Aircraft carriers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Large naval warships whose purpose is to project a nation’s air force by sea into virtually any other part of the world. To that purpose, carriers are distinguished by their flat landing and takeoff decks and their complement, carried on deck and in internal hangar spaces, of fighter, attack, reconnaissance, antisubmarine, electronic warfare, and other aircraft essential to the mission of the carrier.


The first prototype aircraft carriers entered the British navy during World War I, but were first used significantly in battle in World War II by the British, American, and Japanese navies. Aircraft carriers have essentially two components: the ship and its systems, and the air wing, or complement of aircraft it carries. Aircraft carriers are the largest military ships in the world; a modern U.S. carrier displaces more than 97,000 tons of water, travels at a speed in excess of 30 knots, and carries a complement of more than 5,000 Navy and Marine personnel. A navy captain usually commands the ship; another captain on board commands the air wing.

Aircraft carriers are extremely expensive, large, and potentially vulnerable to attack. They operate at sea as part of a carrier battle group, which also includes guided missile cruisers, guided missile destroyers, frigates, attack submarines, and replenishment/resupply ships. These combatant ships have antisubmarine, antiair, and antiship roles. The carrier, when on active patrol, also operates a combat air patrol of its own fighter aircraft. The carrier’s only other armaments are missile launchers and Phalanx radar-guided 20-millimeter cannon for antiaircraft and antimissile defense. It carries a wide array of sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment, radar, sonar, countermeasures, and other electronic systems.

The aircraft of a modern carrier are many and diverse. A U.S. carrier in 2001 carried one-half dozen different types of aircraft, including the supersonic swept-wing F-14 Tomcat, an air superiority, strike, and fleet defense fighter aircraft that carries both missiles and cannon. The F/A-18 Hornet (C/D models) and F/A-18 Super Hornet (E/F models) are all-weather fighter and attack aircraft. These supersonic aircraft carry both missiles and cannon. The EA-6B electronic warfare and countermeasures aircraft are subsonic, achieving speeds of more than 500 knots per hour. They carry countermeasures equipment and antiradar missiles. The subsonic S-3 Viking antisubmarine plane carries missiles, rockets, mines, torpedoes, and depth charges. The propeller-driven E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning and command plane is unarmed. The SH-60 Seahawk antisubmarine, search-and-rescue, and special operations helicopter carries machine guns, missiles, and torpedoes. All but three U.S. carriers have nuclear propulsion. The ships’ reactor plants are capable of carrying them many times around the world without refueling.

Carriers of other countries carry different aircraft. Several nations’ carriers embark the British Aerospace Harrier, capable of vertical and short takeoffs and vertical landings (V/STOL). The Royal Navy currently flies the Sea Harrier FA2, which carries bombs, missiles, and cannon, and flies at about Mach 0.9. France’s carrier carries the Super Etendard attack and reconnaissance aircraft. France also operates the Rafale M multirole fighter aircraft, capable of Mach 2, which carries missiles and cannon.

Early History

The first instance of a heavier-than-air craft taking off from a warship was the flight of a Curtiss airplane from a ramp mounted on the U.S. cruiser Birmingham in 1910. The first landing on a warship was on the USS Pennsylvania in 1911. Several other experiments of this type continued in the United States and Great Britain around this time. Seaplane carriers, which simply carried seaplanes in their hulls, launched them on catapults, and then winched them aboard after they had made a water landing, were developed in the first twenty years of the 1900’s as well. The first true aircraft carrier, which enabled aircraft to take off and land, was the HMS Furious in 1917.

World War II

During the interwar years, the United States, Japan, France, and Great Britain built large fleet aircraft carriers. Earlier carriers were built on the hulls of former cruisers, battleships, or battlecruisers; later ships were built from the keel up as aircraft carriers. In World War II, these aircraft carriers came into their own and proved their worth as offensive and defensive strike weapons, primarily with the navies of the United States, Great Britain, and Japan. Germany had begun the construction of at least two aircraft carriers before World War II. Only one came near completion; named the Graf Zeppelin, it was never finished, scuttled at the end of the war, and later sunk. Fleet aircraft carriers effectively spelled the end of then-conventional surface warfare, wherein capital ships attempted to destroy each other with long-range gunnery, in World War II. The British Royal Navy carrier raids on the Italian port of Taranto and the 1941 Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor, based in part on the Taranto raid, showed conclusively that carrier-based aircraft could, under the right conditions, destroy capital ships in port. The battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, in May and June, 1942, definitively demonstrated that carrier battle groups were capable of searching out and sinking each other while hundreds of miles apart. At Coral Sea, the American carrier force, though losing a carrier, stopped the Japanese approach to Australia; at Midway, some weeks later, the American force destroyed all four Japanese carriers and effectively turned the tide of the Pacific war. In the 1944 battle known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot, American fighter planes destroyed most of what was left of the Japanese carrier air component.

In addition, smaller carriers, called escort carriers, or jeep carriers, did important service in the war by performing much-needed convoy escort protection in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as performing antisubmarine duty and support of amphibious landings, as well as strikes against land targets.

Modern Carriers

After World War II, the aircraft carrier moved from a largely battlefleet role to a variety of roles in both peacetime and war. Technical innovations in carriers included the embarcation of jet aircraft; nuclear weapons capability; steam catapults, which made jet operations possible; and angled flight decks, which allowed the simultaneous takeoff and recovery of multiple airplanes. In Korea, navy planes launched from carriers flew combat sorties and search-and-rescue missions; the same was true for carriers positioned in “Yankee Station” in the South China Sea during the Vietnam conflict. Carriers were used to retrieve the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts from their space missions in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

After the war, the United States embarked on the idea of the “supercarrier,” a ship which would be larger and more powerful than previous ships. The original supercarrier, the United States, was canceled before being built. However, subsequent carriers incorporated supercarrier designs, such as increased space for aircraft, fuel, and munitions.

Modern Supercarriers

Currently, the United States Navy is by far the largest operator of aircraft carriers in the world, with thirteen in service: Ronald Reagan (under construction), Harry S. Truman, John C. Stennis, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Carl Vinson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nimitz, Enterprise, John F. Kennedy, Constellation, and Kitty Hawk. Other nations operating carriers as of 2001 included Great Britain (Invincible, Illustrious, and Ark Royal); France (Charles de Gaulle); India (Viraat); Thailand (Chakri Nareubet); Italy (Giuseppe Garibaldi); Spain (Principe de Asturias); Brazil (São Paulo and Minas Gerais); and the Russian Republic (Kuznetsov). Of the U.S. carriers, only the Kennedy, the Constellation, and the Kitty Hawk are conventionally powered; the remaining ten have nuclear propulsion. France’s Charles de Gaulle is nuclear powered. The carriers of India, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, and Thailand are designed to operate helicopters and the Harrier V/STOL fighter/attack aircraft.

In addition to aircraft carriers, several other types of warships conduct air operations, largely with helicopters; these are used by several nations. The U.S. Navy operates several amphibious warfare ships, sometimes called helicopter carriers, whose flat decks are for the purpose of embarking and debarking troop concentrations, such as Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs).

American aircraft carriers are ships with multiple roles in the twenty-first century. Apart from their immediately obvious tactical military role, they are often used as strategic tools of diplomacy and national will when needed. American carriers have been sent to “show the flag” and project American power in world trouble spots since the 1950’s. American carriers were sent to the Persian Gulf to safeguard shipping during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, and during the Desert Shield campaign of 1990 and 1991.


The future of the aircraft carrier in the short and middle term seems assured. Despite comments from critics that aircraft carriers are too expensive (costing billions of dollars) and too vulnerable to either military or terrorist attack, the navy’s newest carriers are being built with an expected useful service life of over thirty years (taking into account service life extension programs to update structures and systems). In addition, the commitment of the United States to thirteen active aircraft carriers (though not all are at sea at the same time) indicates America’s commitment to the concept of anytime, anywhere naval carrier operations for some time to come.

Several aircraft carriers of World War II and later eras have been permanently docked and serve as museums, including the Hornet in Alameda, California, Intrepid in the New York City harbor, Lexington in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the carrier Yorktown in Charleston, South Carolina. Many active carriers have their own World Wide Web sites.

  • Allard, Damien. “French Fleet Air Arm.” ( .fr/main_menu_english.htm) A good English description of the French navy’s ships, history, and aircraft.
  • Clancy, Tom. Carrier: A Guided Tour of an Aircraft Carrier. New York: Penguin, 2000. A definitive descriptive treatment of a modern American carrier and its political and military role, as well as its technological and human systems.
  • Galuppini, Gino. Warships of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Times Books, 1983. An illustrated guide to world warships from ancient times to the present, with several illustrations of modern and early aircraft carriers.
  • Royal Navy. ( The official World Wide Web site of the British Royal Navy, including information on carriers and aircraft.
  • Toppan, Andrew. “Haze Gray and Underway: World Aircraft Carriers and Lists.” ( An extensive World Wide Web site that includes a detailed discussion of the rise and rationale of the modern supercarrier, an up-to-date list of all aircraft carriers currently serving in the world, as well as lists of all other aircraft carriers which have served in the world’s navies.
  • United States Navy. “The Carriers.” ( .mil/navpalib/ships/carriers/) An official U.S. government Web site with descriptions, rationale, and history of U.S. carriers.
  • Wukovits, John F. “Greatest Aircraft Carrier Duel.” (www text.htm) A detailed description of a classic U.S.-Japanese carrier aircraft battle from World War II, the Marianas Turkey Shoot.

Gulf War

Harrier jets


Landing procedures

Military flight

Navy pilots, U.S.

Takeoff procedures


Vertical takeoff and landing

World War II

Aircraft carriers provide mobile platforms from which military aircraft can take off and land for air raids or reconnaissance.

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General Characteristics of U.S. Aircraft Carriers

Nimitz ClassEnterpriseJohn F. KennedyKitty Hawk ClassBuilder(s)Newport News Shipbuilding CompanyNewport News Shipbuilding CompanyNewport News Shipbuilding CompanyNew York Ship Building Corporation; New York Naval ShipyardPower Plant2 nuclear reactors, 4 shafts8 nuclear reactors, 4 shafts8 boilers, 4 shafts8 boilers, 4 geared steam turbines, 4 shaftsOverall Length (feet)1,092 1,101 1,052 1,062.5 Flight Deck Width (feet)252 252 252 252 Beam (feet)134 133 130 130 Displacement, fully loaded (tons)97,000 (approximate)89,60082,00080,800 (approximate)Speed (miles per hour)34.5+ 34.5+ 34.5+ 34.5+ Aircraft85858585Ship(s)USS Nimitz, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, USS Carl Vinson, USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Abraham Lincoln, USS George Washington, USS John C. Stennis, USS Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan (under construction)USS EnterpriseUSS John F. KennedyUSS Kitty Hawk, USS ConstellationCrew (Ship’s Company/ Air Wing)3,200/2,4803,350/2,4803,117/2,4803,150/2,480Armament2-3 NATO Sea Sparrow launchers, 3-4 20-millimeter Phalanx CIWS mounts2 Sea Sparrow missile launchers, 3 20-millimeter Phalanx CIWS mountsSea Sparrow missiles with box launchers, 3 20-millimeter Phalanx CIWS mountsSea Sparrow launchers, 3 20- millimeter Phalanx CIWS mountsDate Class First DeployedMay 3, 1975November 25, 1961September 7, 1968April 29, 1961Source: (, June 6, 2001.

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