Intro- World war 2 replaced massive, not so effective, costly and cumbersome battleships with carriers as the mainstay of the navies. During the Cold War, many allied navies operated carriers whereas the Soviets went ahead with their own concept of cruiser-carriers. During this time USN established itself as the king of carriers by designing bigger and more efficient behemoths which could deploy all its 2 squadrons worth of aircraft at a moments notice thanks to catapult based launching system. Even after cold war ended, USN operates 11 pure aircraft carriers which 2 more than the rest of the world combined. Thus in this article we pick the top 5 aircraft carriers in service as of now. We are not considering those which have been christened but havent entered service (namely INS Vikrant). We will rate these carriers on categories namely.
1) Size of air wing
2) Composition of air wing
5) Weapons Systems.
Lets start with the USS Nimitz
USS Nimitz CVN-68
1) Size of air wing: Generally a Nimitz class CVN embarks with 60-70 aircraft and is said to have a theoretical capacity of deploying 90-100 aircraft during combat if necessary. She is only exceeded by world war 2 era carriers which carried 90 aircraft during combat albeit those aircraft were pretty small compared to modern day jets and the vessels themselves displaced less than half of what Nimitz displaces. Nimitz scores nothing but a perfect 10.
2) Composition of air wing: The variety of aircraft carried by USN carriers has gone down, but still they are capable of delivering a solid punch to an enemy on ground, air, sea surface or in the depths. Air defense, strike, mid air refuelling and electronic warfare is provided by variants of the Hornet family. The F-35C will takeover most of those roles while the MQ-25 will provide refuelling. ASW and SAR is done by variants of the Sea Hawk namely MH-60R and MH-60S. E-2D is the mainstay AEWAC for the USN where as C-2 provides much needed spares and supplies as part of its COD role. The COD will be taken over by CMV-22Bs. Again, Nimitz scores a perfect 10.
3) Configuration: Nimitz is a CATOBAR carrier ie Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery. It sports 4 catapults 2 on the bow and 2 on the waist. It can launch 2 aircraft simultaneously within minutes of another 2 using one each of the pair of catapults at the bow and waist. It also has a flaw, no 4 waist catapult is smaller than the other 3 and being closer to the edge has clearance limits, which means only Hornets could operate of that catapult. This flaw reduces a point in this category, it score 9/10 in this category.
4) Propulsion: After USS Enterprise, Nimitz was the first full fledged class of nuclear powered aircraft carriers. They can sail for decades without refueling, although they need to replenish stores of aviation fuel, spare parts and supplies for the crew. It scores a perfect 9.
5) Weapon Systems: Nimitz carries purely defensive weapons payload of ESSM and RAM in MR-SAM and SR-SAM roles. She scores 9 in this category.
Thus Nimitz accumulates 47/50 .
1) Size of air wing: As mentioned in my previous article USS Nimitz vs Heavy aircraft carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov, Admiral Kuznetsov was designed to carry 58 aircraft at peak capacity, which is little more than half of what Nimitz can carry. This vessel carried around 20 Su-33s and some helos for most of its life due to Soviet collapse. It earns 7/10 here.
2) Composition of air wing: Su-33 much like the Hornet for the USN has been jack of all trades for the Russian navy, it does air defense, buddy refueling, although not meant for strike, it is capable of doing it as well. It can carry both SAP-518 and SAP-14 EW pods and provide electronic escort. ASW is done by Ka-28s and AEW by Ka-31. Except for loss of capability in strikes and not so capable AEW aircraft, Kuznetsov has a decent air wing. It scores 8/10 thanks to Su-33 being the only fixed winged aircraft operating off the deck.
3) Configuration: Unlike the Nimitz, it is a STOBAR ie Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery. It cannot launch aircraft as quickly as the Nimitz but offers simpler operation, thus reducing operating costs and maintenance. It scores 7/10 in this category.
4) Propulsion: It relies on old fashioned boiler+steam turbine propulsion scoring 7/10 in this category. Over the years, her propulsion has been said to be problematic and the Russians are looking to either replace it a newer more modern system or add a nuclear power plant. This was supposed to be the part of a major overhaul and modernization programme which has been delayed time and again.
5) Weapon Systems: It is the only vessel in this comparison sporting on-board offensive weapons ie 12xP-700 possibly nuclear tipped heavy AShMs. Defensive weapons are short ranged missiles like Tor, whereas it sports 2 different types of CIWS ie both Kashtan and Ak-630. It scores 9/10 in this category.
Thus Admiral Kuznetsov scores 39/50
Credits-On the pic
1) Size of air wing: Being a sister of Admiral Kuznetsov she was designed to carry 58 aircraft at peak capacity, but during her decade long refit in China, reportedly her missile silos were removed to create more space which was either added to the hangar or fuel tanks. We can assume the number to be 60 ie pretty close to Kuznetsov. She scores 7/10 .
2) Composition of air wing: The PLAN has declared Initial Operational Clearance of the vessel and its air wing. J-15 is claimed to be a multirole aircraft, close to Su-33 in specifications. The Chinese use Z-9s, Z-8s and Z-18s for ASW whereas a variant of Z-18 is used for AEW. She scores 8/10 in this category.
3) Configuration: Like her sister she is also a STOBAR carrier thus scoring 7/10.
4) Propulsion: Her exact propulsion system isnt known and is a subject of speculation, most of the sources claim its similar to what Kuznetsov thus scoring 7/10.
5) Weapon Systems: She sports Chinese copy of the American RAM alongside Type 1030 CIWS which is nothing but a beefed up Goalkeeper CIWS. She has no offensive capability and no MR-SAM system, thus scoring 6/10.
Thus Liaoning scores 37.
Charles De Gaulle
1) Size of air wing: Being the smallest carrier of the top 5 doesnt mean that it will sport the smallest air wing of the top 5, it can carry a maximum of 40 aircraft whereas during peace time it carries close to 30 aircraft. She scores 6/10 in this category.
2) Composition of the air wing: It carries Rafale for air defense and strike whereas soon to be retired Super Etendards are used purely for strike. Air borne early morning is provided by E-2Cs and ASW is done by AS365 Dauphin and SAR by Cougars. It scores 10/10 for its capable air wing.
3) Configuration: Like the only other class of CVNs, it is a CATOBAR carrier as well, sporting 2 catapults, one on the waist and one on the bow. The catapults used by it are similar to those used on Nimitz. She scores 6/10 in this category.
4) Propulsion: It is the only non-American nuclear powered aircraft carrier in service today and is powered by 2 K-15 reactors. These reactors power 2 propellers while they are backed up by diesel generators. Thus scoring a perfect 10.
5) Weapon Systems: It sports Aster 15 which is a medium range SAM and is the primary onboard air defense weapon. It also has Simbad launchers for Mistral short range SAM. She scores 7/10 thanks to a decent AD system.
Thus Charles De Gaulle scores 39 out of 50 even though she is smallest carrier in the top 5.
1) Size of air wing: She sports the smallest air wing of the top 5 aircraft carriers currently in service, she can carry a maximum of 30-35 jets whereas her peace time air wing includes 12-20 MiG-29Ks and helos, thus scoring 5/10.
2) Composition of air wing: Just like Su-33 for the Russians, MiG-29K is the jack of all trades for the Indians. It does fleet air defense, strike and buddy refueling although it lacks significant EW capabilities. ASW and AEW is done by either Sea Kings or Ka-28 and Ka-31. SAR is carried out by Chetaks. She scores 8/10 due to lack of EW aircraft and a fixed winged AEWAC.
3) Configuration: Like the other 2 Russian origin carriers she is also a STOBAR carrier thus scoring 5/10 for its easy to operate but slightly less capable configuration. She gets a point less than other STOBAR carriers due to her smaller size and cruiser origin.
4 )Propulsion: Again like its Russian origin counter parts, it also has boilers and turbines for propulsion providing it a limited range. It scores 7/10 for its vintage propulsion system. Although during her sea trials, this system caused a delay of around a year when it broke down during high speed trials. This systems appears to have been fixed as she hasn’t faced problems after being commissioned.
5) Weapon Systems: INS Vikramaditya received recycled Barak-1 point defense SAM launchers from the inactive INS Godavari. This SAM along with the decoy launchers provide respectable air defense to the ship. Reportedly, she sports an impressive EW suite which makes detection tough. She scores 7/10.
INS Vikramaditya thus scores 35/50.
For more information on Vikramaditya, read INS Vikramaditya: King of the Indian Ocean
USS Ford, HMS Queen Elizabeth and Shandong are compared in: Top 5 Carriers Part 2
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