|First of all, this is not a suggestion for a small carrier to replace our current CVN's. There is no better way to get large numbers of aircraft, and keep them up regularly then the big deck carrier, whatever it's future incarnations will look like.
I think that's a big part of hte problem in debates on smaller ships with aviation capability-- overblown comments on how they can "replace" a CVN. They can't.
But, it is true that airpower, both in the form of helicopters and the proliferating numbers of UAVs and UCAVS is becoming both more common and more organic to surface warships, and that modern weapons, such as VLS missiles and stealthly gun turrents have the advantage of eliminating a lot of the old clutter that interfered with air operatoins.
So, is there room for an air capable cruiser in the future, a ship that dedicates a health percentage of deckspace/hanger space to being able to operate a larger number of aircraft then current surface ships can, while *not* being seen in the same light as an aircraft carrier (most notably, not being considered for the kinds of strike and presence missions that smply require more in the way of magazine space and fuel bunkerage then a cruiser sized ship could carry).
It seems to me there is some use for this for the following reasons.
1. combined with the growing use of "Flex deck" style space, it provides a greater amount of mission flexiblity. Disaster relief, anti-piracy and blockade duty all benefit from having more helicopters/UAV's available, and the ship could be quickly tailored for them.
2. Long range observation. There's a space betwwen the big carrier born AEW aircraft and smaller UAV's in service that might be filled by a larger UAV V/STOL on an aviation cruiser. It might be completmented by UCAVs, but I'm not certain about that, as that starts to get inot mission slop territory. OTH, before too many years we'll have the sort of hypersonic missiles that could be used to back up such UAV's, eliminating the need for arming them in the first place.
3. Amphibious landing. Definately a secondary mission, the German F125's frigate provision for a small unit might indicate a ship that could embarck a hundred or so soldiers and their aircraft might be of use for the sorts of things that are too small for a Wasp-- or happen when it's not around.
There might be others, but I'll leave it open-- is there room for the idea of an aviatoin capable cruiser, so long as we steer well clear of the shibboleth that it will "replace the big deck carrier", or otherwise carry out the missions that the CVN remains the best platform for.