It is a natural human desire to build things bigger, faster and stronger then what came before. In the military world, this adage has held true over the centuries as various nations and states sought to build the biggest militaries with the strongest weaponry. Perhaps nowhere is this competitive nature more evident than in the navies of the various countries. Having a numerically large navy is a symbol of wealth and power. It also reflects that nation’s ability to influence the rest of the world or impose its will on others. With the introduction of airpower, nuclear weapons and space technology throughout the 20th Century, the role of the navy changed somewhat. That said, a capable navy remains an important tool to move your forces around the world, control an area of water or send a political message to another state.
Within the navies of the world, an assortment of ships make up the fleet. From tankers and supply ships to cruisers and aircraft carriers, navies are composed of a lot of different kinds of vessels. Unsurprisingly, it’s the big ships that tend to get all the attention. After all, it is the big ships which tend to have the biggest guns, the most missiles and the most aircraft. Outside of nuclear weapons, large naval vessels are the ultimate expression of a country’s power and ability. The country with the newest and biggest ship usually leaves the competition scrambling to catch up. A little over 100 years ago, the British demonstrated this when they built the HMS Dreadnaught, the first ‘modern’ battleship of massive size, speed and armament. It set off an arms race as every other power desperately moved to build their own fleet of Dreadnaught style ships. To this day, the powers of the world have continued to compete to see who could build the biggest, best armed, most capable and modern warships.
The ships of today dwarf most of the biggest warships built during the Second World War. In terms of tonnage, even the 72,000 ton Yamato class battleship of the Imperial Japanese Navy – the largest warship of World War 2 – falls well short of the 100,000 ton aircraft carriers which have become the norm in the US Navy. The following list is not about tonnage but, instead, gives the largest current classes of warships based on length because in this world, size does matter.
10 Izumo Class (Japan) – 813 feet
Although only one ship in this class has been completed, Japan plans on building at least one more for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. The Izumo is a helicopter carrier whose main military purpose is to hunt down enemy submarines and destroy them. It can carry up to 14 helicopters or 400 troops and a few dozen vehicles. Costing approximately $1.2 billion a piece, the Izumo class are the most modern ship in the Japanese fleet and the largest that Japan has built since the Second World War. Other than the sub-hunting helicopters, this class of warship has no offensive armament and sports only a few short range guns and surface-to-air missiles for defensive purposes. The Chinese government has argued that the Izumos could operate more offensive aircraft, like the F-35 stealth fighter, with little modification. These claims have been rejected, as such an act would violate the constitution of Japan which forbids offensive weaponry.
9 Kirov Class (Russia) – 827 feet
Unlike the Izumo class, Russia’s nuclear powered battle-cruisers of the Kirov Class are anything but defensive in purpose. Built and commissioned between the late 1970s and 1990s, there were only four vessels of this class built as it is estimated each ship cost well over the present-day equivalent of $2 billion. Currently, one is fully operational while the other three are going through a modernization before being returned to service. The Kirovs are truly impressive in terms of weaponry. They carry supersonic anti-ship missiles with a range of 500km, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles to shoot down enemy missiles and planes, as well as an assortment of anti-submarine weaponry. The size of these vessels shocked Western observers and military planners to point where the United States re-activated and modernized its four World-War Two era Iowa class battleships.
8 Wasp Class (USA) – 831 feet
During the Second World War, the United States Navy and Marine Corps learned the importance of having specialized ships and equipment for getting troops ashore on hostile territory. This requirement has held true over the decades since and the United States has invested considerable money into ensuring it has the ships capable of inserting and supporting forces in hostile areas. From 1989 to 2009, the eight ships of the Wasp class were commissioned into service at the cost of around $750 million each. In addition to its 1200 crew, these amphibious assault ships can carry nearly 1900 marines, dozens of assault craft, helicopters, tanks and armored assault vehicles. In addition to supporting operations in the Middle-East and Asia, ships of the Wasp Class have taken part in humanitarian missions and disaster relief.
7 America Class (USA) – 844 feet
Like the Wasp Class, the America Class is a type of amphibious assault vessel used by the United States. The USS America, the first of this newest class of ship, is larger, more modern and, at $3.4 billion, much more expensive than those of the preceding class. Much of this cost increase is a result of ensuring that these new assault ships can operate larger and newer aircraft, such as the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter and the MV-22 Osprey transport. This makes the new America class ships nearly as capable as a small aircraft carrier. In terms of airpower, depending on the mission being undertaken, these ships also carry an assortment of transport, assault and attack helicopters. All of this is in addition to nearly 1,700 marines, tanks, artillery and other vehicles which can be carried.
6 Charles de Gaulle Class (France) – 858 feet
So far the only ship in her class, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is the first nuclear powered French surface ship and the only nuclear powered carrier currently deployed outside of the US Navy. After considerable delay and economic slowdowns, the carrier was finally commissioned in 2001 at the cost of approximately $4 billion. In addition to light guns and missiles for defense, this French carrier can operate 40 aircraft and sail for over 20 years before it needs refueling. The Charles de Gaulle has faced its challenges, including broken propellers, poor construction, high radioactivity from the reactors and a flight deck that was initially too short to operate the desired aircraft. Nonetheless, once the kinks were worked out, the carrier took part in operations around the world, including the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
5 Modified-Clemenceau Class (Brazil) – 869 feet
From 1961 to 2000, the French Navy operated two of the Clemenceau class aircraft carriers. When the time came for France to modernize, one ship was scrapped while the other (Foch) was sold to the Brazilian Navy in 2000 for $12 million. The Foch was renamed São Paulo. Since its purchase, the São Paulo has undergone numerous and extensive upgrades to its flight-deck, engines, sensors and defensive weaponry. Unsurprisingly, most of these enhancements have been provided by French companies. It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the São Paulo since its introduction to the Brazilian Navy. In 2005 and 2012 fires broke out onboard the ship, killing and injuring a number of crewman. Currently, the ship can carry 39 aircraft with the A-4 Skyhawk providing the offensive capability.
4 Modified-Kiev Class (India) – 930 feet
The INS Vikramaditya is currently one of two aircraft carriers in the Indian Navy. The ship began its life as the Baku in the Soviet Navy in 1987. By 1996, Russia decided that its budget could not support a Soviet-era military and the country moved to scrap or sell a considerable amount of military equipment. In 2004, the Baku was purchased by India for $2.35 billion. As part of the deal, Russia agreed to modify the ship to Indian needs and equip it with Russian aircraft. These changes included stripping the heavy armament and adding a ski-jump ramp at the end of the flight deck to transform the Soviet-era cruiser-carrier into a full aircraft carrier. In 2013, the carrier was commissioned into the Indian Navy as the INS Vikramaditya with the capability to operate 36 aircraft.
3 Modified-Admiral Kuznetsov Class (China) – 999 feet
The PLAN Liaoning is the first aircraft carrier to enter service with China. The ship was originally named the Riga during its time in Soviet service. Renamed Varyag in 1990, the carrier was deemed surplus to Russia needs as it no longer fit with the Russian post-Soviet military budget. China purchased the stripped down carrier from Ukraine in 1998 for $25 million under the story that it would be turned into a floating casino. Everyone knew such a cover-story was ridiculous and military analysts were not surprised when the carrier was commissioned into Chinese service as the Liaoning in 2012. The carrier is fitted with defenses against missiles, aircraft and submarines, as well as the ability to operate 30 fixed wing aircraft. As the Liaoning is China’s first carrier, it is primarily used to train pilots for carrier service.
2 Admiral Kuznetsov Class (Russia) – 1001 feet
Unlike American aircraft carriers, Soviet-Russian aircraft carriers were often equipped with heavy offensive-defensive weaponry. This weaponry includes heavy long-range anti-ship missiles, dozens (if not hundreds) of SAMs and some form of anti-submarine weaponry – all in addition to the aircraft they carried. The Admiral Kuznetsov class fit this formula well and is considered to actually be a Heavy-Aircraft-Carrying-Cruiser. The Admiral Kuznetsov is the only remaining ship of this class – the other being sold to China. This carrier was commissioned into service in 1990 and remains Russia’s only true aircraft carrier. In terms of aircraft, the Admiral Kuznetsov can operate over 30 fixed wing aircraft and a dozen helicopters.
1 Nimitz Class (USA) – 1092 feet
The aircraft carriers of the Nimitz Class are the largest warships currently in service in the world. At around $4.5 billion each, these carriers are the most expensive ship on this list. The ten ships of this class help the United States flex its military muscle around the world. Aside from military matters, these 100,000 ton super-carriers have also provided humanitarian relief from the Indonesian tsunami in 2004 to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Nimitz carriers can operate 85 to 90 aircraft, substantially more than any other carrier in the world. They also have the usual array of missiles and guns meant to protect against enemy missiles and aircraft. It is expected that each carrier from this class will serve for 50 years before being decommissioned. In the meantime, the US Navy has already begun the building the Gerald R. Ford class, an even bigger aircraft carrier with a price tag estimated to be between $9-12 billion.