An increasing number of navies see aircraft carriers as viable platforms for projecting national power – currently there are nine countries which have aircraft carriers in service: Brazil, France, India, Italy, Russia, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom and the United States. It is interesting that the People’s Liberation Army – Naval (PLAN)- in China does not yet actually have a carrier in service, though this is expected to change in the near future. The total number of carriers in service worldwide is now twenty two, with half of that fleet being in US service. At least eight nations have new carriers in the concept, design, bought used and refurbishing or build phases. Spain has been successful selling its ‘Principe de Asturias’ design to several navies, and China, Japan and India are developing a carrier build capability – in China’s case, even a nuclear powered platform for its new generation planes. VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircraft – the UK Harrier derivatives are used for example by India, Spain and Italy, has allowed these countries to deploy viable carrier power. The US F35D carrier variant – a STVOL configuration – can only increase demand for carriers amongst ‘western’ countries.
Most strategists see the aircraft carrier as a keystone of military doctrine, despite the significant concentration of power and investment (both political and financial) in what is a highly visible and, arguably vulnerable target.
Russia currently has only one operational aircraft carrier at present and is an exception. It spans 11 time zones – almost halfway around the world. With a fleet of modern land-based aircraft and effective missile technology, it can arguably project its power without the need for a large carrier fleet, at least in the northern hemisphere.
What is an Aircraft Carrier?
A floating, self-propelled airbase, though not capable of handling large transport planes such as the C130 Hercules. This definition is generally taken to include any vessel capable of handling fixed wing fighter/bomber 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: these are typically greater than 50,000 tons loaded displacement, usually nuclear powered, and able to handle fast jets
Fleet Carrier: mid size typically 20,000 tons upward, oil/steam, gas turbine or even diesel powered, the ‘typical’ size in a country’s fleet.
Light Aircraft Carrier: smaller than the fleet carrier.
As can be seen, this way of classifying navy aircraft carriers is subjective to a country’s fleet configuration. The French might well describe the Charles de Gaulle as a supercarrier – steam catapults, nuclear powered, but is it really a supercarrier when compared to, say, US aircraft carriers such as the US Nimitz Class George W Bush, of nearly 100,000 tons displacement and carrying well over 100 fixed wing aircraft?
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. Less attractive on account of the extra fuel (equals less armament load) needed for the landing phase, and flight deck damage problems due to its down directed exhaust jet during landing.
Entry Barriers to the Aircraft Carrier Club
These may include:
Constitutional bars, such as Japan, Germany and (until recently) Italy, following their World War 2 aggression.
Operational Capability Development takes a lot of time and money. 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 trivialA major task – training establishments have to be set up and operated, replenishment, repair and logistics operations have to be established, for example, and even a whole career structure for officers and ratings.
A country must develop its tactical and strategic policies to effectively present and operate its carriers in line with its national strategic objectives in a credible way.
Even the basics – establishing the 24 x 7 operational tempo of running a carrier have to be developed, implemented and rehearsed exhaustively if the deployment of a carrier force is to be credible – bad weather night launches and landing, crew rescue procedures, anti-submarine measures, re-arming and weapons handling, coordinated carrier protection – the list is extensive. Some countries cooperate in this respect. For example Brazil is assisting China to develop its operational capability in exchange for technological assistance in the areas of nuclear power and defence electronics.
Aircraft Carriers – The Future
The future of the carrier is assured. The advent of a new generation of STOVL aircraft, and the emergence of India and China into the serious carrier club (with Pakistan also making noises) means that before the mid 21st century, the carrier arms race will be accelerating and world tonnage increasing.
Britain is building bigger carriers – the Queen Elizabeth Class supercarrier. These new UK aircraft carriers will be almost three times the size of their previous generation; ‘cast-off’ 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 capability.
Electromagnetic launch systems – simpler, lighter, more powerful 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 flown remotely by carrier-based (or even land-based) jocks via secure data link are a real possibility before the end of the century.