The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 not only marked the entry of the United States into World War II, but also the ascendancy of the aircraft carrier. The devastating strike—on a distant naval base thousands of miles away from the Japanese homeland—set the tone for four more years of carrier-centric warfare as the U.S. Navy regrouped, built a vast new fleet of aircraft carriers, and brought the fight all the way back to Japan.
Eighty years later, the carrier is still the dominant platform at sea. Aircraft carriers have remained dominant because they’re floating airfields for the real weapon: carrier aircraft. A carrier can upgrade to the newest military tech simply by freighting the newest aircraft. Jet engines, radar, guided missiles, nuclear weapons, stealth, and cruise missiles are all examples of technology easily absorbed by carriers, making them more relevant and deadly than ever.
Today, a new era of great power competition is seeing more countries field aircraft carriers than ever before. Longtime carrier operators like the United Kingdom and Japan have restarted flat-top production, while countries such as China, South Korea, and Turkey are building their first-ever carriers.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of about 22 carriers, across 20 ship classes, from 13 different countries. Roughly 80 percent of those ships are in operation, and the rest are either in development or currently under construction. The message is clear: if you want to be taken seriously as a naval power, you need an aircraft carrier.
In 1998, the Royal Navy commissioned the landing platform helicopter HMS Ocean. Ocean, a 21,500-ton warship that is 667 feet long, featured a full-length flight deck and flight-control island. Although it looked the part of a carrier, it was actually a floating helicopter platform for the Royal Marines. An amphibious ship with limited self-defense capability, it could also embark up to six Apache attack helicopters for an offensive punch.
In 2018, the Royal Navy decommissioned Ocean, which the Brazilian Navy quickly snatched up. Renamed Atlántico, she was recently redesignated a “multipurpose aircraft carrier.” In the absence of crewed aircraft, the Brazilian Navy intends to experiment with operating fixed-wing, medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drones from the ship. Eventually, Atlántico could fly MALE drones outfitted for reconnaissance and strike missions. Atlántico is the only aircraft carrier based in South America.
China operates two aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong.
The Soviet Union originally ordered an unfinished aircraft carrier. After the Soviet Union's collapse, it transferred the ship to China, whereupon it went through a lengthy modernization. The ship was commissioned Liaoning in 2012. It displaces up to 67,000 tons fully loaded and is 999 feet long. Liaoning can operate up to 26 Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighters and another 12 helicopters, for a total air wing of 38 to 40 aircraft. Liaoning is a training ship intended to teach China’s first generation of naval aviators and China’s navy in carrier operations.
Shandong, commissioned in 2019, is nearly identical. But, it was built from the bottom up in a Chinese shipyard. Both Liaoning and Shandong carry the same number of planes. Both utilize bow-mounted ski ramps instead of catapults to launch aircraft, limiting the payload of their fighter jets and preventing them from launching piston-engine aircraft. Unlike Liaoning, Shandong is a fully operational carrier capable of combat operations.
China is currently building a third carrier, tentatively named Type 003, at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. Type 003 will be approximately the same size as the two previous carriers and carry about 40 aircraft. It is also expected to use an electromagnetic system to launch aircraft, allowing it to operate a more varied air wing, including drones and piston-engine aircraft. The Department of Defense estimates the carrier will enter service in 2024. China may eventually build as many as six carriers, enough to match the U.S. Pacific Fleet, though American carriers are much more capable.
China is also building a variant of its Type 075 amphibious ships as a drone aircraft carrier. The Type 076 will displace approximately 40,000 tons and measure 778 feet long. The ship will be designed to launch and recover landing craft from the sea. Unlike the Type 075, which reserves its flight deck for helicopter operations, Type 076 will launch and recover drones, likely to provide air support and an unblinking eye in the sky overseeing an amphibious landing.
FS Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle is France’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Although construction began during the Cold War, the ship only became fully operational in 2001. De Gaulle displaces 45,000 fully equipped and is 858 feet long. De Gaulle’s mix of up to 40 Rafale-M multi-role fighters, E-2 Hawkeye airborne command-and-control aircraft, and naval helicopters makes it the most capable carrier outside the U.S. Navy. The carrier participated in combat operations against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001 and 2002 and against the Islamic State in the 2010s.
Charles de Gaulle was meant to be one of two carriers, but France never built the second one, leaving the country without a carrier when the ship is in drydock. It is scheduled to be replaced in the 2030s with a new carrier, currently designated Porte-Avions Nouvelle Génération (PANG). At 75,000 tons, the new ship will be 50 percent larger and operate a mixture of manned aircraft and drones.
INS Vikramaditya, Vikrant
India, a longtime operator of aircraft carriers, currently operates just one: INS Vikramaditya. Originally built for the Soviet Navy, Vikramaditya was later refitted as an angled-deck aircraft carrier, complete with catapults and arresting gear, for the Indian Navy. The carrier is in the same size and weight class as Shandong and de Gaulle, displacing 45,000 tons and capable of operating up to 28 MiG-29K multi-role strike fighters and Kamov helicopters, for a total of up to 40 fixed-wing and rotary aircraft.
A second aircraft carrier, Vikrant, is scheduled to be commissioned in 2022. Vikrant, India’s first locally produced carrier, is approximately the same size as sister ship Vikramaditya. Two carriers will ensure that India could surge up to two ships in a crisis, while maintaining at least one in ready condition while the other is in drydock.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, Cavour
The Italian Navy currently operates two aircraft carriers. The first, Giuseppe Garibaldi, is a 13,930-ton, 590-foot-long carrier that can operate up to 18 AV-8B II+ Harrier jump jets. Garibaldi, commissioned in 1985, is a veteran of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan, the war in Afghanistan, and the 2011 intervention in Libya.
She is scheduled to be replaced in 2022 by the new amphibious assault ship Trieste. Trieste, modeled on the U.S. Navy’s Wasp-class amphibious ships, will have both a well deck for transporting Italian marines by watercraft, and a full-length flight deck to accommodate the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.
The second carrier, Cavour, is the flagship of the Italian Navy. Commissioned in 2009, Cavour is also equipped with a well deck capable of launching and recovering landing craft, hovercraft, and amphibious vehicles. In July 2021, after a lengthy refit, she became the first Italian warship to launch and recover F-35B fighter jets. Cavour will be able to carry up to 12 F-35Bs and a dozen helicopters at a time. Italy will purchase 30 F-35Bs, evenly split between the Italian Navy and Air Force.
Once the largest and most proficient operator of aircraft carriers, Japan is building its first new carrier in nearly 80 years. Japan, whose post-war pacifist sentiment banned aircraft carriers as tools of offensive warfare, has done an about-face and is now embracing them—but purely as defensive weapons.
In 2018, citing concerns about the growing Chinese Navy and the construction of China’s own carriers, Japan announced it would convert helicopter carriers Izumo and Kaga into ships capable of launching and recovering F-35B Joint-Strike Fighters. The conversion process includes fitting flight decks with aviation lighting; squaring the rear of the flight deck; adding fixed-wing ammunition, fuel, and maintenance facilities; and a heat-resistant flight-deck coating designed to handle an F-35B’s downward-facing thrust nozzle. Each will carry about a dozen, and perhaps as many as 16, F-35B fighters.
In October 2021, a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B fighter jet landed on the partially converted Izumo, marking the first fixed-wing aircraft landing on a Japanese ship since World War II. Japan plans to purchase 42 F-35Bs, flying them from the ships and island bases in order to counter Chinese military flights near its western airspace.
The largest conventionally powered carrier in the world, Admiral Kuznetsov is also Russia’s only flat-top. Built at Ukraine’s Nikolayev shipyards during the Cold War, Kuznetsov displaces 58,000 tons and is 1,000 feet long. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the ship saw little use, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the ship as a symbol of Russia’s resurgence on the world stage, using it to show off the country’s flag and sending it to Syria on combat deployments.
Kuznetsov is notionally a capable ship, with the ability to embark up to 24 Su-33 Flanker-D and MiG-29K fighter jets and six helicopters. However, the ship is old and has suffered from neglect and sheer bad luck. Kuznetsov has broken down at sea, suffered an electrical fire that killed one crewman, caught fire in drydock, and lost its drydock when the floating dock PD-50 abruptly sank. The ship is nearing the end of a multi-year upgrade, though, and is scheduled to return to the fleet in late 2023.
South Korea is the latest naval power seeking to build aircraft carriers. The carrier, tentatively known as CVX, will be a conventionally powered warship and the country’s first fixed-wing aircraft carrier. Seoul has signed development deals with European shipbuilders Babock International and Fincantieri, companies with experience developing British and Italian carriers.
Early concept designs depict a full-length flight deck, aviation elevators, and a ski ramp to launch aircraft. The ship is depicted with two island superstructures, much like HMS Queen Elizabeth, in order to increase available flight deck space. CVX will carry a mixed air wing of F-35 fighters, attack helicopters, and utility helicopters. South Korea has 20 F-35Bs on order.
Juan Carlos I
Spain’s Juan Carlos I is a mixed amphibious/light aircraft carrier designed for expeditionary operations. The ship, which features both the ability to land troops by sea and air, is equipped with a ski ramp to facilitate the launch of Harrier fighter jets. The 757-foot-long, 26,000-ton Juan Carlos I is the only ship of its class. Spain’s Harrier fighters are aging quickly, but Madrid has denied plans to purchase the F-35B fighter. If it does not, the ship could lose its air wing and turn into a purely amphibious warfare vessel.
HTMS Chakri Naruebet
The only aircraft carrier native to southeast Asia, HTMS Chakri Naruebet was built in Spain and is the flagship of the Thai Navy. Chakri Naruebet is the smallest carrier in the world, displacing just 11,000 tons and measuring 599 feet long. When completed in 1997, it carried six AV-8S Harrier fighter jets and six SH-60 Seahawk helicopters. It also features royal accommodations fit for Thailand’s King.
Thailand’s carrier has been the victim of neglect over the past two decades, rarely leaving port. Its six Harrier fighters have been retired for lack of spare parts.
TCG Anadolu, TCG Trakya
Like Spain, Turkey has one mixed amphibious/light aircraft carrier, TCG Anadolu. Anadolu is physically and dimensionally similar to Spain’s Juan Carlos I, and was built using technology from the same Spanish shipyard. The ship is equipped not only with aviation facilities (including a ski ramp), but the ability to launch and recover amphibious landing craft from a floodable well deck.
Turkey was ejected from the F-35 program when President Recep Erdogan purchased air-defense missiles from Russia, leaving it unable to equip Anadolu with the fifth-generation fighter jet. Instead, the country plans to equip it with Bayraktar TB3 uncrewed aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs). The TB3 is a folding wing version of the TB2 UCAV used in combat in Libya, Armenia, and Ukraine and can be used in strike, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles. Turkey plans to equip the ship with an air wing of up to 50 TB3s, giving it technically an air wing only second in numbers to American supercarriers.
Turkey is also planning a second carrier, TCG Trakya, and recently indicated the new ship will be even larger than the first.
HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Prince of Wales
In the late 2000s, the United Kingdom set out to revamp its fixed-wing carrier capability, replacing four aging Invincible-class anti-submarine warfare carriers with larger, more capable ships. The result is the Queen Elizabeth-class, consisting of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The two carriers are the largest warships ever to serve in the Royal Navy.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales both displace approximately 72,000 tons fully loaded and measure 920 feet long. The ships use a conventional propulsion system, like South Korea’s CVX, that splits the ships’ island superstructure into two distinct structures. The 12.5-degree ski ramp affixed to the front bow gives a boost to F-35B fighter jets, allowing them to take off with more fuel and munitions, though not as many as if the ships were equipped with an aircraft catapult. The ships will typically embark 20 to 24 F-35Bs with provisions to carry up to 36 in emergencies.
In mid-2021, HMS Queen Elizabeth embarked on her first cruise as the centerpiece of Carrier Strike Group 21. CSG21 sailed as far east as Guam, conducting combat missions against the Islamic State, and sailed in the South China Sea alongside U.S. and other allied warships.
United States of America
Nimitz and Ford classes
The U.S. Navy operates two classes of so-called “supercarriers,” the Nimitz and Ford classes. The Nimitz-class, consisting of ten ships, weighs a whopping 105,000 tons fully loaded and is 1,092 feet long. The Ford-class, consisting of USS Gerald R. Ford, is roughly the same weight and size, but includes next-generation technology such as an electromagnetic aircraft launch system, advanced arresting gear for recovering planes, a new Dual-Band Radar, and electromagnetic weapons handling elevators. Both classes normally accommodate up to 75 aircraft, including 40 to 44 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters.
The Navy has committed to building at least five Ford-class carriers and will likely build up to 11, fully replacing the Nimitz-class ships by 2050.
Wasp and America classes
In addition to supercarriers, the Navy also operates a mixed fleet of nine Wasp- and America-class amphibious ships. These ships include a full-length flight deck, elevators, and an island for aviation operations. The Wasp-class also includes a well deck for embarking and disembarking amphibious landing craft. Each weighs 45,000 tons fully loaded and is 844 feet long. The ships, nicknamed “gators,” normally carry 10 F-35Bs, but can carry up to 20 F-35Bs in a purely aviation role.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.