An aircraft carrier is a warship designed with a primary mission of deploying and recovering aircraft, acting as a seagoing airbase. Aircraft carriers thus allow a naval force to project air power great distances without having to depend on local bases for staging aircraft operations. They have evolved from wooden vessels, used to deploy balloons, into nuclear powered warships that carry dozens of fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
Balloon carriers were the first ships to deploy manned aircraft, used during the 19th and early 20th century, mainly for observation purposes. The 1903 advent of fixed wing airplanes was followed in 1910 by the first flight of such an aircraft from the deck of a US Navy cruiser. Seaplanes and seaplane tender support ships, such as HMS Engadine, followed. The development of flat top vessels produced the first large fleet ships. This evolution was well underway by the mid 1920s, resulting in ships such as HMS Hermes, Hōshō, and the Lexington-class aircraft carriers.
World War II saw the first large-scale use and further refinement of the aircraft carrier, spawning several types. Escort aircraft carriers, such as USS Bogue, were built only during World War II. Although some were purpose-built, most were converted from merchant ships as a stop-gap measure to provide air support for convoys and amphibious invasions. Light aircraft carriers, such as USS Independence, represented a larger, more "militarized" version of the escort carrier concept. Although the light carriers usually carried the same size air groups as escort carriers, they had the advantage of higher speed as they had been converted from cruisers under construction.
Wartime emergencies also saw the creation or conversion of unconventional aircraft carriers. CAM ships, like SS Michael E, were cargo-carrying merchant ships which could launch but not retrieve fighter aircraft from a catapult. These vessels were an emergency measure during World War II as were Merchant aircraft carriers (MACs), such as MV Empire MacAlpine, another emergency measure which saw cargo-carrying merchant ships equipped with flight decks. Battlecarriers were created by the Imperial Japanese Navy to partially compensate for the loss of carrier strength at Midway. Two of them were made from Ise-class battleships during late 1943. The aft turrets were removed and replaced with a hangar, deck and catapult. The heavy cruiser Mogami concurrently received a similar conversion. This "half and half" design was an unsuccessful compromise, being neither one thing nor the other. Submarine aircraft carriers, such as the French Surcouf and the Japanese I-400 class submarine, which was capable of carrying 3 Aichi M6A Seiran aircraft, were first built in the 1920s, but were generally unsuccessful at war.
Modern navies that operate such ships treat aircraft carriers as the capital ship of the fleet, a role previously played by the battleship. The change, part of the growth of air power as a significant factor in warfare, took place during World War II. This change was driven by the superior range, flexibility and effectiveness of carrier-launched aircraft. Following the war, carrier operations continued to increase in size and importance. Supercarriers, typically displacing 75,000 tonnes or greater, have become the pinnacle of carrier development. Most are powered by nuclear reactors and form the core of a fleet designed to operate far from home. Amphibious assault ships, such as USS Tarawa and HMS Ocean, serve the purpose of carrying and landing Marines, and operate a large contingent of helicopters for that purpose. Also known as "commando carriers" or "helicopter carriers", many have a secondary 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, aircraft carriers are generally accompanied by a number of other ships, to provide protection for the relatively unwieldy carrier, to carry supplies, and to provide additional offensive capabilities. This is often termed a battle group or carrier group, sometimes a carrier battle group.
Unlike other types of capital ships in the 20th century, aircraft carrier designs since World War II have been effectively unlimited by any consideration save budgetary, and the ships have increased in size to handle the larger aircraft. The large, modern Nimitz class of United States Navy 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 military aircraft over the years.
Types of aircraft carriers
There are three main configurations of aircraft carrier in service in the worlds navies:
As "runways at sea," modern aircraft carriers have a flat-top deck design that serves as a flight deck for take-off and landing of aircraft. Aircraft take off to the front, into the wind, and land from the rear. Carriers steam at speed, for example up to 35 knots (65km/h), into the wind during take-off in order to increase the apparent wind speed over the deck, thereby reducing the speed of the aircraft relative to the ship. On some ships, a steam-powered catapult is used to propel the aircraft forward, assisting the power of its engines and allowing it to take off in a shorter distance than would otherwise be required. On other carriers, aircraft do not require assistance for take off—the requirement for assistance relates to aircraft design and performance. Conversely, when landing on a carrier, conventional aircraft rely upon a tailhook that catches on arrestor wires stretched across the deck to bring them to a stop in a shorter distance than normal. Other aircraft—helicopters and V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing) designs—utilize their hover capability to land vertically and so require no assistance in speed reduction upon landing.
Conventional ("tailhook") aircraft rely upon a landing signal officer (LSO, sometimes called "paddles") to control the plane's landing approach, visually gauge altitude, attitude, and speed, 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 mirrors provided information on proper glide slope, but LSOs still transmit voice calls to landing pilots by radio.
To facilitate working on the flight deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, the sailors wear colored shirts that designate their responsibilities. White shirts are responsible for safety, red shirts handle munitions, purple shirts (grapes) handle jet fuel, and green shirts handle the catapult and arresting gear. Yellow shirts are responsible for directing aircraft.
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 landing. 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 takeoffs, landings, "those aircraft in the air near the ship, and the movement of planes on the flight deck, which itself resembles a well-choreographed ballet". 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.
Since the early 1950s it has been common to direct the landing recovery area off to port at an angle to the line of the ship. The primary function of the angled deck landing area 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 on the forward parts of the deck. The angled deck also allows launching of aircraft at the same time as others land.
The above deck areas of the warship (such as the bridge, flight control tower) are concentrated to the starboard side of the deck in a relatively small area called an "island". Very few carriers have been designed or built without an island and such a configuration has not been seen in a fleet-sized carrier. The "flush deck" configuration proved to have very significant drawbacks, complicating navigation, air traffic control and numerous other factors.
A more recent configuration, originally developed by the Royal Navy but since adopted by many navies for smaller carriers, has a ski-jump ramp at the forward end of the flight deck. This was first developed to help launch VTOL (or STOVL) aircraft (aircraft that are able to take off and land with little or no forward movement), such as the Sea Harrier. Although these aircraft are capable of taking off vertically from the deck, using the ramp is more fuel efficient and permits a heavier launch weight. As catapults and arrestor cables are unnecessary, carriers with this arrangement reduce weight, complexity, and space needed for equipment. Russian and future Indian carriers include a ski-jump ramp for launching conventional aircraft. The disadvantage of the ski-jump—and the reason this configuration has not appeared on American supercarriers—is the penalty it exacts on aircraft size, payload, and fuel load (and thus range): large, slow planes such as the E-2 Hawkeye and heavily-laden strike fighters like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Sukhoi Su-33 cannot successfully launch using a ski-jump because their high loaded weight requires either a longer takeoff roll than is possible on a carrier deck, or catapult assistance, although the Su-33 does launch with a light fuel and weapons load from a ski jump.
Aircraft carriers in service
Aircraft carriers are generally the largest ships operated by navies; a Nimitz-class carrier powered by two nuclear reactors and four steam turbines is 1,092 feet (333 m) long and costs about $4.5 billion. The United States Navy has the world's largest carrier fleet, with eleven in service and one under construction (all of them supercarriers). It is also the only navy to possess operational supercarriers. The U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers are a cornerstone of American power projection capability.
A total of 22 aircraft carriers in active service are maintained by nine navies. In addition, the People's Republic of China's People's Liberation Army Navy possesses the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag. The United States, Brazil, South Korea, United Kingdom, the People's Republic of China, India, Japan, Australia, and France also operate vessels capable of carrying and operating multiple helicopters.
Classes currently in service:
Future aircraft carriers
Several nations which currently possess aircraft carriers are in the process of planning new classes to replace current ones. The world's navies still generally see the aircraft carrier as the main future capital ship, with developments such as the arsenal ship, which have been promoted as an alternative, seen as too limited in terms of flexibility.
Military experts such as John Keegan have noted that in any future naval conflict between reasonably evenly matched powers, all surface ships—including aircraft carriers—would be at extreme and disproportionate risk, mainly due to the advanced capabilities of satellite reconnaissance and anti-ship missiles. Contrary to the thrust of most current naval spending, Keegan therefore postulates that eventually most navies will move to submarines as their main fighting ships, including in roles where submarines play only a minor or no role at the moment.
China bought the unfinished Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag in 2001 from Ukraine, supposedly to turn it into a floating casino. Pictures taken while in port suggest this plan has been abandoned and show that work is being carried out to maintain its military function. There is no conclusive evidence as to what role it would play in the Chinese Navy.
In late December 2008 and early January 2009, there were multiple reports of China building two conventionally powered aircraft carriers displacing 50,000–60,000 tonnes, possibly to be launched in 2015. In 2009, for the first time, official Chinese state media quoted Defense Minister Liang Guanglie stating China's intention to build aircraft carriers.
The French Navy has set in motion possible plans for a second CTOL aircraft carrier, to supplement Charles de Gaulle. The design would be much larger, in the range of 65–74,000 tonnes, and would not be nuclear-powered like Charles de Gaulle. There are plans to base the carrier on the current Royal Navy design for CATOBAR operations. (The Thales/BAE Systems design for the Royal Navy is for a STOVL carrier which is reconfigurable to CATOBAR operations.)
On 21 June 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to place France's participation in the project on hold. He stated that a final decision on the future of the French carrier would be taken in 2011 or 2012. British plans for two aircraft carriers will go ahead as planned and were in no way conditional on French participation.
India started the construction of a 40,000 tonne, 260 m-long Vikrant-class aircraft carrier in April 2005. The new carrier will cost US$762 million and will operate MiG-29K, Naval HAL Tejas and Sea Harrier aircraft along with the Indian-made helicopter HAL Dhruv. The ship will be powered by four turbine engines and will have a range of 8,000 nautical miles (14,000 km), carrying 160 officers, 1,400 sailors, and 30 aircraft. The carrier is being constructed by a state-run shipyard in Cochin.
In 2004, India agreed to buy the Admiral Gorshkov from Russia for US$1.5 billion. It is most likely to be named INS Vikramaditya, and was expected to join the Indian Navy in 2008 after a refit. However, delays in the refit were announced in July 2007.
In July 2008, Russia increased the total price to US$3.4 billion because of unexpected cost overuns due to the deteriorated condition of the ship. In December 2008, India finally decided in favour of purchasing Admiral Gorshkov as the best option available. In February 2009, Russia asked for an additional $700 million payment for the completion of the reconstruction of the Admiral Gorshkov, bringing the total price requested by the Russians to $2.9 billion, more than three times the originally-contracted price.
The construction of the conventionally powered Marina Militare STOVL aircraft carrier Cavour began in 2001. The ship of nearly 30,000 tons is being built by Fincantieri of Italy and has been officially commissioned to the Italian Navy since the summer 2008. The ship can operate with AV-8B, F-35B, AW101, NH-90, and SH-3 Sea King. After some delay due to additional enlargements, Cavour is expected to be in full operational capability (FOC) in 2009 to complement the Marina Militare aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi. The ship is designed to combine fixed wing V/STOL and helicopter air operations with the transport of military or civil personnel and heavy vehicles..
Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Vladimir Masorin officially stated on June 23, 2007 that the Navy was considering the specifications of a new nuclear aircraft carrier design for the class that was first announced about a month earlier. Production of the carriers is expected to start around 2010 at the Zvezdochka plant in Severodvinsk, where a large drydock, capable of launching vessels with more than 100,000 ton displacement, is now being built. In his statement, Admiral Masorin said that the general dimensions of the project have already been determined. The projected carrier is to have nuclear propulsion, to displace about 50,000 tons and to carry an air wing of 30–50 air superiority aircraft and helicopters, which makes her roughly comparable with the French Charles de Gaulle. "The giants that the US Navy builds, those that carry 100-130 aircraft, we won't build anything like that", said Admiral Masorin. The planned specifications reflect the role, traditional in the Russian Navy, of the aircraft carrier as an air support platform for guided missile cruisers and submarines.
The Russian naval establishment had long agreed, since the decommissioning of the Kiev-class carriers, that the only operational carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, was insufficient, and that three or four carriers were necessary to meet the Navy's air support requirements. However, financial and organisational turmoil in the 1990s made even the maintenance of Admiral Kuznetsov a difficult undertaking. The improvement in Russia's economic situation after the year 2000 has allowed a major increase in defence spending. Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky announced on Navy Day 2008 that Russia plans to build 5 or 6 carriers of the new design for deployment in the Northern and Pacific fleets, starting around 2012-2013. The new carrier groups are planned to be at full strength around 2050–2060. Acourding to sources from the United Shipbuilding Corporation the new carriers will carry new fifth-generation fighters as well as unmanned aerial vehicles and have a displacement of up to 60,000 metric tons.
The 231 meter-long, 27,000 tonne Juan Carlos I for the Spanish Navy was approved in 2003, and its construction started in August 2005, with the shipbuilding firm Navantia in charge of the project. The ship was launched on 10 March 2008, and is due to be commissioned in 2011. Juan Carlos I is designed to operate both as an amphibious assault ship and as STOVL aircraft carrier, depending on the mission assigned. The design was made keeping in mind the low-intensity conflicts in which the Spanish Navy is likely to be involved in the future. When configured for air operations the ship will displace 24,660 tonnes and will be able to carry a mixed force of up to 30 aircraft comprising AV-8B+ Matadors, F-35s and helicopters. The ship is provided with a ski-jump and a three-dimensional radar-based combat system.
The Royal Navy has signed a deal to build two new larger STOVL aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class, to replace the three Invincible-class carriers. The ships are to be named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. They will be able to operate up to 40 aircraft, and will have a displacement of around 65,000 tonnes. The two ships are due to enter service in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Their primary aircraft complement will be made up of F-35B Lightning IIs, and their ship's company will number around 600. The two ships will be the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy. Initially to be configured for STOVL operations, the carriers are to be adaptable to STOBAR or CATOBAR configurations to allow any type of future generation of aircraft to operate from them.
The current US fleet of Nimitz-class carriers are to be followed into service (and in some cases replaced) by the Gerald R. Ford-class. It is expected that the ships will be larger than the Nimitz, and will also be designed to be less detectable by radar. The United States Navy is also looking to make these new carriers more automated in an effort to reduce the amount of funding required to maintain and operate its supercarriers. The main new features are implementation of EMALS (which replace the old steamcatapults) and unmanned aerial vehicles. Each squadron of 3 UAVs would be controlled by 1 remote pilot. 
With the decommissioning of the USS John F. Kennedy in March 2007, the U.S. fleet has been reduced to 11 supercarriers; thus creating major discussions between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress. The House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee on July 24, 2007 recommended seven or maybe 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 Ford-class carrier (estimated service 2015) compared to the smaller $2 billion 45,000-ton class big-deck amphibious assault ships able to deploy squadrons of F-35B.
Other aircraft carriers
Published in July 2009.
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