The U.S. Navy and Its Friends Just Won the Flattop Photo Contest
THREE allied aircraft carriers appear in same self-portrait
From early December to early January, China’s first—and so far only—aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed on her inaugural deployment, a month-long training jaunt from her northern home port of Qingdao south along the Chinese coast.
Returning home, Liaoning and her escorts plus a handful of jet fighters posed for an impressive and very telling photo-op, as if to announce to world Beijing’s entry into the exclusive club of governments that can deploy sea-based air power.
The photo-op coincided with similar displays of power by some of China’s maritime rivals—a perhaps unintended photo contest that included a huge display by the Indian navy and its two flattops.
But the clear winner of the carrier contest is the U.S. Navy and its close friends the French and Italians. On Jan. 3 in the Gulf of Oman, the Americans and their allies staged a photo op with three war-ready flattops—a full 11 percent of all the aircraft carriers in the world, together for at least a brief period.
Order of battle
Pictured above, from foreground to background, are the Italian flattop ITS Cavour, the USS Harry S. Truman and the French carrier FS Charles De Gaulle. Between them, they operate around 60 strike jets, including more than 40 American F/A-18s, some 14 French Super Etendards and Rafales and at least four Italian Harriers. Truman and De Gaulle host radar planes and each flattop also has helicopters.
Against that aerial armada, the Chinese could put up just a handful of J-15 fighters. And the heavy Chinese jets are seriously curtailed by Liaoning’s lack of a steam catapult, a key piece of equipment that both Truman and De Gaulle possess.
Unseen in the three-navy photo-shoot are the numerous escorts and supply ships that protect and sustain the carriers. The roughly dozen screening vessels include two American cruisers, four American destroyers, two French destroyers, an Italian frigate and an Italian patrol ship. The French and Americans usually also send a nuclear submarine to scout ahead of their flattops.
Most importantly, the French and Italians each sent a supply ship to tail the warships, and Truman and her escorts are regularly refueled and re-armed by the logistics ships of Military Sealift Command. (The fleet oiler USNS Pecos was in the area recently.) These supply vessels, of which the Chinese possess very few, are the key to long-distance deployments.
American carriers routinely spend six months or longer at sea at a stretch, shifting from ocean to ocean as America’s security needs dictate. Not even the world’s most experienced maritime nations can match that kind of naval endurance—to say nothing of the inexperienced Chinese, for whom Liaoning’s month at sea, always close to shore bases, was an unprecedented achievement.
In coming months, Truman will cross paths with many other warships. But she and De Gaulle are together for the long haul, operating jointly as part of the French Task Force 473 in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. “Our operations with Task Force 473 will increase both of our maritime capabilities while helping promote long-term stability in the region,” said said Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney, commander of the American group.
Cavour is on a months-long tour of the Middle East and Africa and briefly visited with the U.S. Navy assault ship USS Boxer and her amphibious group before linking up with Truman and De Gaulle.
What’s most amazing about the three carriers’ joint portrait is not the sheer weight of naval hardware on display nor the complex logistics that sustain their operations, but the alliance that makes such a combined appearance possible.
There are 28 aircraft carriers in the world that routinely operate fixed-wing planes. Nineteen of them are American. Four of them belong to American allies France, Italy and Spain (Britain is also building a pair of new flattops). One carrier is Brazilian and two are Indian and can’t necessarily be counted on to fight alongside U.S. ships in wartime—but likewise would never do battle with the Americans.
Only two out of 28 flattops belong to nations that can conceivably be described as potentially hostile to the United States. Russian has one decrepit carrier and China has Liaoning.
In short, the U.S. Navy and its friends control the vast majority of the world’s deployable naval air power. No photo shoot changes that.