Defence Industry

The Global Aircraft Carrier Perspective
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Issue Vol 21.4 Oct-Dec 2006 | Date : 30 May , 2012

Navies have Aircraft Carriers to provide instantly available air power to fleets at sea.  The number of aircraft carriers that a Navy requires derives from how many are needed during war to counter adversaries and also whether their peacetime presence in areas of national interest has to be permanent or occasional.

In the 1939-45 World War, Japan had strategic interest in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Britain had strategic interest in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. America had strategic interest in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. America, Japan and Britain had a large number of aircraft carriers. The Soviet Union and China had no strategic oceanic interest and hence no carriers.

During the Cold War from 1946 to 1991, America had two strategic naval objectives. The first was to encircle from seaward the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea and North Vietnam. The second was to prevent the Soviet Union from disrupting the movement of tankers carrying oil from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world.

During this war, Japan’s aircraft carriers inflicted heavy damage. By the end of the war, American carrier-borne aircraft had sunk Japan’s carriers. America emerged as the world’s dominant naval power and took over the global oceanic naval responsibilities that Imperial Britain had assumed from 1815 onwards after Europe’s Napoleonic wars.

After this World War, Britain disposed of its surplus aircraft carriers to India and other countries, each of whom started its naval air arm with a single, second-hand, British aircraft carrier.

During the Cold War from 1946 to 1991, America had two strategic naval objectives. The first was to encircle from seaward the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea and North Vietnam. The second was to prevent the Soviet Union from disrupting the movement of tankers carrying oil from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world.

Encirclement required the permanent presence of American aircraft carriers in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in the Mediterranean Sea and in the South China Sea. Ensuring uninterrupted oil supplies required their occasional presence in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

These prolonged distant deployments and the need for speedy redeployment to distant trouble spots led America to develop nuclear propulsion for its aircraft carriers.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union decided that its national interest required oceanic presence and it began constructing aircraft carriers. Britain and France built fewer, smaller carriers.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War.  America, emerged as the world’s sole superpower and, along with Britain and France, reviewed the number and type of carriers they would need in the early decades of the next century. Communist China also decided to acquire aircraft carriers.

The ensuing perspective till 2020 deals mainly with selected navies likely to operate their carriers in the Indian Ocean. The overview at the end makes a mention of the remaining navies and also takes note of helicopter carriers.

Contemporary Aircraft Carrier Design

Aircraft carriers have to be designed for the type and numbers of aircraft to be operated. In round figures, naval carrier borne aircraft have a life of 25 years. Aircraft carriers are designed for a life of 50 years. Aircraft carrier design has, therefore, to cater for operating two generations of carrier-borne aircraft.

Naval carrier-borne aircraft are usually navalised variants of Air Force shore-based aircraft – they cost less because of the economies of scale in development and production. In special cases like Airborne Early Warning (AEW), a naval variant has had to be developed separately.

An aircraft carrier is a floating airfield. Aircraft are launched by a catapult; they land by engaging their tail hooks in one of the arrestor wires spread across the rear end of the flight deck.

To operate Short Take-off/Vertical Landing (STOVL) combat aircraft, the carrier has to have a ski jump at the front end of the flight deck to assist short take-off  –  this dispenses with the need for a catapult. Vertical landing dispenses with the need for arrestor wires. Dispensing with the catapult and the arrestors reduces the length of the carrier and, therefore, hits tonnage and cost. In this case, the airborne early warning task has to be performed by dedicated AEW helicopters.

To operate longer range, heavier armed, combat and AEW aircraft, the carrier needs to have both catapult and arrestor gear – the length of the carrier increases as does its tonnage and cost.

Given the uncertainty of which type of aircraft would be operating 25 years into the future, carrier design has emerged in three variants:

  • One is STOBAR – Short Take-off but Arrested Recovery. In this case, the tonnage of the carrier can be kept low by foregoing the catapult and retaining arrestor wires for the aircraft to hook on to. However, it would never be possible to retrofit a catapult.
  • The other is CATOBAR – Catapult Assisted Take-off but Arrested Recovery. In this case, the carrier initially has a ski jump and arrestors to operate the present generation of aircraft in the STOBAR mode.  It would also be long enough to retrofit a catapult for the next generation of aircraft in the CATOBAR mode.
  • A third hybrid variant is a carrier having a STOVL ski-jump with an angled flight deck, catapults and arrestor wires. This design permits operation of STOVL fighter aircraft and CATOBAR AEW aircraft.

American Aircraft Carriers

From the 1960s onwards, the American Navy has invested heavily in large, nuclear propelled aircraft carriers carrying a large number of high performance combat aircraft having advanced weapons and systems. The rationale has been

  • Global strategic interests
  • Coercive and deterrent effect when deployed to a trouble spot.
  • Ability to operate the largest possible range of aircraft in the widest possible range of roles.
  • Ability to operate offensive aircraft abroad when foreign basing may be denied.
  • Instant availability of all required space and infrastructure for air operations. Where foreign bases are available for land-based combat aircraft, they are not always available early in a conflict and infrastructure is often lacking.

The nuclear powered carriers of the 1970s Enterprise class were followed by the super-carriers of the Nimitz class, of which nine have been built. Construction of the last carrier of this class commenced in 2001 – it is expected to commission in 2009.

The Nimitz Class

These 100,000 ton super-carriers have a maximum speed of 30 knots (56 km per hour) and, being nuclear powered, almost unlimited range.

Their typical air wing comprises 20 to 24 aircraft for air-to-air combat or ground attack; 20 to 24 aircraft for air defence of the carrier and its accompanying strike group; 14 aircraft for all-weather bomber attack; 5 aircraft for electronic warfare; 8 aircraft for anti-submarine warfare; and 4 helicopters for search-and-rescue and for anti-submarine warfare. Other aircraft on board include support aircraft and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Harrier attack aircraft used by the US marines

Of the total manpower of 5700 on board a carrier of this class, 3,200 operate and maintain the ship and 2500 operate and maintain the air wing.

The CVN 21 Class

The Nimitz class is going to be followed by the CVN 21 class. Three of these 100,000 ton super-carriers are envisaged for delivery in 2015, 2018 and 2021. Construction of the first ship is to commence in 2009 and be delivered in 2015.

Whilst retaining the basic hull design of the preceding Nimitz-class. the CVN-21’s updated features include a newly designed nuclear reactor, “stealth” design to reduce radar profile, electromagnetic catapults and improved arrestor gear. The tentative cost, at today’s prices, is estimated as 8 billion dollars (approximately 36,000 crores).

In view of the high cost and the 50-year life of these “next generation carriers”, the US Navy researched many key areas. Two of the major ones were:

  • It carried out an unprecedented survivability test. The aged aircraft carrier USS America was subjected to a month-long bombardment to understand how much damage a super-carrier could withstand before succumbing to battle damage – she was eventually scuttled in May 2005. The lessons of this test are being incorporated in the design of the CVN 21 class.
  • To reduce manpower costs by extensive use of automation, condition-based maintenance, changes in operational procedures, semi-automatic refuelling and servicing of aircraft, material movement devices, semi-autonomous gravity-compensated weapon handling devices and automated damage control systems and components, modern equipment, and new materials. The aim is to reduce the number of officers and sailors required to operate and maintain the carrier and its air wing to about half that of the 5700 of the Nimitz class.

Russian Aircraft Carriers

By the 1980s, the Soviet Navy (now the Russian Navy) had three 42,000-ton Kiev class aircraft carriers – Kiev (1975), Minsk (1978) and Novorossiysk (1982). They were designed to operate VTOL YAK 38 aircraft, analogous to the British Sea Harriers that had entered service in other navies in the early 1980s.

The fourth ship of the class, Baku (1987), was a larger 44,500-ton angled deck improvement on the Kiev design to operate the YAK 141 supersonic V/STOL version of the earlier YAK 38 aircraft. Due to financial constraints, development of the YAK 141 was stopped and Baku’s air operations were limited to KA 27 helicopters.

The successors to the Kiev class were the two larger 67,000-ton angled deck carriers  –  the Tbilisi later renamed Kuznetsov (1991) and the Varyag. Both were designed with a ski jump for launch and arrestor gear for recovery of the navalised variants of Air Force SU 27 and MIG 29 aircraft.

In 1988, construction had also commenced of the Ulyanovsk, an 85,000-ton, nuclear powered successor to the Kuznetzov class.

  • With the end of the Cold War in 1991 and Russia’s ensuing economic crisis:
  • The Kiev class carriers were placed in reserve.
  • Varyag’s construction was interrupted. She was structurally complete but without electronics.
  • The half-completed Ulyanovsk was scrapped.
  • Development of the supersonic YAK aircraft was discontinued.

After the mid-1990s, the Russian Navy started disposing of their carriers:

  • Novorossiysk was scrapped in 1997.
  • Minsk and Kiev were sold to China who utilised them as museums. Kiev is still a museum. Minsk is reportedly on sale in the scrap market.
  • Varyag was bought by the Chinese Navy in 1998. China is procuring the wherewithal to make her operational by 2010.
  • Baku, renamed Gorshkov, was bought by India in 2004.

A new, nuclear-powered carrier design, with the newest materials, weapons and sensors is under development. Construction is expected to commence in 2010 and complete in 2016. The Russian Northern and Pacific Fleets are expected to have one each of this class.

Until these new aircraft carriers enter service, Kuznetsov is the Russian Navy’s only operational aircraft carrier. Its air group comprises SU 27 K and MIG 29 K aircraft (K connotes ship borne-navalised versions of the Air Force SU 27 and MIG 29) along with Kamov 27 ASW and Kamov 31 AEW helicopters.

British Aircraft Carriers

In the early 1960s, the Royal Navy’s plans had envisaged a large fleet carrier and three small (12,500 ton) anti-submarine helicopter carriers. Britain’s economic difficulties in the mid-1960s, led to the cancellation of the large carrier project and the transfer of naval strike aircraft to its Air Force.

The Royal Navy, however, remained reluctant to forego the tactical advantages that aircraft carriers conferred in distant naval operations that were beyond the reach of shore-based Air Force aircraft. It pursued two projects:

  • The development of the naval version of the P 1127/Harrier V/STOL aircraft that had been in service with the US Marine Corps and the Royal Air Force since 1970. By the mid-1970s, the Sea Harrier had taken shape.
  • A new smaller class of ship called the ‘Through Deck Cruiser’ that would have a “ski jump” to assist V/STOL aircraft to take-off from a carrier without having to be catapulted. The V/STOL capability also dispensed with the need for arrestor wires.

Apprehensive that the role of its Naval Air Arm might be permanently confined to helicopters, the Royal Navy intensified its involvement in the development of the navalised version of the land-based V/STOL Harrier fighter aircraft. The 12,500-ton design was reworked into a larger, 19,500-ton ship which it named as a “Through-Deck Cruiser” to make it politically acceptable for obtaining financial approval. The ship had a flight deck from which it could operate helicopters.  The flight deck was then fitted with a ski jump to enable the Sea Harrier aircraft to do a Short Take-off (STO) into the wind instead of a Vertical Take-off (VTO) – the STO enabled increase in overall payload of fuel/weapons when getting airborne.

The first ship, Invincible commissioned in 1980. Her air group comprised Sea Harriers and Seaking anti-submarine helicopters.

In 1981, again because of financial difficulties, Britain considered whether its Navy should be essentially an Anti-Submarine force built around destroyers and frigates, whether the Through Deck Cruiser programme should be halted, whether the Hermes should be scrapped and whether the first through deck cruiser, Invincible, should be sold to Australia. These considerations were overtaken by the crisis precipitated by Argentina’s invasion of Britain’s Falkland Islands, located in the distant South Atlantic Ocean, 8000 miles from Britain. Argentina had decided to force a solution for its long-standing dispute regarding the sovereignty over these islands.

In the 1982 Falkland Islands War between Britain and Argentina, the Royal Navy deployed two aircraft carriers – the old Hermes and the new Invincible. In addition to Sea Harrier combat aircraft and Seaking anti-submarine helicopters, these carriers also had a few experimental Seaking Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters embarked.

Both carriers returned to Britain in mid-1982, unharmed by the Argentine Air Force’s missile-armed Mirages and Skyhawks because the carriers stayed out of their range, but having lost a number of Sea Harrier aircraft and pilots in combat.

  • The analysis after the Falklands War established the Royal Navy’s need for:
  • Instantly available carrier-borne aircraft to defend the fleet from missile-armed aircraft.
  • Carrier-borne helicopters for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)) and Airborne Early Warning (AEW)

Aircraft-Carrier-ListIllustrious, the second ship of the Invincible class, commissioned in 1982. The third ship, Ark Royal, commissioned in 1985 after incorporating the improvements and modifications identified after the Falklands War.

A fourth ship, Ocean, after modification, was commissioned in 1998 exclusively as a helicopter carrier to meet NATO requirements

In 1985, Hermes renamed Viraat was bought by India.

Invincible was mothballed in 2005 for reactivation at short notice. Illustrious and Ark Royal are in service and are planned to decommission in 2012 and 2015 respectively on being replaced by new larger carriers.

Britain had started work in the mid 1980s on a design for the successors of its Invincible class carriers. After the Cold War ended in 1991 and the Russian threat receded, it took time to clarify the types of aircraft that future carriers would operate.

In 1999, Britain awarded assessment studies to two consortia, British and French, to submit designs for a carrier that would embark air groups of 30 to 40 Joint Strike Fighters that were then under development in America.

In 2002, Britain announced that its Navy and Air Force would operate the American STOVL F-35 B aircraft, and that its carriers would be large and conventionally propelled, adapted for STOVL operations and convertible for CATOBAR operations for the generation of aircraft after the F-35.

In 2003, the French design won the competition and a Carrier Alliance was formed between France and Britain to save on the high cost of designing and constructing a modern aircraft carrier. In March 2006, Britain and France signed an agreement to cooperate in the construction of three 58,000-ton aircraft carriers – two for Britain and one for France. These carriers would embark up to 45 of their respective latest-generation fighters and helicopters.

To minimise manpower costs, the Royal Navy aims to have a total complement of 1400 (800 to operate and maintain the ship and 600 to operate and maintain the air group) as against the 2,000 that a carrier of that size presently needs.

French Aircraft Carriers

In the 1960s, France had two aircraft carriers – Foch and Clemenceau. Planning for their replacement commenced in the 1970s. There was debate on whether aircraft carrier propulsion should be conventional or nuclear powered. Eventually, it was decided that despite the high cost, the next carrier should be nuclear propelled. Apart from the operational advantages, this would enable France’s warship industry to keep abreast of hi-tech propulsion design.

Construction of the 36,000-ton, nuclear powered aircraft carrier started in 1989 and completed in 1994. Unfortunately, a variety of technical problems delayed its entry into service. After aircraft trials, the flight deck had to be lengthened. There were unacceptable levels of vibrations. After the teething problems had been sorted out, she was formally commissioned in 2001 as Charles de Gaulle.

The problems experienced and the cost of construction and operating the ship dissuaded the French Navy from considering a second nuclear powered carrier.

Having decided not to build a nuclear propelled successor to the Charles de Gaulle, the French Navy awaited the outcome of the Anglo-French competition to design Britain’s aircraft carriers. With the formation of the Carrier Alliance in 2003, the possibility emerged of France sharing the British design for its next carrier.

In 2006, France and Britain reached an agreement to cooperate on the design of their future carriers. Reportedly, France agreed to pay Britain over £100 million for access to the British design.

The French design will be a variant of the British 58,000-ton design so as to operate French Rafale aircraft being navalised for carrier operations. It is likely to enter service around 2015 when the Charles de Gaulle will require a major refit and her nuclear reactors will be refuelled.

Chinese Aircraft Carriers

Varyag’s completion was interrupted due to Russia’s financial crisis in the 1990s. It was bought by the Chinese Navy. Equipment is now being acquired to make Varyag operational by 2010.

Earlier this year, a Hong Kong newspaper quoted a People’s Liberation Army Lt Gen as saying

“The Chinese Army will build an aircraft carrier and develop our own aircraft carrier fleet. An aircraft carrier is a very important tool for big countries defending their interests in the sea. China is a big country with a long shoreline. An aircraft carrier is necessary to defend our interests in the sea. The carrier fleet will not be complete for another three to five years.”

The newspaper added that aircraft for the carrier are either being built or completed and that China’s first aircraft carrier would be deployed in the South China Sea near the energy fuel supply route where warships are now deployed.

The military cooperation between Russia and China, combined with China’s experience in making Varyag operational (even if only as a carrier for training its pilots) makes it feasible for China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier to enter service in 2015/2020, not long after India’s indigenous aircraft carrier enters service.

Indian Aircraft Carriers

Even though the need for a naval air arm and an aircraft carrier had been accepted in principle before, and again, after Independence in 1947, negotiations for the acquisition of the 1940s vintage Hercules from Britain concluded only in 1957. Apart from the lack of resources for so large a project, this ten year delay was also caused by the outbreak of the Korean War, which prevented the Royal Navy from releasing to India a British aircraft carrier with British combat aircraft.


Hercules’ 4-year refit cum modernisation commenced in 1957 during which an angled deck, a steam catapult and a mirror landing sight were installed, electronic and electrical equipment was replaced, essential spaces were air conditioned, accommodation was provided for additional manpower and facilities were provided to enable the carrier to function as the Fleet flagship. Vikrant commissioned in 1961.

In subsequent years, Vikrant underwent modernisation in two phases:-

  • During the first phase from 1979 to 1981, the boilers were renewed, the catapult and arrestor gear were overhauled, new communication systems, radars, weapons and sensor systems were installed and facilities created for operating Seaking anti-submarine helicopters and Sea Harrier combat aircraft in the VTOL mode.
  • During the second phase from 1987 to 1989, the catapult and arrestor gear were removed, a ski jump was fitted for launching Sea Harriers in the Short Take-off mode and facilities created for the new Seaking Mk 42 B dual role anti-submarine/anti-ship helicopters. Vikrant decommissioned in 1997.


The 1953 vintage, 22,000-ton aircraft carrier Hermes was commissioned in the Royal Navy in 1959. Britain’s economic difficulties in the 1960s led to the decision in 1966 to reduce the size of its Navy and transfer naval ‘strike’ aircraft to its Air Force. Hermes’ catapult and arrestor wires were removed and she was placed in reserve. In 1973, she was taken out of reserve and refitted as an ‘Anti-submarine Helicopter Carrier’ to meet NATO commitments in the Atlantic Ocean.

After aircraft trials in 1978, Hermes was fitted with a 12-degree ski jump to enable it to operate Sea Harrier aircraft. In 1982, then by now 28, 000-ton Hermes, with Sea Harrier combat aircraft and Seaking anti-submarine helicopters embarked, participated in the Falklands War. In 1983, Britain decided to place Hermes in reserve. She remained idle from 1984 onwards.

In 1985, Britain offered to sell the Hermes to India. The Navy had a long pending need for a second aircraft carrier to ensure that out of two carriers, at least one would be available should a sudden need arise.1[1] India accepted the offer and after an extensive modernisation – refit, Hermes was commissioned as Viraat and arrived in India in 1987, fully equipped to operate Sea Harriers in the VSTOL mode and Seaking helicopters for the ASW role.

At present, Viraat is India’s only aircraft carrier.


In 1995, Russia offered to sell the 44,500 ton Gorshkov to India. After extensive evaluations and negotiations, contracts were signed in 2004 for Gorshkov’s  modernisation-tropicalisation-hull and machinery-refit and for her air group of Russian combat aircraft and helicopters.

As was done for the first aircraft carrier Vikrant between 1956 and 1961 and as was done for the second carrier Viraat between 1985 and 1987, the Gorshkov is undergoing an extensive modernisation and tropicalisation refit in Russia before she is inducted into the Navy.

After this refit, the fifteen-year -old Gorshkov will serve for another two to three decades. During this period, the present aircraft carrier Viraat will phase out and be replaced by the first indigenous aircraft carrier.

Gorshkov is expected to enter service in 2008 as INS Vikramaditya.

  • Gorshkov’s air group will comprise:-
  • MIG 29 K combat aircraft armed with the latest air-to-air, anti-ship and air-to-surface precision guided homing missiles. This aircraft will take-off from the ski jump in the forward part of the flight deck and be recovered by tail hooks catching arrestor wires in the rear part of the flight deck.
  • Kamov 27 anti-submarine helicopters.
  • Kamov 31 airborne early warning helicopters.
  • Indigenous Dhruv and Chetak SAR helicopters.

The Indigenous Air Defence Ship (ADS) Project

The project for an indigenous aircraft carrier took shape in 1979. In the 1980s, a concept study by France’s DCN, assisted by a team of Indian Naval architects, evolved designs for a 25,000 ton catapult version and a ski jump version. The study also confirmed that the carrier could be built in the Cochin Shipyard. Financial constraints precluded sanction for a carrier of this size and the next few years were spent in juggling designs for a smaller carrier. The grey area was the type and number of aircraft that the ADS would operate.

In the mid-1990s, Russia offered India the Gorshkov along with the carrier-borne version of the land-based MIG 29 aircraft that the Air Force had already inducted. Meanwhile, development had also commenced of the navalised, carrier-borne version of the indigenous land-based Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) being developed for the Air Force.

The types of combat aircraft that would fly from the ADS now became clear – the British V/STOL Sea Harriers (after Viraat decommissioned), the Russian STOBAR MIG 29 Ks (being inducted with the Gorshkov) and the navalised LCAs (when developed).

The staff requirements were finalised in 1999 for a gas turbine propelled, 28-knot, 37,000-ton carrier with an angled deck and a ski jump, to operate an air group of 30 combat aircraft and helicopters and manned by 1400 personnel.

Approval was accorded in 2003. Cochin Shipyard commenced construction in 2005. The nomenclature of the project changed from Air Defence Ship (ADS) to Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC).

The IAC is expected to enter service by 2013.


1. During the 1965 War, Vikrant was under refit. During the 1971 War, Vikrant was afflicted by cracks in her boilers that restricted her speed.

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