Approaches to Carrier Warfare: A Comparative Perspective [Part-I]
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Issue Vol. 35.1 Jan-Mar 2020 | Date : 08 Nov , 2020

Approaches to carrier warfare and the associated operational art vary from navy to navy. A handful of nations employ aircraft carrier in their naval fleet, the latest being the People’s Liberation Army Navy (China), South Korea and the Turkish Navy. The French Navy (La Royale), Royal Navy of the UK and the US Navy were the pioneers in this revolutionary endeavour to add the dimension of air power at sea since 1909-19121. In general, the navies that operate aircraft carriers are said to believe in the concept of Sea Control vis-a-vis Sea Denial – two broad categories of naval strategy. The concept of sea-control is often operationalised by ‘maritime powers’, while ‘continental powers’ opt for the concept of sea-denial. Furthermore, from an operational perspective, sea-control banks on offence as the primary method to execute war, while sea-denial is defence oriented. It is to be noted that such categories are not necessarily neat and simple and are required for the purposes of an analysis of the subject.

The presence or absence of aircraft carrier can determine a nation’s strategic choice and its role shapes its foreign and defence policy, as well as its national military strategy. Aircraft carriers have played an instrumental role in achieving supremacy at sea which has been the fundamental strategic shaper of the last 200 years. Freedom on the high seas is the underpinning requirement of the modern Western world and of creeping globalisation – the official reading of the first class navies such as of the US and Britain.2

Maritime Power Sea Control Aircraft Carrier and Others Offence Oriented Limited Warfare
Continental Power Sea Denial Submarine and Others Defence Oriented Protracted Warfare

General-Approach Matrix

From an operational perspective, since the First World War aircraft carriers have been developed to undertake two specific roles – carrier strike and littoral manoeuver. In a carrier strike role, the aircraft carrier provides the primary offensive air power and in a littoral manoeuver role, the carrier is part of a wider task group and contributes to amphibious assault capability. These two discrete roles often symbolise the varying strategic preferences and approaches to aircraft carriers. For example, unlike the US aircraft carriers, the British Queen Elizabeth class was not originally designed for a littoral manoeuver role. France cancelled its plan to build a carrier based on British Queen Elizabeth–class ships in 2013, given its strategic penchant for conventional propulsion and ski-jump.3

The British Approach

The British rationale for procuring two 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) was based on the philosophy – “In the post-Cold War world, (we) must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us….to project power more flexibly around the world” [Lord Robertson (Secretary of State for Defence); 1997–99] – an expeditionary military power.4 Other guiding philosophy being – Quick-In and Quick-Out and Shift to Contingency vis-a-vis Campaign.5 British navalists argue that Britain is an island nation with great economic dependence on access to the sea and hence, the obvious ‘appropriate’ British strategic contribution should be predominantly maritime within the multi-national intervention force. Aircraft carriers were Britain’s contribution within a coalition (NATO) given its geo-political status as a maritime power – a strategic bargain with its continental European allies.

Both in terms of cost and survivability, an aircraft carrier is considered to be salutary in comparison to an expeditionary land airfield – a fixed base. Having debated a variety of design possibilities – nuclear propulsion, type of aircraft and method of launch and recovery – the final configuration of HMS Queen Elizabeth bespeaks the British approach to aircraft carriers. While learning from the Libya Campaign6 (Operation Ellamy, 19 March – 31 October 2011) the role of an aircraft carrier in littoral manoeuver outweighed its carrier strike role. Offensive strikes in the initial phase of the destruction of recognised military targets (air-defence) were executed by the Tomahawk cruise missiles based on US warships and the British submarine – HMS Triumph. Support from Harrier AV-8B aircraft based on pre-positioned USS Kearsarge (a Wasp-class carrier) and strikes by Rafale M jets from the French carrier Charles de Gaulle were insignificant during the first phase of offense. The US alone contributed to 95 percent of strikes on known targets during this phase. Carriers proved to be particularly adept in exploiting fleeting targets during the follow on phase which required quick response to sudden opportunities on land. Furthermore, in offense against targets in Afghanistan, aircraft carriers contributed only 30 percent of the total strikes at the cost of operational effectiveness.

In the absence of an aircraft carrier, Britain employed its land-based aviation incurring exorbitant cost and risk.7 Official government figures report the cost of Operation Ellamy to have been £320 million and land-based air operations were estimated to be at least four times to that of the carrier-based operations, if available. British design philosophy indicates a desire for multi-mission capability which in turn causes a compromise in terms of sortie generation, tempo, effective radius of action and weight of effort delivered in personnel, weapons or time on station. In other words, the HMS Queen Elizabeth class is less designed for combat effectiveness and more for specific application at times of crisis in its secondary phase. For example, by the 1990s, the Royal Navy had three small “light” carriers – HMS Invincible, HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal – primarily designed as Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) during the Cold War. On board, FA2 Sea Harriers (VTOL) fighter jets provided the much needed fleet air defence given their limited range and weapon load.

In summary, British approach to aircraft carrier is to deliver “a meaningful and credible fighting force” anywhere in the world without having to worry about asking for another country’s permission, according to Commodore Andy Betton, the UK Carrier Strike Group Commander.

The Russian Approach

With Europe controlling Russia’s access to the oceans, Russian approach to aircraft carriers as a land power remains unique in terms of design and development, and operational art. Russians designate their aircraft carriers as Heavy Aircraft Carrying Cruisers [Tyazholyy Avianesushchiy Kreyser (TAVKR)]. The primary mission of Russian carriers is to deny adversaries (US Navy) carrier battle groups access to its airspace and conduct ASW operations far away from its shore. In order to accomplish this mission, Russian carriers carry missiles (nuclear cruise missile) along with a limited air-wing. This guiding philosophy of challenging the mighty US Navy at sea in the absence of long-range strike forces capable of manoeuverability (search and track) against US submarines was the brainchild of Admiral Nikolay Kuznetsov (1904-1974). Not to allow the aircraft carrier to approach the shore within the ship-based aviation ranges and detect them at long-ranges formed its sea warfare strategy – Anti Access/Sea Denial.

Russian (erstwhile Soviet Union) experience with naval aviation began in 1910, and accumulated sufficient experience during the Second World War. With the political class not in favour of ‘warshiping’ the West, Russian approach was not inclined towards a ship-based naval aviation post-Second World War. Instead, the stress was on shore-based long-range bombers and Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) indicating the presence of a strategic culture oriented towards defensive operations. By mid-1960s, Russian shore-based naval aviation acquired the capability of launching cruise missile (KS-1 Comet) with a range of 80-90 km from TU-4KS and TU-16KS and commissioned TU-95 with an operational range of 14,000 km. Research and development of ship-based aviation in the form of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) began as early as 1956. However, it was not until 1972, that the first successful VTOL aircraft (Yak-36) landing on board a Russian cruiser (Moskov) materialised.

Disadvantages associated with this type of aircraft and unwillingness of its political class led to its permanent decommissioning after 15 years of service. In the mid-1980s, two of its land-based aircraft – SU-27 and MIG-29 – were modified for operations from its aircraft carrier (Kiev Class). While MIG-29K was compact and 28 of these could be accommodated onboard its carrier, its range was limited in comparison to SU-27 (SU-33) of which only 18 could be accommodated along with reduced landing speed. Secondly, the SU-33 was designed for an Air-to-Air role, whereas the MIG-29K was designed for strike against surface targets at sea and land. Russia chose SU-33 amidst political crisis in the early 1990s and exported MIG-29K to the Indian Navy after modifications. Hence, air-superiority and not light tactical support fighter determined Russian decision. Russia now operates both of these variants onboard its sole carrier.

Russia has been a major naval power outside the Western world to develop and operate fixed-wing aircraft carrier. However, its operational experience in deploying this platform (Admiral Kuznetsov) is far from satisfactory. Apart from accidents, its combat experience too has brought into question its worthiness in Russian military strategy. From 1991 to 2005 Russia’s sole aircraft carrier has been on patrol only six times and is always accompanied by an ocean-going tug.8 In a personal initiative, President Putin deployed Admiral Kutzenov in operations against rebel targets in Syria (2016) – its first combat duty. In accidents involving two onboard fighter jets (SU-33 & MiG-29K) due to the ship’s arresting wires, the air-wing of the carrier was relocated to a land base in Syria (Humayim Air Base) for further missions – a major setback.9

Ulyanovsk – Russia’s first attempt at a nuclear propelled carrier was abandoned due to the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, such an ambition has not faded as work on building a 70,000-80,000 tonne nuclear carrier is now included in the state arms programme and expected to begin in 2023.10 The guiding philosophy in operating carriers is unlikely to change and will adhere to a land-centric approach – create a defensive “blue belt” in their offshore waters [James Holmes,U.S. Naval War College].

The French Approach

For France, its carrier capability is a symbol of its ability to undertake independent military action.11 Its importance was summed by the US Secretary of Defence – “That’s a reminder to us of the global reach, global strength and global reputation of France as a force for civilisation”.12 From an operational perspective, the French carriers were developed to engage the Soviet Union in a high-intensity combat and were equipped for nuclear deterrence.13 However, France no longer deploys nuclear weapons (Air-Sol Moyenne Portée-Amélioré, the medium-range Air to Surface Missile – ASMP) on its carrier Charles de Gaulle under normal circumstances.14 Both the US and Soviet Union had offloaded or scrapped their naval nuclear weapons after the Cold War ended. The purpose of the nuclear-tipped air-launched (medium-range, 500km) cruise missile according to French nuclear doctrine is – ‘Pre-Strategic’- a warning short prior to full-scale employment. A go between the first strike and second strike nuclear doctrine.15

Even though France has maintained an aircraft carrier since the Second World War, it has had a troubled record in doing so. Many of its plans to develop aircraft carriers have been scrapped or delayed. The need for a carrier is also debated with French intelligentsia which, since October, 2018 is engaged in an 18-month study, at a total cost of $45 million, to find a replacement after 2030 for its current aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.16 France having first trained on the US and British light carriers after Second World War17 and operated two indigenously built Clemenceau class (32,800 tonne) carriers since the early 1960s. However, despite the pressing need for Continuous Carrier Capability (CCC) as felt during the Operation Harmattan in Libya (2011)17, French decision makers remain uncertain over the idea of operating two carriers simultaneously.18 The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle provided military planners with a rapid-response air combat capability and was not available during the last phase of the operation due to requirements of maintenance.19 According to Axel Poniatowski, Vice-Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly, the French have traditionally operated a carrier in a complementary mode to land-based aviation.20 During Operation Enduring Freedom (late 2001) the French Navy contributed less than 10 percent of the total air strike and was complemented by the French Air force based in Krygyzstan.21

Along with three Mistral class (Amphibious Assault Ships) the French Navy is a significant naval power outside the US that operates Catapult Assisted Take-off and Barrier-Assisted Recovery (CATOBAR) and nuclear propulsion-based carrier. However, a limited carrier air wing on the single carrier allows for a minimal strike role and time on station.

The Chinese Approach

It remains unknown as to how China will deploy or employ its aircraft carrier given that China has traditionally prepared to defeat aircraft carriers and not operate them. China’s Research and Development of ballistic missiles to engage aircraft carriers (carrier killers) is a case in point – Dong Feng 26B, Dong Feng 21D and short-range CM401 ASBM.22 Its emphasis on a robust submarine fleet (04 SSBN, 06 SSN, and 50 SSK23) speaks for a naval strategy in favour of sea denial. The Chinese state was never interested in acquiring an aircraft carrier and certainly not an unfinished Soviet designed – Varyang from Ukraine in the early 1990s. It was an independent decision made by few PLAN officers without state approval.24 Having understood the weakness of an aircraft carrier in combat or near combat scenarios, it is surprising to note that China is now planning to operate 05-06 carriers25. This is a major transformation in its land-centric naval doctrine.

A white paper titled “China’s National Defense in the New Era” on July 24 (2019) recognises its aircraft carrier as modern weaponry and its role in conducting combat missions at ‘far seas’ in the Western Pacific.26 For example, the PLA Joint Logistic Support Force (PLAJLSF) has striven to align itself with the joint operations systems and conducted exercises such as Joint Logistics Mission 2018. Furthermore, to address deficiencies in overseas operations and support, China builds Far Seas Forces (FSF)27, develops overseas logistical facilities and enhances capabilities in accomplishing diversified military tasks. The PLA conducts vessel protection operations, maintains the security of strategic SLOCs and carries out overseas evacuation and maritime rights protection operations. An aircraft carrier is likely to become the core of China’s FSF (Defense White Paper, 2019). From a strategic perspective, China’s external environment requires it to meet any contingencies by going to the crisis, unlike in the past where China awaited at its shore – ‘Near-coast defence’ (近岸防御). However, this emerging reality does not alter the fact that many of China’s core interests remain in its immediate neighborhood. Advocates of China having a carrier (Admiral Liu Huaqing) argued in terms of cost effectives of naval aviation vis-a-vis land-based aircraft in contingencies with respect to China’s three “near seas” – the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea and envisaged plans for a medium-size, STOVL carrier. FSF, hence, indicates a need for nuclear-powered super carriers.28

From an operational perspective, carriers in Chinese fleet for the first time in its history will provide it with fixed-wing ‘naval aviation capability’ and ‘combined operations’. Identifying a role for Chinese aircraft carriers within an existing robust doctrine favoring sea denial is challenging.29 While a role for carrier in China’s Secondary Security Missions (SSM) (power projection, disaster relief, search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare, fleet air-defense, and reconnaissance) is conceivable30, its participation in Primary Security Missions (PSM) carrier strike is not31; given that China’s military doctrine in general is defence oriented (Defence White Paper, 2019). Increased vulnerability of an aircraft carrier requires that it operates in an offensive mode based on the principle – “use it, or lose it”. This contradicts China’s in-vogue defensive posture and diplomatic conduct amidst a crisis.

China’s decision to acquire Russian-designed SU-33 fighter aircraft and derive its own J-15 from it for its aircraft carrier indicates a desire for air superiority vis-a-vis a strike role at sea or on land. The SU-33 is designed for range and air-to-air combat role. However, its size limits the number of aircraft in an air-wing. This capability can be utilised to conduct air-patrol and related missions over China’s territorial concerns in the South China Sea and Western Pacific which is stressing for its land-based fighters for the need for multiple in-flight refueling. From a strategic perspective, in the event of a major conflict, aircraft carriers are unlikely to be used for strike mission during the initial phase of war given that China’s shore-based offensive-defence systems are capable of conducting such missions. According to a PLA colonel, “We cannot defeat the US at sea…but we have missiles that specifically target aircraft carriers to stop them from approaching our territorial waters if there was a conflict.”32 Hence China’s approach to its aircraft carrier will remain land-centric while making necessary adaptations in coming decades.

To be continued in part II…


  1. The French Navy was the first to visualize the “flat-top” aircraft carrier (Clément Ader, L’Aviation Militaire1909), the US Navy was the first to take off and land on static flight deck (USS Birmingham and USS Pennsylvania, 1910), and the Royal Navy was the first to take-off from a moving ship (HMS Hibernia, 1911). Landing on a moving ship deck did not happen until 01 August, 1917 – Sq Cdr. E H Dunning (HMS Furious).
  2. Tobias Ellwood MP (2013), “Leveraging UK Carrier Capability: A Study into the Preparation for and Use of the Queen Elizabeth-Class Carriers” Royal United Services Institute, Occasional Paper, September, p.7.
  3. Robert Farley (2018), “France’s Only Aircraft Carrier: Super Weapon or Paper Tiger?” National Interest, 15 April. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  4. Originally, Britain planned two 40,000 ton carriers and went on to debate the exact configuration of the carrier in terms of nuclear/conventional propulsion, type of aircraft, STOBAT & CATOBAR etc only to settle for the present configuration. Refer, “The Strategic Defence Review White Paper” (1998), Research Paper 98/91, 15 October, p. › documents
  5. Tobias Ellwood MP (2013), “Leveraging UK Carrier Capability: A Study into the Preparation for and Use of the Queen Elizabeth-Class Carriers” Royal United Services Institute, Occasional Paper, September, p. vii.
  6. Tobias Ellwood MP (2013), “Leveraging UK Carrier Capability: A Study into the Preparation for and Use of the Queen Elizabeth-Class Carriers” Royal United Services Institute, Occasional Paper, September, p. 21-25.
  7. The cost per flying hour for the Tornado is £32,000, meaning that the total cost per flying mission of thirty hours (four aircraft flying for seven hours, with two additional flying for one) was at least £960,000.
  8. Ryan Pickrell (2019), “Russia is planning to build its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier after breaking its only flattop” Business Insider, 09 May. Available at [Accessed on 01 December, 2019].
  9. Kyle Mizokami (2016), “Russia’s Sad, Smokey Aircraft Carrier Loses Second Fighter in Two Weeks” Popular Mechanics, 05 December. Available at [Accessed on 01 December, 2019].
  10. “Russia to start development of nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 2023 — source”TASS-Russian News Agency, 07 May, 2019. Available at [Accessed on 01 December, 2019].
  11. Pierre Bienaime (2015), “Here’s the Aircraft Carrier France Is Sending To Chase Down ISIS In Iraq” Business Insider, 16 January. Available at [Accessed on 27 November, 2019].
  12. Cheryl Pellerin (2015), “Carter Visits French Aircraft Carrier Charles De Gaulle”US Department of Defense, 19 December. Available at [Accessed on 27 November, 2019].
  13. Hans M. Kristensen (2009), “French Aircraft Carrier Sails Without Nukes” Federation of American Scientists, 04 August. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  14. “French President Nicolas Sarkozy Nuclear Policy speech, 21 March 2008”The Acronym Institute. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  15. David Dickson (1988), “Anglo-French nuclear missile under study. (air-to-surface missile)” High beam, 12 February. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  16. “Second Aircraft Carrier / Deuxième Porte-Avions / DPA / PA2” Global Security, Undated. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  17. Karl P. Mueller (2015), Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War, RAND Corporation. p.32.
  18. Nick Childs (2018), “French aircraft-carrier study: the power of two?” International Institute for Strategic Studies, 29 November. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  19. “France withdraws carrier from Libya mission” The Local, 04 August, 2011. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  20. “Second Aircraft Carrier / Deuxième Porte-Avions / DPA / PA2” Global Security, Undated. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  21. “Operation Enduring Freedom – Deployments” Global Security, Undated. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  22. For details refer; [Accessed on 02 December, 2019].
  23. “China Submarine Capabilities” Nuclear Threat Initiative, 09 October, 2019. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2019].
  24. Minnie Chan (2015), “Mission impossible: How one man bought China its first aircraft carrier” South China Morning Post, 18 January. Available at [Accessed on 02 December, 2019].
  25. Minnie Chan (2019), “China will build 4 nuclear aircraft carriers in drive to catch US Navy, experts say”South China Morning Post, 06 February. Available at [Accessed on 01 December, 2019].
  26. “Full Text: China’s National Defense in the New Era” Xinhua, 24 July, 2019. Available at [Accessed on 29 November, 2019].
  27. Note: The concept of ‘Far Seas’ is different to distant and vast “near oceans” (近洋) and “far oceans” (远洋).
  28. Nan Li and Christopher Weuve (2010), “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitious” Naval War College Review, Volume 63; No: 1 (Article 3). p. 19.
  29. Dean Cheng (2014), “Taking China’s Carrier Operations Seriously” War on the Rocks, 14 May. Available at [Accessed on 29 November, 2019].
  30. Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson (2006) cited in Nan Li and Christopher Weuve (2010), “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitious” Naval War College Review, Volume 63; No: 1 (Article 3). p. 13.
  31. Note: However, Admiral Liu Huaqing (Vice Chair of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), believed that “whether the attack type or the V/STOL type, they [aircraft carriers] are for the purpose of resolving issues of [fleet] air defense and sea attack”.
  32. David Lague, Benjamin Kang Lim (2019), “Special Report: New missile gap leaves U.S. scrambling to counter China” Reuters, 25 April. Available at [Accessed on 01 December, 2019].
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Rajasimman Sundaram

teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the Institute of BRICS Studies and College of Multi-Languages at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (The People’s Republic of China)". 

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