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USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered and still the longest supercarrier (93,284 long tons (94,781 t)), and the medium-sized carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) (37,085 tonnes (standard) 42,000 tonnes (full load)).

The 100,000t USS Nimitz, a modern-day supercarrier, alongside the 43,000t fleet carrier HMS Ark Royal, ca. 1978

Comparison of four different aircraft carriers (Note, Queen Elizabeth is now 70,600 mid construction

Supercarrier is an unofficial descriptive term for the largest type of aircraft carrier, usually displacing over 65,000 long tons.[1] The U.S. Navy currently has 10 such ships.[2] In comparison, a few countries operate what are, by today's standards, medium carriers (fleet carrier) of around 42,000 tons, such as the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91). The size and configuration of the Charles de Gaulle corresponds closely with the 45,000-ton Midway class the United States built at the end of World War II as a successor class to the much more numerous 27,000-ton Essex-class aircraft carrier, mainstay vessels of WWII after 1943 when they entered service. Internationally, light carriers closer to 20,000 tons (such as HMS Illustrious) are more typical. The United Kingdom has two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers currently under construction, the first of which is expected to be delivered in 2016. They will displace 70,600 metric tons (up from an original estimate of 65,000) and, when built, will be the third largest Supercarrier class in service. Supercarriers are the largest warships ever built, eclipsing even the largest battleship class laid down by any country.


The first ship to be described by The New York Times as a supercarrier was HMS Ark Royal in 1938;[3] with a length of 685 ft and a displacement of 22,000 tons, it was designed to carry 72 aircraft.[4][5] In 1943, the superlative was transferred to the 45,000-ton carriers of the Midway class as a step-up from the 27,000-ton Essex class.[6] The post-war standard for supercarriers was set by the proposed USS United States and USS Forrestal.[7]

Forrestal displaced 60,000 tons standard and 78,000 tons in deep load[8] and is considered the first operational supercarrier in the present-day sense, as dubbed by the American press.[9] The similarly sized United States would have been in service earlier, had it been completed; its cancellation triggered the "Revolt of the Admirals".

The Soviet Union's 85,000-ton nuclear carrier Ulyanovsk, closely comparable in size to earlier American supercarriers, was 40% complete when it and a follow-on vessel were canceled in 1991 during post-Cold War funding cuts.

The United States is no longer alone in building supercarriers, with the United Kingdom building two 70,600-ton carriers Queen Elizabeth class, and France considering building one vessel, possibly based on the same design. These ships are routinely referred to as supercarriers by British legislators[10][11][12][13] and the media.[14][15][16][17][18][19][20] The two Queen Elizabeth-class vessels will provide the Royal Navy with capabilities much closer to United States Navy carriers than its current Invincible-class vessels. Giving evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee, the then First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Alan West explained that interoperability with the United States Navy was as much a deciding factor of the size of the carriers as the firepower of the carrier's airwing:

I have talked with the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) in America. He is very keen for us to get these because he sees us slotting in with his carrier groups. He really wants us to have these, but he wants us to have the same sort of clout as one of their carriers.[21]

Future plans for supercarriers in the United States involve the construction of the U.S. Navy's next generation of carriers, the Gerald R. Ford class, which will have a 100,000-ton displacement.


The United States maintains ten of these ships. Given their vulnerability to conventional and asymmetrical threats, more and smaller carriers have been suggested over the years, such as Elmo Zumwalt's Sea Control Ship, and carriers the size of USS America (LHA-6) carrying STOVL and UCAV aircraft.[22][23][24] However, supercarriers' advocates consider them to be more cost-effective than smaller carriers.[25] An American carrier strike group costs $25 million per week for routine operations, rising to $40 million during combat operations.[26]

The mobile offshore base (MOB) is a concept for a modular floating military base as large as 10 aircraft carriers. If realized, it could be moved anywhere throughout the world's oceans, obviating the need to seek permission from allied nations for use of land bases. The concept was studied in the 1990s by the U.S. government but was abandoned in 2001 as cost prohibitive.


See also


  1. David Miller and Lindsay Peacock, Carriers: The Men and the Machines (London and New York: Salamander, 1991), p. 7: "There are four main types of carrier in service today. Largest of these are the super-carriers displacing over 70,000 tons; the U.S. Navy currently has fourteen, the Soviet Navy one."
  2. USS Enterprise carrier taken out of active service
  3. "The New York Times". May 1, 1938. p. 32. .
  4. "The Ark Royal Launched. Most Up-To-Date Carrier. Aircraft In The Fleet", The Times (14 April 1937), p. 11.
  5. Rossiter, Mike (2007) [2006]. Ark Royal: the life, death and rediscovery of the legendary Second World War aircraft carrier (2nd ed.). London: Corgi Books. pp. 48–51. ISBN 978-0-552-15369-0. OCLC 81453068. 
  6. John G Norris, "World's Largest Warships: Three 45,000-Ton Carriers For Bombers Ordered by Navy", The Washington Post (23 October 1943), p. 1.
  7. "Va. Firm Gets Giant Carrier Building Job. 65,000-Ton Warship Will Be Largest in Postwar Program", The Washington Post (8 August 1948), p. 3.
  8. Donald, David; Daniel J March (2001). Carrier Aviation Air Power Directory. Norwalk, CT: AIRtime Publishing. p. 77. ISBN 1-880588-43-9. 
  9. MacDonald, Scot (1964-02-01). "14" (PDF). Evolution of Aircraft Carriers. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. p. 69. "The versatility of the current US carrier fleet is largely due to the operation of what the press has labeled 'super-carriers,' heavy duty aircraft carriers of the size, power, and potency of the Forrestals and the nuclear-powered Enterprise." 
  10. House of Commons Written Questions for Answer, 8 September 2003
  11. House of Lords, 15 March 2007.
  12. House of Commons Written Answers for 17 June 2008
  13. Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence, Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1–19), 17 July 2007
  14. "Hoon to confirm ‘supercarrier’". BBC News. 2001-06-22. Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  15. "Go-ahead given for work to start on supercarriers". Portsmouth News. 2008-05-20. Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  16. "VT at forefront of £3.9bn supercarrier project". Portsmouth News. 2008-05-20. Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  17. "Navy (France), Navy Assessment". Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment—Western Europe . 2008-12-03. Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  18. "Navy aircraft carriers delayed". The Northern Echo. 2008-12-11. Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  19. "Job concerns as MoD proposes carrier delay". The Courier. 2008-12-12. Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  20. Syson, Damon (2008-05-28). "The £4billion Airfix Kit: Behind-the-scenes at Britain's biggest warships". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  21. House of Commons Minutes of Evidence
  22. Fortress at Sea? The Carrier Invulnerability Myth
  23. Lawmaker Calls for Study on Small Carriers
  24. Hendrix, Henry J.; Williams, J. Noel (May 2011). "Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier". 
  25. Warbirds of the sea: a history of aircraft carriers & carrier-based aircraft, By Walter A. Musciano, Page 553
  26. "US Navy: Cost Of Syria Strikes Would Not Be 'Extraordinary'."

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