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 . [2] 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 . Aircraft carriers are expensive to build and are critical assets. 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. While it is possible to launch heavier aircraft such as fixed-wing gunships and bombers (it has been done) from aircraft carriers, it is virtually impossible to land them.

There is no single definition of an "aircraft carrier," [3] and modern navies use several variants of the type. These variants are sometimes categorized as sub-types of aircraft carriers, [4] and sometimes as distinct types of naval aviation -capable ships. [3] [5] 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". [6]

As of November 2017, there are 41 active aircraft carriers in the world operated by thirteen navies. The United States Navy has 11 large nuclear-powered fleet carriers (known as supercarriers , carrying up to 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 fleet carrier / supercarrier 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 and Russia each operate a single medium-size carrier, with capacity from 30 to 50 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), Thailand (1) and the United Kingdom (1). The United Kingdom has a 280 m (920 ft) supercarrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth , undergoing sea trials, scheduled to enter active service in late 2017. Future supercarriers are under construction or in planning by China, India, Russia, the US, and the UK.

Types of carrier

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

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

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 supercarriers 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, 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-35 B, has much improved performance. The US has nine STOVL amphibious assault ships, Italy operates two in the light fleet role, and Spain operates one amphibious assault ship as a STOVL aircraft carrier, giving a total of twelve 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). The UK is building two 70,000 ton STOVL supercarriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wale s, the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy; the first is expected to be commissioned in late 2017.
  • 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 fourteen helicopter carriers, operated by seven navies, that solely operate helicopters in commission today. Japan has four of this type, France three, Australia two, Egypt two, the UK one, 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

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, [8] 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
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 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 . [9] 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: [2] [2] 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. [2] [2] 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 Tonder and destroyed two zeppelin airships. [2]

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. [2] 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), [2] 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 .

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 Sunday, 7 December 1941 Japanese surprise attack on the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor naval / air bases 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. 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. [2] 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

The Japanese seaplane carrier Wakamiya conducted the world's first naval-launched air raids in 1914.
Aerial view of Hōshō of the Imperial Japanese Navy as completed in December 1922.

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. 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 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" [2] 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 observers/experts that modern anti-ship weapons systems, such as torpedoes and missiles, have made aircraft carriers obsolete as too vulnerable for modern combat. [2] On the other hand, the threatening role of aircraft carriers has a place in modern asymmetric warfare , like the gunboat diplomacy of the past. [13] Furthermore, aircraft carriers facilitate quick and precise projections of overwhelming military power into such local and regional conflicts. [14]

Aircraft carriers in service

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 the Bismarck in May 1941

A total of 41 carriers are in active service with thirteen navies. 27 aircraft carriers carry fixed-wing aircraft (with 20 of these operated by the United States Navy), and 14 carriers solely deploy helicopters. Most navies do not have aircraft carriers. Those that do usually operate only one or two aircraft carriers. The USA as a superpower is the single exception, with 11 super carriers and 9 amphibious assault ships in service.

  • CATOBAR types are operated by France (1) and the USA (11).
  • STOBAR type are operated by China (1), India (1), and Russia (1).
  • STOVL types are operated by Italy (2), Spain (1), and the USA (9)

Among 14 helicopter-only carriers:

  • ASW ships are operated by Japan (4).
  • An offshore helicopter support ship is operated by Thailand (1)
  • Helicopter only amphibious assault ships are operated by Australia (2), Egypt (2), France (3), South Korea (1), and the UK (1).

Future of aircraft carriers

Two aircraft carriers are currently undergoing sea trials before entering the navies of the UK and China. A further nine aircraft carriers are under construction and are expected to be commissioned between 2018 and 2024 in the navies of China, India, Italy, South Korea, Turkey, Great Britain, and the U.S.A.


The Type 001A carrier for the Peoples Liberation Navy of the People's Republic of China was launched on 26 April 2017. [120] [121] The vessel is set to undergo fitting-out and sea trials for several years before it is commissioned sometime around 2020. [120] The name of the aircraft carrier was not revealed at the launch ceremony, although earlier reports had speculated the aircraft carrier will be named Shandong after the province and peninsula of the same name . [120] While its predecessor Liaoning has been used largely as a training ship since it entered active service in 2012, the Type 001A for the P.R.C. is expected to be used in regular military operational service. [122]

On 31 December 2015, a spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Defense confirmed that China is designing and building its second aircraft carrier Type 002 . [123] [124] It will be China's first supercarrier with a displacement of around 85,000 tonnes. [125] In 2015, media reports stated that both an EMALS and a steam-powered catapult were constructed at the Huangdicun naval base for testing; this is thought to indicate that the Type 002 class as well as future PLAN carriers could possibly be CATOBAR carriers. [126] The construction of the first Type 002 class aircraft carrier started in February 2016. [127]

A Chinese website stated that plans were being drawn up to build a Type 003 giant nuclear-powered supercarrier with a 110,000 ton displacement, essentially a larger version of the Liaoning and its pattern indigenous Type 001A and Type 002 carriers, and largest aircraft carrier class ever built. For the Type 003 class aircraft carriers, it will likely adopt the electromagnetic aircraft launch system. [4]


In December 2009, in the Republic of India , then Indian Navy chief Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma said at his maiden Navy Week press conference that concepts currently being examined by the Directorate of Naval Design for the second indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-II) , are for a conventionally powered carrier displacing over 65,000 tons and equipped with steam catapults (rather than the ski-jump on the Gorshkov/Vikramaditya and the IAC -1) to launch fourth-generation aircraft. [18] In August 2013, Vice Admiral RK Dhowan , while talking about the detailed study underway on the IAC-II project , said that nuclear propulsion was also being considered. [4] The Indian Navy also evaluated the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which is being used by the United States Navy in their latest Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers . General Atomics , the developer of the EMALS, was cleared by the U.S. government to give a technical demonstration to Indian Navy officers, who were impressed by the new capabilities of the system. The EMALS enables launching varied aircraft including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). [20] [21] The Indian Navy's goal is to have a total of three aircraft carriers in service, with two fully operational carriers and the third in refit. [22]


On 17 June 2017 construction commenced in the Republic of Italy on the Trieste for the Italian Navy . [4] It is expected to replace the Giuseppe Garibaldi around 2022. Trieste will be equipped with helicopters and attack aircraft . [4] It will be one of the two largest vessels of the Italian navy along with Cavour . [4] [4]


Speaking in St. Petersburg , in the Russian Federation on 30 June 2011, the head of Russia's United Shipbuilding Corporation said his company expected to begin design work for a new carrier in 2016, with a goal of beginning construction in 2018 and having the carrier achieve initial operational capability by 2023. [24] Several months later, on 3 November 2011, the Russian newspaper Izvestiya reported that the naval building plan now included the construction of a new shipyard capable of building large hull ships, after which Moscow will build two (80,000 tons full load each) nuclear-powered aircraft carriers by 2027. The spokesperson said one carrier would be assigned to the Russian Navy 's Northern Fleet at Murmansk , and the second would be stationed with their Pacific Fleet at Vladivostok . [26]

South Korea

The Republic of Korea Navy (South Korea) believes it can deploy two light aircraft carriers by 2036 and expand its blue-water force to cope with the rapid naval buildups of neighboring China and Japan, according to a Navy source. [27]


In the Republic of Turkey , the Anadolu is an amphibious assault ship ( LHD ) being constructed for the Turkish Naval Forces which participate in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). [133] [134] [135] [136] Construction began on 30 April 2016 at the shipyard of Sedef Shipbuilding, and is expected to be completed in 2021. [133] [134] [135] The vessel is intended to meet the various needs and requirements of the Turkish Armed Forces , such as sustaining long-endurance, long-distance military combat or humanitarian relief operations; while acting as a command center and flagship for the Turkish Naval Forces. [134]

United Kingdom

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

Two Queen Elizabeth class STOVL aircraft carriers have been ordered for the British Royal Navy , HMS Prince of Wales is under construction and HMS Queen Elizabeth is undergoing sea trials before acceptance. [28] [30] They will be able to operate up to 40 aircraft in peacetime, with a tailored group of up to 50, and have a displacement of 70,600 tonnes. The ships are due to be commissioned in 2017 and 2020 respectively. [137] Their primary aircraft complement will be made up of F-35B Lightning IIs , and their ship's company will number around 680, with the total complement rising to about 1,600 when the air group is embarked. Defensive weapons will include the Phalanx CIWS for anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence, 30 mm Automated Small Calibre Guns , and miniguns for use against fast attack craft . [6] The two ships will be the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy.

United States

The current United States Navy fleet of Nimitz-class carriers will be followed into service (and in some cases replaced) by the projected ten-ship Gerald R. Ford class . The Ford -class ships will be more automated in an effort to reduce the amount of funding required to staff, maintain, and operate its supercarriers . The main new features are implementation of Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) (which replace the old steam catapults) and unmanned aerial vehicles . [33] With the deactivation of USS Enterprise in December 2012, followed by decommissioning in February 2017, the U.S. fleet temporarily comprised only 10 active supercarriers, until the USS Gerald R. Ford was commissioned on 22 July 2017. On 24 July 2007, the U.S.House of Representatives Armed Services Seapower subcommittee 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 research and development) for the 100,000 ton Gerald R. Ford -class carrier compared to the smaller $2 billion 45,000 ton America-class amphibious assault ships able to deploy squadrons of new F-35B warplanes, of which one is already active , another is under construction , and nine more are planned. [139]



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

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 supercarriers 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 supercarriers 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 .

Countries currently operating fixed-wing aircraft carriers in dark blue (8); countries currently solely operating helicopter carriers in green (5); historic operators of carriers in light blue (4)

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. [6]

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

Flight deck

U.S. Navy flight deck personnel direct an aircraft onto a catapult aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis .
INS Vikrant , an indigenously built aircraft carrier (IAC) for the Indian Navy was undocked on 10 June 2015.

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-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. CATO BAR or STO BAR ) 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 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

File:F-18 - A 3-wire landing.ogv
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.

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." [6] 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

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

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 the HMS Hermes in 1923. While the island is usually built on the starboard side of the fight 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.

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.

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

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

Only the U.S. Navy has ever operated supercarriers 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).


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


The Canberra class of landing helicopter docks, based on the Spanish vessel Juan Carlos I , is composed of two ships. The class was built by Navantia and BAE Systems Australia ; and HMAS Canberra are the largest ship ever built for the Royal Australian Navy . [39]

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



One STOBAR carrier: Liaoning was originally built as the 57,000 tonne Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier Varyag [43] 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. [6] [6] Liaoning was commissioned on 25 September 2012, and began service for testing and training. [7] On 24 or 25 November 2012, Liaoning successfully launched and recovered several Shenyang J-15 jet fighter aircraft. [7] [7] [7] 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. [7] As it is a training ship, Liaoning is not assigned to any of China's operation fleets. [7] A second carrier, Type 001A aircraft carrier , which is the first built domestically, was launched on 26 April 2017, reported to be armed and kitted out for service by 2020. Another carrier is claimed but not confirmed to be in construction, with state media citing experts on the need for at least six carriers in total. [7]


In November 2016, Chinese officials admitted that another 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. [7]



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. [7]

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. [7] 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. [8]

Egypt is the first and only country in Africa and the Middle East to possess an aircraft carrier of such type. [8]



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. [8]

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


Island control structure of USS Enterprise


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. [56]

Recently INS Viraat , previously known as the Royal Navy's HMS Hermes , was retired from active service. India currently has one active aircraft carrier. [8]


India started the construction of a 40,000-tonne, 260-metre-long (850 ft) Vikrant-class aircraft carrier in 2009. [58] The new carrier will operate MiG-29K and naval HAL Tejas aircraft along with the Indian-made helicopter HAL Dhruv . [58] 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. [8] The carrier is being constructed by Cochin Shipyard . [58] The ship was launched in August 2013 and is scheduled for commissioning in 2018. [18] [60] [61] [8]

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. [9]


Ski-jump on Royal Navy carrier HMS Invincible


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. [9]


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


4 helicopter carriers:



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. 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. [9] [9]


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 . [9]

South Korea


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. [27]



1 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. [9]



TCG Anadolu L-408 is a planned amphibious assault ship LHD of the Turkish Navy that can be configured as a light aircraft carrier. The construction works began on 30 April 2016 at the shipyard of Sedef Shipbuilding Inc. in Istanbul and is expected to be completed in 2021.



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, [9] was retired from service without replacement in 2006. [9] Ship now used for royal transport, helicopter operations, and as a disaster relief platform. [9]

United Kingdom


One amphibious assault ship: HMS Ocean . A 21,750 ton full deck amphibious assault ship based on the Invincible-class aircraft carrier hull [9] but without facilities for fixed wing aviation.


The Royal Navy is constructing two new larger STOVL aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class , to replace the three now retired Invincible-class carriers. The ships are HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales . [28] [30] They will be able to operate up to 40 aircraft on peace time operations with a tailored group of up to 50, and will have a displacement of 70,600 tonnes. HMS Queen Elizabeth is projected to commission in 2017 followed by Prince of Wales in about 2020. The ships are due to become operational starting in 2020. [137] Their primary aircraft complement will be made up of F-35B Lightning IIs , and their ship's company will number around 680 with the total complement rising to about 1600 when the air group is embarked. The two ships will be the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy.

United States

The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle of the French Navy


11 CATOBAR carriers: Nimitz class : ten 101,000-ton nuclear-powered supercarriers, 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. The decommissioned supercarrier Kitty Hawk is being held in inactive reserve, and the Gerald R. Ford is the first of its class came into service in 2017. [150] [73]

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.


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

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 . [33]

With the deactivation of USS Enterprise in December 2012, the U.S. fleet comprises 10 supercarriers. 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. [139] [74]

Aircraft carriers in preservation

Current museum carriers

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

Future museum carriers

Former museum carriers

  • USS Cabot (CVL-28) was slated for preservation in New Orleans , Louisiana . Throughout most of the 1990s she was docked in New Orleans waiting for the preservation society to finalize a permanent berth. During this time she was designated a national historic landmark by the US Government. However, the preservation society was unable to pay creditors and an embezzlement scandal also rocked the society, stripping the group of its funds. As a result, her landmark status was withdrawn and she was sold for scrap in 1999.
  • INS Vikrant (R11) was on display in Mumbai , India, from 1997 to 2012. She was sold for scrap after her condition deteriorated and failing to find an industrial partner.

See also