World Aircraft Carriers (1951 - 2020)

World Aircraft Carriers 1951-2020
All non-US carriers operating fixed-wing aircraft (click to enlarge)

The aircraft carrier has been the ultimate expression of naval power since World War II. Able to engage air, surface, and subsurface targets from hundreds of miles away, the carrier is a highly versatile class of warship and even a small number of carriers can turn the tide of an entire war. However, these ships (and the aircraft that they carry) are extremely expensive and only a handful of navies have ever operated them. Since the end of World War II, only 14 nations have operated a carrier with fixed-wing aircraft and no more than 9 nations have done so simultaneously.

The above chart covers all non-US aircraft carriers operating fixed-wing aircraft from 1951-2020. I have not only excluded helicopter carriers, but also attempted to avoid counting commissioned ships that did not have available aircraft (for instance, I did not count the Soviet Kiev-class ships after 1991, when their Yak-38 fighters were phased out). I specifically began this chart with 1950 rather than 1945, because it took a few years for the world's navies to come back into equilibrium after World War II. By 1950, there had been enough time for the large victorious navies to demobilize, and for the battered navies to get their feet back under them. Further, 1950 marked the beginning of the Korean War, and with it the larger Cold War, marking the beginning of a new era in history.

Not only is it interesting to see the rise and fall of the different national carrier fleets, but there are also some global trends worth noting. The most significant of these is the "three-peak" nature of the chart. We see carrier numbers spiking in the 1950's and the 1980's, as well as the beginning of a third crest today. This stands in sharp contrast to the all too common narrative that carriers are declining in value and number. However, the reasons behind this three peak shape are tied to greater strategic and technical changes in the world during the periods in question.

The first of the three peaks comes soon after the start of the chart. This peak was primarily the result of the still sizable British carrier fleet, combined with surplus ships being sold to allies. At this point Britain was still possessed the second largest navy in the world and had not yet given up on her colonial holdings, while Commonwealth nations of Australia and Canada also operated another trio of carriers between them (most of which were actually loaned to them by Britain). On top of this solid base, we also see France building her own carrier fleet with a pair of surplus American Independence-class light carriers and an old British escort carrier, while the Netherlands also operated a single surplus British carrier.

But the first peak was short-lived as a bankrupt Britain began divesting herself of her global navy, and by 1960, half of the British carrier fleet was gone. However, the overall decline in carrier numbers was somewhat arrested thanks to several new powers joining the game. Argentina, Brazil, and India all received their first carriers in this period, beginning the democratization of carriers away from the traditional European naval powers. By the 1970's, the transition had been completed - the British and French carrier fleets remained the most capable in the world outside of the US, but they now represented less than half of the global carrier inventory.

The Yak-38, the unsung hero of late Cold War carrier aviation

The late 1970's also saw a new development that radically changed carrier aviation - VSTOL (vertical/short take of or landing) aircraft in the form of the Harrier and the Yak-38. While these short-ranged subsonic fighters were extremely limited compared to proper catapult-launched carrier aircraft such as the F-14, they significantly reduced the cost of entry for having fixed-wing carrier aircraft and reversed the ongoing decline of the world's carrier inventory. Interestingly, despite the iconic nature of British Harriers, Britain was actually late to the game of putting VSTOL aircraft to sea. The original nation to do so was Spain in 1973, using her first carrier Dedalo (formerly USS Cabot).

But while Spain may have been the first, the VSTOL revolution really took off when the USSR entered the carrier game with the four Kiev-class ships and the Yak-38 fighter. This development coincided with the growing blue-water Soviet Navy, creating a threat that the West then had to respond with more carriers of its own. By the end of the Cold War in 1991, only 3 of the world's 14 carriers still used traditional catapults and arresting gear.

When the Cold War ended, there was surprisingly little draw down of the world's carrier fleets. While the Yak-38 was removed from naval service in 1991, eliminating the Soviet carrier fleet, the rest of the world's carrier inventory went virtually untouched - events such as the Falklands War and the Balkans had amply demonstrated the great value of even small carriers. But while their military utility was unmatched, even VSTOL carriers remained expensive to operate and the world's carrier inventory took a deep cut in 2010 when the British Harrier fleet was retired.

Today, we are experiencing the beginning of the the third peak. After a decade's absence, Britain has reentered the game with her new Queen Elizabeth-class ships, and China has begun commissioning her first carriers. Further, Japan is in the process of modifying her two Izumo-class helicopter carriers to operated F-35B fighters, India will soon launch her first indigenous carrier, and even South Korea has recently announced plans for a VSTOL carrier of her own. With these developments, it is likely that there will soon be nearly as many operational fixed-wing carriers as there were at the height of the Cold War.


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