The aircraft carrier is a staple of modern naval warfare. It allows for the projection of airpower on a global scale and has been used in a variety of roles, from providing air support for ground troops to launching airstrikes on enemy targets.

How did these vessels become such a crucial part of naval operations? Let’s take a look at the history of aircraft carriers, from the first to the most expensive.

The First Aircraft Carriers

So what do we mean by the first carrier?. Well many ships had been converted to plane carrying craft after their initial use was no longer needed. But true carriers have flight decks and the ability for planes to take off and land!

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The first aircraft carriers were converted from existing ships, such as the HMS Hermes in 1918 and the USS Langley in 1920. These early carriers were essentially flat decks with a few cranes to lift planes on and off the ship. They were slow, had limited storage for planes, and were susceptible to damage from rough seas. However, they proved to be useful for reconnaissance and limited bombing runs.

The first true purpose-built aircraft carrier was the HMS Argus, launched in 1917. It was designed with a large, flat flight deck and an internal hangar to store planes. The Argus was used primarily for training and experimental purposes and paved the way for future carrier designs.

HMS Argus

HMS Argus was a British aircraft carrier that served in both World War I and World War II. She was the first carrier to have a full-length flight deck and the first to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier from the outset.

Argus was launched in 1917 and initially served in the North Sea during World War I. After the war, she was used as a training carrier before being converted into a seaplane carrier in the early 1920s. In 1938, she was recommissioned as an aircraft carrier and served in the Mediterranean and Atlantic during World War II.

The Royal Navy’s HMS Argus was the first true aircraft carrier.

During the war, Argus participated in several important operations. In 1940, she was involved in the evacuation of British troops from Norway, and in 1941, she supported the invasion of Syria and Lebanon.

Later that year, she was used to ferry aircraft to Malta and provided air cover for convoys in the Mediterranean.

In 1942, Argus was transferred to the Home Fleet and was involved in operations against German battleships in Norway. She also participated in the invasion of North Africa and provided air support for the Allied landings in Sicily and Italy.

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After the war, Argus was decommissioned in 1946 and sold for scrap in 1946. Despite her relatively short service life, Argus played an important role in the development of naval aviation. She was instrumental in the establishment of the aircraft carrier as a key component of modern naval warfare.

Today, her legacy lives on in the many carriers that followed in her wake and in the continued importance of naval aviation in modern military operations.

The USS Enterprise

Perhaps the most famous aircraft carrier is the USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) is widely regarded as one of the most iconic and significant aircraft carriers in the history of the United States Navy. Commissioned in 1961, it was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and served as a symbol of American military might during the Cold War.

Design and Construction

The USS Enterprise was designed to be the largest and most powerful aircraft carrier in the world. It measured over 1,100 feet in length and had a displacement of over 90,000 tons. Its eight nuclear reactors provided virtually unlimited power, allowing the ship to operate for years without refuelling. The ship was also equipped with the latest technology, including steam catapults and advanced radar systems.

A remarkable photo of the USS Enterprise’s stern during a fire in January 1969.

The USS Enterprise was built at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Virginia, with construction beginning in 1958. The ship was launched in 1960 and commissioned in 1961. Captain Vincent P. de Poix served as its first commanding officer.

Service and Operations

The USS Enterprise’s first deployment was in the Mediterranean in 1962, where it served as part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. It went on to participate in a number of significant operations throughout its service, including the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the War on Terror.

During the Vietnam War, the USS Enterprise played a critical role in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Its aircraft launched hundreds of sorties, delivering bombs and other munitions to targets throughout the country.

It also involved in several other conflicts throughout the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1986 bombing of Libya.

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In the 1990s, the USS Enterprise underwent a major overhaul and modernisation. This included upgrades to its nuclear reactors, weapons systems, and communications equipment. It returned to service in 1995, being deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Southern Watch to enforce no-fly zones.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the USS Enterprise was once again called into action. It was deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, launching hundreds of airstrikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets.

Retirement and Legacy

After 55 years of service, the USS Enterprise was decommissioned in 2017. During its long career, the ship received numerous awards and accolades. These included the Presidential Unit Citation and the Navy Unit Commendation.

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The USS Enterprise’s legacy lives on in the many sailors and aviators who served aboard the ship over the years. Its iconic status as the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has made it a source of pride for many in the U.S. Navy.

In recognition of its historical significance, several museums and other institutions have preserved parts of the USS Enterprise for display. The ship’s island, or command centre, was donated to the National Museum of the United States Navy.

Other artifacts are on display at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.

The Largest Aircraft Carrier

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is the lead ship of the United States Navy’s newest class of aircraft carriers. It was commissioned in 2017 and is named after former U.S. President Gerald R. Ford, who served in the Navy during World War II.

Design and Construction

The USS Gerald R. Ford is a massive vessel, measuring over 1,100 feet in length and weighing over 100,000 tons. It is powered by two nuclear reactors, which provide virtually unlimited power and allow the ship to operate for years without refuelling. The ship is also equipped with the latest technology, including electromagnetic catapults and advanced radar systems.

The USS Gerald R. Ford. The largest carrier to sail the seas.

Construction of the USS Gerald R. Ford began in 2009 at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. The ship was launched in 2013 and commissioned in 2017, with Captain Richard McCormack serving as its first commanding officer.

Features and Capabilities

The USS Gerald R. Ford incorporates several new features and capabilities that were not present on previous aircraft carriers. One of the most significant of these is the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which uses electromagnetic energy instead of steam to launch aircraft from the ship’s deck. This allows for more precise and efficient launches, as well as the ability to launch a wider variety of aircraft.

The world’s largest aircraft carrier the USS Gerald R. Ford leaves harbour in 2017.

The ship also features an Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) system, which uses energy-absorbing water turbines to slow down and stop incoming aircraft. This system is designed to be more reliable and easier to maintain than the older hydraulic arresting gear used on previous carriers.

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Other new features on the USS Gerald R. Ford include an updated weapons elevator system, allowing for more efficient movement of weapons and ammunition. Another is its new Dual Band Radar system, which is capable of detecting and tracking a wide range of threats.

Operations and Deployments

The USS Gerald R. Ford has not yet been deployed on a combat mission, but it has participated in several training exercises and other operations since its commissioning. In 2020, the ship was involved in several operations in the Atlantic Ocean. This included a joint exercise with the Royal Navy and a series of tests of the ship’s new systems and capabilities.

The ship is expected to play a critical role in the U.S. Navy’s future operations, particularly in the Pacific theatre. Its advanced technology and capabilities make it a formidable presence in any conflict. It is capable of carrying a wide variety of aircraft, including fighter jets, helicopters, and unmanned drones.

Have Aircraft Carriers Ever Been Sunk?

Despite their size and advanced technology, aircraft carriers are not invincible. Several carriers have been lost in battle throughout history.

The first carrier to be sunk was the HMS Courageous, which was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1939. During World War II, the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown were both lost in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942.

The USS Lexington photographed from a Japanese plane on May 8th 1942. The ferocity of the attack can clearly be seen.

The USS Franklin was heavily damaged by a Japanese attack in 1945 and had to be decommissioned. While the USS Bunker Hill was hit by kamikaze attacks in 1945 but managed to survive. In the post-World War II era, several other carriers were lost or damaged such as HMS Invincible during the Falklands War and the USS Stark during the Iran-Iraq War.

However, despite these losses, aircraft carriers remain a vital part of modern naval operations. They provide a mobile airbase that can be deployed anywhere in the world and can support a variety of missions. The size and capabilities of modern aircraft carriers make them difficult targets. They are equipped with advanced defensive systems to protect against threats such as missiles and torpedoes.

The Future

The future of aircraft carriers is likely to be shaped by advances in technology and changing geopolitical dynamics. While the role of carriers as a key component of naval power projection is likely to remain unchanged. But, the design and capabilities are likely to evolve to meet new challenges and opportunities.

One of the key trends in carrier design is likely to be a greater emphasis on automation and unmanned systems. This could include the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as unmanned surface and subsurface vessels for support roles such as mine clearance.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, The cutting edge in Royal Navy aircraft carrier design. What does the future hold?

Another trend is likely to be a greater focus on long-range strike capabilities. This could involve the use of hypersonic missiles and other advanced weapons systems, as well as the development of carrier-based drones capable of carrying out precision strikes against land-based targets.

Finally, carriers are likely to continue to play a key role in power projection in contested environments, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region where tensions between major powers are on the rise.

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In summary, while the future of aircraft carriers is uncertain, they are likely to continue to be an essential tool of naval power projection for decades to come. With a greater emphasis on automation, long-range strike capabilities, and operating in contested environments their role seems stronger than ever.

From humble beginnings as converted ships to the massive, technologically advanced vessels of today, aircraft carriers have come a long way. The first carriers were limited in their capabilities, but they provided a platform for experimentation.