Here’s What You Need to Remember: Pundits and analysts have predicted the obsolescence and demise of the aircraft carrier since the waning days of World War II. At the moment, however, the Russian, Indian, British, Chinese, French, and American navies continue to put faith, and resources, into carrier aviation.
The first true aircraft carriers entered service at the end of World War I, as the Royal Navy converted several of its excess warships into large, floating airfields. During the interwar period, Japan and the United States would make their own conversions, and all three navies would supplement these ships with purpose-built carriers. Within months of the beginning of hostilities in September 1939, the carrier demonstrated its worth in a variety of maritime tasks.
By the end of 1941, carriers would become the world’s dominant capital ship. These are the five most lethal carriers to serve in the world’s navies, selected on the basis of their contribution to critical operations, and on their longevity and resilience.
The U.S. Navy supplemented Lexington and Saratoga, the most effective of the interwar battlecruiser conversions, with the purpose-built USS Ranger. Experience with all three ships demonstrated that the next purpose-built class would require a larger hull and flight deck, as well as a heavier anti-aircraft armament. This resulted in USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise, which along with their third sister (USS Hornet) would play a critical role in stopping the Imperial Japanese Navy’s advance in 1942. Capable of cruising at 33 knots, Enterprise displaced around 24,000 tons and could carry up to 90 aircraft.
While both Hornet and Yorktown were lost in the carrier battles of 1942, Enterprise served throughout the entire war. She helped search for the Japanese fleet in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and carried out the first reprisal raids in the early months of the war. She escorted Hornet on the Doolittle Raid, then helped sink four Japanese flattops at the Battle of Midway. She filled a crucial role during the Battles of Guadalcanal, surviving several near-catastrophic Japanese attacks.
Later in the war, Enterprise operated with the growing American carrier fleet as it formed core of the counter-offensive that would roll up Japanese possessions in the Pacific. Enterprise fought at Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, helping to destroy the heart of Japanese naval aviation. She served in the final raids against Japan in 1945 until a kamikaze caused critical damage in May. Returning to service just as the war ended, she helped return American soldiers to the United States in Operation Magic Carpet. Enterprise was the most decorated ship in any navy during World War II, but sadly post-war preservation efforts failed, and the carrier was scrapped in 1960.
Between September 1939 and April 1942, the Royal Navy lost five of its seven pre-war aircraft carriers. HMS Illustrious and her three sisters filled the gap. Laid down in 1937, Illustrious traded aircraft complement for an armored deck, an innovation that would make the ship more robust than her Japanese or American counterparts. Displacing 23,000 tons, Illustrious could make 30 knots and carrying 36 aircraft.
Illustrious’ first major achievement came in November 1940, when her Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked the battleships of the Italian navy at anchor at Taranto. The attack, carried out on a shoestring compared to the great raids of the Pacific War, nevertheless managed to sink or heavily damage three Italian battleships. Illustrious spent the next few months carrying out raids in the Mediterranean and covering the evacuation of Greece. In the course of the latter, she survived several hits from German divebombers.
After receiving repairs in the United States, Illustrious operated against the Japanese in the Indian Ocean. She returned to the European theater in 1943, making additional raids on Norway and in support of Allied landings in Italy. Later Illustrious returned to the Pacific, where supplied with superior American carrier aircraft, she helped spearhead the Royal Navy counter-offensive into Southeast Asia. After surviving a kamikaze attack, she returned to Great Britain and eventually served as a training carrier before being scrapped in 1957.
Zuikaku represented the zenith of pre-war Japanese carrier development. Along with her sister Shokaku, Zuikaku filled out Kido Butai with the addition of two large, fast, modern carriers. Displacing 32,000 tons and capable of carrying 72 aircraft, Zuikaku could make 34 knots, and absorb a relatively large amount of battle damage.
The size and modernity of the carriers meant that they could handle a greater operational tempo early in the war. After the Pearl Harbor raid, they participated in the Indian Ocean Raid, helping to sink the British carrier Hermes and several other ships. Afterward, Zuikaku and her sister deployed to Port Moresby to cover Japanese landings in what became the Battle of Coral Sea. Zuikaku survived undamaged, and contributed to the sinking of USS Lexington, but because of a lack of aircraft could not participate in the Battle of Midway.
Zuikaku continued to form the core of the Japanese carrier fleet into 1944, participating in and surviving the battles of Guadalcanal (where her aircraft helped sink USS Hornet) and the Battle of Philippine Sea. By October 1944, her supply of aircraft and pilots was almost completely exhausted. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Zuikaku and several other carriers served as bait for Halsey’s battleships and carriers, luring them away from the center of the Japanese attack. The last survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, Zuikaku sank under a barrage of bombs and torpedoes.
USS Midway entered service in September 1945, shortly after the end of hostilities against Japan. She displaced 45,000 tons, could make 33 knots, and could carry roughly 100 aircraft. Midway and her sisters represented a step beyond the Essex-class carriers that had won the Pacific War, and promised to introduce a new era of naval aviation.
Upon commissioning, Midway became the world’s most lethal aircraft carrier. The offensive power of her air group exceeded that of the Essex carriers then in service, and with the introduction of jet aircraft the gap would grow. With the A-2 Savage carrier-based bomber, Midway and her sisters briefly became the only carriers in the world capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Midway underwent extensive modification over the course of her career, eventually acquiring an angled flight deck and other innovations. Although she missed Korea, Midway operated off Vietnam, and continued to serve as the larger “supercarriers” came online. She found heavy use in the Gulf War of 1990, as her (relative) small size gave her an advantage in maneuverability over the more modern supercarriers. Midway left service in 1992, having spanned the history of naval aviation from the F6F Hellcat to the F/A-18 Hornet.
USS Theodore Roosevelt:
The ten Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers have been the world’s dominant capital ships since they began to enter service in the late 1970s. Constructed over a period spanning nearly 35 years, the class continues to provide the core of American naval power. Among the most active of the Nimitz class has been the USS Theodore Roosevelt, first of the second group of ships. Roosevelt entered service in 1986; she displaces over 100,000 tons, carries between 75-80 aircraft, and can make 30 knots top speed.
Roosevelt has served in most of the conflicts of the post Cold-War era. In 1991 she launched strikes against Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Storm. In 1999, her aircraft conducted strikes in Kosovo and Serbia in service of Operation Allied Force. After the September 11 attacks, Roosevelt deployed to the Middle East and participated in the first sorties against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Operation Enduring Freedom. Two years later, her aircraft flew against Iraqi targets again in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After a refit, Roosevelt launched strikes against both Afghan and Iraqi targets in the latter part of the decade. Most recently, Roosevelt helped blockade Yemeni ports against a suspected Iranian arms convoy.
Like her sister ships, Roosevelt has already undergone substantial modification across the course of her thirty year career, and the Navy expects that these refits will continue into the future. Current projections suggest that she will leave service around 2035, which would give the carrier a nearly fifty-year span of lethality.
Pundits and analysts have predicted the obsolescence and demise of the aircraft carrier since the waning days of World War II. At the moment, however, the Russian, Indian, British, Chinese, French, and American navies continue to put faith, and resources, into carrier aviation. Despite the vulnerability of the big ships to attack, they provide a unique combination of presence, prestige, and lethality that continues to make them attractive to the world’s most powerful navies.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.