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I have a small country of several million people, whose landmass consists of many islands. They have several shipyards that make luxury yachts, say up to 30 meters.

Is it possible for them to build a rudimentary CATOBAR aircraft carrier that could launch light fighter jets like the F-20 Tigershark without outside help? Conversion of a civilian ship like container ship or cruise liner is fine too.

By outside help I mean that big countries won't sell them military systems, but they are free to buy anything that a civilian company could own.

The carriers don't have to have all the bells and whistles of a real carrier, just the bare minimum to launch jets. I am thinking about something like WW2 Escort carriers

The technology level is like the late 20th century Earth. The political situation is completely different.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Apr 7 '17 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ They could build the aircraft carrier. What they couldn't do is build the aircraft for it to carry. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 7 '17 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ building the carrier is the easy part the cost to support it and keep it running are the big drain. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 7 '17 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ How about a gigantic indestructable ice ship? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Habakkuk $\endgroup$ – Biff MaGriff Apr 9 '17 at 15:09

11 Answers 11

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Why couldn't they? As old people and life coaches say, "Where there's a will, there's a way".

They would need to rebuild some shipyard to accommodate the carrier (I assume they build regular yachts and not mega ones) but otherwise they have tools and workers with experience in building sophisticated boats.
The link you provided for escort carriers have a list of carriers that have been adapted from different type of vessel.

Of course, another question would be if it's economically reasonable. They could just buy the carrier used from other country, or if no one would like to sell it to them, a ship that can be remodeled into carrier fast and cheap.

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    $\begingroup$ China did this, essentially buying and then towing the hull of a never-completed Russian carrier halfway around the world with the ostensible purpose of building a floating casino in Macau, then when that deal "fell through" the Chinese government overhauled and refit it into a seaworthy carrier. However, as of the last time I cared, they didn't have any aircraft suitable to operate from it, so all they do with it is parade it around the South China Sea. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Apr 6 '17 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ +1 to this. You can buy them commercially for less than a billion; foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/… $\endgroup$ – Richard Apr 6 '17 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithS "all they do with it is parade it around the South China Sea" begging aircraft to land and buy overpriced souvenirs and other trinkets. $\endgroup$ – Michael Apr 7 '17 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ ...and during the parade, they prearranged state controlled media broadcasting the event to their own people why making sure utube and facebook are stilled banned by their firewall in order repeat the same propaganda line that their "motherland is as strong as the US and Europe" $\endgroup$ – JavaMan Apr 8 '17 at 9:30
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Could they construct a rudimentary aircraft carrier? Absolutely. As mentioned by others it's not a new technology. Many nations have build it over the decades. The theory is out there, practical skills can be bought.

Now could they build an economical aircraft carrier? No, no they can't. Aircraft carriers aren't economical. With modern weaponry you can't protect them. Against any opponent with a modern military you'll lose them. Their purpose is to project power far away from your own shores.

They work for either long military campaigns far away from your own nation, or against a clearly inferior force unable to attack the carrier directly. If you're fighting on equal footing close to your own islands they make no economic sense.

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    $\begingroup$ This is why, among industrialized nations, the U.S. has 10 "full-size" carriers capable of operating fixed-wing aircraft, while India has only 2 with a third planned, the UK has two in construction but nothing in operation since 2014, and nobody else has more than one ship capable of launching and retrieving a fixed-wing, rear-thrust aircraft (aka not STOVL/VTOL). Most world militaries have preferred to project what air power they need using helicopters from amphibious assault ships, which are much more flexible (and cheaper). $\endgroup$ – KeithS Apr 6 '17 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ What if the object isn't to make war? I can think of a couple of uses for a carrier that don't involve war at all, say something to deal with an island's only airport being temporarily out of commission. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Apr 7 '17 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Joshua Making a backup airport makes sense. Making a backup airport, and by the way, we'll make it float, doesn't make sense. Aircraft carriers are dangerous to take off/land from compared to land airports, and tend not to be able to land large planes either. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Apr 7 '17 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Joshua but that doesn't work. You need specialized aircrafts to land on a carrier. And basically anything bigger then a yet won't work. That's almost all commercial flights. $\endgroup$ – Mormacil Apr 7 '17 at 7:08
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    $\begingroup$ A "floating airport" has been mooted a few times though: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floating_airport $\endgroup$ – Sobrique Apr 7 '17 at 15:16
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Others have answered, and you have accepted one already. You have been notified that this is a bad idea (still like it). And it will burn into your defence budget like a volcano. But here are my 4 cents.

1) Yes you can, buy an old one if you can get one, and don't mind the rusting.

2) Convert a cargo ship to do what you need. Don't go to big. Two smaller ones, with 12 plane wings might be even better than 1 bigger one.

3) Do as the Japanese; use helicopter carriers. You will want smaller then those, but could work.

4) Use decoys, like the Iranian carrier. And use your money for better investments, like modern torpedo boats, submarines, mobile AA (like patriot) and strike aircraft. There is a reason less then 10 countries use carriers in 2017 (hint: money and vulnerability). And those are all big countries that are in the G8...

4b) If you want more mobility, have at least one airfield on every island. With smaller (war) ones everywhere. A strait road? Emergency airstrip. Use air planes that can use very short runways, like the Harrier. And invest in a transport and refuelling fleet, that will extend your range by a lot.

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    $\begingroup$ #1 is exactly how China and India (not exactly "small" countries) both got theirs. They bought them from former Soviet states after the USSR broke up. (China lied when they bought theirs, claiming they were going to use it as a casino). $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Apr 6 '17 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ #1 is no longer valid now as the only seller that can sell a carrier - Ukraine, former USSR state - is not producing carriers anymore. No other nations are making carriers for sale. China bought the last remaining stocks $\endgroup$ – JavaMan Apr 8 '17 at 9:37
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Yes.

It depends on what you are trying to launch, of course.

What would be easiest would be to copy the Japanese approach in WWII - convert ocean liners or cargo ships. The Hiyo class being an example. Take a big enough ship, cut the superstructure off, plate it over.. flight deck. A large size makes things easier, and if it's a pre-existing hull then you don't need as many dock/shipyard facilities, presumably. Note that WWII escort carriers were still 10,000 tonne ships.

Catapults are harder - that's quite sophisticated tech. You can use a disposable booster rocket instead, which it mechanically simpler. (JATO).

So getting a ship that can do basic takeoff and landing isn't too hard - that's 100-year-old tech. Sustaining flight and combat operations requires a lot more technology and organisation; you need fuel, elevators, workshops, command and control, etc. Another reason for a bigger ship. And then there is the whole question of defending your carrier..

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    $\begingroup$ Just a few nitpicks here. Using a rocket to help takeoff would be Rocket Assisted Takeoff (RATO), not JATO. (Catapult assisted takeoff would be CATO.) Cutting off the superstructure of an existing ship is about as crude as possible that will work, but really you need at least one deck elevator/lift. That will help store many aircraft below deck. The technology of a deck elevator is not that advanced, but it is a pain to construct or modify into an existing ship. As others have pointed out, not even a packed-full carrier could compare to coastal bases, where the number of aircraft is...big. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Apr 7 '17 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ The British did this also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merchant_aircraft_carrier $\endgroup$ – Rich Apr 7 '17 at 22:57
  • $\begingroup$ ... also US and british "escort carriers" CVEs. Britain did this again, albeit for helicopters, in the Falklands War with several converted merchant ships - notably the Atlantic Conveyor, which was sunk by an Argentine missile, illustrating the problems of this type of ship against an adequately armed opponent. The term for such ships in the RN is a STUFT (Ship Taken Up From Trade). $\endgroup$ – Rich Apr 7 '17 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @DrZ214 I do believe the CATO definition of "Catastrophe At Take Off" came before the carrier term :P (and as a high power rocketry enthusiast, I have had my share of CATOs) Also, when we had JATO bottles, the takeoffs were normally called JATO (though JATO and RATO are actually interchangeable) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JATO (I forgot what the darned markup was to link things >.<) $\endgroup$ – NZKshatriya Apr 8 '17 at 4:48
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The answer is yes, absolutely, for reasons pointed out above. This is old tech, and if your nation's tech level is "late 20th century" then they have the knowledge (in theory, if not the practical experience) to put one together. It's purely a question of money, engineering, will, and time.

I'd like to point out, though, that if OTHER countries in this world have constructed CVs first, it may be more economical for your island nation to simply buy an older one from a friendly or neutral power and upgrade it. Many nations have done this: Canada, Australia, India, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, and China have bought old carriers from other nations. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_aircraft_carriers_by_country

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  • $\begingroup$ All of those countries have at least tens of millions of people living in them. That's far more than the "several million" (~2-5) listed by the OP. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Apr 6 '17 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ That's irrelevant. What matters is the industrial base if constructing from scratch and (whether buying or building) cash on hand. Singapore GDP almost as much as Thailand. They could buy one if they really wanted. Also: when Australia sailed its carriers, it had less than 10m population. $\endgroup$ – jkp1187 Apr 6 '17 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ Also the cost of buying a carrier may be low if there is a surplus (for example, after WWII, when many of the above nations acquired carriers). $\endgroup$ – user16107 Apr 6 '17 at 20:30
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Well there are two aspects to this : money and purpose.

Could they build a CATOBAR type carrier ?

I would say this is the least economic approach for a small country (and I come from such a country).

It's more likely they'd build a deck designed for STOLs using a ramp or simply build a helicopter based small carrier.

Conversion from an existing vessel is perfectly feasible (and exactly what was common in the early days of carrier development).

The question which arises is what purpose does it have ?

If you're insisting on building a jet-equipped carrier strike force then you're asking for a huge budget just to operate the jets, keep trained pilots and crews and adding to that with a hideously expensive flattop. This is utterly pointless in military terms, as there's no support vessels to protect this thing and keep it active.

If you're building some sort of mobile air support platform you don't generally need a large vessel. A single modern helicopter is quite a lethal strike force if properly armed and equipped. Again, what protects my small mobile carrier ? What maintains it ?

This is a huge cost and what benefit is it ?

Any large country can probably wipe out my carrier in no time flat with any combination of air power, sea power and even cruise missiles.

And another small country is going to impressed by the waste of money better spent on conventional arms to defend the country. A single missile cruiser or destroyer with short or medium range missiles would be far more lethal in practice and more economic. Even some moderately sized fast patrol boats armed with missiles would be quite effective and much more economic and flexible for a small country.

So this doesn't strike me as a useful vessel to have. It diverts resources from more useful military projects and has no credibility as a threat against anyone who'd threaten.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the best answer. $\endgroup$ – fectin Apr 7 '17 at 22:37
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Absolutely Not

The United Kingdom lacks CATOBAR systems for one simple reason: nuclear power. Catapult launches require large amounts of available steam which is only available on a nuclear powered vessel. Adding the necessary boilers to conventional propulsion would leave no space for aircraft. Odds are also good that the stacks would overly complicate the flight deck layout.

Currently the UK gets around the problem by using jump jets on their carriers, which is hardly economical. Jump jets are expensive enough on a per-plane basis to make the costlier nuclear carriers attractive after a relatively small number of ships. In any case, if the people of San Seriffe can't import military technologies then compact reactors or advanced thrust-vectoring jets are showstoppers.

There is a fair amount of development going into electric catapults, which would eliminate the nuclear propulsion requirement. They're difficult from an engineering perspective, but so were nuclear weapons and we all know those haven't cropped up anywhere else after the Manhattan Project. Be careful here though, because if you postulate enough progress in electric launches to make railguns practical the balance of naval power tips back towards surface ships.

The Future Is Yesterday

Nothing prevents you from building a WWII-style carrier if you don't mind being limited to WWII-style aircraft. Specifically you'd need aircraft that are suitable to tail-hook recovery and short takeoffs, which would limit you to turboprops and helicopters. Obviously it would be hopelessly outmatched against a supercarrier and laughable against land-based air forces, but you would have a fair amount utility for roles such as search and rescue, close air support, recon, etc. Given the advances in munitions and engines since the war you'd likely give any neighbors limited to surface vessels a black eye too. Aircraft are even more of a threat to submarines than they were then, and a modern torpedo bomber won't be dropping an unguided fish.

Winning On the Cheap

Depending on your exact goals tankers or submarines are likely a better investment. Aircraft tankers are essentially a flying gas cans and a straightforward conversion from cargo aircraft. They'd be a much more cost-effective strategy to increase the range of a small number of jets.

Diesel-electric submarines are in an odd spot now. Having to spend time near the surface does increase their odds of detection in the long run, but not having to run the machinery associated with the reactor makes them quieter than nukes when submerged. If your submarine doctrine doesn't consist of trailing enemy boomers for months on end they're really not a bad deal.

One Final Problem

As strictly worded your islanders won't be able to manage anything remotely resembling a naval vessel, because 30m yachts aren't getting it done. The Arleigh Burke is 160m long. Your shipbuilding industry is just too small to even convert cargo and cruise ships. Even assuming a suitable port or temporary dry dock there's the question of cranes, materials, skilled labor, etc. All that infrastructure and expertise just sits around? Lots of people contract out ships, but then they're generally built elsewhere.

The only way it really makes sense is if the country is already invested into shipbuilding for historic or political reasons. Cargo ships maybe be a better bet than luxury yachts because they offer a fertile field for various financing arrangements where a large foreign company gets tax write offs while the islanders get immediate income. If building and operating ships is a large part of the economy it's not surprising that the infrastructure and expertise extend beyond boatbuilding to shipbuilding.

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    $\begingroup$ -1. Catobar does not need nuclear, not even steam. During WW2, many hydraulic catapults were used. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Apr 7 '17 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ Spring catapults were used on land prior to that. It doesn't make them practical for launching a 45,000lb F-18 either. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Gauthier Apr 7 '17 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ First paragraph is false. See, e.g., Clemenceau-class carriers operated by French Navy (and now Brazil): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clemenceau-class_aircraft_carrier $\endgroup$ – jkp1187 Apr 7 '17 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ I would point out that the Titanic was built in a small country, along with many other large ships. The size of the country is not the issue, but the maritime background and connections. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 7 '17 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ Also, as new US carriers are having E-mag catapults.......so steam or hydraulics needed :P Just capacitor banks. $\endgroup$ – NZKshatriya Apr 8 '17 at 4:49
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Forget it. You don't have the escort ships to keep it from being sunk by a small speed boat. You don't have the experience to design the internal spaces to make the aircraft operations functional.

But worst of all and the real killer is you don't have anyone with even the slightest idea of how to operate a carrier and its equipment. It would take decades to get operational skill starting from scratch. China, with all its resources, has been working on it for more than a decade and still does not have anything that can actually threaten anything except sailboats. They have the carrier, the have planes (now) and even have escort ships. But they still don't know how to conduct ongoing flight operations.

Imagine landing a plane on a moving carrier deck at night while the ship is in darken ship mode. Everyone has to be confident the equipment will work perfectly, the deck crew will perform flawlessly and and the pilot will not have a class A accident which will put the ship out of commission for a considerable period of time. That means non-stop training under combat level of requirements preferably with bouts of real combat.

Building a carrier is the easy part and trust me it is not easy to build a dedicated strike carrier.

And when all is said and done you have only one carrier which can be in only one place at a time and is down for refit one year out of three (if you actually use it for landings and takeoffs instead of it just floating around for show)

Better to build a base for someone else's carriers who will defend your islands in the process of defending their carriers based there. Of course, you won't get to project power in your own name but then island countries with small populations don't get to project power around the world. Even big countries can't really afford to do it except for the one's with super economies.

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    $\begingroup$ Can't agree with this answer. America and other nations still did not fully know how to employ carriers by the start of WW2. It often takes real war to teach you exactly what the new technology is and isn't capable of. I could list many other examples. At first, Germany and Russia didn't employ tanks right; they need close infantry support to prevent firebombing with molotov cocktails, which seems to negate the speed/flexibility of a tank. And no it doesn't take decades. If you already know how to fly planes and how to sail/run big ships, it is not much more to run a carrier. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Apr 7 '17 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ P.S, your downtrodding on China is a little condescending and foolish. If they haven't really been tested yet, you shouldn't judge their capabilities so definitively. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Apr 7 '17 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ @DrZ214, if you don't like pointing out China's problems, then how about looking at the French and their problems with the Charles de Gaulle? Or how about the American damage-control "learning experiences" during Vietnam War operations? Or Japan's loss of three carriers during the Battle of Midway to improper fuel- and ammunition-handling procedures? Successfully operating an aircraft carrier is hard. $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 7 '17 at 5:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Of course it is, but it does not take decades to learn how to use one. You are pointing out problems and accidents and every nation suffers from them. When war comes around, no one waits to perfect operations. The US was also woefully unperfect in their navy at the beginning of WW2. The true test is not measured in a few events/engagements, whether victorious or not victorious engagements, but in a long war (which also depends highly on economic industry). I think it is better said that it takes decades to get better at it than you were before, but that can be said about anything. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Apr 7 '17 at 5:40
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Of course it can be done, but not easily. The hull itself can be built in sections by the various shipyards. Finishing it will be another matter, of course. Where there's a will, there's a way. The major question really is WHY? The main purpose of a carrier today is more prestige than power projection, though it can be argued that the latter is merely an extension of the former. Look at Brazil and Spain, for instance. What need of a carrier do they have? Bear in mind the time and costs, as well, of not just building the carrier itself but training the builders, the crews of the carrier and its airwing, its support ships and logistics of supplying the carrier group. Just the upkeep and maintenance will cost in the neighborhood of perhaps $5-10 billion per year - an amount VERY few countries can afford and/or sustain. Overall, would the ROI be worthwhile? Probably not.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! Interesting answer. A hint: you can add a linebreak by using "<br/>" or by using the Enter-key two times. You can edit your answer with the little "edit"-button. Formatting would make it easier to read you answer. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site (and get a badge). Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Apr 7 '17 at 18:29
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This is a pretty straightforward set of military tradeoffs. You can make it as cheap as you like, if you give up much of what people think they need.

If your job is to project force in an inaccessible area, then consider a floating airport. Not horribly costly and can launch planes. It has the disadvantage that you cannot decide that attacking someone far away would be a good plan. It has the advantage that someone far away knows you won't think attacking them is a good plan. Protection requires aircraft, sensors, and a surface zone. Alternately, you pay a fraction in statesmanship to keep the threat level minimal.

For a small additional cost, you could make these mobile. Even a slow speed is sufficient to provide air support anywhere in the world within six months.

It has a very low CDI (Chicks Dig It) value.

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As mentioned by several answers, there are a lot of reasons for your country not to build an aircraft carrier.

If you country needs to have planes at locations that can only be supported by ships, build a few Submarine aircraft carriers

Cost wise, it may be more economical to use missiles or satellites, in place of planes. Look at North Korea, it does not have any carriers but the missile program has a vast strike distance

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