An aircraft carrier is a ship capable of handling aircraft that take off and land on its deck. In 1909, the French inventor Clement Ader presented the idea of a ship that carried aircraft. The U.S. Navy began studying and testing this concept in the same year. During the interwar period between World War I and World War II, the U.S. military developed its first actual aircraft carriers. World War II was a turning point in the use of aircraft carrier technology. Carriers replaced battleships as the main ships utilized in fleets, as evidenced in several key battles fought in the Pacific. However, the role and importance of aircraft carriers in war was debated and contested in the decades after World War II. During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy worked on developing increasingly advanced carriers. The creation of supercarriers allowed jet aircraft and planes with nuclear weapons to take off from their angled decks. In the decades after the Cold War, the U.S. Navy continued to update their carrier systems to increase their flexibility in terms of mobility and warfare capabilities. Throughout these conflicts, air power has continually been reaffirmed as a vital aspect of warfare. Today, supercarriers are all nuclear powered, and they typically operate as part of a Carrier Strike Group along with cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and supply ships.
Aircraft carriers symbolize America's role as a superpower. They currently serve as American territory, which frees the United States from relying on overseas land bases in other countries, thus establishing an expansive American presence around the world. This entry examines the history, technology, and roles of aircraft carriers, from World War II to the present.
World War II was a turning point for the incorporation of aircraft carriers into the U.S. military. During the early 1940s, the U.S. Navy debated whether carriers should remain in the battle line with battleships or move independent of them. Advocates of keeping aircraft carriers in the battle line with battleships thought that battleships were the most important part of the fleet. They saw aircraft carriers as protecting battleships from enemy aircraft, since planes could scout for the battleships, and they believed that a change in position would make aircraft carriers vulnerable to enemy ships. Eventually, however, the U.S. Navy sided with the proponents of independent aircraft carrier action, who recommended using carriers offensively with small ships escorting them.
The U.S. military realized the critical importance of utilizing aircraft carriers after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, during which five American battleships were destroyed by Japanese planes based on fast carriers. By 1942, aircraft carrier forces further proved their role in winning the war in the Pacific. For example, the Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle in history where ships did not directly engage one another and all of the fighting featured carrier-based aircraft. During the war, the U.S. military continued to build new and larger carriers, which played a key role in supporting the U.S. victory and helped ensure American postwar naval supremacy. Since navies take years to develop, American victory in World War II, coupled with American industrial power, meant that other countries did not have a chance to compete with America's supremacy in naval aviation.
After the Army Air Force's strategic bombers dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the navy's fast carriers seemed vulnerable to the new nuclear warfare and were believed by many to be of diminished importance. To keep up with these new developments, as well as the emerging jet age, the navy drafted plans for the construction of a supercarrier with the capability of launching jet aircraft– carrying nuclear weapons. However, as a result of interservice rivalries, Congress halted construction of the first supercarrier, the USS United States, in 1949.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy developed aircraft carrier technology capable of launching jet aircraft and conducting nuclear warfare. The Korean War revived the importance of the aircraft carrier, although this was unclear in the early stages of the war. The North Korean Air Force lagged far behind the air power of the United States. Responding to the possible threat of Soviet intervention and after the North Korean seizure of air bases in South Korea, the United States was forced to fly aircraft from bases in Japan. As a result, American aircraft needed to refuel after a short amount of flying time over Korea, which increased the importance of nearby carrier-based aircraft that could spend more time and fuel on their missions. Carriers served several roles during the war. Essex-class carriers still provided air support for ground forces defending Pusan. Later, carriers were used to distract attention from Inchon and to drop napalm on the Inchon area before it was invaded. Helicopters also took off from carriers, and they offered supplies, reconnaissance, and medical evacuation, among many other assignments.
Three new British technologies, steam catapults, mirror landing aids, and angled flight decks, came into use on carriers during this time period. Steam catapults allowed for launching jet aircraft (which needed to achieve much higher takeoff speeds to become airborne), while mirror landing aids reflected lights to help pilots land at higher speeds. In 1952, angled flight decks were developed and then tested on USS Midway. These decks helped jet aircraft stop and avoid crashing into parked aircraft, since jet tailhooks did not always catch on arresting wires. Supercarriers were also built with larger decks to offer more stability and to provide a larger landing area for aircraft.
After the Korean War, the United States learned that despite having recently experienced the total warfare of World War II, limited wars remained a very real possibility. Furthermore, aircraft carriers offered the nation a way to move forces quickly to reach any international conflict and assert American power. In the mid-1950s, the navy developed new classes of carriers. Regardless of interservice rivalries between the air force and navy over whether aircraft carriers or land-based bombers were better equipped to drop atomic bombs, Congress offered funding for the navy to build Forrestal-class carriers that were capable of launching nuclear attacks and could carry more fuel than World War II-era Essex ships. Soon afterward, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, was built, ultimately being commissioned in 1961. It would later be utilized in six tours for the Vietnam War. Another example of the United States establishing a military presence in this period was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when President John F. Kennedy sent aircraft carriers to establish a naval quarantine around Cuba.
The Vietnam War proved the flexibility and mobility of aircraft carriers. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy sent U.S. aircraft carriers to the South China Sea during their administrations. The use of aircraft carriers escalated in 1964, when the USS Ticonderoga and USS Constellation were used for strikes in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In March 1965, carriers participated in Operation Rolling Thunder. Aircraft carriers were also utilized throughout the war for bombing missions. One major loss in the war occurred in 1967, when the USS Forrestal caught fire and killed more than 100 sailors. The damage from this fire also came at a tremendous financial cost, as the cost of repairs was more than 70 million dollars. Even after the war ended, U.S. aircraft carriers retained a presence in the region of Southeast Asia.
After Vietnam, the U.S. Air Force developed new aircraft; these new advancements, that is, precision air power, were then tested in Operation Desert Storm. The technological developments of the 1990s occurred amid decreasing defense spending, which led to a decline in the number of deployable carrier battle groups and cut funding for programs. After the development of the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers in the 1960s, no new major technological developments were made to aircraft carriers for more than 30 years.
The nature of most post–Cold War conflicts was that of U.S. interservice collaboration and multinational joint operations. In the case of the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines cooperated in joint operations. America's global presence was shown through the Gulf War example, as U.S. aircraft carriers were within striking range of Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the carriers were capable of being ready for combat within hours. In Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. Navy faced new challenges and discovered that its command and control equipment was unprepared for the organization of large-scale air operations. For example, communication systems were slowed by the small amount of data they could handle and files took hours to be delivered. After the war, the U.S. Navy updated its systems to rectify this problem. When the U.S. Navy decommissioned many ships in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, it retained a more technologically advanced fleet for the 21st-century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, again shifted the history of the aircraft carrier. In this new form of global war on terrorism, carriers are increasingly important because of their ability to be readily available to reach remote, landlocked regions. The two major conflicts after these attacks, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, offer evidence of the sophistication and advancement of U.S. carrier air power since the Persian Gulf War. Operation Enduring Freedom, which began on October 7, 2001, in Afghanistan, was initially fought primarily with air power from carriers since there were no land bases available with a reasonable proximity to the area. The U.S. Navy showed improvements in naval aviation since the Persian Gulf War through their more precise naval bombing. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the navy shifted many of their operations from analog to digital.
In the early 21st century, the U.S. Navy announced a new design called the next-generation carriers, or CVN-21. Set to be completed around 2015, these carriers will have larger decks, improved electrical systems that will lower life cycle costs, and adaptable infrastructure that will adjust to future technologies. Today, aircraft carriers are U.S. territory that can reach the most remote regions of the world, and they allow the United States to assert their diplomatic and military aims on a global scale. Carriers have proved their flexibility in being utilized for a variety of missions and for diverse types of aircraft, as well as adapting to technological advancements.
See Korean War (1950–1953); 9/11 (2001); Persian Gulf War; Vietnam War; World War II
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