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What is the most advanced aircraft carrier in the world?

Aircraft carriers represent a huge advantage for any navy that operates them. They allow a nation to project air power across the seas, enabling offensive operations far from home shores. Carriers essentially take the firepower of entire air forces and locate them wherever they are needed. Naturally, in the naval arms race, nations strive to field the most advanced and capable carriers they can.

By many metrics, the United States operates the most advanced aircraft carriers in the world. The US Navy’s Nimitz-class and newer Ford-class supercarriers are leaps and bounds ahead of the small carriers operated by other nations. However, Russia and China have been working on advanced carrier designs of their own, aiming to contest American naval dominance.

Role of Aircraft Carriers

Before examining what makes an aircraft carrier advanced, it is worth looking at why they are so prized as naval assets. Carriers provide four key capabilities:

  • Power Projection – Carriers allow aircraft to operate hundreds or thousands of miles from home with ease.
  • Control of the Seas – Carrier aircraft can secure maritime supremacy in air and surface warfare.
  • Ability to Respond Globally – Carriers can rapidly deploy aircraft worldwide.
  • Deterrence – An adversary will be deterred from aggression knowing it faces carrier air power.

Modern warfare is defined by the ability to precisely strike targets across the globe using aircraft. Aircraft carriers are floating air bases that allow this to be done from the oceans. Carriers are valued for their ability to bring air power to bear far beyond a nation’s shores.

America’s Nimitz and Ford-Class Carriers

The United States Navy has operated supercarriers for decades. The ten active ships of the Nimitz-class, which displace over 100,000 tons each, were commissioned between 1975 and 2009. The newer Ford-class carriers, with the first commissioned in 2017, take capabilities even further.

Nimitz and Ford-class carriers have capacities of up to 90 aircraft each. They can accommodate fixed-wing aircraft including F/A-18 fighter jets and E-2 airborne early warning planes. The ability to launch and recover large numbers of high-performance aircraft is a hallmark of American supercarrier design.

Key Features

American supercarriers have other advanced features that enable them to launch, support and recover aircraft effectively:

  • Catapults – Steam or electromagnetic catapults rapidly launch aircraft off the deck.
  • Angled Deck – The angled flight deck allows simultaneous launch and recovery.
  • Optical Landing System – Assists pilots landing on the short deck.
  • Arresting Gear – Cables or nets rapidly decelerate landing aircraft .
  • Armored Flight Deck – Protects aircraft and ship from threats.
  • Defensive Armament – Includes missiles, guns and decoys.
  • Nuclear Propulsion – Unlimited range and endurance at over 30 knots.

These attributes enable almost continuous air operations, allowing American carriers to surge striking power as military needs dictate. No other navy can match this capability.

Carrier Air Wings

The true measure of a carrier is in its embarked air wing. Nimitz and Ford-class carriers can embark up to 90 aircraft, typically including:

Squadron Number Aircraft
Fighter 10-12 F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet
Fighter 10-12 F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet
Electronic Attack 4-5 EA-18G Growler
Early Warning 4-5 E-2 Hawkeye
Helicopter 4-5 MH-60 Seahawk
Logistics 2 C-2 Greyhound

This mix of aircraft types gives American carriers multi-role capabilities. Fighters provide air superiority and strike power. Electronic attack aircraft suppress enemy air defenses. Early warning planes extend the carrier’s sensors and communications. Helicopters conduct rescue and vertical replenishment. Logistics aircraft transfer people and cargo between ships.

The air wing composition can be modified depending on the mission. Additional capabilities can even be added, with the carrier operating as a mobile base for land-based aircraft including bombers.

Russia’s Sole Carrier – Admiral Kuznetsov

Russia’s only aircraft carrier is the Admiral Kuznetsov. This conventionally powered carrier was commissioned in 1991 and has a full displacement of around 60,000 tons. Kuznetsov was intended as the first of a class of new carriers though only one was ever built.

Kuznetsov has a maximum capacity of around 50 aircraft comprising Su-33 fighter jets and Ka-27 helicopters. These provide air defense and anti-ship capabilities. In 2016 Kuznetsov saw combat duty off Syria, launching strikes with her onboard Su-33s.

Limitations of Kuznetsov

While representing a major advancement for Russia, Kuznetsov has substantial limitations compared to American supercarriers:

  • Conventional Power – Kuznetsov lacks nuclear propulsion, limiting range and endurance.
  • Limited Launch Capability – No catapults, aircraft launch under own power.
  • Arrestor Wires Only – Cannot rapidly decelerate landing aircraft.
  • Small Air Wing – Less than 50 aircraft, no airborne early warning capability.
  • Maintenance Issues – Kuznetsov has suffered multiple mechanical defects.

With a relatively small air wing entirely reliant on short range fighter aircraft, Kuznetsov lacks the power projection capabilities of nuclear-powered American carriers. Russia aspires to build improved carriers, however funding has been lacking.

China’s Emerging Carrier Capability

The People’s Liberation Army Navy of China has operated the ex-Soviet carrier Liaoning since 2012. This 60,000 ton ship is based on the Kuznetsov design. Liaoning provides China experience with carrier flight operations as the country works to domestically produce larger and more capable ships.

The first Chinese built carrier is the Type 001A Shandong, commissioned in 2019. Shandong is conventionally powered but slightly larger than Liaoning at around 70,000 tons displacement. She can carry 36 J-15 fighter jets and helicopters. Larger and more advanced carriers are planned by China.

Chinese Carrier Plans

Reports indicate China aims to build a class of large, nuclear powered supercarriers over coming decades. These ships may have up to 110,000 tons displacement and modern capabilities such as electromagnetic catapults. Proposed names for upcoming carriers include:

  • Type 002 – Conventional power, under construction.
  • Type 003 – Nuclear powered, under construction.
  • Type 004 – Larger nuclear design, planned.

Through perseverance and technology transfer from abroad, China is steadily constructing the industrial and technical base necessary for carrier construction. Within the next 10-20 years China could potentially have several supercarriers at or approaching American standards.

Other Notable Carriers

While the United States, Russia and China operate the world’s most significant aircraft carriers, other nations also have smaller carriers:

Nation Carrier Displacement Propulsion Aircraft
France Charles de Gaulle 42,000 tons Nuclear ~40
India Vikramaditya 45,000 tons Conventional ~30
United Kingdom Queen Elizabeth 65,000 tons Conventional ~40
Italy Cavour 30,000 tons Conventional ~20

These smaller carriers have limited capabilities compared to American supercarriers. However they still provide valuable power projection for their nations’ navies.

Queen Elizabeth Class

The most notable current Western carrier program outside America is the British Queen Elizabeth class. These conventionally powered carriers of around 65,000 tons full load displacement are the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy.

Two Queen Elizabeth class ships have been built – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. These carriers have capacity for 40 aircraft and are equipped with catapults and arresting gear. They lack the range, endurance and scale of American carriers but are still highly capable.


The largest and most advanced aircraft carriers remain the American Nimitz and Ford-class supercarriers. Their nuclear propulsion, huge 100,000 ton size and ability to launch and support over 80 modern aircraft make them the undisputed leaders in carrier technology. No other navy operates anything comparable.

However, America’s monopoly on supercarrier technology is eroding. China is methodically working towards its own modern carriers to rival the US Navy. In the decades ahead, Chinese carriers could potentially approach American supremacy in size, capabilities and technology.

For now though, the United States retains a decisive advantage in numbers and quality of aircraft carriers. The ten American supercarriers, alongside other surface combatants and submarines, underpin American global naval dominance.