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12 Big Boys of the Seas: The World’s Largest Aircraft Carriers

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As a fan of big machines, I have a sweet spot for aircraft carriers. These gigantic ships are essentially floating airports, capable of carrying, launching, and retrieving dozens of aircraft while sailing the high seas. They represent a mind-boggling feat of human engineering and enable serious naval might projection around the world.

In this article, I’ll highlight the 12 largest aircraft carriers currently in operation globally, based on displacement (the weight of water they push aside). I’ll share fun facts, specs, and crazy stories about each mammoth ship class that caught my eye during many an evening Googling carriers with a glass of wine in hand (hey, we all have our hobbies). Grab some popcorn and get ready for a tour of the world’s biggest naval beasts!

Nimitz-class supercarriers (USA)

Kicking off the list is the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers operated by the United States Navy. With a displacement between 97,000 to 104,000 tonnes, they are veritable leviathans compared to most other ships.

The Nimitz carriers have an overall length of over 1,000 feet – about the height of the Empire State Building stood on its end! They carry some 90+ aircraft and have a flight deck the size of three football fields. Talk about crazy!

So far there have been 10 completed vessels in the Nimitz class, starting with the namesake lead ship USS Nimitz (CVN-68), commissioned in 1975. The most recent one, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), entered service in 2009. Even 45 years later, these carriers remain formidable platforms, likely to operate for another two decades thanks to nuclear propulsion and periodic upgrades.

Fun fact: The USS Nimitz fighter jet crews had to be specially trained for taking off and landing on such an enormous carrier! Most had never flown on anything nearly as big.

Gerald R. Ford-class (USA)

The newest class of aircraft carrier serving American seaborne air power needs is the Gerald R. Ford class, with a displacement over 100,000 tonnes.

The lead ship USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) entered naval service in 2017 and brings a suite of advanced technology enhancements. It is outfitted with a new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) and features an island superstructure with an upgraded dual-band radar. Fancy!

Despite its ultra-modern vibe, the Gerald R Ford has unfortunately been plagued by various teething issues during testing and trials – highlighting the incredible complexity of a warship this gigantic. For example, there were problems with the EMALS launcher as well as weapons elevators. But specialized teams are working on fixing the gremlins so this carrier can operate at full capacity.

Fun fact: The new EMALS tech on USS Ford allows launching heavier aircraft than was possible on Nimitz-class ships before modification. We’re talking full-laden fighter jets without strain!

Queen Elizabeth-class (United Kingdom)

Crossing the pond to Europe, we encounter the spanking new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. These giants have a displacement of 65,000 to 70,000 tonnes each.

So far two vessels have entered active service – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. They are the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, able to carry approximately 40 aircraft. Notably, the Queen Elizabeth class can operate the advanced F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) stealth jets.

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As a Brit myself, I’m quite chuffed about these state-of-the-art aircraft carriers since they signal the restoration of our nation’s blue-water carrier aviation capability. The last carrier before them, HMS Illustrious, was rather small and retired in 2014 after 32 years of laudable service.

Fun fact: The Queen Elizabeth-class ships use integrated electric propulsion, enabling very high acceleration performance compared to most carriers!

Admiral Kuznetsov (Russia)

Russia’s sole aircraft carrier sailing the seas today is the Admiral Flota Sovetskovo Soyuza Kuznetsov, which I shall refer to as Admiral Kuznetsov for simplicity.

This carrier has a displacement ranging from 59,000 to a massive 67,000 tonnes depending on loadout. She entered naval service in 1995 after being built by the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.

The Admiral Kuznetsov is conventionally powered and can carry approximately 41 aircraft, including MiG-29K fighter jets and helicopters. She remains an active part of Russia’s Northern Fleet despite her age.

Fun fact: In 2017, Admiral Kuznetsov was dispatched on a combat deployment off Syria. But she lost two onboard fighter jets in just three weeks due to arrestor cable snapbacks on landing!

Type 003 Class (China)

Rising military superpower China is in the process of building up its aircraft carrier fleet to project naval power abroad. Their latest endeavor is the Type 003 Class slated to enter service in the next few years.

Though specifics remain secretive, these large aircraft carriers are estimated to have a displacement of 80,000 to 85,000 tonnes – rivaling the Nimitz and Ford classes operated by the US Navy.

Multiple Type 003 carriers are under construction currently, showcasing China’s drive toward having a blue-water navy. These warships are expected to carry electromagnetic catapults similar to the Gerald Ford class along with stealth fighter elements.

Fun fact: China has grand ambitions of ultimately fielding around 6 aircraft carriers by 2035 according to naval analysts! They aim to catch up on capability with American supercarriers.

Charles de Gaulle (France)

The only non-American carrier on this list featuring nuclear propulsion instead of conventional power is France’s Charles de Gaulle. Named after the historic French leader, she is the largest warship in western Europe.

With a displacement of 42,000 tonnes, the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier packs in some serious offensive punch for a regional power like France. She can carry approximately 40 aircraft and helicopters tailored for attack and defense roles.

The Charles de Gaulle entered naval service in 2001 after lengthy construction filled with ups and downs. But today she remains the reliable centerpiece of French expeditionary strike groups deploying worldwide.

Fun fact: In 2008, the Charles de Gaulle participated in an action-packed deployment against pirates off Somalia! Her Rafale fighter jets and armed helicopters provided a massive show of force.

Liaoning (China)

The first aircraft carrier ever commissioned into China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the Liaoning, now used primarily for training and testing concepts.

With a 60,000+ tonne displacement, she has an intriguing history…the Liaoning started life as an unfinished Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier back in the 1980s!

When the USSR collapsed politically and economically, this nearly complete hull was sold to China by Ukraine. The PLAN then spent nearly 15 years modernizing and outfitting her until finally putting the Liaoning into naval service in 2012.

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She retains the Soviet style “ski jump” short takeoff ramp, limiting aircraft fuel/weapon loadouts. But the Chinese still managed to create their first operational flattop by leveraging foreign unfinished projects!

Fun fact: It took Chinese naval architects and scientists 6 grueling years experimenting with various technologies just to create the specialized cables needed for Liaoning’s arresting gear system!

São Paulo (Brazil)

A carrier making headlines for all the wrong reasons is Brazil’s recently decommissioned São Paulo. She was purchased by the Brazilian Navy from France in 2000 after serving many years in the French fleet as Foch.

As Brazil’s first and only aircraft carrier, there were high hopes that São Paulo could provide naval aviation capability akin to larger regional powers. However, the harsh reality soon set in after integration issues and fires plagued the worn-down vessel.

With a displacement of 32,000 tons, São Paulo operated obsolete subsonic planes and a troublesome steam catapult before being retired in 2017 without replacement. Brazil has abandoned further attempts at getting carriers operational for its naval forces.

Fun fact: São Paulo was deployed on exactly zero missions carrying fixed-wing jets in all her lackluster Brazilian service! A rather sad outcome.

INS Vikramaditya (India)

The Indian Navy is another Asian military focused on building up seaborne aviation prowess via aircraft carriers, with the highlight being INS Vikramaditya launched in 2013.

With a displacement of over 45,000 tonnes, this modified Kiev-class carrier is a marked improvement over previous vintage fleet carriers operated by India. INS Vikramaditya underwent a complex $2.3 billion retrofit program in Russia to fulfill the navy’s need for up-to-date aviation capabilities.

The onboard MiG-29K multirole fighters provide strong power projection, while helicopter ops further enable anti-submarine and rescue abilities at sea never before realizable by earlier Indian carriers.

Despite a troubled refit process beset by delays and cost overruns, INS Vikramaditya represented a big step forward as India’s most modern aviation-focused surface combatant when commissioned. She remains the flagship of the fleet today.

Fun fact: In 2019, INS Vikramaditya participated in joint drills with American Nimitz-class supercarrier USS John C. Stennis. Fancy seeing those huge flattops sail together!

HMS Queen Elizabeth (United Kingdom)

The lead ship of Britain’s latest aircraft carrier class mentioned earlier also deserves a dedicated section – I introduce HMS Queen Elizabeth!

With a displacement of around 65,000 tonnes, HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest surface warship ever constructed for the Royal Navy. She together with her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales will provide formidable naval aviation power projection for the next 50 years.

HMS Queen Elizabeth has been undergoing operational sea trials and integration of the F-35B stealth fighter jet to her air wing. The aim is achieving initial operating capability very soon.

As someone who grew up in the UK, I’ve enjoyed seeing the Queen Elizabeth-class take shape as symbols of British naval prowess restored! Can’t wait till HMS Queen Elizabeth is combat ready.

Fun fact: HMS Queen Elizabeth utilizes an innovative high-voltage DC integrated electric propulsion system generating 108 megawatts of power!

Cavour (Italy)

Rounding off this global lineup of massive carriers is the flagship of Italy’s navy – Giuseppe Garibaldi, which I shall refer to as the Cavour.

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With a modest displacement of 27,000 tons, Cavour is the smallest aircraft carrier covered in this article. Her size may not be too imposing, but technical sophistication makes up for it!

The Cavour can carry roughly 10 Harrier fighter jets and helicopters to enable naval punch for Italy. She is also designed to operate drones once testing and development is complete by the navy.

Having entered service in 2008, Cavour remains Italy’s sole carrier in operation today. Her small and versatile design suits the regional operational duties required by the navy quite well!

Fun fact: Unlike most other carriers, the Cavour lacks steam catapults and utilizes a modern ski-jump flight deck for short takeoffs!

HMS Prince of Wales (United Kingdom)

Last on my list of steel leviathans ruling the waves is HMS Prince of Wales – the second Queen Elizabeth-class carrier being built for Britain’s Royal Navy.

HMS Prince of Wales shares the same 65,000 ton displacement and modern technology specs as her earlier sister vessel HMS Queen Elizabeth already mentioned.

She was officially commissioned in 2019 and has been undergoing extensive sea trials before planned active deployment later this decade. HMS Prince of Wales will no doubt serve as a capable sister ship once her flight deck is stacked with F-35B stealth fighters!

Seeing the revival of British carrier aviation with two cutting-edge warships has been marvelous for me as an Englishman. The Prince of Wales is a flattop clearly ready to serve crown and country for decades to come!

Fun fact: Construction of the HMS Prince of Wales involved 10 million man-hours of labor over six years – phew! But the effort was well worth it.

Conclusion

That caps off my review of the 12 largest aircraft carriers presently sailing the seven seas! We covered a wide gamut of naval superstructures from the classic Nimitz behemoths to Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth vessels. Despite tech variations, all remain incredible manifestations of humankind’s engineering prowess applied for military dominance.

Whether peacekeeping missions or combat roles, these floating airbases enable impressive airpower projection no matter where deployed around the world. Aircraft carriers certainly represent naval might at its prime.

Of course, I left out some older Soviet-era carriers and smaller French flattops from this biggest-of-the-bunch list. But the 12 covered here make for the most interest, at least from my standpoint as an enduring carrier buff!

Time to pour another glass of wine and fall further down the rabbit hole of aircraft carrier YouTube videos tonight…cheers!

Disclaimer:The author’s views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Contrails.us. Data and charts, if used in the article, have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Contrails.us do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendations on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

Meet the Author
Helen Garcia
Helen Garcia is a linguist and has always had her head in the clouds and her eyes on the horizon. From a young age, she was that kid gazing endlessly at planes sailing high overheard, dreaming of one day slipping the surly bonds of Earth. She got her chance to touch the heavens after high school by attending the United States Air Force Academy and becoming a pilot.

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