JSF unit flyaway costs at $37 million for the Air Force conventional takeoff and landing variant, $46 million for the Marine Corps short takeoff vertical landing variant and $48 million for the Navy carrier version, in 2002 dollars." I relied on this as my source.
Wikipedia, relying upon the Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, September 2005, pegs the cost at $45 million U.S. for F-35A, $60 million U.S. for the F-35B and $55 million U.S. for the F-35C. The F-35C is a somewhat larger and more robust plane than the other two which is why it is more expensive. Apparently, cost overruns have disproportionately run up the F-35B costs in the last couple of years. Still, certainly, aircraft price is not a big factor in the small v. large debate.