One of the most expansive and formidable naval ships in operation today is the aircraft carrier.
A warship that is capable of deploying and retrieving aircraft, the modern aircraft carrier is essentially a floating airbase. The U.S. military uses aircraft carriers to launch air missions around the world while at sea. This eliminates the need for the U.S. to rely on land bases in foreign countries for staging air operations.
Aircraft carriers are the largest ships operated by the U.S. and other naval powers such as China, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. The U.S. military is widely regarded as operating the world’s largest aircraft carriers – commonly known as "super-carriers." These super-sized aircraft carriers are often powered by nuclear reactors.
Modern aircraft carriers are so large that they are sometimes referred to as "floating cities." Many aircraft carriers are equipped with gymnasiums, movie theatres, and several cafeterias.
From Balloons to Fighter Jets
The modern aircraft carrier traces its origins to "Balloon Carriers" – ships that deployed manned hot air balloons for aerial observation during the early 20th Century. The first naval carriers that launched airplanes at sea appeared in the Second World War. These early aircraft carriers were instrumental in the Battle of the Pacific and fighting the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Today, the U.S. and other militaries regard aircraft carriers as the "capital ship of the fleet" – a position previously held by naval battleships. The current Nimitz class of U.S. super-carriers is about four times larger than the aircraft carriers deployed in the Second World War. Decades ago, governments had sought to draft treaties that would limit the size of aircraft carriers. But those restrictions have since been removed, allowing for ever larger aircraft carriers to be built.
Runways at Sea
Despite its evolution over the years, aircraft carriers continue to serve the primary function of acting as a "runway at sea" for fighter jets, helicopters and other aircraft. Current aircraft carriers have tops that operate as flight decks, enabling various aircraft to takeoff and land. Typically, aircraft takeoff from the front of the carrier and land at the rear. This requires special training on the part of pilots.
Even though aircraft carriers are the largest ships in the naval fleet and serve a critical role during combat missions, they are not equipped with the weapons found on other warships. As a result, aircraft carriers are susceptible to attacks by enemy aircraft and submarines. This requires that aircraft carriers be accompanied by other naval ships to provide protection when needed.