Cities at Sea: How Aircraft Carriers Work

Cities at Sea: How Aircraft Carriers Work


This video was made possible by Brilliant. Learn with Brilliant for 20% off by being
one of the first 200 to sign up at brilliant.org/Wendover. A single aircraft carrier is enough to markedly
change the level of a nation’s military might. These ships are one of the strongest single
assets a military can have. In general, under international law, aircraft
carriers can legally position themselves up to 14 miles or 22 kilometers from any country’s
coast. Clearly, the strategic influence of being
able to place a military airbase just miles from any coast in the world is enormous especially
given that 80% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles or 100 kilometers from
the ocean. While plenty of military vessels are capable
of launching helicopters, there are just 19 aircraft carriers worldwide currently in service
capable of launching fixed-wing airplanes. China, Thailand, India, Russia, and France
each have one; Italy has two; and the US has the eleven largest in the world. These largest carriers require over 6,000
people to operate and often stay deployed for up to a year. They are fully fledged cities at sea. The most advanced aircraft carriers like the
French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle are capable of launching an aircraft every 30 seconds. That means that, for a brief period, when
launching aircraft at its maximum rate, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle becomes
busier than Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. To be able to achieve such a capability on
a moving ship is no easy feat. While the operation of these vessels gives
militaries enormous strategic advantage, they also represent one of their greatest operational
challenges. An aircraft carrier’s offensive weapon is
its aircraft. Onboard, carriers tend to only have a small
number of defensive weapons such as surface-to-air missiles and machine guns. But of course, just like any powerful military
asset, these carriers are big targets. It is for this reason that carriers never
travel alone while on deployment. While the exact composition can change depending
on the mission, the carrier strike groups American carriers travel with are typically
made up of a guided missile cruiser equipped with tomahawk missiles, two guided missile
destroyers, an attack submarine, and a supply ship. An aircraft carrier is the flagship of this
strike group meaning that, in it’s command area, it not only has a bridge and air traffic
control center, it also has a flag bridge where an admiral commands the entire strike
group. Each of the group’s ships serve some combination
of offensive and defensive roles. The only exception is the supply ship. Most aircraft carriers don’t need regular
refueling. All eleven American carriers and the French
one are nuclear powered meaning they can sail an unlimited distance for twenty-five years
without refueling. Even conventionally powered aircraft carriers
like the UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth can travel up to 12,000 miles or 18,000 kilometers without
refueling making the need for stops infrequent. While an American or French carrier could
hypothetically sail nonstop for years or even decades, what they can’t do is carry enough
food, which is always needed, and aviation fuel, which is needed for combat operations,
to stay at sea for more than a few weeks at a time. It would be inefficient and place the carriers
in a position of vulnerability to have to visit a port every few weeks to restock especially
during combat operations so they don’t—they restock while at sea. The supply ships that move as part of the
strike group will sail off to a nearby port to take on fuel, ammunition, food, and mail,
sail back to the strike group, then match speed and maneuver alongside the carrier. From there the two ships will shoot lines
across to each other. These lines are used to pull hoses over to
the carrier which are used to transfer aviation fuel. To transfer solid supplies, there are two
methods. The first is attaching pallets to dollies
that wheel cargo across to the carrier like a zipline. The second method, which is considered simpler
yet more dangerous, is using helicopters to pick up pallets from the resupply ship and
flying them over to the carrier. These transfers bring both crucial supplies
like food and some less crucial items like mail but this isn’t the only way mail arrives
on American aircraft carriers. Each carrier actually has a mailing address
just like any building in the US. For example, this is the USS Gerald R. Ford’s
address. Families of sailors can send mail to these
addresses in the same way that they would to to any other and, in fact, it costs the
exact same as a shipment to any other US address—even if the ship is on the other side of the world. Sailors can even order packages online to
their ship. Expedited mail often makes it from an address
in the US to a carrier sailing somewhere around the world in just ten days. Having this speed requires more frequent deliveries
than those of the logistics ships but conveniently, carriers are airports at sea. American carriers currently use a fleet of
C-2 Greyhound’s as cargo aircraft providing a high-frequency, often daily connection between
carriers and shore. When cruising in the South China Sea, for
example, as the USS Ronald Reagan did in November, 2018, mail might be sent to Singapore via
conventional means. A C-2 Greyhound would then fly from the ship
to Singapore, pick up the mail, and fly back to the ship. As carriers sail around the world, the pick-up
points of the C-2 Greyhounds are continuously shifted to nearby friendly nations. While mail does wonders for increasing crew
morale, that’s actually the lowest priority cargo for the C-2 Greyhounds. The aircraft are integral for bringing on
spare parts for all the carrier’s aircraft and transporting VIP’s, press, and other
individuals to and from the carriers. This C-2 Greyhound is about the same size
as an Embraer 145—a civilian aircraft capable of carrying 50 people—so it’s not tiny. The longest aircraft carrier in the world,
which also happens to be the newest, is the USS Gerald R. Ford but even she is only 1,106
feet or 337 meters long. With commercial airports, a runway of 5,000
feet or 1,500 meters, like the one at London City Airport in London, is considered short
while large airports like London Heathrow will have runaways longer than 10,000 feet
or 3,000 meters. So how do C-2 Greyhounds and other aircraft
on carriers deal with having runways of only 1,100 feet or 330 meters long? They don’t. They take off with just 325 feet or 99 meters
of space. All US and French carriers use a system of
catapults to get aircraft up to takeoff speed within three to four seconds. This allows these carriers to launch decently
sized aircraft, like the C-2 Greyhound, with their relatively short decks. Other carriers, like the Chinese and Indian
ones, don’t have catapults so they can only launch lighter, shorter range aircraft capable
of taking off with a very short runway. Both these two types of carriers have arrestor
wires that aircraft catch on landing to decelerate with the short distance given. Every other aircraft carrier out there can
only operate with aircraft capable of vertical landing. What takes place on the flight deck is carefully
choreographed chaos. On American carriers, everyone’s job is
easily identifiable by the color shirt they wear. Yellow shirts deal with navigating aircraft
around the deck. Blue shirts are assistants to yellow shirts
driving tugs, operating elevators, delivering messages, and more. Red shirts do all the handling and mounting
of ammunition. Purple shirts manage aircraft fueling. Green shirts are worn by a few different groups
including catapult crews, maintenance personnel, cargo handlers, and more. White shirts are also worn by a mix of personnel
including those helping aircraft land, working as medical personnel, and more. And lastly, brown shirts are worn by plane
captains who are not those that fly the aircraft—they’re individually in charge of overseeing all work
for getting an aircraft ready for flight. The flight deck is a dangerous place given
its small size. It’s so small that all the carrier’s aircraft
can’t fit on it but of course just below the flight deck is the hangar. A large carrier can carry up to 100 aircraft
so massive elevators bring aircraft from the flight deck to the hangar for storage when
not in use. About 6,000 people work and live aboard each
American carrier. 3,200 of them have jobs relating to running
the ship itself. That includes everything from working in the
engine room, maintaining the nuclear reactor, cleaning the decks, to actually working up
in the bridge commanding the ship. Many of these jobs are below deck and, since
all the above deck space is used for flight operations, many onboard can go weeks without
seeing sunlight. 2,500 other personnel are part of the carrier’s
air wing. If this was an airbase on land, these would
be everyone working there including air traffic controllers, aircraft mechanics, fuelers,
pilots, and more. The few hundred remaining personnel work assorted
other jobs. In terms of personal space, enlisted personnel,
the vast majority of those onboard, only get a single bunk in a room with sometimes more
than a hundred others. Higher ranked individuals, though, of course
have more spacious accommodations. As long-term homes for thousands of people,
these ships also have a few small luxuries like stores, gyms, barber shops, lounges and
more but space is at a premium when 6,000 people are packed into one floating hull and
the mission is paramount. Since their heyday in World War Two, some
have started to question the place aircraft carriers have in modern warfare. Every operating country aside from the US
tend to, at any given moment, have their ships either in combat, in training, or at home. The US tends to use its carriers for a forth
function—power projection. At any given moment, there is almost certainly
an American carrier cruising somewhere in the world. In fact, January 2017 was the first time since
World War Two that there was not an American aircraft carrier on deployment. Even if there wasn’t an aircraft carrier
on deployment, they’re fast. They have a top speed of 35 miles or 56 kilometers
per hour meaning that a Norfolk, Virginia based carrier could get to the Middle East
in just a week. In the Pacific, the US has an even greater
advantage since it has the USS Ronald Reagan based in Yokosuka, Japan from where it could
reach the shores of North Korea, for example, in just 29 hours. American carriers spend plenty of time just
cruising around the world’s oceans reminding other country’s of the US military’s power. For example, the USS Ronald Reagan returned
from a four-month deployment from August to December 2018 during which it saw zero combat. It spent much of the time cruising around
the South China Sea—an area in which China is attempting to assert military control much
to the US’ displeasure. Elsewhere in Asia, American carriers also
regularly make visits to the Korean peninsula to remind North Korea of their presence. This reached a peak in November 2017 as tensions
with North Korea reached a peak when three American carriers loomed near the Korean shores. With their enormous power, though, aircraft
carriers represent an enormous target especially in the era of stealthy drones and precise
missiles. The sinking of a single US aircraft carrier
could result in more American military deaths than the entire Iraq war in addition to the
loss of tens of billions of dollars in military assets. While no aircraft carrier of any nation has
been sunk since World War Two, it’s potentially more possible than one would think. US carriers regularly participate in war games
where combat conditions are simulated with allies. There have been two concerning incidents in
2005 and 2015 where Swedish and French submarines, respectively, have “won” the games against
US carriers. What this means is that the two country’s
submarines approached close enough to the carriers where they could have, if they were
an enemy in real combat, launched torpedoes and potentially sank the carriers. This, in essence, proves that aircraft carriers,
with all their defense, are not as unsinkable as some may say. Meanwhile, the US has already received the
first of ten in a new class of carriers while China, India, and the UK each have carriers
under construction so, despite their possible obsolescence, we can be sure that the aircraft
carrier won’t be leaving the world’s oceans anytime soon. I have a logic question for you. Suppose there are two doors and the first
has a sign on it saying, “If this door is safe, the other door is deadly.” If that sign is false, what do you know about
the doors? Which are deadly and which are safe? Take a moment to think about it and, if you
figure out the answer, leave it in the comments. This is a question from brilliant.org’s logic
quiz which teaches you analytical skills through logical puzzles. That’s just one of many superbly designed
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