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 a balloon 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 , 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 the , Hōshō, and the s.
World War II saw the first large-scale use and further refinement of the aircraft carrier, spawning several types. Escort aircraft carriers, such as , 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 , 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 the , 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 , 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 s 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 and , 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, and therefore travel as part of a carrier battle group (CVBG) for their protection. 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 of United States Navy carriers has a displacement nearly four times that of the World War II-era , yet its complement of aircraft is roughly the same—a consequence of the steadily increasing size of military aircraft over the years.
Though aircraft carriers are given their definition with respect to fixed-wing aircraft, the first known instance of using a ship for airborne operations occurred in 1806, when the Royal Navy's Lord Thomas Cochrane launched kites from the 32-gun frigate in order to drop propaganda leaflets on the French territory.
Later, during the American Civil War, about the time of the Peninsula Campaign, gas-filled balloons were used to perform reconnaissance on Confederate positions. The battles soon turned inland into the heavily forested areas of the Peninsula, however, where balloons could not travel. A coal barge, the George Washington Parke Custis, was cleared of all deck rigging to accommodate the gas generators and apparatus of balloons. From the barge Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, made his first ascents over the Potomac River and telegraphed claims of the success of the first aerial venture ever made from a water-borne vessel. Other barges were converted to assist with the other military balloons transported about the eastern waterways, but none of these Civil War crafts ever took to the high seas.
Balloons launched from ships led to the development of balloon carriers, or balloon tenders, during World War I, by the navies of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Sweden. About ten such "balloon tenders" were built, their main objective being aerial observation posts. These ships were either decommissioned or converted to seaplane tenders after the war.
The invention of the seaplane in March 1910 with the French Le Canard led to the earliest development of a ship designed to carry airplanes, albeit equipped with floats: in December 1911 appears the French Navy La Foudre, the first seaplane carrier, and the first known carrier of airplanes. Commissioned as a seaplane tender, and carrying float-equipped planes under hangars on the main deck, from where they were lowered on the sea with a crane, she participated in tactical exercises in the Mediterranean in 1912. La Foudre was further modified in November 1913 with a 10 meter flat deck to launch her seaplanes. , temporarily converted as an experimental seaplane carrier in April–May 1913, was also one of the first seaplane carriers, and the first experimental seaplane carrier of the Royal Navy. She was originally laid down as a merchant ship, but was converted on the building stocks to be a seaplane carrier for a few trials in 1913, before being converted again to a cruiser, and back again to a seaplane carrier in 1914. She was sunk by a German submarine in October 1914. The first seaplane tender of the US Navy was the , converted to that role in December 1913.
Many cruisers and capital ships of the inter-war years often carried a catapult-launched seaplane for reconnaissance and spotting the fall of the guns. It was launched by a catapult and recovered by crane from the water after landing. These were highly successful during World War II; there were many notable successes early in the war as shown by ’s float equipped Swordfish during the Second Battle of Narvik in 1940, where it spotted for the guns of the British warships, ensuring seven German destroyers were sunk, and sinking the German submarine U-64 with its own bombs. The Japanese Rufe floatplane, derived from the Zero, was a formidable fighter with only a slight loss in flight performance; one of its pilots scored 26 kills, a score only bettered by a handful of American pilots throughout World War II. Other Japanese seaplanes launched from tenders and warships sank merchant ships and conducted small-scale ground attacks. The culmination of the type was the American 300+ mph Curtiss SC Seahawk which was actually a fighter aircraft like the Rufe in addition to a two-seat gunnery spotter and transport for an injured man in a litter. Spotter seaplane aircraft on U.S. Navy cruisers and battleships were in service until 1949. Seaplane fighters were considered poor combat aircraft compared to their carrier-launched brethren; they were slower due to the drag of their pontoons or boat hulls. Contemporary propeller-driven, land-based fighter aircraft were much faster (/ as opposed to / and more heavily armed. The Curtiss Seahawk only had two 0.50 inch calibre machine guns compared to four cannon in the Grumman F8F Bearcat or four 0.50 () cal machine guns plus two cannon in the Vought F4U Corsair. Jet aircraft of just a few years later were faster still (500+ mph) and better armed, especially with the development of air to air missiles in the early to mid 1950s.
|"An airplane-carrying vessel is indispensable. These vessels will be constructed on a plan very different from what is currently used. First of all the deck will be cleared of all obstacles. It will be flat, as wide as possible without jeopardizing the nautical lines of the hull, and it will look like a landing field."|
|Clément Ader, L'Aviation Militaire, 1909|
A number of experimental flights were made to test the concept. Eugene Ely was the first pilot to launch from a stationary ship in November 1910. He took off from a structure fixed over the forecastle of the US armored cruiser at Hampton Roads, Virginia and landed nearby on Willoughby Spit after some five minutes in the air.
On 18 January 1911 he became the first pilot to land on a stationary ship. He took off from the Tanforan racetrack and landed on a similar temporary structure on the aft of anchored at the San Francisco waterfront—the improvised braking system of sandbags and ropes led directly to the arrestor hook and wires described below. His aircraft was then turned around and he was able to take off again. Commander Charles Rumney Samson, Royal Navy, became the first airman to take off from a moving warship on May 2, 1912. He took off in a Short S27 from the battleship while she steamed at 10.5 knots during the Royal Fleet Review at Weymouth.
The first strike from a carrier against a land target as well as a sea target took place in September 1914 when the Imperial Japanese Navy seaplane carrier Wakamiya conducted the world's first naval-launched air raids from Kiaochow Bay during the Battle of Tsingtao in China. The four Maurice Farman seaplanes bombarded German-held land targets (communication centers and command centers) and damaged a German minelayer in the Tsingtao peninsula from September until November 6, 1914, when the Germans surrendered. On the Western front the first naval air raid occurred on December 25, 1914 when twelve seaplanes from , and (cross-channel steamers converted into seaplane carriers) attacked the Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven. The attack was not a complete success, although a German warship was damaged; nevertheless the raid demonstrated in the European theatre the feasibility of attack by ship-borne aircraft and showed the strategic importance of this new weapon.
was arguably the first modern aircraft carrier. She was originally laid down as a merchant ship, but was converted on the building stocks to be a hybrid airplane/seaplane carrier with a launch platform. Launched September 5, 1914, she served in the Dardanelles campaign and throughout World War I.
Other carrier operations were mounted during the war, the most successful taking place on 19 July 1918 when seven Sopwith Camels launched from attacked the German Zeppelin base at Tondern, with two bombs each. Several airships and balloons were destroyed, but as the carrier had no method of recovering the aircraft safely, two of the pilots ditched their aircraft in the sea alongside the carrier while the others headed for neutral Denmark.
The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 placed strict limits on the tonnages of battleships and battlecruisers for the major naval powers after World War I, as well as not only a limit on the total tonnage for carriers, but also an upper limit of 27,000 tonnes for each ship. Although exceptions were made regarding the maximum ship tonnage (fleet units counted, experimental units did not), the total tonnage could not be exceeded. However, while all of the major navies were over-tonnage on battleships, they were all considerably under-tonnage on aircraft carriers. Consequently, many battleships and battlecruisers under construction (or in service) were converted into aircraft carriers. The first ship to have a full-length flat deck was , the conversion of which was completed in September 1918, with the United States Navy not following suit until 1920, when the conversion of (an experimental ship which did not count against America's carrier tonnage) was completed. The first American fleet carriers would not enter service until November, 1927 when the was commissioned. (was commissioned in December of that year.)
The first purpose-designed aircraft carrier to be laid down was the in 1918. Japan began work on Hōshō the following year. In December 1922, Hōshō became the first to be commissioned, while HMS Hermes began service in July 1923. Hermes' design preceded and influenced that of Hōshō, and its construction actually began earlier, but numerous tests, experiments and budget considerations delayed its commission.
By the late 1930s, carriers around the world typically carried three types of aircraft: torpedo bombers, also used for conventional bombings and reconnaissance; dive bombers, also used for reconnaissance (in the U.S. Navy, aircraft of this type were known as "scout bombers"); and fighters for fleet defence and bomber escort duties. Because of the restricted space on aircraft carriers, all these aircraft were of small, single-engined types, usually with folding wings to facilitate storage.
Aircraft carriers played a significant role in World War II. With seven aircraft carriers afloat, the Royal Navy had a considerable numerical advantage at the start of the war as neither the Germans nor the Italians had carriers of their own. However, the vulnerability of carriers compared to traditional battleships when forced into a gun-range encounter was quickly illustrated by the sinking of by German battlecruisers during the Norwegian campaign in 1940.
This apparent weakness to battleships was turned on its head in November 1940 when launched a long-range strike on the Italian fleet at Taranto. This operation incapacitated three of the six battleships in the harbour at a cost of two of the 21 attacking Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers. Carriers also played a major part in reinforcing Malta, both by transporting planes and by defending convoys sent to supply the besieged island. The use of carriers prevented the Italian Navy and land-based German aircraft from dominating the Mediterranean theatre.
In the Atlantic, aircraft from and were responsible for slowing Bismarck during May 1941. Later in the war, escort carriers proved their worth guarding convoys crossing the Atlantic and Arctic oceans.
Many of the major battles in the Pacific Ocean involved aircraft carriers. Japan started the war with ten aircraft carriers, the largest and most modern carrier fleet in the world at that time. There were six American aircraft carriers at the beginning of the hostilities, although only three of them were operating in the Pacific.
Drawing on the 1939 Japanese development of shallow-water modifications for aerial torpedoes and the 1940 British aerial attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, the 1941 Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a clear illustration of the power projection capability afforded by a large force of modern carriers. Concentrating six carriers in a single striking unit marked a turning point in naval history, as no other nation had fielded anything comparable. (Though Germany and Italy began construction of carriers, neither ship was completed. Of the two, Germany's Graf Zeppelin had the greater potential.)
Meanwhile, the Japanese began their advance through Southeast Asia, and the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse by Japanese land-based aircraft drove home the need for this ship type for fleet defence from aerial attack. In April 1942, the Japanese fast carrier strike force ranged into the Indian Ocean and sank shipping, including the damaged and undefended carrier . Smaller Allied fleets with inadequate aerial protection were forced to retreat or be destroyed. In the Coral Sea, US and Japanese fleets traded aircraft strikes in the first battle where neither side's ships sighted the other, and carriers fought each other for the first time. At the Battle of Midway all four Japanese carriers engaged were sunk by planes from three American carriers (one of which was lost); the battle is considered the turning point of the war in the Pacific. Notably, the battle was orchestrated by the Japanese to draw out American carriers that had proven very elusive and troublesome to the Japanese.
Subsequently the US was able to build up large numbers of aircraft aboard a mixture of fleet, light and (newly commissioned) escort carriers, primarily with the introduction of the Essex class in 1943. These ships, around which were built the fast carrier task forces of the Third and Fifth Fleets, played a major part in winning the Pacific war. The reign of the battleship as the primary component of a fleet ended when U.S. carrier-borne aircraft sank the largest battleships ever built, the Japanese super battleships Musashi in 1944 and Yamato in 1945. Japan built the largest aircraft carrier of the war, Shinano, which was a Yamato-class ship converted midway through construction after the disastrous loss of four fleet carriers at Midway. She was sunk by the patrolling US submarine while in transit shortly after commissioning, but before being fully outfitted or operational, in November 1944.
A hurricane bow is a completely enclosed hangar deck, first seen on the American Lexington-class aircraft carriers which entered service in 1927. Combat experience proved it to be by far the most useful configuration for the bow of the ship among others that were tried, including second flying-off decks and an anti-aircraft battery (the latter was the most common American configuration during World War II). This feature would be re-incorporated into American carriers post-war. The first Japanese carrier to incorporate a hurricane bow was Taihō.
The loss of three major carriers in quick succession in the Pacific led the U.S. Navy to develop the light carrier from light cruiser hulls that had already been laid down. They were intended to serve as additional fast carriers, as escort carriers did not have the requisite speed to keep up with the fleet carriers and their escorts. The actual U.S. Navy classification was small aircraft carrier (CVL), not light. Prior to July 1943, they were just classified as aircraft carriers (CV).
To protect Atlantic convoys, the British developed what they called Merchant Aircraft Carriers, which were merchant ships equipped with a flat deck for half a dozen aircraft. These operated with civilian crews, under merchant colors, and carried their normal cargo besides providing air support for the convoy. As there was no lift or hangar, aircraft maintenance was limited and the aircraft spent the entire trip sitting on the deck.
These served as a stop-gap measure until dedicated escort carriers (CVE) could be built in the U.S. About a third of the size of a fleet carrier, they carried around two dozen aircraft for anti-submarine duties. Over one hundred were built or converted from merchantmen. Escort carriers were built in the US from two basic hull designs: one from a merchant ship, and the other from a slightly larger, slightly faster tanker. Besides defending convoys, these were used to transport aircraft across the ocean. Nevertheless, some participated in the battles to liberate the Philippines, notably the Battle off Samar in which six escort carriers and their escorting destroyers briefly took on five Japanese battleships and bluffed them into retreating.
As an emergency stop-gap before sufficient merchant aircraft carriers became available, the British provided air cover for convoys using Catapult aircraft merchantman (CAM ships). CAM ships were merchant vessels equipped with an aircraft, usually a battle-weary Hawker Hurricane, launched by a catapult. Once launched, the aircraft could not land back on the deck and had to ditch in the sea if it was not within range of land. In over two years, fewer than 10 launches were ever made, yet these flights did have some success: 6 bombers for the loss of a single pilot.
Three major post-war developments came from the need to improve operations of jet-powered aircraft, which had higher weights and landing speeds than their propeller-powered forebears.
The first jet landing on a carrier was made by Lt Cdr Eric "Winkle" Brown who landed on in the specially modified de Havilland Vampire LZ551/G on 3 December 1945. Brown is also the all-time record holder for the number of carrier landings, at 2,407.
After these successful tests, there were still many misgivings about the suitability of operating jet aircraft routinely from carriers, and LZ551/G was taken to Farnborough to participate in trials of the experimental "rubber deck". Despite significant effort toward developing this idea, it was found to be unnecessary; following the introduction of angled flight decks, jets were operating from carriers by the mid 1950s.
During World War II, aircraft would land on the flight deck parallel to the long axis of the ship's hull. Aircraft which had already landed would be parked on the deck at the bow end of the flight deck. A crash barrier was raised behind them to stop any landing aircraft which overshot the landing area because its landing hook missed the arrestor cables. If this happened, it would often cause serious damage or injury and even, if the crash barrier was not strong enough, destruction of parked aircraft.
An important development of the early 1950s was the British invention of the angled flight deck by Capt D.R.F. Campbell RN in conjunction with Lewis Boddington. The runway was canted at an angle of a few degrees from the longitudinal axis of the ship. If an aircraft missed the arrestor cables (referred to as a "bolter"), the pilot only needed to increase engine power to maximum to get airborne again, and would not hit the parked aircraft because the angled deck pointed out over the sea.
The first trials of an angled flight deck were conducted aboard using a painted-on angled runway in 1952. The first carriers modified with a port-side extension for the angled flight deck were in 1953 and in 1954. The first three ships actually completed with angled flight decks were all delivered in 1955: in February, in October and in November.
The modern steam-powered catapult, powered by steam from the ship's boilers or reactors, was invented by Commander C.C. Mitchell of the Royal Naval Reserve. It was widely adopted following trials on between 1950 and 1952 which showed it to be more powerful and reliable than the hydraulic catapults which had been introduced in the 1940s.
The first of the Optical Landing Systems was another British innovation, the Mirror Landing Aid invented by Lieutenant Commander H. C. N. Goodhart RN. This was a gyroscopically-controlled convex mirror (in later designs replaced by a Fresnel lens Optical Landing System) on the port side of the deck. On either side of the mirror was a line of green "datum" lights. A bright orange "source" light was directed into the mirror creating the "ball" (or "meatball" in later USN parlance), which could be seen by the aviator who was about to land. The position of the ball compared to the datum lights indicated the aircraft's position in relation to the desired glidepath: if the ball was above the datum, the plane was high; below the datum, the plane was low; between the datum, the plane was on glidepath. The gyro stabilisation compensated for much of the movement of the flight deck due to the sea, giving a constant glidepath. The first trials of a mirror landing sight were conducted on HMS Illustrious in 1952. Prior to OLSs, pilots relied on visual flag signals from Landing Signal Officers to help maintain proper glidepath.
The U.S. Navy attempted to become a strategic nuclear force in parallel with the United States Air Force (USAF) long range bombers with the project to build , which was termed CVA, with the "A" signifying "atomic". This ship would have carried long range twin-engine bombers, each of which could carry an atomic bomb. The project was canceled under pressure from the newly-created USAF, and the letter "A" was recycled to mean "attack." This only delayed the growth of carriers. Nuclear weapons would be part of the carrier weapons load, despite Air Force objections, beginning in 1955 aboard . By the end of the 1950s the Navy had a series of nuclear-armed attack aircraft (see also USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42)).
The U.S. Navy also built the first aircraft carrier to be powered by nuclear reactors. is powered by eight nuclear reactors and was the second surface warship (after ) to be powered in this way. Subsequent supercarriers starting with took advantage of this technology to increase their endurance utilizing only two reactors. Other nations operate nuclear powered submarines, but thus far only France has a nuclear-powered carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.
The post-war years also saw the development of the helicopter, with a variety of useful roles and mission capability aboard aircraft carriers. Whereas fixed-wing aircraft are suited to air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack, helicopters are used to transport equipment and personnel and can be used in an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) role, with dipping sonar, air-launched torpedoes, and depth charges; as well as for anti-surface vessel warfare, with air-launched anti-ship missiles.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United Kingdom and the U.S. converted some older carriers into Commando Carriers or Landing Platform Helicopters (LPH); seagoing helicopter airfields like . To mitigate against the expensive connotations of the term "aircraft carrier", the new Invincible-class carriers were originally designated as "through deck cruisers" and were initially to operate as helicopter-only craft escort carriers. The arrival of the Sea Harrier VTOL/STOVL fast jet meant they could carry fixed-wing aircraft, despite their short flight deck.
The U.S. used some carriers initially as pure ASW carriers, embarking helicopters and fixed-wing ASW aircraft like the S-2 Tracker. Later, specialized LPH helicopter carriers for the transport of Marine Corps troops and their helicopter transports were developed. These evolved into the Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) and later into the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) classes of amphibious assault ships, which normally also embark a few Harrier aircraft.
Yet another British innovation was the ski-jump ramp as an alternative to contemporary catapult systems. The ski-jump ramp at the end of a runway or flight deck allows an aircraft which makes a running start to transition a portion of its forward momentum into upward motion. The intent is that the additional altitude and upward angled flight path from the jump provides extra time until the forward airspeed generated by engine thrust is high enough to maintain level flight. V/STOL aircraft will often also use their ability to direct some of their thrust downwards to give them additional lift until required airspeed is attained.
As the Royal Navy retired or sold the last of its World War II-era carriers, they were replaced with smaller ships designed to operate helicopters and the V/STOVL Sea Harrier jet. The ski-jump gave the Harriers an enhanced STOVL capability, allowing them to take off with heavier payloads. It has since been adopted by the navies of several nations such as India, Spain, Italy, Russia, and Thailand. Most ski-jump equipped carriers operate the British or US built Harrier aircraft. The current Russian aircraft carrier on the other hand launches conventional Sukhoi Su-33 fighters from a ski jump but recovers them using a conventional tailhook and arresting wire.
Many carriers equipped with ski-jump ramps do not have an angled landing deck, but this is more a result of the vertical landing capability of the STOVL aircraft embarked. Russian and future Indian carriers employing STOL fighters are the exception since they require a wire arrested landing. The future British STOVL carriers and the former HMS Hermes both also have angled decks, the former to provide flexibility for easy conversion to CATOBAR operations, the latter because it was a converted CATOBAR carrier and the removal of valuable deck space was not warranted. The Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will be the first supercarriers with ski-jump ramps.
The United Nations command began carrier operations against the North Korean Army on July 3, 1950 in response to the invasion of South Korea. Task Force 77 consisted at that time of the carriers and . Before the armistice of July 27, 1953, 12 U.S. carriers served 27 tours in the Sea of Japan as part of Task Force 77. During periods of intensive air operations as many as four carriers were on the line at the same time (see Attack on the Sui-ho Dam), but the norm was two on the line with a third "ready" carrier at Yokosuka able to respond to the Sea of Japan at short notice.
A second carrier unit, Task Force 95, served as a blockade force in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of North Korea. The task force consisted of a Commonwealth light carrier (, , , and and usually a U.S. escort carrier (, , , and ).
Over 301,000 carrier strikes were flown during the Korean War: 255,545 by the aircraft of Task Force 77; 25,400 by the Commonwealth aircraft of Task Force 95, and 20,375 by the escort carriers of Task Force 95. United States Navy and Marine Corps carrier-based combat losses were 541 aircraft. The Fleet Air Arm lost 86 aircraft in combat, and the Australian Fleet Air Arm 15.
In the period following World War II through the 1960s, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands employed their carriers during decolonization conflicts of former colonies.
The United Kingdom and France used carrier-based aircraft from HMS Eagle, HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark, Arromanches, and La Fayette to hit Egyptian positions, and the HMS Ocean and HMS Theseus as floating bases to ferry troops ashore by helicopter, during the 1956 Suez Crisis in the first ever large-scale helicopter-borne assault.
The Royal Netherlands Navy deployed the Karel Doorman and an escorting battle group to the Netherlands' colony of Western New Guinea in 1962 to protect it from Indonesian invasion. This intervention nearly resulted in her being attacked by the Indonesian Air Force using Soviet supplied Tupolev Tu-16KS-1 Badger naval bombers carrying anti-ship missiles. The attack was called off by a last-minute cease fire.
In 1964–1967, the Royal Navy deployed the Far East Fleet carriers HMS Ark Royal, HMS Centaur, and HMS Victorious in support of operations in Borneo during the Konfrontasi period between Indonesia and Malaysia. HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark were deployed as commando carriers. The Australian carrier HMAS Sydney served as a troop transport.
The United States Navy fought "the most protracted, bitter, and costly war" (René Francillon) in the history of naval aviation from August 2, 1964 to August 15, 1973 in the waters of the South China Sea. Operating from two deployment points (Yankee Station and Dixie Station), carrier aircraft supported combat operations in South Vietnam and conducted bombing operations in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force in North Vietnam under Operations Flaming Dart, Rolling Thunder, and Linebacker. The number of carriers on the line varied during differing points of the conflict, but as many as six operated at one time during Operation Linebacker.
Twenty-one aircraft carriers (all operational attack carriers during the era except ) deployed to Task Force 77 of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, conducting 86 war cruises and operating 9,178 total days on the line in the Gulf of Tonkin. 530 aircraft were lost in combat and 329 more in operational accidents, causing the deaths of 377 naval aviators, with 64 others reported missing and 179 taken prisoner-of-war. 205 officers and men of the ship's complements of three carriers (, and ) were killed in major shipboard fires.
During the Falklands War the United Kingdom was able to win a conflict 8,000 miles (13,000 km) from home in large part due to the use of the light fleet carrier and the smaller "through deck cruiser" . The Falklands showed the value of a STOVL aircraft—the Hawker Siddeley Harrier (the RN Sea Harrier and press-ganged RAF Harriers)—in defending the fleet and assault force from shore-based aircraft and in attacking the enemy. Sea Harriers shot down 21 fast-attack jets and suffered no aerial combat losses, although six were lost to accidents and ground fire. Helicopters from the carriers were used to deploy troops and for medevac, Search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare.
An opposite lesson from the Falklands War was the withdrawal of Argentina's aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo with her A-4Qs. The sinking of the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano caused the premature home deployment as it showed that capital ships were vulnerable in the nuclear submarines' hunting ground.
The U.S. has also made use of carriers in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan and to protect its interests in the Pacific. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq U.S. aircraft carriers served as the primary base of American air power. Even without the ability to place significant numbers of aircraft in Middle Eastern airbases, the United States was capable of carrying out significant air attacks from carrier-based squadrons. Recently, U.S. aircraft carriers such as the provided air support for counter-insurgency operations in Iraq.
Aircraft carriers are generally the largest ships operated by navies; a Nimitz-class carrier powered by two nuclear reactors and four steam turbines is long and costs about $4.5 billion. The United States Navy has the world's largest carrier fleet, with eleven in service, one under construction, and one on order (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 (plus eight under construction) aircraft carriers in active service are maintained by nine navies: the United States Navy, Royal Navy, French Navy, Russian Navy, Italian Navy, Indian Navy, Spanish Navy, Brazilian Navy, and Royal Thai Navy navies. In addition, the People's Republic of China's People's Liberation Army Navy possesses the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, but most naval analysts believe that they have no intention to render her fully operational, and instead are using her as a training vessel in preparation for future Chinese aircraft carriers. 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.
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.
In the early 21st century, worldwide aircraft carriers are capable of carrying about 1,250 aircraft. U.S. carriers account for over 1,000 of these. The United Kingdom and France are both undergoing a major expansion in carrier capability, but the United States will still maintain a very large lead.
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 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.
The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is one of the world's most dangerous places to work. 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, used by the Royal Navy, has a ski-jump ramp at the forward end of the flight deck. This was 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 the aircraft are capable of flying vertically off the deck, using the ramp is more fuel efficient. As catapults and arrestor cables are unnecessary, carriers with this arrangement reduce weight, complexity, and space needed for equipment. 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 cannot use a ski-jump because their high weight requires either a longer takeoff roll than is possible on a carrier deck, or catapult assistance.
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.Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy In June 2005, reports from boxun.com that the People's Republic of China would build a US$362 million aircraft carrier with a displacement of 78,000 tonnes were denied by Chinese defence official Zhang Guangqin. China is reportedly planning to build a aircraft carrier based on the Varyag in the Jiangnan Shipyard by 2010. However, other sources suggest a 93,000-ton vessel construction to be completed by 2020. 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. French Navy The French Navy had set in motion plans for a second CTOL aircraft carrier, to supplement Charles de Gaulle. The design was to be much larger, in the range of 65-74,000 tonnes, and would not have been nuclear-powered like Charles de Gaulle. There were plans to buy the third carrier of 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 Nicholas Sarkozy decided to pull out of the Franco–British project. Sarkozy stated that a final decision on the future of French participation in the project would be taken in 2011 or 2012. British plans for two aircraft carriers go ahead as planned despite the French withdrawal.Indian Navy India started the construction of a 37,500 tonne, 252 m-long Vikrant-class aircraft carrier in April 2005. The new carrier will cost US$762 million and will operate MiG 29K 'Fulcrum', 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 7,500 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 bought 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. Eduard Borisov, an acting director of the Sevmash plant responsible for the refit, stated that production capabilities of the plant were overestimated for the current funding level, and the refit will not be completed until 2011 with a total cost of $4.5 billion. Vladimir Pastuhov, Sevmash director, had to step down, along with two other top managers of large defence contractors, in the largest scandal in the Russian defence industry in recent years.Italian Navy The construction of the conventionally powered Marina Militare STOVL aircraft carrier Cavour began in 2001. The ship is being built by Fincantieri of Italy. After much delay, Cavour is expected to enter service in 2009 to complement the Marina Militare aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi.Royal Navy (United Kingdom) 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. These two ships are to be named and . They will be able to operate up to 48 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 1000. 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.Russian Navy 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.Spanish Navy The project for the 231 meter-long, 27,000–30,000-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 Juan Carlos I is a vessel designed to operate both as amphibious assault ship and as VSTOL 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 it is configured to operate as VSTOL aircraft carrier, the operating range will be about 27,000 tonnes, and it will operate a maximum of 30 AV-8B+ Matadors, F-35 or a mixed force of both aircraft. The ship is provided with a ski-jump and a three-dimensional radar-based combat system, and will be the second operating aircraft carrier of the Spanish Navy after Príncipe de Asturias. Australia is also purchasing two of these vessels, the Canberra-class large amphibious ships, for the Royal Australian Navy. At this time the unfinished Australian ships are not planned to operate VTOL aircraft, however against the apparent wishes of the Royal Australian Navy. US Navy
The current U.S. 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 , 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.
With the decommissioning of the 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 is deepened over budgeting for the $12–14.5 billion (plus $12 billion for development and research) for the Gerald Ford-class carrier (estimated service 2015) compared to the smaller $2 billion 45,000-ton class big-deck amphibious assault ships for squadrons of the new F-35Bs.