On 10–11 November 1940, during a British attack on Taranto, and on 7 December 1941, with a Japanese strike at Pearl Harbor, aircraft carriers proved their worth and opened a dramatic new era at sea. Carriers played leading roles in almost all of the major sea battles of the Pacific theater during the war, including the Coral Sea, Midway, and Leyte Gulf. The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first engagement that pitted fleets in battle out of sight of the other, the fighting being carried out by aircraft alone. Aircraft carriers could deliver more firepower than even the largest battleships. During World War II, carriers came to replace battleships as the indispensable capital ships of modern naval warfare.
In the post–World War II period, aircraft carriers were both enlarged and improved technologically. But because of the great expense involved in building and maintaining carriers, some U.S. policymakers, still skeptical of their true value, sought to limit their production. President Harry S. Truman's administration, for example, canceled construction of the carrier United States in 1949, leading to the so-called Revolt of the Admirals. But little more than a year later, aircraft carriers in the Far East proved invaluable in projecting U.S./United Nations airpower into the Korean War. Carriers again proved their worth during the Vietnam War, providing floating air bases from which to launch air combat missions well inland.
During the Cold War, U.S. carriers served two primary functions, first as a weapons system for land attacks and second as a defensive system to protect the larger fleet from submarine, surface, and airborne threats from both aircraft and missiles. Generally, a larger carrier costs less per aircraft embarked than a smaller one, and it can also launch larger aircraft, which themselves can dominate wider areas. Moreover, such aircraft carriers usually deliver a lower cost per unit of ordnance or per unit of defensive capability. The larger carriers can also carry more ammunition and fuel, are outfitted with more sophisticated electronic countermeasures, and have more armor protection than the smaller aircraft carriers.
In wartime, power projection and naval striking capacity are integral to naval strategy. Aircraft carriers are routinely deployed as a show of force to an area of potential conflict and can also be rapidly deployed to another region of the world should a crisis erupt, ready to operate as a navy's most credible, sustainable, and independent base to launch everything from unobtrusive surveillance to devastating air strikes. A carrier with a complement of fifty attack aircraft can deliver more than 150 strikes per day against littoral targets. Together with their onboard air wings, aircraft carriers play vital roles across the full spectrum of naval strategy, deployable worldwide in support of national interests or allied combat missions.
It is important to note that the ability of an aircraft carrier to remain on station in international waters for extended periods of time is dependent upon naval support forces. Although large aircraft carriers can carry great quantities of fuel, food, and spare parts for sustained, unsupported operations, these stocks must still be replenished on a periodic basis.
Carriers built during the Cold War were larger than their World War II predecessors. They also featured armored flight decks. The introduction of jet aircraft posed potentially serious problems because they possessed heavier weight, slower acceleration, and higher landing speeds and had greater fuel consumption than piston-driven aircraft. A number of British innovations contributed to the solution of these problems: the steam-powered catapult, the angled flight deck, the mirrored landing-signal system, and the ski-jump deck and V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing) airplane. The ski-jump carrier permits a small ship to operate V/STOL aircraft, such as the Hawker-Siddeley Harrier, at the limits of its lifting potential. In September 1960, the United States launched the world's first nuclear-powered carrier, the Enterprise. Nuclear engines made voyages of up to 1 million miles possible without the need for refueling. When commissioned, the Enterprise was the largest warship in the world, and it was the second nuclear-powered surface warship to enter service behind the U.S. cruiser Long Beach.
The immense cost of such large super aircraft carriers has essentially put them out of reach of the British, Russians, and French. The small V/STOL carrier is all the sea-based air capability that most navies can afford, and the United States is alone in its use of the super multipurpose carriers.
Carriers may be roughly segmented into three classifications: the super carriers, such as the U.S. Navy's CNV Nimitz–class (102,000 tons, fully loaded) and CV Kitty Hawk–class (93,960 tons); the middle class, such as the French Charles de Gaulle (42,000 tons) and the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov (58,500 tons); and the V/STOL-class, exemplified by the British Invincible (20,600 tons), the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi (13,850 tons) and Andrea Doria (26,500 tons estimated, under construction), the Spanish Principe de Asturias (17,188 tons), the Indian Viraat (ex-Royal Navy Hermes, 28,700 tons) and Vikrant (38,000 tons reported, under construction), the Russian modified Kiev-class Vikramaditya (ex- Admiral Gorshkov) (23,900 tons), and the Thai Chakri Naruebet (11,485 tons).
Jane's Fighting Ships. London: Jane's Information Group, 2004.; Fontenoy, Paul. Aircraft Carriers. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.; Friedman, Norman. Carrier Air Power. New York: Routledge, 1981.; Hobbs, David. Aircraft Carriers of the Royal and Commonwealth Navies: The Complete Encyclopedia from World War I to the Present. London: Greenhill, 1996.