The story of how thanks to the Midway-class aircraft carriers and the P-2 Neptune the US Navy built a viable nuclear strike capability

The story of how thanks to the Midway-class aircraft carriers and the P-2 Neptune the US Navy built a viable nuclear strike capability

By Dario Leone
Jul 7 2024
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The Midway-class aircraft carriers

Entering service in September 1945, the Midway-class aircraft carrier was the US Navy’s ultimate World War II-era design, and would be the largest and most capable American carriers as the Cold War dawned. These prestigious, nuclear-capable carriers operated in the Cold War frontlines of the Atlantic and Mediterranean early in their careers, and were big enough to accept significant modernizations over the next decades.

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As told by Mark Stille in his book Midway-Class Aircraft Carriers 1945–92, a major consideration in early Cold War USN air groups was the deployment of carrier-launched aircraft that could carry nuclear weapons. This was an existential issue for the USN, since failure to get in the nuclear strike game meant budgetary catastrophe. The future of the Navy’s carrier force was at stake if the Air Force was allowed to assume a nuclear strike monopoly. Using what was already in service, the Navy built a viable nuclear strike capability as quickly as possible. The obvious launch platform was the large Midway-class carriers (CVB-41 USS Midway, CVB‑42 USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, and CVB-43 USS Coral Sea. They were redesignated CVAs on Oct. 1, 1952 and CVs on Jun. 30, 1975).

The P-2 Neptune

The story of how thanks to the Midway-class aircraft carriers and the P-2 Neptune the US Navy built a viable nuclear strike capability
A US Navy Lockheed P2V-3C Neptune is launched from the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CVB-41), with a JATO rocket boost, on Apr. 7, 1949.

To carry the large nuclear weapons of the period (the 9,000lb Mark VIII atomic bomb) the latest USN patrol aircraft – the Lockheed P2V (P-2) Neptune – was selected. Twelve modified P2V-3C were delivered to Composite Squadron 5 (VC-5) in September 1948 for testing. The Neptunes were large twin-engine aircraft with a 100ft wingspan and a full-up weight of 70,000lb. The idea was to launch the P2Vs from one of the Midway-class ships and then use their long range to strike targets inside the Soviet Union or in the Eastern Bloc. After delivering their weapons, the P2s would recover at a land base or, if necessary, ditch in the sea where their crews could be recovered.

To get off the flight deck, the P2Vs were fitted with jet-assisted take-off (JATO) packs. VC-5 also trained to land the P2Vs on a carrier and actually made touch-and-go landings on Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although one aircraft was fitted with a tailhook, no arrested landings were attempted. In April 1948, the interim nuclear-strike concept was given a full test. Two P2Vs were loaded aboard Coral Sea. Using JATO, both aircraft took off successfully. Over the next two years, the modified Neptunes from VC-5 and VC-6 took off from all three Midway-class ships and provided the USN with a nascent nuclear strike capability.

From the AJ-1 Savage to the A3D Skywarrior

The story of how thanks to the Midway-class aircraft carriers and the P-2 Neptune the US Navy built a viable nuclear strike capability
A US Navy Lockheed P2V-3C Neptune launches with “Jet-assisted take-off (JATO)” from the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42) on Jul. 2, 1951.

Deploying Neptunes on carriers for nuclear strike was only a temporary solution. The first carrier aircraft designed for long-range nuclear strikes was the North American AJ-1 Savage. Prototypes were ordered in June 1946, with the first flight recorded in July 1948. VC-5 received its first AJ-1 in September 1949. This new aircraft featured two piston engines and a jet engine in the tail. Once in service, it replaced the Neptunes. The Savage was deployed aboard the Midway class but only on a temporary basis. It was never popular with carrier commanders because of its huge size, as it clogged up flight deck operations. The AJ-1 was retained in a nuclear role until the mid-1950s, though it operated mostly from land bases. It also served as a carrier-based tanker beginning in 1958 and as a photo reconnaissance aircraft until 1960.

The largest nuclear-capable aircraft to operate on Midway-class carriers was the twin-engine Douglas A3D (A-3) Skywarrior. This was an all-jet aircraft that entered fleet service in 1956. It had a long life, even after being phased out of the heavy attack role, and continued to serve aboard carriers as a tanker, electronic countermeasures, and an intelligence collection platform.

Midway-Class Aircraft Carriers 1945–92 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

A-3 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. EA-3B Skywarrior VQ-2 Sandeman, JQ12 “Ranger 12” / 146448 / 1980

Photo credit: U.S. Navy


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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