Military Wiki

Four modern aircraft carriers of various types—USS John C. Stennis, Charles de Gaulle (French Navy), USS John F. Kennedy, helicopter carrier HMS Ocean—and escort vessels, 2002

From bottom to top: Spanish light V/STOL carrier Príncipe de Asturias, amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, fleet carrier USS Forrestal, and light V/STOL carrier HMS Invincible, showing size differences of late 20th century carriers, 1991

An aircraft carrier is a warship that serves as a seagoing airbase, equipped with a full-length flight deck and facilities for carrying, arming, deploying, and recovering aircraft.[1] Typically, it is the capital ship of a fleet, as it allows a naval force to project air power worldwide without depending on local bases for staging aircraft operations. Carriers have evolved since their inception in the early twentieth century from wooden vessels used to deploy balloons to nuclear-powered warships that carry numerous fighter planes, strike aircraft, helicopters, and other types of aircraft. Whilst heavier aircraft such as fixed-wing gunships and bombers have been launched from aircraft carriers, it is currently not possible to land them. By its diplomatic and tactical power, its mobility, its autonomy and the variety of its means, the aircraft carrier is often the centerpiece of modern combat fleets. Tactically or even strategically, it replaced the battleship in the role of flagship of a fleet. One of its great advantages is that, by sailing in international waters, it does not interfere with any territorial sovereignty and thus obviates the need for overflight authorizations from third party countries (which can be obtained but take several weeks even with a friendly country, or worse be refused), reduce the times and transit distances of aircraft and therefore significantly increase the time of availability on the combat zone.

There is no single definition of an "aircraft carrier,"[2] and modern navies use several variants of the type. These variants are sometimes categorized as sub-types of aircraft carriers,[3] and sometimes as distinct types of naval aviation-capable ships.[2][4] Aircraft carriers may be classified according to the type of aircraft they carry and their operational assignments. Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, RN, former First Sea Lord (head) of the British Royal Navy, has said, "To put it simply, countries that aspire to strategic international influence have aircraft carriers".[5] Henry Kissinger, while United States Secretary of State, also said: "An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy".[6]

As of August 2022, there are 41 active aircraft carriers in the world operated by thirteen navies. The United States Navy has 11 large nuclear-powered fleet carriers, carrying around 80 fighter jets each, the largest carriers in the world; the total combined deckspace is over twice that of all other nations combined.[7] As well as the aircraft carrier fleet, the U.S. Navy has nine amphibious assault ships used primarily for helicopters, although these also carry up to 20 vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) fighter jets and are similar in size to medium-sized fleet carriers. China, France, India, Russia, and the UK each operate a single large/medium-size carrier, with capacity from 30 to 60 fighter jets. Italy operates two light fleet carriers and Spain operates one. Helicopter carriers are operated by Australia (2), Egypt (2), France (3), Japan (4), South Korea (1), and Thailand (1). Future aircraft carriers are under construction or in planning by Brazil, China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US.

Types of carrier

Brazilian aircraft carrier NAe São Paulo, foreground, and U.S. Navy carrier USS Ronald Reagan during a combined training exercise.

USS Enterprise, first nuclear-powered carrier of the U.S. Navy (left), sails alongside Charles de Gaulle, a fleet carrier of the French Navy (right), both of which have the CATOBAR configuration.

Cavour, a light aircraft carrier of the Italian Navy.

HMS Ocean of the Royal Navy, an amphibious assault ship/helicopter carrier. It will join the Brazilian Navy in 2018.[8]

Basic types

(note: some of the types listed here are not strictly defined as aircraft carriers by some sources)

By role

A fleet carrier is intended to operate with the main fleet and usually provides an offensive capability. These are the largest carriers capable of fast speeds. By comparison, escort carriers were developed to provide defense for convoys of ships. They were smaller and slower with lower numbers of aircraft carried. Most were built from mercantile hulls or, in the case of merchant aircraft carriers, were bulk cargo ships with a flight deck added on top. Light aircraft carriers were fast enough to operate with the main fleet but of smaller size with reduced aircraft capacity. Soviet aircraft carriers now in use by Russia are actually called heavy aviation cruisers; these ships, while sized in the range of large fleet carriers, were designed to deploy alone or with escorts, and provide both strong defensive weaponry and heavy offensive missiles equivalent to a guided missile cruiser, in addition to supporting fighters and helicopters.

By configuration

INS Vikramaditya of the Indian Navy has the STOBAR configuration.

Aircraft carriers today are usually divided into the following four categories based on the way that aircraft take off and land:

  • Catapult-assisted take-off barrier arrested-recovery (CATOBAR): these carriers generally carry the largest, heaviest, and most heavily armed aircraft, although smaller CATOBAR carriers may have other limitations (weight capacity of aircraft elevator, etc.). All CATOBAR carriers in service today are nuclear powered. Two nations currently operate carriers of this type: ten Nimitz class and one Gerald R. Ford class fleet carriers by the United States, and one medium-sized carrier by France, for a world total of twelve in service.
  • Short take-off but arrested-recovery (STOBAR): these carriers are generally limited to carrying lighter fixed-wing aircraft with more limited payloads. STOBAR carrier air wings, such as the Sukhoi Su-33 and future Mikoyan MiG-29K wings of Admiral Kuznetsov are often geared primarily towards air superiority and fleet defense roles rather than strike/power projection tasks,[citation needed] which require heavier payloads (bombs and air-to-ground missiles). Today China, India, and Russia each operate one carrier of this type – a total of three in service currently.
  • Short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL): limited to carrying STOVL aircraft. STOVL aircraft, such as the Harrier Jump Jet family and Yakovlev Yak-38 generally have limited payloads, lower performance, and high fuel consumption when compared with conventional fixed-wing aircraft; however, a new generation of STOVL aircraft, currently consisting of the F-35B, has much improved performance. The US has nine STOVL amphibious assault ships. The UK has a class of two 65,000 ton[9] STOVL aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy; with one in service and the other being fitted out. Italy operates two in the light fleet role, and Spain operates one amphibious assault ship as a STOVL aircraft carrier, giving a total of thirtee STOVL carriers in active service; (Thailand has one active STOVL carrier but it no longer has any operational STOVL aircraft in inventory so is used and counted as a helicopter carrier).
  • Helicopter carrier: Helicopter carriers have a similar appearance to other aircraft carriers but operate only helicopters – those that mainly operate helicopters but can also operate fixed-wing aircraft are known as STOVL carriers (see above). There are currently thirteen helicopter carriers (that solely operate helicopters and not fixed-wing aircraft), operated by six navies, in commission today. Japan has four of this type, France three, Australia two, Egypt two, South Korea one, and Thailand one. In the past, some conventional carriers were converted and called commando carriers by the Royal Navy. Some helicopter carriers, but not all, are classified as amphibious assault ships, tasked with landing and supporting ground forces on enemy territory.

By size

The Japanese carrier Shinano was the biggest carrier in World War II, and the largest ship destroyed by a submarine.[10]


The appellation "supercarrier" is not an official designation with any national navy, but a term used predominantly by the media and typically when reporting on new and upcoming aircraft carrier types. It is also used when comparing carriers of various sizes and capabilities, both current and past. It was first used by The New York Times in 1938,[11] in an article about the Royal Navy's HMS Ark Royal , that had a length of 209 metres (686 ft), a displacement of 22,000 tonnes and was designed to carry 72 aircraft.[12][13] Since then, aircraft carriers have consistently grown in size, both in length and displacement, as well as improved capabilities; in defense, sensors, electronic warfare, propulsion, range, launch and recovery systems, number and types of aircraft carried and number of sorties flown per day. While the current classes in service, or planned, with the navies of China, India, Russia, and the UK, have displacements ranging from 65,000[9] to 85,000 tonnes,[14] lengths ranging from 280 meters (920 ft)[15] to 320 meters (1,050 ft)[16] and varying capabilities, have been described as "supercarriers",[14][17][18][19] the largest "supercarriers" currently in service are with the US Navy,[20] with displacements exceeding 100,000 tonnes,[20] lengths of over 337 meters (1,106 ft),[20] and capabilities that match or exceed that of any other class.[21][22][23][24][25]

Hull type identification symbols

Several systems of identification symbol for aircraft carriers and related types of ship have been used. These include the pennant numbers used by the British Royal Navy and some Commonwealth countries, the US hull classification symbols also used by NATO and some other countries,[26] and the Canadian hull classification symbols.

US hull classification symbols for aircraft carriers and related types
Symbol Designation
CV Generic aircraft carrier
CVA Attack carrier
CVB Large aircraft carrier (retired)
CVAN Nuclear-powered attack carrier
CVE Escort carrier
CVG Flight deck cruiser (proposed)
CVHA Aircraft carrier, Helicopter Assault (retired)
CVHE Aircraft carrier, Helicopter, Escort (retired)
CVL Light aircraft carrier
CVN Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier
CVS Anti-submarine warfare carrier
CVV Aircraft Carrier, Medium (proposed)
LHA Landing Helicopter Assault, a type of Amphibious assault ship
LHD Landing Helicopter Dock, a type of Amphibious assault ship
LPH Landing Platform Helicopter, a type of Amphibious assault ship



The Japanese seaplane carrier Wakamiya conducted the world's first naval-launched air raids in 1914.

The 1903 advent of heavier-than-air fixed-wing aircraft with the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was closely followed on 14 November 1910, by Eugene Burton Ely's first experimental take-off of a Curtiss pusher airplane from the deck of a United States Navy ship, the cruiser USS Birmingham anchored off Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia. Two months later, on 18 January 1911, Ely landed his Curtiss pusher airplane on a platform on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay. On 9 May 1912, the first airplane take-off from a ship underway was made from the deck of the British Royal Navy's pre-dreadnaught battleship HMS Hibernia.[27][28] Seaplane tender support ships came next, with the French Foudre of 1911. Early in World War I, the Imperial Japanese Navy ship Wakamiya conducted the world's first successful ship-launched air raid:[29][30] on 6 September 1914, a Farman aircraft launched by Wakamiya attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth and the Imperial German gunboat Jaguar in Kiaochow Bay off Tsingtao; neither was hit.[31][32] The first carrier-launched airstrike was the Tondern Raid in July 1918. Seven Sopwith Camels launched from the converted battlecruiser HMS Furious (47) damaged the German airbase at Tondern, Germany (modern day Tønder, Denmark) and destroyed two zeppelin airships.[33]

Aerial view of Hōshō of the Imperial Japanese Navy as completed in December 1922.

The development of flattop vessels produced the first large fleet ships. In 1918, HMS Argus became the world's first carrier capable of launching and recovering naval aircraft.[34] As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which limited the construction of new heavy surface combat ships, most early aircraft carriers were conversions of ships that were laid down (or had served) as different ship types: cargo ships, cruisers, battlecruisers, or battleships. These conversions gave rise to the US Lexington-class aircraft carriers (1927), Japanese Akagi, and British Courageous class. Specialist carrier evolution was well underway, with several navies ordering and building warships that were purposefully designed to function as aircraft carriers by the mid-1920s. This resulted in the commissioning of ships such as the Japanese Hōshō (1922),[35] followed by HMS Hermes (1924, although laid down before Hōshō in 1918) and Béarn (1927). During World War II, these ships would become known as fleet carriers.[citation needed]

World War II

The Royal Navy's HMS Ark Royal in 1939, with Swordfish biplane fighters passing overhead. The British aircraft carrier was involved in the crippling of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941

USS Enterprise, the most decorated U.S. warship of World War II.

The aircraft carrier dramatically changed naval combat in World War II, because air power was becoming a significant factor in warfare. The advent of aircraft as focal weapons was driven by the superior range, flexibility, and effectiveness of carrier-launched aircraft. They had greater range and precision than naval guns, making them highly effective. The versatility of the carrier was demonstrated in November 1940, when HMS Illustrious launched a long-range strike on the Italian fleet at their base in Taranto, signalling the beginning of the effective and highly mobile aircraft strikes. This operation in the shallow water harbor incapacitated three of the anchored six battleships at a cost of two torpedo bombers. World War II in the Pacific Ocean involved clashes between aircraft carrier fleets. The Japanese surprise attack on the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor naval / air bases on Sunday, 7 December 1941, was a clear illustration of the power projection capability afforded by a large force of modern carriers. Concentrating six carriers in a single unit turned naval history about, as no other nation had fielded anything comparable. Further versatility was demonstrated during the "Doolittle Raid", on 18 April 1942, when US Navy carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) sailed to within 650 nautical miles of Japan and launched 16 B-25 bombers from her deck in a retaliatory strike on the mainland, including the capital, Tokyo. However, the vulnerability of carriers compared to traditional battleships when forced into a gun-range encounter was quickly illustrated by the sinking of HMS Glorious by German battleships during the Norwegian campaign in 1940.

This new-found importance of naval aviation forced nations to create a number of carriers, in efforts to provide air superiority cover for every major fleet in order to ward off enemy aircraft. This extensive usage led to the development and construction of 'light' carriers. Escort aircraft carriers, such as USS Bogue, were sometimes purpose-built but most were converted from merchant ships as a stop-gap measure to provide anti-submarine air support for convoys and amphibious invasions. Following this concept, light aircraft carriers built by the U.S., such as USS Independence, represented a larger, more "militarized" version of the escort carrier. Although with similar complement to escort carriers, they had the advantage of speed from their converted cruiser hulls. The UK 1942 Design Light Fleet Carrier was designed for building quickly by civilian shipyards and with an expected service life of about 3 years.[36] They served the Royal Navy during the war, and the hull design was chosen for nearly all aircraft carrier equipped navies after the war, until the 1980s. Emergencies also spurred the creation or conversion of highly unconventional aircraft carriers. CAM ships were cargo-carrying merchant ships that could launch (but not retrieve) a single fighter aircraft from a catapult to defend the convoy from long range land-based German aircraft.

Postwar era

USS Tripoli, a U.S. Navy Iwo Jima-class helicopter carrier

USS Enterprise (CVN-65), "The Big E", the world's first nuclear-powered carrier, commissioned in 1961.

Before World War II, international naval treaties of 1922, 1930, and 1936 limited the size of capital ships including carriers. Since World War II, aircraft carrier designs have increased in size to accommodate a steady increase in aircraft size. The large, modern Nimitz class of U.S.N. carriers has a displacement nearly four times that of the World War II–era USS Enterprise, yet its complement of aircraft is roughly the same—a consequence of the steadily increasing size and weight of individual military aircraft over the years. Today's aircraft carriers are so expensive that nations which operate them risk significant political, economic, social and military impact if a carrier is lost, or is even sent to a potential crisis zone or used in conflict.

Modern navies that operate such aircraft carriers treat them as the capital ship of the fleet, a role previously held by the sailing galleons, frigates and ships-of-the-line and later steam or diesel powered battleship. This change took place during World War II in response to air power becoming a significant factor in warfare, driven by the superior range, flexibility and effectiveness of carrier-launched aircraft. Following the war, carrier operations continued to increase in size and importance, and along with, carrier designs also increased in size and ability. Some of these larger carriers, dubbed by the media as "supercarriers", displacing 75,000 tonnes or greater, have become the pinnacle of carrier development. Some are powered by nuclear reactors and form the core of a fleet designed to operate far from home. Amphibious assault ships, such as the Wasp and Mistral classes, serve the purpose of carrying and landing Marines, and operate a large contingent of helicopters for that purpose. Also known as "commando carriers"[37] or "helicopter carriers", many have the capability to operate VSTOL aircraft.

Lacking the firepower of other warships, carriers by themselves are considered vulnerable to attack by other ships, aircraft, submarines, or missiles. Therefore, an aircraft carrier is generally accompanied by a number of other ships to provide protection for the relatively unwieldy carrier, to carry supplies and perform other support services, and to provide additional offensive capabilities. The resulting group of ships is often termed a battle group, carrier group, carrier battle group or carrier strike group.

There is a view among some military pundits that modern anti-ship weapons systems, such as torpedoes and missiles, or even ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads have made aircraft carriers and carrier groups obsolete as too vulnerable for modern combat.[38] On the other hand, the threatening role of aircraft carriers has a place in modern asymmetric warfare, like the gunboat diplomacy of the past.[39] Furthermore, aircraft carriers facilitate quick and precise projections of overwhelming military power into such local and regional conflicts.[40]



STOVL Harriers preparing to takeoff from CATOBAR carrier, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt

Carriers are large and long ships, although there is a high degree of variation depending on their intended role and aircraft complement. The size of the carrier has varied over history and among navies, to cater to the various roles that global climates have demanded from naval aviation.

Regardless of size, the ship itself must house their complement of aircraft, with space for launching, storing, and maintaining them. Space is also required for the large crew, supplies (food, munitions, fuel, engineering parts), and propulsion. US aircraft carriers are notable for having nuclear reactors powering their systems and propulsion. This makes the carrier reasonably tall.

The top of the carrier is the flight deck, where aircraft are launched and recovered. On the starboard side of this is the island, where air-traffic control and the bridge are located.

The constraints of constructing a flight deck affect the role of a given carrier strongly, as they influence the weight, type, and configuration of the aircraft that may be launched. For example, assisted launch mechanisms are used primarily for heavy aircraft, especially those loaded with air-to-ground weapons. CATOBAR is most commonly used on USN fleet carriers as it allows the deployment of heavy jets with full loadouts, especially on ground-attack missions. STOVL is used by other navies because it is cheaper to operate and still provides good deployment capability for fighter aircraft.

The first carrier landing and take-off of a jet aircraft: Eric "Winkle" Brown landing on HMS Ocean in 1945.

Due to the busy nature of the flight deck, only 20 or so aircraft may be on it at any one time. A hangar storage several decks below the flight deck is where most aircraft are kept, and aircraft are taken from the lower storage decks to the flight deck through the use of an elevator. The hangar is usually quite large and can take up several decks of vertical space.[41]

Munitions are commonly stored on the lower decks because they are highly explosive. Usually this is below the water line so that the area can be flooded in case of emergency.

Flight deck

Catapult launches aboard USS Ronald Reagan.

Expansive Flight Deck of INS Vikramaditya at night showing the ski-jump ramp used for STOBAR configuration

As "runways at sea", aircraft carriers have a flat-top flight deck, which launches and recovers aircraft. Aircraft launch forward, into the wind, and are recovered from astern. The flight deck is where the most notable differences between a carrier and a land runway are found. Creating such a surface at sea poses constraints on the carrier – for example, the fact that it is a ship means that a full-length runway would be costly to construct and maintain. This affects take-off procedure, as a shorter runway length of the deck requires that aircraft accelerate more quickly to gain lift. This either requires a thrust boost, a vertical component to its velocity, or a reduced take-off load (to lower mass). The differing types of deck configuration, as above, influence the structure of the flight deck. The form of launch assistance a carrier provides is strongly related to the types of aircraft embarked and the design of the carrier itself.

There are two main philosophies in order to keep the deck short: add thrust to the aircraft, such as using a Catapult Assisted Take-Off (CATO-); and changing the direction of the airplanes' thrust, as in Vertical and/or Short Take-Off (V/STO-). Each method has advantages and disadvantages of its own:

  • Catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR): A steam- or electric-powered catapult is connected to the aircraft, and is used to accelerate conventional aircraft to a safe flying speed. By the end of the catapult stroke, the aircraft is airborne and further propulsion is provided by its own engines. This is the most expensive method as it requires complex machinery to be installed under the flight deck, but allows for even heavily loaded aircraft to take off.
  • Short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) depends on increasing the net lift on the aircraft. Aircraft do not require catapult assistance for take off; instead on nearly all ships of this type an upwards vector is provided by a ski-jump at the forward end of the flight deck, often combined with thrust vectoring by the aircraft. Alternatively, by reducing the fuel and weapon load, an aircraft is able to reach faster speeds and generate more upwards lift and launch without a ski-jump or catapult.
  • Short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL): On aircraft carriers, non-catapult-assisted, fixed-wing short takeoffs are accomplished with the use of thrust vectoring, which may also be used in conjunction with a runway "ski-jump". Use of STOVL tends to allow aircraft to carry a larger payload as compared to during VTOL use, while still only requiring a short runway. The most famous examples are the Hawker Siddeley Harrier and the Sea Harrier. Although technically VTOL aircraft, they are operationally STOVL aircraft due to the extra weight carried at take-off for fuel and armaments. The same is true of the F-35B Lightning II, which demonstrated VTOL capability in test flights but is operationally STOVL.
  • Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL): Aircraft are specifically designed for the purpose of using very high degrees of thrust vectoring (e.g. if the thrust to weight-force ratio is greater than 1, it can take off vertically), but are usually slower than conventionally propelled aircraft.

On the recovery side of the flight deck, the adaptation to the aircraft loadout is mirrored. Non-VTOL or conventional aircraft cannot decelerate on their own, and almost all carriers using them must have arrested-recovery systems (-BAR, e.g. CATOBAR or STOBAR) to recover their aircraft. Aircraft that are landing extend a tailhook that catches on arrestor wires stretched across the deck to bring themselves to a stop in a short distance. Post-WWII Royal Navy research on safer CATOBAR recovery eventually led to universal adoption of a landing area angled off axis to allow aircraft who missed the arresting wires to "bolt" and safely return to flight for another landing attempt rather than crashing into aircraft on the forward deck.

If the aircraft are VTOL-capable or helicopters, they do not need to decelerate and hence there is no such need. The arrested-recovery system has used an angled deck since the 1950s because, in case the aircraft does not catch the arresting wire, the short deck allows easier take off by reducing the number of objects between the aircraft and the end of the runway. It also has the advantage of separating the recovery operation area from the launch area. Helicopters and aircraft capable of vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) usually recover by coming abreast of the carrier on the port side and then using their hover capability to move over the flight deck and land vertically without the need for arresting gear.

Staff and Deck Operations

F/A-18 landing video

Carriers steam at speed, up to 35 knots (65 km/h; 40 mph) into the wind during flight deck operations to increase wind speed over the deck to a safe minimum. This increase in effective wind speed provides a higher launch airspeed for aircraft at the end of the catapult stroke or ski-jump, as well as making recovery safer by reducing the difference between the relative speeds of the aircraft and ship.

Since the early 1950s on conventional carriers it has been the practice to recover aircraft at an angle to port of the axial line of the ship. The primary function of this angled deck is to allow aircraft that miss the arresting wires, referred to as a bolter, to become airborne again without the risk of hitting aircraft parked forward. The angled deck allows the installation of one or two "waist" catapults in addition to the two bow cats. An angled deck also improves launch and recovery cycle flexibility with the option of simultaneous launching and recovery of aircraft.

Conventional ("tailhook") aircraft rely upon a landing signal officer (LSO, radio call sign paddles) to monitor the aircraft's approach, visually gauge glideslope, attitude, and airspeed, and transmit that data to the pilot. Before the angled deck emerged in the 1950s, LSOs used colored paddles to signal corrections to the pilot (hence the nickname). From the late 1950s onward, visual landing aids such as Optical Landing System have provided information on proper glide slope, but LSOs still transmit voice calls to approaching pilots by radio.

F/A-18 Hornets on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class carrier Harry S. Truman

USS John C. Stennis shooter launching F/A-18

Key personnel involved in the flight deck include the shooters, the handler, and the air boss. Shooters are naval aviators or Naval Flight Officers and are responsible for launching aircraft. The handler works just inside the island from the flight deck and is responsible for the movement of aircraft before launching and after recovery. The "air boss" (usually a commander) occupies the top bridge (Primary Flight Control, also called primary or the tower) and has the overall responsibility for controlling launch, recovery and "those aircraft in the air near the ship, and the movement of planes on the flight deck, which itself resembles a well-choreographed ballet."[42] The captain of the ship spends most of his time one level below primary on the Navigation Bridge. Below this is the Flag Bridge, designated for the embarked admiral and his staff.

To facilitate working on the flight deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, the sailors wear colored shirts that designate their responsibilities. There are at least seven different colors worn by flight deck personnel for modern United States Navy carrier air operations. Carrier operations of other nations use similar color schemes.

Deck structures

Island control structure of USS Enterprise

The superstructure of a carrier (such as the bridge, flight control tower) are concentrated in a relatively small area called an island, a feature pioneered on HMS Hermes in 1923. While the island is usually built on the starboard side of the flight deck, the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi and Hiryū had their islands built on the port side. Very few carriers have been designed or built without an island. The flush deck configuration proved to have significant drawbacks, primary of which was management of the exhaust from the power plant. Fumes coming across the deck were a major issue in USS Langley. In addition, lack of an island meant difficulties managing the flight deck, performing air traffic control, a lack of radar housing placements and problems with navigating and controlling the ship itself.[43]

Another deck structure that can be seen is a ski-jump ramp at the forward end of the flight deck. This was first developed to help launch STOVL aircraft take off at far higher weights than is possible with a vertical or rolling takeoff on flat decks. Originally developed by the Royal Navy, it since has been adopted by many navies for smaller carriers. A ski-jump ramp works by converting some of the forward rolling movement of the aircraft into vertical velocity and is sometimes combined with the aiming of jet thrust partly downwards. This allows heavily loaded and fueled aircraft a few more precious seconds to attain sufficient air velocity and lift to sustain normal flight. Without a ski-jump launching fully loaded and fueled aircraft such as the Harrier would not be possible on a smaller flat deck ship before either stalling out or crashing directly into the sea.

Ski-jump on Royal Navy carrier HMS Invincible

Although STOVL aircraft are capable of taking off vertically from a spot on the deck, using the ramp and a running start is far more fuel efficient and permits a heavier launch weight. As catapults are unnecessary, carriers with this arrangement reduce weight, complexity, and space needed for complex steam or electromagnetic launching equipment, vertical landing aircraft also remove the need for arresting cables and related hardware. Russian, Chinese, and future Indian carriers include a ski-jump ramp for launching lightly loaded conventional fighter aircraft but recover using traditional carrier arresting cables and a tailhook on their aircraft.

The disadvantage of the ski-jump is the penalty it exacts on aircraft size, payload, and fuel load (and thus range); heavily laden aircraft can not launch using a ski-jump because their high loaded weight requires either a longer takeoff roll than is possible on a carrier deck, or assistance from a catapult or JATO rocket. For example, the Russian Su-33 is only able to launch from the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov with a minimal armament and fuel load. Another disadvantage is on mixed flight deck operations where helicopters are also present such as a US Landing Helicopter Dock or Landing Helicopter Assault amphibious assault ship a ski jump is not included as this would eliminate one or more helicopter landing areas, this flat deck limits the loading of Harriers but is somewhat mitigated by the longer rolling start provided by a long flight deck compared to many STOVL carriers.

National fleets

Chart comparing a range of aircraft and helicopter carriers, in order of longest (top left) to shortest (bottom right)

The U.S. Navy has the largest carriers in the world, and currently has eleven in service. The navies of China, France, India, and Russia each operate a single medium-sized fleet carrier. The US has nine similarly sized Amphibious Warfare Ships. There are three small light carriers in use capable of operating both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, Italy operates two, and Spain one.

Additionally there are fourteen small carriers which only operate helicopters serving the navies of Australia (2), Egypt (2), France (3), Japan (4), South Korea (1), Thailand (1), and the UK (1).


HMAS Canberra, a Canberra-class landing helicopter dock


The Canberra class of landing helicopter docks is based on the Spanish vessel Juan Carlos I. The two ship class, built by Navantia and BAE Systems Australia, represents the largest ships ever built for the Royal Australian Navy.[44]

HMAS Canberra underwent sea trials in late 2013 and was commissioned in 2014. Her sister ship, HMAS Adelaide, was commissioned in December 2015. The Australian ships retain the ski-ramp from the Juan Carlos I design, although the RAN has not acquired carrier-based fixed-wing aircraft.



On 14 February 2017, the Navy announced the aircraft carrier São Paulo would be demobilised and subsequently decommissioned, citing the uneconomical cost of further repairs.[45] In 2018, São Paulo remains in the reserve of the Brazilian Navy.


It was reported in 2017 that Brazil was interested in purchasing amphibious assault ship and helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (L12) from the UK as a replacement for São Paulo (A12) which was withdrawn from service in 2017 following multiple mechanical failures. The Royal Navy released an asking price of £80.3 million (US$105,800,871), which the Brazilian Navy called "convenient".[46] In November 2017, the Brazilian Ministry of Defense began formal negotiations for the acquisition of the ship.[47]

In December 2017, the Brazilian Navy confirmed the purchase of Ocean for (GBP) £84.6 million (equivalent to R$359.5M and US$113.2M). Following her decommissioning from Royal Navy service in March 2018, she will undertake a period of maintenance in the United Kingdom and is expected to arrive in Rio de Janeiro by the end of 2018 with the intention of being commissioned and fully operational by 2020.[48][49][50] Brazilian defence officials confirmed the purchase,[51][52][53] as well as officials from the UK MoD, as of 17 February 2018.[54][55][56][57] In April 2018, one source announced that Ocean would be renamed Atlântico, but without accompanying official verification.[58] Other possible names include Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, the latter having been previously reserved for the country's next aircraft carrier.[59]



One STOBAR carrier: Liaoning was originally built as the 57,000 tonne Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier Varyag[60] and was later purchased as a stripped hulk by China in 1998 on the pretext of use as a floating casino, then partially rebuilt and towed to China for completion.[61][62] Liaoning was commissioned on 25 September 2012, and began service for testing and training.[63] On 24 or 25 November 2012, Liaoning successfully launched and recovered several Shenyang J-15 jet fighter aircraft.[64][65][66] She is classified as a training ship, intended to allow the navy to practice with carrier usage. On 26 December 2012, the People's Daily reported that it will take four to five years for Liaoning to reach full capacity, mainly due to training and coordination which will take significant amount of time for Chinese PLA Navy to complete as this is the first aircraft carrier in their possession.[67] As it is a training ship, Liaoning is not assigned to any of China's operation fleets.[68]


A second carrier was launched on 26 April 2017. It is the first to be built domestically, to a modified Kuznetsov-class design. The Type 001A aircraft carrier started sea trials on 23 April 2018,[69] and is scheduled to enter service in 2020.[70] Chinese officials stated that a third carrier, also known as Type 002 carrier is being constructed in the Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard. It will be the first Chinese aircraft carrier to use catapult take off system.[71]


File:ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser LHD.jpg

Gamal Abdel Nasser LHD docked at Saint-Nazaire, April 2016


Egypt signed a contract with French shipbuilder DCNS to buy two Mistral-class helicopter carriers for approximately 950 million euros. The two ships were originally destined for Russia, but the deal was canceled by France due to Russian involvement in Ukraine.[72]

On 2 June 2016, Egypt received the first of two helicopter carriers acquired in October 2015, the Landing Helicopter Dock Gamal Abdel Nasser. The flag transfer ceremony took place in the presence of Egyptian and French Navies’ Chiefs of Staff, Chairman and Chief Executive Officers of both DCNS and STX France, and senior Egyptian and French officials.[73] On 16 September 2016, DCNS delivered the second of two helicopter carriers, the Landing Helicopter Dock Anwar El Sadat which also participated in a joint exercise with the French Navy before arriving at its home port of Alexandria.[74]

Egypt is the first and so far only country in Africa or the Middle East to possess an aircraft carrier.[75]


The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle of the French Navy


1 CATOBAR carrier: Charles de Gaulle is a 42,000 tonne nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, commissioned in 2001 and is the flagship of the French Navy (Marine Nationale). The ship carries a complement of Dassault Rafale M and E‑2C Hawkeye aircraft, EC725 Caracal and AS532 Cougar helicopters for combat search and rescue, as well as modern electronics and Aster missiles. It is a CATOBAR-type carrier that uses two 75 m C13‑3 steam catapults of a shorter version of the catapult system installed on the U.S. Nimitz-class carriers, one catapult at the bow and one across the front of the landing area.[76]

3 amphibious assault ships: Mistral class, 21,500 tonne full deck amphibious assault ships with hospital and well deck.[77]


Indian Navy's aircraft carriers INS Vikramaditya and INS Viraat in 2014


1 STOBAR carrier: INS Vikramaditya, 45,400 tonnes, modified Kiev class. The carrier was purchased by India on 20 January 2004 after years of negotiations at a final price of $2.35 billion. The ship successfully completed her sea trials in July 2013 and aviation trials in September 2013. She was formally commissioned on 16 November 2013 at a ceremony held at Severodvinsk, Russia.[78]


India started the construction of a 40,000-tonne, 260-metre-long (850 ft) Vikrant-class aircraft carrier in 2009.[79] The new carrier will operate MiG-29K and naval HAL Tejas aircraft along with the Indian-made helicopter HAL Dhruv.[79] The ship will be powered by four gas-turbine engines and will have a range of 8,000 nautical miles (15,000 kilometres), carrying 160 officers, 1,400 sailors, and 40 aircraft.[80] The carrier is being constructed by Cochin Shipyard.[79] The ship was launched in August 2013 and is scheduled for commissioning in 2018.[81][82][83][84]

A second Vikrant-class carrier INS Vishal with a displacement of over 65,000 tons is planned and likely to be nuclear-powered with CATOBAR system to launch and recover heavier aircraft and unmanned combat aircraft. The project is in the design phase as of April 2015.[85]


The aircraft carrier Cavour of the Italian Navy


2 STOVL carriers:

  • Giuseppe Garibaldi: 14,000 tonne Italian STOVL carrier, commissioned in 1985.
  • Cavour: 27,000 tonne Italian STOVL carrier designed and built with secondary amphibious assault facilities, commissioned in 2008.[86]


Helicopter carrier Hyūga

See Chronological list of Japanese aircraft carriers


4 helicopter carriers:


Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov


1 STOBAR carrier: Admiral Flota Sovetskovo Soyuza Kuznetsov: 55,000 tonne Admiral Kuznetsov-class STOBAR aircraft carrier. Launched in 1985 as Tbilisi, renamed and operational from 1995. Without catapults she can launch and recover lightly fueled naval fighters for air defense or anti-ship missions but not heavy conventional bombing strikes.[citation needed] Officially designated an aircraft carrying cruiser, she is unique in carrying a heavy cruiser's complement of defensive weapons and large P-700 Granit offensive missiles. The P-700 systems will be removed in the coming refit to enlarge her below decks aviation facilities as well as upgrading her defensive systems.[88][89]


The Russian Government just recently gave the green light for the construction of the Shtorm-class aircraft carrier. This carrier will be a hybrid of CATOBAR and STOBAR, given the fact that it utilizes both systems of launching aircraft. The carrier is expected to cost between $1.8 billion and $5.63 billion. Once commissioned, she will replace Admiral Kuznetsov.[90]

South Korea

ROKS Dokdo, a Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship of the Republic of Korea Navy.


One Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship 18,860 ton full deck amphibious assault ship with hospital and well deck and facilities to serve as fleet flagship.


South Korea believes it can procure 2 light aircraft carriers by 2036, which will help make the ROKN a blue water navy.[91]



One LHD (landing helicopter dock) used as a STOVL carrier: Juan Carlos I: 27,000 tonne, specially designed multipurpose strategic projection ship which can operate as an amphibious assault ship or STOVL carrier depending on mission requirement, has full facilities for both functions including a ski jump ramp, well deck, and vehicle storage area which can be used as additional hangar space, launched in 2008, commissioned 30 September 2010.[92]



TCG Anadolu L-408 is a planned amphibious assault ship (LHD) of the Turkish Navy that can be configured as a light aircraft carrier. Construction began on 30 April 2016 by Sedef Shipbuilding Inc. at their Istanbul shipyard and is expected to be completed in 2021.[citation needed]


The aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet of the Royal Thai Navy.


One offshore helicopter support ship: HTMS Chakri Naruebet helicopter carrier: 11,400 tonne STOVL carrier based on Spanish Príncipe de Asturias design. Commissioned in 1997. The AV-8S Matador/Harrier STOVL fighter wing, mostly inoperable by 1999,[93] was retired from service without replacement in 2006.[94] Ship now used for royal transport, helicopter operations, and as a disaster relief platform.[95]

United Kingdom


HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned in December 2017 and is due to enter active service in 2020.


The Royal Navy is constructing a pair of new, larger STOVL aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class, to replace the three now retired Invincible-class carriers. The lead ship is now active and the second of the class, HMS Prince of Wales is under construction.[96][97] They will be able to operate up to 40 aircraft during peace time operations, up to 50 during wartime, and will have a displacement of 65,000 tonnes. Initial Operating Capability is scheduled for 2020.[98]

United States

Amphibious assault ship USS Wasp


11 CATOBAR carriers: Nimitz class: ten 101,000-ton nuclear-powered fleet carriers, the first of which was commissioned in 1975. A Nimitz-class carrier is powered by two nuclear reactors providing steam to four steam turbines and is 1,092 feet (333 m) long, and lead of her class Gerald R. Ford, 110,000-ton, 1,106 ft long and also nuclear-powered, came into service in 2017.

Nine amphibious assault ships:

  • America class: a class of 45,000-ton amphibious assault ships, although the lead ship in this class does not have a well deck. One ship in service out of a planned 12 ships. Ships of this class can have a secondary mission as a light carrier with 20 AV-8B Harrier II, and in the future the F-35B Lightning II aircraft after unloading their Marine expeditionary unit.
  • Wasp class: a class of eight 41,000-ton amphibious assault ships, members of this class have been used in wartime in their secondary mission as light carriers with 20 to 25 AV-8Bs after unloading their Marine expeditionary unit.


USS Gerald R. Ford, a Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier

The current US fleet of Nimitz-class carriers will be followed into service (and in some cases replaced) by the Gerald R. Ford class. It is expected that the ships will be more automated in an effort to reduce the amount of funding required to maintain and operate the vessels. The main new features are implementation of Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) (which replace the old steam catapults) and unmanned aerial vehicles.[99]

Following the deactivation of USS Enterprise in December 2012, the U.S. fleet comprised 10 fleet carriers, but that number increased back to 11 with the commissioning of Gerald R. Ford in July 2017. The House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee on 24 July 2007, recommended seven or eight new carriers (one every four years). However, the debate has deepened over budgeting for the $12–14.5 billion (plus $12 billion for development and research) for the 100,000 ton Gerald R. Ford-class carrier (estimated service 2017) compared to the smaller $2 billion 45,000 ton America-class amphibious assault ships, which are able to deploy squadrons of F-35Bs. The first of this class, USS America, is now in active service with another, USS Tripoli, under construction and 9 more are planned.[100][101]

In a report to Congress in February 2018, the Navy stated it intends to maintain a "12 CVN force" as part of its 30-year acquisition plan.[102]

Aircraft carriers in preservation

Current museum carriers

A few aircraft carriers have been preserved as museum ships. They are:

Future museum carriers

See also

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Further reading

  • Ader, Clement. Military Aviation, 1909, Edited and translated by Lee Kennett, Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 2003, ISBN 978-1-58566-118-3.
  • Francillon, René J, Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club US Carrier Operations off Vietnam, (1988) ISBN 978-0-87021-696-1.
  • Friedman, Norman, U.S. Aircraft Carriers: an Illustrated Design History, Naval Institute Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0-87021-739-5.
  • Hone, Thomas C., Norman Friedman, and Mark D. Mandeles. "Innovation in Carrier Aviation," Naval War College Newport Papers (no. 37, 2011), 1–171.
  • Melhorn, Charles M. Two-Block Fox: The Rise of the Aircraft Carrier, 1911–1929 (Naval Institute Press, 1974)
  • Nordeen, Lon, Air Warfare in the Missile Age, (1985) ISBN 978-1-58834-083-2
  • Polak, Christian (2005) (in French, Japanese). Sabre et Pinceau: Par d'autres Français au Japon. 1872–1960. Hiroshi Ueki (植木 浩), Philippe Pons, foreword; 筆と刀・日本の中のもうひとつのフランス (1872–1960). éd. L'Harmattan. 
  • Sturtivant, Ray (1990). British Naval Aviation, The Fleet Air Arm, 1917–1990. London: Arm & Armour Press. ISBN 0-85368-938-5. 
  • Till, Geoffrey. "Adopting the Aircraft Carrier: The British, Japanese, and American Case Studies" in Murray, Williamson; Millet, Allan R, eds. (1996). Military Innovation in the Interwar Period. Cambridge University Press.
  • Trimble, William F. Admiral William A. Moffett: Architect of Naval Aviation (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994)
  • Wadle, Ryan David. United States navy fleet problems and the development of carrier aviation, 1929–1933 PhD dissertation Texas A&M University, 2005. online

External links

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