1. China is starting to get serious about its carriers.
In June, 2013, Chinese naval aviation took a major leap forward with J-15 Flying Shark flight training on its first aircraft carrier: the Liaoning, originally the Varyag, an Admiral Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier, once destined for the Soviet Navy. The refurbishment of the Liaoning has clearly been extensive to the point that the ship can almost be considered a new class of warship. It is widely speculated that the Chinese are currently embarked on building at least two additional indigenously-designed aircraft carriers.
2. In August, 2013, Japan launched the Helicopter Destroyer (DDH) Izumo.
Displacing 27,000 tons fully loaded, the Izumo will be commissioned in 2015. The Izumo’s flight deck is readily configurable to operate fixed-wing aircraft such as the F-35B Lightening II and the MV-22B Osprey. Not surprisingly, China has labeled the warship as an “aircraft-carrier in disguise.” The Izumo is Japan’s third and largest flat top Helicopter Destroyer.
3. Also in August 2013, India launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant.
Vikrant will join INS Viraat, a 60-year-old ex-Royal Navy Centaur class aircraft carrier (ex-Hermes), acquired in 1987 as the second carrier in the Indian Navy’s fleet. Russia is also set to deliver to India later this year, a modified Kiev-class multirole aircraft carrier, formerly Baku (renamed Admiral Gorshkov after the fall of the Soviet Union), which will enter Indian service as the INS Vikramaditya. It is unlikely that India will deploy three carriers simultaneously as the aging Viraat will likely be decommissioned soon after the Vikramaditya is operational.
4. The Royal Navy announced in July that “by the end of this year  HMS Queen Elizabeth will be fully assembled” with an expected launch in 2014.
Captain Simon Petitt, who will command the warship, said there was still a lot of symbolism in modern warfare and that having a 65,000-tonne carrier, which is almost 300 meters long, heading towards a potential enemy had a deterrent effect that is essential if the UK wants to project influence across the world and “nip aggressors in the bud.”
5. In May, the U.S. changed naval aviation forever when it launched a jet-powered unmanned aerial vehicle from a carrier flight deck for the first time.
A X-47B unmanned combat air system, was catapult launched from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) off the Virginia coast. Two months later, on July 10, the Navy completed the first-ever carrier landing of an UAV when a X-47B landed on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush.
6. On August 14, an F-35B made a nighttime precision landing on the USS Wasp.
On August 14, 2013, an F-35B, the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35 Lightening II, made a night-time precision landing on the USS Wasp. While STOVL planes such as the Hawker Sea Harrier and the YAK-38 Forger were mainstays of British and US Marine Corps and Soviet naval aviation, respectively, a fifth generation fighter like F-35B is a game changer. The jet can potentially turn numerous amphibious assault warships in allied fleets such as France, Japan, Australia, Spain, the UK and, of course, the United States, into “small carriers” equipped with an incredibly powerful, if bantam, air wing. The success of the F-35B trials prompted one defense journal to ask recently “[i]s any ship not an aircraft carrier anymore?”
7. A carrier was sent out by the UK’s Royal Navy for its symbolism.
It has long been claimed that in a time of crisis, the first question asked by an American President is: “where are the carriers?” Certainly, the same is true of other heads of government with aircraft carriers in their navy. This summer in the midst of renewed tensions over Gibraltar and its territorial waters between Spain and the UK, the BBC announced that the Royal Navy’s sole remaining aircraft carrier “HMS Illustrious sets sail amid Gibraltar row.” While the Illustrious no longer deploys fixed wing aircraft and although both the British and Spanish governments sought to characterize the deployment as “routine”, there is no questioning the symbolism of an aircraft carrier showing up in contested waters.
8. Russia will deploy its sole aircraft carrier to the Syrian Coast late this year.
Certainly understanding the value of having an aircraft carrier around to protect its interests in time of crisis, in June 2013, Russia said that it will deploy its sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean late in 2013, where it will operate near the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria. To punctuate the symbolism, Russia’s announcement included the following description of the warship: “In addition to Su-33 sea-based multirole fighters, the cruiser also carries Ka-27, Ka-28, Ka-29, Ka-32 helicopters and their versions. The vessel has water displacement of 55,000 tonnes and an operational range of 8,000 nautical miles and can move at 29 knots. Its crew is comprised of 1,500 and flight crew 650 people. Its armament includes Granit anti-ship missile systems, Kortik and Klinok anti-aircraft systems, and Udav anti-submarine systems.”
9. France sent a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Syria’s coast.
With its own interests at stake in Syria and Lebanon, France confirmed early in the year that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle had been deployed to waters off Syria’s coast. In August, after the Syrian Regime carried out a chemical weapons attack against civilians, French President François Hollande expressed his readiness to join any US strike against Syria. Analysts noted that the Charles De Gaulle, which had played a key role in enforcing NATO’s no fly zone of Libya, was docked in the Mediterranean port in Toulon.
10. But even though this has been the Year of the Carrier, sequestration still forced the U.S. to cut back on them.
On July 31, 2013, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made a statement that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago and which is contrary to current US law, that requires the Navy to maintain eleven aircraft carriers. It may be the most important news in this, the year of the aircraft carrier. In response to sequestration, originally proposed by the White House in an earlier budget showdown with Congress, Hagel concludes that the US Navy may have to “®educe the number of carrier strike groups from 11 to 8 or 9…” Seth Cropsey, author of The Decline of American Naval Supremacy, describes the impact “The elimination of three aircraft carriers would mean that the U.S.’s current ability to keep about three aircraft carrier battle groups deployed around the world would drop to about two. Thus our allies could count on a single carrier battle group for the entire West Pacific and a single carrier battle group for the Persian Gulf. An unexpected event, such as a serious crisis in the increasingly unstable Mediterranean where we have no carriers today or a conflict in the West Pacific that required more than a single carrier would strain the diminished Navy beyond its ability effectively to respond.”
Robert C. O’Brien is the California managing partner of a national law firm. He served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations and advised Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy matters. Robert’s website is www.robertcobrien.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertcobrien.