Aircraft Carriers - Global Comparison

April 13, 2011

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) sailors man the rails and render honors to the USS Arizona Memorial.
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) sailors man the rails and render honors to the USS Arizona Memorial. | Source

If your Dad was anything like my Dad, and I know many of them who were, he had a bookshelf full of military books; WWII, Vietnam War, books about battleships, etc. Going to air shows was one of our most popular outings. He used to build model airplanes in the basement. My favorite was a Corsair, whose wings actually folded up.

This matters only as a way of saying that I have a certain affinity for the military. I am also, not a pacifist, and yet I think we have come to a point where it is necessary to have a serious discussion about defense spending. Not just because of the fiscal situation we are in, but also for the simple fact that the world is changing (it's always changing, but I think this debate is late in coming).

Neither discussion about defense spending or about our role in the world can take place without talking about our aircraft carriers, which not only consume a substantial portion of the navies budget and manpower, but also very often serve as our ambassador in international affairs.

tons and tonnes

In America a ton is 2,000lbs. It is also called a short ton. Other parts of the world use the metric ton, also called a tonne or metric tonne, which equals 1,000 kilograms (≈2,204.62 lbs.). To add to the confusion, the British also have the long ton, which is equivalent to 2,240 lbs. However, as far as I can tell all ship measurements are in metric tons even if they are listed as tons. For the sake of clarity I am using the term tonne throughout.

Aircraft Carriers

Basically, all aircraft carriers are designed to do the same thing; to insert themselves into a hostile environment and destroy enemy assets, which can include ships, air units, ground forces and infrastructure. Some carriers are capable of effective actions against all of these targets, while others are only effective against some of them. Some have additional capabilities such as amphibious operations or Anti-surface warfare.

Often times people talk about cutting military spending without seeming to know much about it. Such arguments tend to say that, our forces are a gazillion times more powerful than any potential competitor, therefore we should cut spending. Generally that argument is a bit too simplistic, but still, having some perspective on relative capabilities is important.

This article is going to present some statistics on aircraft carriers. I have limited this article to carriers because they are the primary ship in force projection fleets.

For the record, I don't know enough to make arguments for cutting defense spending with much authority. Yet, I think a discussion amongst amateur laypeople still has some usefulness.

It is clear that the American fleet has a sizeable advantage. In fact it has the advantage even against the rest of the world combined. But, is it too great of an advantage? Is it a ridiculous advantage? It doesn't seem like it from numbers alone, but it is important to remember that not all carriers are created alike. American carriers are massive; each one weighing in around 100,000 tonnes. The largest carriers outside of the US are Russia's Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov (55,000t) and France's Charles de Gaulle (42,000t). After those two, all other carriers are under 33,000t. The next graph compares the tonnage of carriers.

America has nearly four times the weight in carriers compared to the rest of the world combined. The only countries with carriers who can even be considered as potential adversaries are Russia and India, whose two carriers combined weigh less than a single American carrier. China, arguably the most likely future adversary doesn't have any operational carriers at all (that will change in the very near future). This graph begins to show the true disparity in world naval power. The next graph looks at the number of aircraft carried by national carrier fleets.

Looking at aircraft carried again shows America's clear mismatch. Not quite as overwhelming as tonnage but still significant. And just as carriers aren't created equal, aircraft aren't either. Of the carrier operating nations, only 4 operate carriers that can launch conventional aircraft, and of those only 3 launch 4th generation or higher aircraft. I might in a separate hub talk about the different types and generations of aircraft launched from carriers, but for now it is only important to understand that 4th generation conventional fighters are the most capable and powerful air superiority aircraft that can be launched from carriers. The graph below shows the global comparisons.

Anyone who pays attention to world naval issues knows that there are quite a few nations with plans to build carriers in the next decade. Most notably is probably China who has not only been expanding the size but also the quality of its naval forces. India, as well, as a rising power has plans of expanding its navy. Russia has plans to renew its old naval fleet, but it is uncertain whether they will have the funds to make much of an effort. Western countries, as well as Japan and South Korea all have plans for building new carriers. Let's take a look at what things may look like in 2020. Note that America will build 4 carriers, they are also going to retire three in that period, for a net gain of one.

Looking at the numbers may seem a bit alarming, but again, a clearer perspective can be gotten by looking at the weight.

In terms of weight, America will still hold a clear advantage, even against the combined world. A couple things stand out in this graph. The more than doubling of carriers operated by other countries and the very sudden rise of China into second place. The graph below of aircraft carried shows a similar relationship.

2020 Alternate Reality

Right now we operate three aircraft carriers for the purpose of patrolling the Mediterranean Sea, and another three to patrol the Western Pacific. While there is value in patrolling these areas it is debatable whether it is an expense we can and should afford. Why not shift these burdens and costs to allied countries in these regions.

Could we sell 3 carriers to Europe? Maybe not; even one would likely be a hard sell, but both France and Britain have plans for building large carriers in the next decade, so it does at least make some sense. These two carriers as well as some American units could form a joint force to continue to carry out a regional presence. A permanent European base could be established for this fleet.

The same thing could be done in the Western Pacific. Sell one carrier to both Japan and South Korea that along with a US unit would form a joint command naval force in the Western Pacific. We already have a permanent carrier strike group stationed in Japan that could possibly serve as the permanent base for this fleet.

Cutting the US carrier fleet down to 6-7 seems horrifying. Let's see what it would look like.

There is something uncomfortable about letting our position of dominance slide a bit. There is something uncomfortable about China getting any closer to parity.

Let's step back for a minute and really think about that. What is the point of the military in relationship to China? It isn't to invade them; that is never going to happen. And so the point is deterrence - it is essentially a big stick, right? It is us saying, "do as we say, or we will whack you." I know that is a terribly crude way of saying it, but essentially when you strip away any politeness that is what it is all about.

The question than is this; can we build and maintain a big enough stick to continue and frighten them? I think the answer is no. Given the trajectory of their economic and military development and the sheer size of their population, it is inevitable that our stick will eventually seem more like a twig.

But that is only in a China vs. US world, and that is a world that doesn't have to be. Part of the point of this alternate reality would be to shift the stick wielder away from America to a much broader alliance of democratic nations. Looking at the world from this perspective looks like this:

Half the fleet it used to be.

So why cut the fleet at all? First of course is expense. Nearly half of all navy personnel serve on Aircraft carriers, and personnel costs are a sizeable portion of the overall budget. Additionally, carriers are expensive, to build, operate, and to maintain. Also, along with the costs of the carriers comes the costs of the air wings they carry. The navy currently has more money budgeted for procuring aircraft than they do ships.

But, perhaps more important than cost, is the issue of flexibility. A 12 super-carrier fleet defines our navy and if we keep it that way, will define it for decades. But, if you ask a bunch of really smart navy guys what fleet we will needed in 10, 20, or 30 years, there is a good chance each one of them will give you a different answer. There is a great deal of geopolitical instability at the moment, and there are some potential game-changing technologies that may become operational in the next decade, so that is understandable. But, isn't there then value in flexibility rather than rigidity?

Hive Strike Groups

There are already a number of future ship programs which have been cut or delayed due to budgetary constraints. Freeing up resources by reducing the carrier fleet would allow for more research, development, and experimentation with future fleet vessels and future fleet doctrine and strategy.

One program which is going forward is the Littoral Combat Ship program (LCS). This ship is intended to operate in the littoral regions and has been designed with the modular ability to swap different mission modules in and out depending upon requirements.

As far as I can tell though, at the moment, this modularity is only strategic. The modules can only be swapped at naval bases. This doesn't make much sense to me. As an armchair general (which I am - actually I guess I am more of an armchair ensign) I would want the modularity to be tactical - meaning modules could be swapped out while on station, in a short period of time (half a day for instance). After all, isn't that kind of the point of having a forward presence is that we have the capacity to respond to previously unknown contingencies?

The first of the new America class amphibious ships is about to be commissioned. This vessel and the next in the class are being built without well-decks (used for launching and retrieving small water craft). Evidently, the navy has decided this is not an optimal configuration and the future vessels of this class after the first two are going to have well-decks.

Why not take these two ships, that aren't considered optimal for amphibious operations, and use them as hive ships. Instead of carrying marines and their equipment, they could carry LCS mission modules and support a small force of LCS ships.

Would it work? I don't really know, but then I am not sure if anyone really knows. That is kind of the point. The flexibility to try these types of things out seems worthwhile.

Future Fleet

the fleet would be converted into a 2-hub fleet - the Pacific Fleet and the Atlantic Fleet. Forward presence units could be based with the European and Asian fleets. Each fleet would contain nine strike groups; three Carrier Strike Groups, three Expeditionary Strike Groups, and three Hive Strike Groups. The current 12 Carrier Strike Groups would be cut in half. The 10 current Expeditionary Strike Groups would be cut to 6 and the amphibious carriers and marine units and equipment would be partially transferred to the new Hive Strike Groups or to pre-positioning forces.

Carrier Strike Group x 6
1 x Aircraft Carrier
1 x air defense cruiser/destroyer
2 X destroyers

Expeditionary Strike Group x 6
1 x LHA
1 x LPD
1 x LSD
1 x air defense cruiser/destroyer
2 X destroyers

Hive Strike Group x 6
1 x Hive ship
1 x air defense cruiser/destroyer
3 x LCS
6 x corvettes

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Comments 14 comments

Rodmaru 5 years ago

Great post, very professional, as usual. I agree that this sort of subject i.e. a basic understanding of the role, capabilities, and expenses of our military in light of the role we wish our country to take in the world, needs wider discussion. (Not difficult to understand, if well presented)

A couple of comments:


Rodmaru 5 years ago

Ooops! I hit a yet unknown key that sut me off! Now, where was I?

Actually more than two comments:


Rodmaru 5 years ago

1. In terms of 'Allies'. Your totting up of all the resources of nations that could be considered to be on our side in case of a US-China conflict is questionable considering recent events. It would depend more on how threatened each nation felt rather than their closeness to the US, regardless of treaty obligations.

2. I am struck by the UK having but one carrier in spite of their extensive role worldwide, compared with other inactive nations who have more. I understand they are going to go 'halvsies' with France on a new super carrier - should be fun to watch! (WW1 redux?)

3. Please define terms like Littoral, HIVE, etc.

Cheers and salutations!


junkseller profile image

junkseller 5 years ago from Michigan Author

The reason I started this was due to the financial situation we are in and the necessity to cut spending. As a liberal, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, "cut spending". Yet, I always get annoyed when conservatives talk about slashing entitlement spending when they seem to know very little about it or how those cuts would impact real people. I felt it was therefore responsible to actually learn a little about defense spending before taking a stance on making cuts. I suspect a lot of people don't have a very good idea about where defense money goes. It is definitely a worthwhile item to discuss.

Allies definitely can be tricky. The way I see it, though, is that it will not be very long before we by ourselves can not counterbalance the weight of China. And considering history, the tug of war between competing centers of gravity can have bad consequences for those who are in the middle of it. I guess my recommendation would be to NOT have that tug of war at all. If Korea and Japan and the ASEAN countries could band together they could effectively provide a counterweight to China and hopefully, due to proximity, recognize that peaceful and diplomatic engagement is the far better way to engage each other. In my suggestion we would be a part of that alliance but we wouldn't necessarily have to be. The thing I worry about is that without such an alliance those countries end up being proxy battlegrounds for America and China to wrestle. The dispute over the Spratly Islands is an example. We so far have mostly stayed out of it and the ASEAN countries have been collectively engaging the Chinese. Hopefully that will work diplomatically, but the ASEAN countries are bit light compared to China. A broader regional alliance would help their position - our support probably wouldn't. So my suggestion is less about actual conflict and more about shifting the centers of gravity.

6 years ago the British did have 3 carriers. The HMS Illustrious is still in service, the HMS Invincible was mothballed for 6 years but is now being scrapped, and the HMS Ark Royal was just decommissioned (they'll probably keep it mothballed for awhile). Still, overall they have a pretty capable navy. They have several amphibious ships, a pack of good destroyers and some excellent subs.

Really, just about everyone's aircraft carrier strategy is a little strange. Having 1 or 2 isn't terribly effective since you really need 3 to ensure you always have one that is ready to go. For every one on station, one will be in maintenance, and one will be getting ready to be on station. Which is why it makes sense to me for Europe to have a common strategy. If they worked together they could rotate their carriers to make sure one is always available, but they really don't seem to work well together. Even the 'joint' carrier you mentioned is no longer a joint carrier. France has backed out of that arrangement.

Thanks for reading and for the comments.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 5 years ago from Michigan Author

The littoral region is the area close to shore. I’m not sure there is even an exact definition. For naval purposes the littoral region presents specific challenges: shallow water, plus the need to be able to combat swarms of small craft launched from shore as well as land-based weapons.

The Littoral Combat Vessel (LCS) is being built specifically to operate in the littoral region. One of the unique design elements of the LCS is that it has plug-and-play mission modules, but as currently designed, those modules can only be swapped at a naval base. The Hive group was just what I was calling the idea of having a ‘mothership’ that would support a group of LCS ships allowing them to swap mission modules while at sea, while also providing logistic support, repair facilities, etc.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

This was interesting and it must have taken you months to write it and graph it. It looks like you enjoyed doing the graphs.

I've seen two or three documentaries about aircraft carriers. Amazing places for men to be working and amazingly expensive to operate.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

While I have never served in the US Military at all, I sure came close to doing so on two different occasions.

I always loved Navy ships...and I'm not sure why, really...but I'd build the plastic models...and never got tired of it...planes, tanks, cars...none of that got my imagination going half so well.

Just today I was working out of town, and on the ride back towards home my boss and I got into a discussion concerning some of the Naval tragedies of the second world war....and we talked about how there had been all sorts of treaties after the FIRST world war to limit the size of the battleships....and then when the second world war got going....battleships were almost entirely irrelevant.

Off hand, I couldn't think of any big battleship battles other than the Bizmark vs HMS Hood, and then the following hunt and sinking of the Bismark

I have no gift of prophecy...but I do wonder if these aircraft carriers will remain the big strategic chess pieces they have been since the 1940's.

I saw your answer to a question...and after reading it, I realized that you are a very bright and well spoken person...so I looked at your profile and decided to read this - and I can sure spot it when I think someone is very bright!


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

@Pamela Kinnaird W

Thanks for reading. It wasn't months, but it did take some time. It was actually part of the larger effort I did to write my hub about the 450-ship fleet.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

@Wesman Todd Shaw.

Thank you for your very nice comments. I appreciate them.

I too, have always had a fascination with the military--ironic considering my extreme disdain for war. I used to build models when I was a kid as well. Mostly airplanes, though, for me. I was never really good at the painting part, but I would sit there all day long putting them together.

It is actually my disdain for war that has led me to learn more about the military. While I agree that we need to reduce military spending, I've always been uncomfortable with liberals who make that argument but then can't tell the difference between a cruiser and a patrol boat. I tend to think that uninformed spending cuts are never as good as informed spending cuts and are sometimes worse than if nothing had been done at all.

I think in the future that Aircraft carriers will be sort of obsolete, but that's only because I think all units will be obsolete. Not because they are useless, but because the thing or the unit that will matter will be the networked digital battle space. This battle space can be pictured sort of as an amorphous cloud and will contain a variety of sensors and components which collect and store and process information, transmit communications, launch cyber attacks, emit cyber defenses, etc. Warfare will then consist essentially of battles between these competing clouds. The components of this network will be decentrally distributed and heavily interconnected, since the strength of a network is in its redundancy and interconnections. It can remain robust even with the loss of some nodes. Because of this, the aircraft carrier represents in some ways a liability. It is simply too important an element in the network. Losing one would be crippling.

However, the aircraft carrier has a major advantage over the battleship. The battleship was a relatively fixed platform. I was what it was. If it were available at the time, they could have replaced the big guns with missiles, but then that large of a ship wouldn't have even been necessary. No one today builds missile ships much over 10k tonnes.

The Aircraft Carrier, on the other hand, is a somewhat open platform. It basically is a ship with a huge flat top and a big open middle. It could be altered to provide more command and control functions. It could also be converted into a mothership to hold a variety of unmanned vehicles (which is how I think they will start to go). They may eventually be taken out of front-line service, but I think they will still remain capable and useful ships for the rest of their lives. I wouldn't be surprised though if we only build 2 more supercarriers.

I'm hardly an expert, though, and there are so many other factors which come into play. Regardless of how it goes, it should be interesting.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

What an awesome comment!

Isn't a huge part of our spending maintaining bases from places we've not been at war with for 50 or more years?

I mean, will we forever have bases in Germany? Japan, etc?

Also, I can understand some things, but don't the aircraft carriers themselves present a mobile base?

I just don't go for this global governance on the backs of US taxpayers thing, but other folks assure me I'm seeing the whole thing wrongly.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan Author

The issue of bases is a tricky one. In theory, I agree with them. I see them kind of like maintaining a guest bedroom at a friends house in case they ever need our help. Also, whether we have troops here or overseas, costs probably aren't too different, and it makes sense to have them close to where they may be needed rather than twiddling their thumbs in the middle of America.

Of course, in reality, we don't use our military as a benevolent protector of the world. Too often we pursue our own unilateral interests without much consideration for others, and so our overseas bases represent a part of the apparatus that perpetuates this agenda. From that perspective I disagree with them.

Either way, I don't think costs is the main issue with them. Relative to overall spending, I think, it is pretty tiny. And relative to our war costs it is irrelevant. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are pushing into the trillions of dollars.

That doesn't mean costs shouldn't be examined. Even if we agree with our bases, I'm not sure we need 80,000 people in Europe or bases in the 120 or so countries where we have them. The largest towers in all of Israel are two radar towers built and operated by the US military. Things like that really make me think we have gone a bit overboard.

You could think of Carriers as mobile bases, but as a base they are relatively small and limited. They are not well suited for logistics (moving cargo and troops), can not handle larger aircraft (such as cargo planes and heavy bombers), are limited (relative to a base) in the amount of weapons and supplies they can store, and are limited in the electronic equipment they can host (communications, tracking, radar, etc.)

I would agree we do too much of the world's policing/patrolling, but not just from a monetary standpoint. Shifting to a world where other nations do more is equally important simply because it will strengthen and expand relationships and alliances between democratic and peaceful nations. At the same time, global stability is incredibly important, and we, as much as anyone, have greatly benefited from it. So while I think we should spread the costs around, we have to be careful not to open up security vacuums.


Deb Welch 3 years ago

The USA has the power of the seas with our Naval Fleet and I cannot see that changing in the world today as things are happening in other countries. I was in the Navy many years ago - my guy was on an aircraft carrier - a floating city. Yes - they are expensive to operate especially with the aircraft on board. I seem to think they are all needed and they all have an important job to do - if they could scratch one probably they would. There is a PBS Documentary about a carrier Nimitz - you would find it of interest - www.pbs.org/weta/carrier/full_episodes Good Hub.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK

The graphs you present here are fascinating junkseller. I would not have believed the huge descrepancy in scale between America and the rest of the world in this particular arena of military hardware.

But I must say it doesn't bother me. Although in U.S terms I would be regarded as a liberal with plenty of concerns about American policy home and abroad, nonetheless America can and does act as the leader of the free world and I think that is a necessary role in these uncertain times - if America is willing to undertake it. Aircraft carriers are a vital asset. The manpower and airpower contained on a large carrier gives a huge advantage wherever a threat to the west exists.

China is undoubtedly a potential threat in the future. One fervently hopes that that country's increasing economic and cultural westernisation takes it down the democratic path before its power grows to match that of America.

In the meantime, I think the final graph displayed is comforting - China and Russia excluded, the vast majority of carriers appear to be under the control of nations who pose no threat to democratic values.

Voted up.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 2 years ago from Michigan Author

Greensleeves,

The disparity really is pretty astonishing and, of course, simply comparing tonnages is by itself a pretty simplistic comparison, not unlike comparing the size of football players. Some kids in high school weigh in at NFL levels, they obviously don't play at that level. I'd say the same is true for aircraft carriers. Even as China puts hulls in the water, it can take many years to develop a high level of competency using them and to develop the more mundane elements of operating them, such as ship maintenance, crew rotations, etc. If it were possible to do a graph showing capabilities, the disparity would be even greater.

I agree, the last graph is comforting, though, if I had my druthers, everyone's fleets would be shrinking a bit.

Thanks for stopping by.

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