Aircraft Carrier or Nuclear Submarine: which one is harder to build?

Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, one that dominates the sea and the sky and the other that rules the underwater, are the deadliest maritime weapons in naval warfare. There are only six countries in the world that can build them independently. So here comes the question, which one is harder to build, an Aircraft Carrier or a Nuclear Submarine?

As the top product in military ships, it is extremely difficult to build aircraft carriers or nuclear submarines. Since the birth of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus in 1955, 67 years ago, today’s naval powers are building nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers at the same time. But only six nations are capable of designing and developing nuclear submarines, – United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and India. Countries like Japan, Turkey, Brazil, and South Korea also want to design these advanced military ships but are unable to do so because of the lack of required technology, funds, politics, etc.

The construction of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines requires extremely high levels of shipbuilding experience and supporting industrial chains. To build an aircraft carrier, it is necessary to have a large dry dock. In order to move large hull modules such as blocks of ship islands, a gantry crane with the load capacity of hundreds or even thousands of tons is required. In addition to the shipbuilding industry, the construction of aircraft carriers requires weapons, electronics, aviation industry and even the nuclear industry to support this plan.

Nowadays, new conventional power aircraft carriers usually use high-power steam turbines or gas turbines. Ship radars system usually uses phased array radars. The supporting catapults, arresting cables, and Fresnel lens landing aid systems are all difficult to develop. Not to mention various fixed-wing carrier-based fighter jets and carrier-based early warning aircraft which are needed for conducting different types of missions from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier.

However, if you do not want to build a catapult-type aircraft carrier, the technical requirements for other normal aircraft carriers is instantly lowered.

INS Vikrant aircraft carrier
INS Vikrant aircraft carrier

India’s “Indigenous Aircraft Carrier Program” is a good example. It was first determined to use ski-jump take-off and arresting landing. In addition to the hull being built locally, the aircraft carrier also has ship-based gas turbines, phased array radars, arresting cables, etc. The landing system and the supporting MiG-29K carrier-based fighter jets were all purchased from outside. After spending 3 billion US dollars (the latest estimate in January 2020), and also after delaying for many years, finally, the Vikrant was built and about to commission next month.

Not only India, even Britain and France, which are aircraft carrier powerhouses, also partially outsourced to solve the technical bottleneck of local construction of aircraft carriers. Although the “Queen Elizabeth” Class has a huge displacement of 65,000 tons, in order to reduce the technical difficulty, the 20,000-ton “Invincible”-class aircraft carrier ski-jump take-off and vertical landing method were adopted, and the catapult-type aircraft carrier route originally determined by the CVF plan was abandoned, Britain purchased the F-35B stealth vertical take-off carrier-based fighter directly from their close ally the United States, reducing the cost and difficulty of developing key technologies such as arresting cables and landing assistance systems.

The two generations of French domestic aircraft carriers “Clemenceau” class and “Charles de Gaulle” all used the US-made C-13 steam catapult. After the completion of the “Clemenceau” class in the 1960s, even the main carrier-based fighters were directly purchased from the United States, US made F-8 “Crusaders” were used to match the local “Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard” attack aircraft. “Charles de Gaulle” not only used the C-13 catapult, but also introduced the E-2C “Hawkeye” early warning aircraft from the USA. France’s future nuclear aircraft carrier plans to continue to use the “Advanced Hawkeye”, and the electromagnetic catapult system which will also be supplied directly from the United States.

Most Naval Forces can indeed import key aircraft carrier technologies from the United States and other countries as long as they have money, but it is difficult in the case of nuclear submarines.

At the time when the INS Vikrant indigenous aircraft carrier program was moving ahead, India was also working on its own domestic nuclear submarine “Advanced Technology Vessel” program, spending as much as ₹40 billion (US$520 million) per submarine, but many technologies for completing this program was supplied by Russia. These Nuclear Submarines are known as the Arihant-class subs in India. The subs are equipped with four K-4 SLBM for long-range striking purposes. India faced many difficulties during the development of these submarines.

The same Chinese Navy  Type 094 ballistic missile submarine was completely copied from USSR Delta class submarine. Same goes for Chinese navy’s first homemade aircraft carrier Shandong which is a copy of Russian aircraft carrier and was built with the help of Ukrainian engineers and Russians.

Nuclear submarines are the most important sea-based nuclear weapons launching platforms for nuclear powers, so they are extremely cautious about exporting technology. However, making a nuclear submarine cost less compared to an aircraft carrier. US Navy spent more than 13 billion USD to make the Ford class aircraft carrier which is nearly double the entire budget of Pakistan armed forces.

Whether it is the hull construction technology represented by the large-diameter pressure hull, the nuclear reactor and the supporting missile system, or the pump-type water-jet propulsion technology, which is of great significance to noise reduction and muteness, the five nuclear powers are in the stage of independent exploration, the only exception is that the United States exported nuclear missiles for ballistic missile nuclear submarines of the United Kingdom, that is, “Polaris” and “Trident II D5”, but the nuclear warheads and re-entry vehicles used by the “Trident II D5 ” supporting the “Vanguard-class” are developed by the United Kingdom independently. It can be seen that the United Kingdom and the United States are also “clearly settled” in terms of nuclear submarines.

However, there are signs of lowering the threshold for the transfer of key technologies for nuclear submarines. AUKUS, which has made a lot of noise among the United States, Britain and Australia, is undoubtedly promoting the opening of “Pandora’s Box”, and France is also helping Brazil to develop fast attack nuclear submarines.

The world situation is becoming more and more tense. Whether it is an aircraft carrier or a nuclear submarine, some countries that have the power will step up to launch and buy whatever they can.

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