page header image


Featured Article


What's the Future for Aircraft Carriers?
Growth or Decline?

Many navies see aircraft carriers as viable platforms for projecting power - there are currently nine countries having aircraft carriers in service: Brazil, France, India, Italy, Russia, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom and the United States. It is interesting that China does not yet formally have a carrier in service, though this is expected to change in the near future. The total number of carriers in service worldwide is currently twenty two, with half of that fleet being in US service. At least eight countries have new carriers in the concept, design, bought used and refurbishing or new build stages.

Spain has succeeded in selling its 'Principe de Asturias' design to several countries, and China, Japan and India are developing the capability to build their own carriers - in China's case, even a nuclear powered carrier. VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircraft - the British Harrier derivatives are used for example by India, Spain and Italy, has enabled these countries to project viable carrier power. The US F35D JSF - a STVOL configuration - can only 'grow the market' amongst 'western' nations.

Many see the aircraft carrier as a keystone of political influence, in spite of the significant concentration of power and investment (both political and financial) in what is after all a very and, arguably vulnerable target.

Russia currently has only one carrier in service at present and is an exception. The country extends for almost 12 time zones - nearly halfway around the world . With a fleet of advanced land-based aircraft and up to date missile arsenal, it can project its power without the need for a large carrier fleet, at least in the northern hemisphere.

What is an Aircraft Carrier?

A floating, mobile airbase, though not capable of handling large transport planes such as those used for in-flight refuelling. This definition is usually taken to include any vessel capable of handling fixed wing fighter aircraft, of which there are several types. For these purposes, we exclude pure helicopter carriers, as even cargo ships can carry these as was the case in the Falklands War.

Types of Aircraft Carrier

Supercarrier: typically greater than 50,000 tons loaded displacement, usually nuclear powered, and able to handle fast jets

Fleet Carrier: mid sized 20,000 tons upward, not nuclear powered, maybe even diesel powered, the 'typical' size in a country's fleet.

Light Aircraft Carrier: smaller than the fleet carrier, though this definition is vague.

As can be seen, this classification structure is subjective to a country's fleet configuration. Some might well describe the Charles de Gaulle as a supercarrier - with steam catapults, nuclear powered, but is it a supercarrier when compared to, say, US aircraft carriers such as the US Nimitz Class George W Bush, of almost 100,000 tons displacement and carrying well over 100 fixed wing aircraft plus a host of AEW and ASW fixed wing aircraft?

Carrier Configurations

CATOBAR : catapult launching of fixed wing aircraft but arrested recovery.

STOBAR: Short take off but arrested recovery. Currently, these have been using the UK Sea Harrier VTOL aircraft in STOVL mode using a 'ski jump' launch.

STOVL: Short take off and vertical landing. As with STOBAR, but vertical landing. These are less because of the additional fuel (equals less armament load) required for the landing phase, and flight deck damage problems due to its down directed exhaust jet whilst landing.

Entry Barriers to the Aircraft Carrier Club

These include:

Constitutional bars, such as Japan, Germany and (until recently) Italy, following their World War 2 aggression.

Operational Capability Development takes a lot of investment and political commitment. Second-hand carriers and infrastructure requirements can be bought or hired. A new branch of naval operations has to be set up. This is not trivial and is a major task - training establishments have to be set up and operated, replenishment, repair and logistics operations have to be established, for example.

A country also has to develop its tactical and strategic policies to effectively present and operate its carriers in line with its national strategic objectives in a coherent whole that is credible to other nations.

Even the basics - establishing the 24 x 7 operational tempo of running a carrier have to be developed, implemented and rehearsed endlessly if the deployment of a carrier force is to be credible - bad weather night launches and landing, crew recovery, anti-submarine measures, aerial defence, coordinated carrier protection - the list is extensive. Some navies cooperate in this respect.

Aircraft Carriers - The Future

The future of the carrier is assured. New generation STOVL aircraft, and the emergence of India and China into the serious carrier club (with Pakistan also likely to join during this century) means that before the mid 21st century, the carrier arms race will be accelerating and world tonnage increasing.

The UK is building bigger carriers - the Queen Elizabeth Class supercarrier. These new UK aircraft carriers will be well over twice the the size of their previous generation; decommissioned carriers are increasingly being bought by smaller nations, so the operational worldwide tonnage is bound to increase - average annual new build tonnage is higher than scrappage; the US is building a new generation - The Gerald R Ford Class. Countries which have an operational aircraft carrier never relinquish that infrastructure.

Electromagnetic launch systems - simpler, lighter, than steam catapults are being designed. These will be able to launch unmanned aircraft at G forces which human pilots could not tolerate. Aerial battles fought by unmanned planes controlled remotely by carrier-based (or even land-based) jocks via secure data link are a real possibility before the end of the century.

New carrier-busting missiles such as the Chinese Dong Feng 21D (NATO CSS 5 Mod-4) will lead to accelerated defensive technology developments.

©Phil Marks, Jan 2011

What's the future in in military hardware, politics and culture? Find out now about the Middle East based thriller Gate of Tears - an exciting mix of gold fever, politics and naval confrontation with China.


Back to top