Aircraft carriers are generally defined as warships that operate as seagoing airbases. These large ships have a full-length flight deck and the facilities and technologies for carrying, arming, launching and recovering aircraft.
They allow for a Navy to push airpower to any location around the world without needing to operate land bases. At their inception in the early twentieth-century, aircraft carriers carried balloons for basic warfare.
Today's modern aircraft carriers can carry various types of fighters, strike aircraft, helicopters, and other types of aircraft and defense systems. Aircraft carriers range in size and function depending on where they are deployed.
One advantage of aircraft carriers is that by sailing in international waters, they can avoid the complications of territorial sovereignty and reduce the time from deployment to combat zone.
As of November 2018, there are 20 active aircraft carriers in the world operated by ten navies, with nine currently under construction. Read on for a list of 13 of the biggest aircraft carriers operating today.
Gerald R Ford Class, US
The title of the biggest aircraft carrier in the world goes to the Gerald R Ford Class of the United States Navy. The ship was delivered in May 2017 and is expected to be operational by 2020. The Gerald R Ford has a 78m-wide flight deck equipped with world-leading electromagnetic aircraft launch systems and advanced arresting gear.
It can carry more than 75 aircraft and 4,539 personnel including the ship’s company, air wing, and other support staff. The Gerald R Ford is powered by two A1B nuclear reactors; its weaponry includes RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAMs) and Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS).
Nimitz Class, US
The Nimitz Class takes second place for the largest aircraft carrier. The first carrier in the class was deployed in May 1975. The tenth and final carrier was deployed in January 2009. Each ship is given a lifetime of fifty years and is expected to require just one mid-life overhaul.
These ships can carry 60 aircraft with a full load displacement of 97,000t. You’ll notice when one of these ships is nearby, as they tower 20 stories above sea level. 3,200 ship’s crew can squeeze inside as well as an additional 1,500 air wing and 500 other crew.
Powered by two nuclear reactors, the Nimitz Class ships can reach a top speed of 30 kt.
Queen Elizabeth Class
The largest aircraft carriers in the British Navy are the Queen Elizabeth Class. The first vessel in the class is HMS Queen Elizabeth, which began her sea trials in June 2017 and should enter service in 2020. The second commissioned carrier HMS Prince of Wales has an expected operational date by 2023.
These two ships contain the most up to date in technology and automation and require just a small crew of 679 for combat operation. Two Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbines and four diesel generator set to power the ships providing a total installed power of 109 MWe.
Admiral Kuznetsov, Russian Federation
The only aircraft in operation in the Russian Navy is the Admiral Kuznetsov. This important carrier ranks as the fourth-largest carrier in the world.
The Admiral Kuznetsov can host Su-33, MiG-29K and Su-25UTG/UBP STOVL fighters, as well as Ka-27S, Ka-27LD32, and Ka-27 PLO helicopters. 1,960 ship’s company, 626 air group, and 40 flagstaffs can fit comfortably onboard.
The heavily armed ship carries AK-630 AA guns, CADS-N-1 Kashtan CIWS, P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missile and RBU-12000 UDAV-1 ASW rocket launchers.
China also has just a single aircraft carrier in operation the Liaoning (16). The ship has an interesting history, it was initially developed as part of the Admiral Kuznetsov Class for the Soviet Union, and was known by the former names Riga and Varyag. In 1998 the ship was bought by the Hong Kong-based Chong Lot Travel Agency who had plans to convert it to a floating casino.
The conversion was never completed and the ship was taken to Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Later it was bought by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China and refitted to serve as an aircraft carrier for the PLAN. Liaoning was finally commissioned into service in September 2012. It is propelled by steam turbine propulsion and can house around 50 aircraft including fix wing planes and helicopters.
INS Vikramaditya, India
The INS Vikramaditya is the largest warship in service with the Indian Navy. It is a modified Kiev-class aircraft carrier acquired from Russia.
It has a very short flight deck, with a total length of just 284m-long and 60m-wide. But has specialized recovery equipment that can accommodate a mix of MiG 29K/Sea Harrier, Kamov 31, Kamov 28, Sea King, ALH-Dhruv and Chetak helicopters.
The INS Vikramaditya is propelled by eight turbo-pressurized boilers and four geared steam turbines generating a total output power of 180,000shp.
Charles de Gaulle (R91), France
The largest warship in Western Europe is the Charles de Gaulle (R91) aircraft carrier operated by the French Navy. It is the only nuclear-powered carrier in service outside of the US Navy. The ship supports 40 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters including Rafale M, Super Étendard, E-2C Hawkeye, SA365 Dauphin, EC725 Caracal, and AS532 Cougar. It can accommodate over 1300 ship’s company and 600 air wing aboard.
São Paulo (A12), Brazil
Brazil’s São Paulo (A12) was the eighth biggest aircraft carrier in the world until being decommissioned in 2017. It was originally commissioned by the French Navy in 1963 as Foch (R99), the carrier was sold to the Brazilian Navy in 2000.
Its flight deck could handle 39 aircraft including fighters, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters. The ship was powered by six boilers generating 126,000shp. It could reach tops speeds of 32kt.
Cavour (550), Italy
Italy’s Cavour (550) is the world's ninth-largest aircraft carrier with a full load displacement of 30,000t. It has a 232.6m x 34.5m flight deck, which can accommodate both fixed-wing aircraft such as AV-8B Harrier and JSF as well as EH101, AB212, NH90, and SH3D helicopters.
It has a range of defense systems including short-range defense systems, guns and decoy launchers defending against a variety of threats.
INS Viraat, India
The INS Viraat (R22), was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Hermes in 1959 and sold to India in 1986, it is India’s oldest carrier and the tenth largest aircraft carrier in the world. The ship can carry up to 30 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, such as Sea Harrier, Westland Sea King, HAL Chetak and HAL Dhruv.
A accommodates 1,350 crew, including 43 officers. The steam turbine propulsion system provides a maximum speed of 28kt.
Other big players from Japan and Korea and Spain
While technically not Aircraft Carriers Japan has three ships capable of deploying helicopters from the sea. Defined as 'helicopter destroyers' the three ships, Hyuga, its sister ship Ise and the larger Izumo look much like aircraft carriers however they don't act as floating airbases.
Similarly, South Korea doesn't technically operate a large aircraft carrier. However, they do have a Dokdo-class helicopter carrier called Marado. Its the second largest ship in the Republic of Korea’s Navy and will enter operation in 2020.
The Spanish Navy operate the multipurpose assault amphibious assault ship the Juan Carlos I. The large ship is used to support strategic transport of ground forces, as well as for carrier-based aviation. It has a flight deck of 202 meters with a ski jump ramp.