Aircraft Carrier

Aircraft Carrier


Sometimes characterized as "floating cities," aircraft carriers are a potent symbol of America's strength as a superpower. Although nations ranging from the United Kingdom and Russia to Peru and Thailand have their light carrier and helicopter carriers, the large carriers of the United States are without parallel in ability and firepower. Carriers provide an important means of force projection from the continental United States to any theatre, no matter how hostile, and offer a floating platform for missions that include both combat and intelligence-gathering. As President William J. Clinton said during a visit to the carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the 1990s, "When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it's no accident that the first question that comes to everyone's lips is, 'where is the nearest carrier?'"

Components in the Carrier Concept

The carrier is one of the leading means for force projection, or the ability to project an aggregation of military personnel from the continental United States (or another theatre) in response to military requirements. As long as it operates in international waters, a carrier needs no permission to conduct landings or overflights. These floating military bases constitute sovereign U.S. territory capable of moving over the oceans—70% of Earth's surface—in the service of U.S. interests.

Carriers make possible a variety of options. They may be used to insert forces ashore; on the other hand, their presence is so intimidating that they may be used simply to "show the flag," or remind hostile powers of the U.S. presence. They are capable of attacking airborne, sea borne, or land targets, and engage in sustained operations in support of other forces—for example, the ground forces deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Battle groups and air wings. National command authorities do not deploy carriers alone. Rather, the carrier is the center of a battle group, a force of a half-dozen or more ships. The carrier battle group, or CVBG, may be used to protect merchant or military shipping; to provide protection to a Marine amphibious source en route to, or arriving in, an objective area; or to establish a naval presence in support of national security interests

Members of a battle group may include at least one destroyer and one frigate, two attack submarines, two guided missile cruisers, one guided missile destroyer, and a logistical support ship. Destroyers and frigates are primarily for anti-submarine warfare, while attack submarines, as their name implies, attack both enemy submarines and ships. Both guided missile cruisers and destroyers are multi-mission surface combatants, the first type armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles for long-range strike capability, and the second equipped for anti-aircraft warfare. The logistical support ship is usually a combined ammunition, oiler, and supply vessel.

Additionally, the carrier—by definition—serves as a home base for a number of aircraft, known as the carrier air wing. These typically include three squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets, which are all-weather fighter and attack aircraft, and one squadron of F-14 Tomcats, made for fleet air defense and precision strikes against ground targets. Along with these are one squadron of S-3B Vikings, the primary overhead/mission tanker, which is equipped for day and

A flight deck crew gives the launch signal as an F/A-18-C Hornet is catapulted off the flight deck of the carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Persian Gulf as part of over 3,000 American sorties flown during Operation Iraqi Freedom. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
A flight deck crew gives the launch signal as an F/A-18-C Hornet is catapulted off the flight deck of the carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Persian Gulf as part of over 3,000 American sorties flown during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

night surveillance, electronic countermeasures, command/control/communications warfare, and search and rescue; one squadron of EA-6B Prowlers, which jams enemy radar, electronic data links, and communications; one squadron of E-2C Hawkeyes, all-weather tactical warning and control system aircraft; and one squadron of SH-60 Seahawks, twin-engine utility or assault helicopters.

Overview of a Modern Carrier

U.S. aircraft carriers fall into several groupings, the largest of which is the Nimitz class. Largest warships in the world, these measure 1,092 feet (332.9 m) from bow to stern, and 252 feet (76.8 m) across. As large as it is, the large U.S. carrier still does not provide enough room for takeoff and landing by conventional means; therefore, the carrier deck includes a number of items for these purposes, as well as for the storage of aircraft below decks.

The aircraft do not remain on the carrier's deck when not in use; rather, they rest in a cavernous hangar beneath the deck, to which they can be summoned by means of four deck-edge elevators, each of which is capable of moving two aircraft at a time. For taking off, aircraft are attached to catapults, which give them the necessary acceleration to go from a standing position to 165 miles per hour (265.5 kph) in just two seconds. The flight crew of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is capable of launching two aircraft and landing one every 37 seconds in daylight, or one per minute at night.

The flight crew itself is a choreographed team, or rather a group of teams, each distinguished by jackets of different colors that signify functions. To the pilot in the air, the most critical colors on the deck are the amber and red lights of the Fresnel lenses on deck. Depending on the angle of the light, the pilot knows if he is too low or too high, while red flashing lights automatically signal a wave-off, meaning that the pilot cannot land at that time. When landing, a plane catches an arresting cable using its tailhook, a hook bolted to an 8-foot (2.4 m) bar attached to the rear part of the aircraft. The tailhook can bring a plane from a speed of 150 miles an hour (241.4 klph) to a complete stop within just 320 feet (97.5 m).

Primary Flight Control, or "Pri-Fly," is the control tower for flights. Above it on the "island," the part of the carrier that sticks up above the flight deck, is the bridge, the command and control center of the carrier as a whole. On the bridge is always an officer of the deck (OOD), designated by the ship's commanding officer, who serves a four-hour watch. The OOD is responsible for all facets of the safety and operation of the ship, among which are navigation, ship handling, communications, and routine tests, and inspections. Also on the bridge are the helmsman, who steers the ship, and numerous other personnel.

Powered by two nuclear reactors with four geared steam turbines and four shafts, the Nimitz-class carrier is capable of spending at least half a year at sea, and more than a decade without refueling. Its ship's company exceeds 3,000, with almost 2,500 more on the air wing. Below decks is an entire city, complete with vast warrens of living spaces, dining halls that serve nearly 20,000 meals a day, a radio and television station, a barber shop, a library, gymnasium, a hospital and dentist office, shops, and a post office.

Evolution of the Carrier

At 11:01 a.m. on January 18, 1911, the U.S. Navy's Eugene Ely landed a Curtiss pusher aircraft on a specially built platform aboard the USS Pennsylvania. Thus, was born the concept of the aircraft carrier. On March 20, 1922, the Navy commissioned the Langley, its first carrier, built from a converted collier called the Jupiter. Later that year, as a result of the 1922 Washington Naval Limitation Treaty, which limited battleship inventories, Congress authorized the conversion of the unfinished battleships Lexington and Saratoga. In June 1934, the Ranger, the first ship built as an aircraft carrier, was commissioned.

During the interwar period, the aircraft carrier benefited from a number of innovations, most of them British in origin. For example, the Royal Navy introduced the idea of arresting wire (originally necessary because the flimsy World War I-era planes might blow overboard), as well as elevator lifts for stowing craft. Later innovations in catapults and landing lights would also come from the United Kingdom. The British and Americans were not the only forces building aircraft carriers; like the Americans, the Japanese, who had signed the Washington naval agreement, converted unfinished battleships to carriers.

Carriers figured heavily in World War II, particularly during operations in the Pacific theatre. The Japanese launched their attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, from carriers, and in May, 1942, the United States struck back decisively in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first naval battle in which opposing fleets fought without their ships coming in sight of one another. A month later, the Battle of Midway proved one of the turning points in the war, and reinforced the concept of naval air support.

Postwar changes. By the end of World War II, the United States had commissioned more than 34 carriers, with several more made operational late in 1945. But it had also lost several such vessels, including the first two, the Langley and the Lexington. Following the war, the introduction of guided missiles revolutionized the nature of the carrier battle group, while nuclear fission replaced diesel power for the most advanced carriers.

Several British innovations—the angled landing strip, which made it possible for a jet to land far from parked aircraft, as well as the mirrored landing site and steam catapults—made it possible to build carriers capable of launching powerful aircraft and managing complex air missions. But as the Cold War progressed, it became clear that only extraordinary carriers could support the vessels' emerging threefold purpose: to deliver air strikes against targets on sea and land; to protect other ships at long range; and to support antisubmarine operations through their battle groups. Only a true world power could afford to build carriers big enough to perform all three tasks—a distinction that, in effect, separated the United States from the rest of the world.

With the launch of its 59th carrier, Forrestal, in 1959, the United States introduced the era of the very large carrier. The Forrestal included rectangular extensions on the rear part of the flight deck, which greatly expanded the deck area. Designers had also moved the elevators off to the side, so that they could be used even as aircraft were taking off and landing.

Two years later, in 1961, the Navy introduced the first nuclear-powered carrier, the Enterprise. It is no accident that the world's most well-known fictional spaceship, from the 1960s television show Star Trek, was also called the Enterprise. During that era, the standard of excellence among carriers—the epitomy of technological superiority anyone was likely to encounter in real life—was the Enterprise, which carried 100 aircraft, displaced 75,700 tons (68,674 tonnes), and moved at speeds higher than 30 knots (55.6 kph). With eight nuclear reactors, it could travel for three years before being replaced.

As impressive as it was, the Enterprise would be eclipsed by the Nimitz (commissioned in May 1975) and the rest of its class. Instead of eight reactors, these required only two, whose uranium cores needed to be replaced once every 13 years. The carriers displaced 81,600 tons, but had much smaller propulsion systems, and thus, could store much more aircraft fuel.

As of 2003, the United States had launched a total of 75 carriers, with two more under construction. Its 12 active carriers included the Enterprise and the Kitty Hawk class (the Kitty Hawk and Constellation ), all launched in 1961; the John F. Kennedy, launched in 1968; and eight carriers of the Nimitz class: Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1977), Carl Vinson (1982), Theodore Roosevelt (1986), Abraham Lincoln (1989), George Washington (1992), John C. Stennis (1995), and Harry S. Truman (1998). Additionally, the Ronald Reagan was under construction, with launch planned for the middle of the decade, while construction was to begin on the George H. W. Bush, with completion planned for 2009. (Both are Nimitz-class carriers.)

Other nations and light carriers. The United States has decommissioned about as many carriers—63—as the rest of the world had afloat in 2003. Nations with carriers included the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Italy, Japan, Spain, India, Brazil, Chile, Peru, China, and Thailand. The leading carrier power, other than the United States, was—not surprisingly, given the many previous British achievements in carrier design—the United Kingdom. In part to facilitate the building of smaller and more economical carriers, the British in the late 1960s developed the Harrier jet, which takes off almost vertically. As of 2003, its fleet included three small carriers of the Invincible class, built for vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL), each capable of carrying eight Harriers and from 10 to 12 helicopters.

France built the Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered vessel that could carry 40 planes, as well as the Jeanne d'Arc helicopter carrier. The latter type of ship, midway of a carrier and a cruiser, provided a means of giving several nations carrier capabilities. Such was the case with the Russian Federation, which had a large helicopter carrier, the Gorshkov, along with a semi-active multi-role carrier, the Kutznetsov. As the Soviet Union, Russia was slow to develop carriers, in part because it lacked sufficient ports worldwide. By the late 1960s, however, the Soviets had begun to build aviation cruisers of the Moskva class. These have all been decommissioned since then, however. The world's other superpower, China, has a small naval carrier force, consisting primarily of the Shichang multi-role support ship.

Other notable naval powers include Italy, which had six carriers, helicopter carriers, or amphibious assault ships either in operation or under construction in 2003. These included the Andrea Doria, scheduled for completion in 2007. Built along the V/STOL model, the Andrea Doria would hold eight Harriers or 12 helicopters. Other navies with aircraft carriers, helicopter carriers, helicopter destroyers, or amphibious assault ships included Japan, Brazil, India, Spain, Thailand, and Peru.



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Kaufman, Yogi. City at Sea. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Musciano, Walter A. Warbirds of the Sea: A History of Aircraft Carriers and Carrier-Based Aircraft. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1994.

Polmar, Norman. The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993.

Preston, Anthony. Carriers. New York: Gallery Books, 1993.

Wooldridge, E. T. Carrier Warfare in the Pacific: An Oral History Collection. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.


Haze Gray and Underway World Aircraft Carrier Lists. < > (April 13,2003).

U.S. Navy—The Aircraft Carriers. U.S. Navy Office of Information. < > (April 13, 2003).


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