Aircraft Carrier by Configuration
There are four main configurations of aircraft carrier in service in the world’s navies, divided by the way that aircraft take off and land:
- Catapult-assisted take-off but arrested-recovery (CATOBAR): these carriers generally carry the largest, heaviest, and most heavily armed aircraft, although smaller CATOBAR carriers may have other limitations (weight capacity of aircraft elevator, etc.). Three nations currently operate carriers of this type: ten by the United States, and one each by France and Brazil for a total of twelve in service.
- Short take-off but arrested-recovery (STOBAR): these carriers are generally limited to carrying lighter fixed-wing aircraft with more limited payloads. STOBAR carrier air wings, such as the Sukhoi Su-33 and future Mikoyan MiG-29K wings of Admiral Kuznetsov are often geared primarily towards air superiority and fleet defense roles rather than strike/power projection tasks, which require heavier payloads (bombs and air-to-ground missiles). Currently, Russia, China, and India possess commissioned carriers of this type.
- Short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL): limited to carrying STOVL aircraft. STOVL aircraft, such as the Harrier Jump Jet family and Yakovlev Yak-38 generally have very limited payloads, lower performance, and high fuel consumption when compared with conventional fixed-wing aircraft; however, a new generation of STOVL aircraft, currently consisting of the F-35B has much improved performance. This type of aircraft carrier is currently in service with Italy. Spain also operates one amphibious assault ship as a STOVL aircraft carrier for three ships total in active carrier service; Thailand has one active STOVL carrier but it no longer has any operational STOVL aircraft in inventory. Some also count the nine US amphibious assault ships in their secondary light carrier role boosting the overall total to thirteen.
- Helicopter carrier: Helicopter carriers have a similar appearance to other aircraft carriers and may have regular fixed wing operations. Some are designed for addition of, or may include, a ski jump ramp allowing for STOVL operations or may have an unused ski jump installed before retirement of STOVL aircraft and re-purposing. In the past conventional carriers were converted and called commando carriers. Some helicopter carriers with a resistant flight surface can operate VTOL jets. Currently the majority of helicopter carriers, but not all, are classified as amphibious assault ships, tasked with landing and supporting ground forces on enemy territory. The US has nine of this type, France and Japan three, Australia two, the UK one, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) one and Spain one. The US and Spain’s amphibious assault ships operate STOVL jets in normal deployment.