Forces: February 25, 2005


:   The United States and the European Union are increasingly seen as rivals more than allies. This makes comparisons of the armed forces of the two of interest.  How would these two powers match up? For both sides, foreign trade and access to the sea is of vital interest. So, who has got the better navy? 

For the same of argument, lets compare the Atlantic Fleet of the United States Navy with the combined European forces.  The primary naval weapon is the aircraft carrier. This is how a navy takes the fight to an enemy, and the navies of the two sides can be compared thusly.

The U.S. Navys carriers are the best in the world. Each carries four squadrons (12-14 planes each) of multi-role fighters, either the F-14 (which is being retired), the F/A-18C/D, or the F/A-18E/F. These carriers also carry a mix of support aircraft, like the EA-6B Prowler (for electronic warfare), the E-2C (AWACS), and the MH-60R (multi-role helicopter used for ASW and other roles). This is probably the most powerful striking force from a carrier in the world. The Atlantic Fleet has six of these available. In addition, the United States can use the Tarawa-class LHAs and Wasp-class LHDs as sea control ships (in essence, small carriers with V/STOL aircraft, carrying 20 Harriers and some MH-60Rs). The Atlantic Fleet has two Tarawa-class LHAs and four Wasp-class LHDs assigned to it.

The EUs best carrier is the troubled French CVN, the Charles de Gaulle. The de Gaulle can carry about forty aircraft. The bulk of these will be Rafale M multi-role aircraft. This is pretty much a souped-up F/A-18E. The de Gaulle, in all likelihood, could carry thirty of these planes. The French have bought some E-2Cs. Several helicopters (usually the Super Frelon) will also deploy on the de Gaulle. A second ship in the class, was to have been named Richelieu, but the difficulties the de Gaulle had placed those plans on hold. The aging Clemenceau is in reserve, pending a decision on her disposal. That ship could be pressed into service.

Spain and Italy both operate V/STOL carriers. Spains Principe de Asturias and Italys Giuseppe Garibaldi and Conte di Cavour each operate about sixteen Harriers and a dozen helicopters (Spain uses versions of the SH-60B, while Italy uses the EH 101). These carriers are small the Conte di Cavour is the largest at 26,500 tons full load displacement (a little smaller than an Essex-class carrier from World War II); the Principe de Asturias and Giuseppe Garibaldi are about 13,000 ton each (a little smaller than the Independence-class light carriers from World War II).

Finally, we come to Europes largest carrier force: That of the Royal Navy. Assuming the United Kingdom sides with the EU, this brings the three Invincible-class carriers in on the side of the EU. The carriers currently operate a mix of Harrier GR.9s from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Sea Harrier FA.2s (until 2006) pending the introduction of the F-35 into Royal Navy service. These carriers can hold a dozen Harriers and eight to ten Sea King or EH 101 helicopters (usually a mix of airborne early-warning variants and anti-submarine variants).

When it comes to carriers,  the United States is clearly superior. In terms of conventional carriers, the Americans have six, the EU two at best (one of which would be over 40 years old). In terms of the Harrier carriers, the two sides seem evenly matched (six American LHAs and LHDs; six EU), but the American LHAs and LHDs can carry 120 Harriers total to the 84 on the EU carriers. The French Rafale is slightly better than the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, but the Atlantic fleet will boast as many as 84 of these planes to the 32 Rafale M for the EU. This does not take into consideration the fact that three times as many F/A-18C/D Hornets will also be in the mix. The United States Navys real edge is sheer quantity and that has a quality of its own. Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])




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