"Italy has two aircraft carriers, and India recently bought its second from Russia, with its first indigenously built aircraft carrier being in the works. This shows that having two or more aircraft carriers is normal for a regional or global power."
-- Zhang Junshe, deputy head of the Naval Research Institute of the People's Liberation Army of China

America's mini-aircraft carrier, the USS America (LHA-6). Source: U.S. Navy.

China has an aircraft carrier. It's building a second, and in a few years, could have three or even four brand-new carriers. Meanwhile, the U.S. is paring back its aircraft carrier-building program, and delaying completion of the new USS Gerald R. Ford supercarrier.

At an estimated completion cost of nearly $13 billion, can you blame us? The Ford is by all accounts a beautiful ship, but it's incredibly expensive -- six times the cost of the carriers China is building. And it gets a taxpayer to wondering: Might there be a better alternative?

Alternative No. 1: Run silent, run deep
One option -- an option that America's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is actively looking into -- is building a new generation of underwater "aircraft carriers" that can move invisibly to any part of the globe, there to deploy unmanned, robotic seaborne, land-roving, and aerial drones. No one knows how much it might cost to build such boats, however.

The good news is that America has another kind of aircraft carrier in its toolbox. It's smaller than the USS Gerald R. Ford. Probably a bit less capable. But -- and this is key -- it costs a whole lot less.

Alternative No. 2: Introducing America's mini-aircraft carriers
We call it the USS America, and technically, it's not an "aircraft carrier." The Navy calls it a Landing Helicopter Assault ship, or LHA -- but as you can see in the following picture, an LHA does look an awful lot like an aircraft carrier.

USS Peleliu (LHA-5) at sea. And yes, that's an aircraft it's carrying up there in front of the tower. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Don't let the "Landing Helicopter Assault" name fool you. Yes, an LHA packs an assortment of helicopter gunships, transports, and anti-submarine choppers from United Technologies (RTX -0.06%) and Textron (TXT 1.93%). But these "helicopter" carriers are fully capable of carrying V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, and even Lockheed Martin's (LMT 0.29%) new F-35B Lightning II fighter jet as well. Displacing 45,000 tons, each America-class LHA can carry up to 20 F-35B fighter jets -- nearly as many fighters as China's full-sized carrier Liaoning carries.

China's newest naval toy, the Liaoning (PLAN CV-16). Source: Author photo, using Google Earth.

Packing a punch on a budget
On an ordinary mission, an America-class LHA might be equipped with:

  • A dozen MV-22B Osprey transports.
  • Six F-35B Lightning IIs.
  • Four CH-53K heavy transport helicopters.
  • Seven AH-1Z attack helicopters.
  • A pair of MH-60S Seahawks. 

That's an incredible, and versatile, amount of firepower we're talking about. More than 30 aircraft, all packed aboard one boat. Best of all, it costs defense contractor Huntington Ingalls (HII -0.22%) only about $3.4 billion to build an 844-foot long, 106-foot-wide mini-aircraft carrier like the America. To put that number in context, $3.4 billion is $100 million cheaper than the cost of our newest guided-missile destroyer, the USS Zumwalt.

The upshot: For less than the cost of buying a destroyer, the U.S. could build a whole -- albeit small -- aircraft carrier. That's an attractive proposition, and in a world of shrinking defense budgets, it's a rare bit of good news for the company that builds the carriers: Huntington Ingalls.