In the early twenty first century, many countries still see the aircraft carrier as a viable platform for projecting power – there are currently nine countries which have carriers in service: Brazil, France, India, Italy, Russia, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom and the United States.Surprisingly, China does not yet formally have a carrier in service, though this is expected to change in the next few years (the Shi-Lang is undergoing sea-trials, August 2011). Japan is also expected to join the elite group of countries which have floating naval airbases. The total number of carriers in service worldwide is currently twenty two, with half of that fleet being in US service.
At least eight countries have new carriers at the concept,design, bought/refurbish or build stages. Spain in particular has been successful in selling its ‘Principe de Asturias’ design to other countries, and China, Japan and India are developing the capability to build their own carriers – in China’s case, a nuclear powered carrier.
The advent of the naval version of the UK Sea Harrier VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircraft, used for example by India, Spain and Italy, has enabled these countries to deploy viable carrier power. With the Sea Harrier in its various forms becoming increasingly difficult to support, the US F35 family (JSF – Joint Strike Aircraft) can only increase the viability of the STOBAR carriers.
Despite the vast concentration of power and investment (both political and financial) in what many see as a very visible and vulnerable target, the aircraft carrier is a keystone of military doctrine in the armoury of these countries.
Russia, with only one operational aircraft carrier at present, is an exception. The country extends for almost 12 time zones – halfway around the world – and its perceived strategic opponents are all within the northern hemisphere. Arguably, with a fleet of modern land-based aircraft and up to date missile technology, it can therefore project its power without the need for a large carrier fleet.
Below is a table of the current (2011) world fleet. [Edit Spring 2017: China has launched its first home built carrier, the Type 001A aircraft carrier]
NB HMS Ark Royal Decommissioned 2011
(c) James Marinero 2011