Aircraft carriers are very much in the news these days. The United States and Britain are scheduled to commission the first of two new carrier classes in the coming months, China has embarked on a program to build its own flat tops, Russia and France's lone carriers have gone to port for major refits, and India has just retired its venerable INS Viraat (former HMS Hermes) in favor of the country's first domestic-built carrier. With all this activity, it seems as if a new age of the aircraft carrier is dawning. Or is it? New Atlas hits the deck to find out.

The 21st century carrier revolution

Before the Second World War, aircraft carriers weren't much to look at. Ugly, mongrel ships that were often converted cruisers and merchant ships with ungainly wooden flight decks piled with seaplanes and rickety biplanes, they were regarded as rude experiments that weren't good for much except reconnaissance and artillery spotting.

Then the outbreak of war in 1939 changed everything. In six years of bloody fighting, the carriers racked up an increasing record of accomplishments. In 1940, a flight of obsolete Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers from the carrier HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto, sinking or severely damaging several heavy warships. In 1941, torpedo planes from HMS Ark Royal crippled the German pocket battleship Bismarck, making it vulnerable to the chasing task force.

Tug boats maneuver the aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) into the James River during the ship's turn ship evolution(Credit: US Navy/ass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cathrine Mae O. Campbell)

On the other side of the world, on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese fleet led by six carriers all but destroyed the US Seventh Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor. Then in June 1942, the decisive battle of the Pacific War was fought at Midway, in what became the first all-out fight between two carrier fleets where neither side saw the other except through pilots' eyes.

By the end of the war, the aircraft carriers had demonstrated that they were the biggest revolution in sea power since the invention of the steam engine. They were like artillery pieces that could fire intelligent shells with a range of hundreds of miles and strike the target at will. Against the carriers, battleships were sitting ducks and the old ship-vs-ship naval tactics had to change.

During the Cold War, the carriers underwent a series of technological revolutions. Angled decks were added to allow planes to takeoff and land safely and simultaneously. Steam catapults allowed heavier aircraft to use the short decks, and the mirrored sight allowed them to land safely. And last, but far from least, was the introduction of nuclear reactors that allowed the famous supercarriers to operate for decades without refueling.

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Then there were the new aircraft. Jets went to sea almost as soon as they took off from land. Helicopters were added, radar planes, supersonic fighters, and Short Vertical TakeOff and Landing (VSTOL) aircraft, like the Harrier.

Small wonder that the aircraft carrier ended up playing a pivotal role in every major naval deployment, including Korea, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Falklands War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq Invasion, as well as countless minor skirmishes and emergencies.

The job of the carrier

Today, there are 20 strategic aircraft carriers with fixed-wing aircraft on active service with eight navies in the world, with another eight under construction. In addition, there are another 24 tactical or helicopter carriers in ten countries, with three more under construction. But what is it that carriers actually do? Why are they so valuable? What role do they play in the 21st century. To find out, let's look at today's strategic or strike carriers.

The new British and American carriers feature the F-35 fighter bomber(Credit: US Air Force)

When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it's no accident that the first question that comes to everyone's lips is: "Where's the nearest carrier?" That attitude is has basically been true of every US President since 1945, and that's because the large modern carriers of today provides a major sea power the ability to place a fully functional combat air wing with complete support facilities anywhere in the world, yet outside the territory of any other country.

In a combat situation, like the Falklands War in 1982, it allows a government to project power on a global scale even if the theater is tens of thousands of miles away, yet without relying on bases in any other country.

But there are other reasons that some countries have such ships. Modern aircraft carriers are the capital ships of any fleet (though submariners will hotly dispute this) and any nation that owns one has some bragging rights, so for some countries, a carrier is a symbol of prestige.

Sun rising over the flight deck of USS Gerald R Ford(Credit: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Ryan Carter)

Some countries only have one carrier that previously served in a foreign navy, are armed with a handful of obsolete aircraft, and rarely set to sea. For them, a carrier is a bit like owning a well-polished but clapped out Jaguar E-Type built in 1962. It might be hopelessly behind the times, nearly impossible to start, leaks oil, leaves the garage once a year, and you have to walk everywhere, but its looks impress visitors to no end.

Others have one strike carrier and while these are more than status symbols, they lack ships in their navies to protect them at sea. For the countries in question, including Spain or Italy, owning a single carrier isn't very practical. That lone carrier would spend so much time in dry dock, training or transit, and all an enemy would have to do is show a bit of patience before attacking. However, these navies are in the NATO alliance and usually only operate in joint exercises, so that single carrier would be backed up by those of allies or would act as a relief ship to free up a more powerful one.

Then there are those with small fleets that have carriers partly for status and partly for regional ambitions. Russia, China, and India all have single-carrier navies, but they have all expressed desires to modernize and expand their carriers using their own shipyards rather than buying them from abroad as India and China have done in the past. Though what their ultimate goals are for these carriers is still unclear, they undoubtedly include expanding power over their regions to dominate their neighbors and local waters.

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