The Significant Costs of Aircraft Carriers

What is an Aircraft Carrier?

An aircraft carrier is a warship that serves as a seagoing airbase, equipped with a full-length flight deck and facilities for carrying, arming, deploying, and recovering aircraft.

Countries with Aircraft Carriers

Notwithstanding the US, other countries capable of launching jet aircraft make do with smaller and less potent vessels.

Countries with aircraft carriers include:

  • US:
    • Beginning with the Forrestal-class, (CV-59 to present) all carriers commissioned into service are classified as supercarriers.
    • Has 12 supercarriers: CVN-68 (Nimitz); CVN-69 (Dwight D. Eisenhower); CVN-70 (Carl Vinson); CVN-71 (Theodore Roosevelt); CVN-72 (Abraham Lincoln); CVN-73 (George Washington); CVN-74 (John C. Stennis); CVN-75 (Harry S. Truman); CVN-76 (Ronald Reagan); CVN-77 (George H.W. Bush); CVN-78 (Gerald R. Ford); and CVN-79 (John F. Kennedy).
    • CVN-80 (Enterprise) is currently under construction.
    • CVN-81 and CVN-82 are currently on order.
    • The USS Nimitz (CVN-68) has a crew of 3,532 and air wing of 2,480. The John F. Kennedy, a Gerald R. Ford class carrier, has a crew of 4,660.
  • UK:
    • The Royal Navy has two aircraft carriers of The Queen Elizabeth class.
    • Each has a crew of approximately 700 (not including the air element).
  • China:
    • Has had ambitions to operate aircraft carriers since the 1970’s.
    • Two but plans to have six by 2035.
    • Since 1985, China has acquired four retired aircraft carriers for study: the Australian HMAS Melbourne and the ex-Soviet carriers Minsk, Kiev and Varyag.
    • The Varyag later underwent an extensive refit to be converted into the Liaoning, China’s first operational aircraft carrier, which also served as a basis for China’s subsequent design iterations.
    • As of 2018, the PLA Navy has two combat-ready aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, with a third under construction.
  • France:
    • Charles de Gaulle is the flagship of the French Navy (Marine Nationale).
    • The ship is the tenth French aircraft carrier, the first French nuclear-powered surface vessel, and the only nuclear-powered carrier completed outside of the US Navy.
    • She is named after French statesman and general Charles de Gaulle.
    • Has a crew of approximately 1,350 and an air wing of 600.
  • India:
    • Has one but aspires for three.
    • INS Vikramaditya (Sanskrit, Vikramāditya meaning “Brave as the Sun”) is a modified Kiev-class aircraft carrier and the flagship of the Indian Navy, which entered into service in 2013.
    • She was renamed in honour of Vikramaditya, a legendary emperor of India.
    • Has a crew of approximately 110 officers and 1,500 sailors.
  • Italy:
    • Has two carriers (the Cavour and Guiseppe Garibaldi).
    • A crew of approximately 550 (830 including air element) for the Guiseppe Garibaldi.
    • A crew of approximately 486 (but can be 1,200 with air element and troops).
  • Russia:
    • Has one carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, with a crew of approximately 1,500.
    • Currently undergoing refit.
  • Spain:
    • Has one multi-purpose amphibious assault ship-aircraft carrier, the Juan Carlos I.
    • Has a crew of approximately 261 (436 with the air element).
  • Japan:
    • Nil but planning to join the club.
    • In December 2018, it announced that it would convert its two Izumo-class destroyers to carry jets.
    • Upon the completion of the process, Izumo will be the first Japanese aircraft carrier since World War II.
    • A crew of approximately 970 (including troops).
  • Thailand:
    • HTMS Chakri Naruebet (CVH-911) (Thai: จักรีนฤเบศร, meaning ‘Sovereign of the Chakri Dynasty’, the Thai monarchy’s ruling family) is the flagship of the Royal Thai Navy (RTN), and Thailand’s first and only aircraft carrier.
    • Although the RTN refer to her as an Offshore Patrol Helicopter Carrier, she is the world’s smallest functioning aircraft carrier.
  • Australia:
    • Nil, but has two Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) based on the design of the Juan Carlos I.

The Cost of Building an Aircraft Carrier

  • US: The Gerald R. Ford class, the latest class, costs approximately US$11-12 billion each, with ten planned in total.
  • UK: £6.2 billion (budget for both ships) (FY2014).
  • China:
  • France: Approximately €3 billion francs.
  • India: $2.8 billion (as of 2014) for the INS Vikrant which is expected to be completed in 2021 and commissioned in 2022.
  • Italy: 500 Billion Lire (1991) for the Guiseppe Garibaldi) and €1,390 million (2010) for the Cavour.
  • Russia: ?
  • Spain: €462 million (2009).
  • Japan: ?
  • Thailand: US$285 million (1993).

The Cost of Maintaining an Aircraft Carrier

The annual cost of operating and maintaining a US Navy Nimitz-class carrier is US$726 million, not least because each has 6,000 people on board, almost twice as many as serve in the Danish navy.

The planes cost a further US$3-5 billion to procure and US$1.8 billion a year to operate – approximately 75 planes per carrier.

The capital cost of a Ford-class carrier amounts to less than 2% of America’s annual defence budget; the HMS Queen Elizabeth represents about 15% of Britain’s.

Did You Know?

  • US law requires that America has aircraft carriers.
  • US carrier planes flew 41% of America’s combat sorties in the Korean war and more than half of America’s raids on North Vietnam.
  • In the first three months of the Afghan war in 2001, US carrier-based jets mounted three quarters of all strike missions.
  • Two years later, when Turkey and Saudi Arabia refused to allow their territory to be used for attacks on Iraq, America deployed the combined might of five aircraft-carriers to mount 8,000 sorties in the first month of its invasion.
  • When Islamic State blitzed through Iraq in 2014 the USS George H.W. Bush rushed from the Arabian Sea to the Gulf. For more than a month the only air strikes against IS were launched from its deck.
  • The Charles de Gaulle is the only non-American carrier-vessel that has a catapult launch system.
  • During the August 2005 filming of Rescue Dawn, a dramatised biographical film of US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler and his capture during the Vietnam War, the flight deck of the Chakri Naruebet was used to represent the carrier USS Ranger.
  • The Chakri Naruebet is the first aircraft carrier to be operated by a Southeast Asian nation.
  • The Chakri Naruebet is the world’s smallest functioning aircraft carrier.
  • In 2006, a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric submarine stalked the USS Kitty Hawk, a carrier, so silently while she was off Okinawa in the East China Sea that the first the Americans knew of it was when it surfaced just about 8,000 metres away.
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