An aircraft carrier is a warship designed with a primary mission of deploying and recovering aircraft, acting as a seagoing airbase. Aircraft carriers thus allow a naval force to project air power great distances without having to depend on local bases for staging aircraft operations. Their mission is the operation of aircraft in an ocean environment, which provides air cover to other warships and supports operations ashore where an air base is unavailable. Aircraft carriers are easily recognizable by their large size and distinctive shape, characterized by a continuous flat deck running the length of the ship.
The Carrier Mission is to: a) provide a credible, sustainable, independent forward presence and conventional deterrence in peacetime; b) to operate as the cornerstone of joint/allied maritime expeditionary forces in times of crisis; and c) to operate and support aircraft attacks on enemies, protect friendly forces and engage in sustained independent operations in war.
Carriers are a powerful and extremely flexible part of a nation’s defense. A carrier is flexible in a way that armies and air forces are not because it can influence events merely by being seen. The power of an aircraft carrier can act as a visible deterrent to enemy aggression. A carrier is also flexible because it operates on the ocean. Unlike a land air base, no other country has to be consulted about where a carrier can go and what it can be used for because most of the ocean is considered international water and not part of any one country. This freedom allows carriers to move from one trouble spot to another quite easily. Carriers operate with a number of support and supply ships; this flotilla of ships is referred to as a carrier battle group.
A typical load of aircraft for a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier consists of the following: four squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets for air-to-air combat or ground attack; one squadron of EA-6B Prowlers for electronic warfare; one squadron of S-3B Vikings for antisubmarine warfare; one squadron of E-2C Hawkeyes for airborne early warning and command and control; and one squadron of SH-60 Seahawks for search-and-rescue and for antisubmarine warfare.
Other aircraft on board might include support airplanes and the AV-8B Harrier, the vertical takeoff and landing attack aircraft used by the Marines. This array of aircraft can strike enemy aircraft, surface ships, or submarines, as well as ground targets deep in enemy territory. Some of the carrier’s aircraft employ electronic warfare, using special electronics to jam enemy communications and to cloak U.S. forces from detection by the enemy. Because of its varied and long-range fighting capabilities, the aircraft carrier also serves a central role in maintaining sea control.
Aircraft carriers are deployed worldwide in support of U.S. interests and commitments. They can respond to global crises in ways ranging from peacetime presence to full-scale war. Together with their on-board air wings, the carriers have vital roles across the full spectrum of conflict.