In July the world saw the debut of two powerful new classes of aircraft carriers, the US Navy’s USS Gerald R. Ford and the UK Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth. Both carriers push the boundaries of modern engineering and represent the first new carrier designs in decades.
But they join oceans already teeming with aircraft carriers and navy ships with helicopter decks. Both the US and UK have vital interests at sea and in ensuring freedom of navigation as they ready new carriers to secure those goals.
Here’s how the Queen Elizabeth and the Ford stack up to other carriers worldwide.
The USS Gerald R. Ford is without a doubt the largest, most powerful aircraft carrier ever put to sea. It improves on the Nimitz-class carriers that ruled the seas since the 1970s, with an improved power plant and more sophisticated systems to launch and recover planes. The US will commission the Ford on July 22.
Here's the USS Carl Vinson, one of 10 Nimitz-class carriers the US currently operates. These behemoths can carry around 70 aircraft and have been battle-tested time and time again.
A side by side view shows how the Navy plans to pack more jets on the Ford-class with subtle reconfigurations of the deck.
Unlike US carriers, the UK's Queen Elizabeth relies on diesel fuel for power and sports a ski-jump platform to give planes an extra lift during launch. But both carriers will field F-35B jets that can take off in a short distance, land vertically, and fly and fight virtually undetected.
Here's the Queen Elizabeth docked at Rosyth dockyard in Fife, Scotland. When the Queen Elizabeth is commissioned later this year, it will become the UK's only carrier, though they have a follow up planned in the same design.
The Liaoning's particulars and capabilities sound impressive. It displaces about 10,000 tons less than the Queen Elizabeth and it's only seen use as a training vessel, as the Chinese have no experience with aircraft carriers prior to the Liaoning.
China has announced it's building at least one other carrier. Here, satellite imagery shows the second carrier will have a modular design but still conform to the 'ski jump' mould of the Liaoning.
The Admiral Kuznetsov, which the Liaoning is based on, is Russia's sole aircraft carrier. The ships have the same size and speed, and they both feature the 'ski jump' platform.
The Kuznetsov carried out its first combat deployment in the Mediterranean to bolster the Syrian regime, but it has a troubled past plagued with mechanical difficulties. Everywhere it sails, a tugboat accompanies it in case it breaks down, as was the case in 2012. While flying sorties over Syria, the Kuznetsov lost at least two planes.
Here's a French-made Dassault Rafale fighter jet flying above its indigenously-built Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. Outside of the US, only France operates a nuclear-powered, flat deck aircraft carrier. That means it can launch heavy planes and stay out at sea indefinitely.
India operates two smaller aircraft carriers with a third in production, but they are a bit more reliable. India is also shopping around for a new aircraft carrier design to support future operations.
Japan has smaller 'helicopter destroyers,' or flat deck carriers that sport helicopters and short- or vertical-takeoff aircraft as well as heavy armaments and missiles.
But Japan has a trick up its sleeve. It recently launched a larger class of helicopter carrier, the Izumo class. Soon, these carriers will support the F-35B marine variant, which experts expect will provide unprecedented dominance in air and sea and will provide greater interoperability with the US and Royal navies.
Pound for pound, US and UK carriers don't carry as many weapons as their foreign counterparts, but they travel in strike groups, which include destroyers or frigates to defend them.
US carriers also use a whole team of aircraft. Transport planes handle logistics; electronic warfare squadrons back up fighters; airborne warning and control planes -- AWACS, like the E-2 Hawkeye below -- transmit huge amounts of targeting data from the sky; helicopters hunt submarines and move personnel.
And with the F-35's huge capacity to gather data, many US allies will soon get many of those capabilities with a single plane.
To put things in perspective, this graphic shows the relative sizes of aircraft carriers from around the world. the Ford class is about the same size as the Nimitz, and the Queen Elizabeth is a bit bigger than the Liaoning.
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