Large aircraft carriers compared


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This isn’t an exhaustive comparison, just picking on a few obvious aspects to compare. It’s also completely amateur and web-research based so constructive feedback welcome. All drawings are by me.

I have no objections to anyone reposting this on any other forum or website but please give credit where due and please re-host the images.

Introducing the carriers
There are only four countries operating conventional aircraft carriers:

Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia
Built in the 1980s at the height of Soviet military power this carrier was designed more as an aircraft-carrying cruiser, as a bigger and better accompaniment to the Kirov ‘battlecruisers’. Like the Kirov, the primary role was surface warfare against the USN carrier battle groups, with the massive 12 P-700 ‘Granit’ (NATO “Shipwreck”) supersonic anti-ship missiles. These have a stated range of 625km and packed a 750kg warhead (or 500kt tactical-nuclear); they are very real carrier sinking missiles.

But, and this is a big but, the emphasis on carrying long range anti-ship missiles comes at the cost of the carrier’s other role; aircraft. The main jets carried are Su-33 Flankers, a naval version of the Su-27. These are air-combat fighters with only very rudimentary air-ground capability. Their role is fleet defense, not power projection.

Nimitz, USA
The Nimitz class nuclear carrier is the carrier by which all are measured. And US Navy has 11 ‘super carriers’ which is 10 more large carriers than anyone else. Not all are Nimitz class but I’m going to use Nimitz as the “typical” US carrier for this comparison.

NAe Sao Paulo, Brazil
The forgotten large carrier, Brazil’s Sao Paulo was formerly France’s Foch. The 32,0800 ton carrier acts mainly as a training ship to get the Brazilian navy into the mould of operating combat jets from carriers.

Charles De Gaulle, France
A nuclear powered carrier designed to replace the Clemenceau class, this class is noteworthy in that it has a nuclear deterrent role with ASMP tactical nuclear missiles carried by its Super Etendard fighters. The design gets a lot of criticism but all-in-all it is a very potent adversary should you face the Frogs.

The Comparisons!!!!

Air wing bias and force mix

I’ve no real interest in pissing contests between the Flanker and Super-Hornet etc. But I am curious as to how the force mix of say air-combat fighters and ASW aircraft illustrate doctrinal differences between navies. Of course legacy procurement plans, budgets and systems availability are all also factors; but nonetheless navies have made certain choices to invest in certain capabilities to the determent to others. For example, whether to carry X combat jets or Y combat jets and Z anti-submarine aircraft.

Typical air wings (not maximum!!!!)

As you can see the Nimitz carries by far the most aircraft. It’s important to note that none of the air-wings depicted represent the maximum capacity of the carrier. Simply put, large aircraft carriers are capable of accommodating and operating far more aircraft than is militarily necessary:

Obviously the lack of strike-capable aircraft on the Admiral Kruznetsov is out of choice not capability, reflecting a completely different naval doctrine than the Americans. It is well within Russia’s means to upgrade the Su-33s to a similar standard to the Su-27SM, able to carry anti-ship, anti-radar and precision strike weapons and also enhance the air-air capability. A more likely event is for new-build Su-33s to enter service with a true multi-role capability. This is actually likely to happen in the next few years as the production line for the Su-33s will reopen following an order from China which will reduce costs for a piggy-back domestic order. At any rate if Russia does build more carriers (as they claim) then they’ll need more Su-33s or an alternative. Sukhoi did develop a naval strike version of the Su-33 dubbed the Su-27KUB with a side-by-side seating arrangement similar to the Su-32 Fullback. This aircraft was described as a trainer but the interdiction suitability is obvious, although range and weapons load would be inhibited by the STOBAR (Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery) configuration.

Another factor is that the Kruznetsov could easily handle another squadron of Su-33s.

One curiosity is that I think it makes sense to illustrate the Kruznetsov’s ‘Granit’ missiles alongside the air wing for context. In the USSR naval doctrine the Kruznetsov was essentially just a cruiser capable of providing air defense and ASW aircraft to support a fleet centered around destroying NATO surface and submarine fleets. It was not intended for “power projection” as the Nimitz’s multirole air-wing shows. The ‘Granit’ missiles were almost the size of a jet fighter and more than capable of sinking any aircraft carrier, and half their support vessels at the same time, even with a near miss thanks to a 500kt tactical nuclear warhead. It’s not clear whether the nuke was air-burst, in which case conventional CIWS would have been pointless, or impact fused like ordinary anti-ship missiles. Also, many of the ‘Granit’s carried conventional warheads of 750kg in lieu of the nuke, enough to sink most ships including potentially a carrier depending on the circumstances of impact. For context that’s more than triple the bang of a Harpoon. In the case of the 500kt nuke, that’s over 2 million times a Harpoon’s bang(!!!!).

Whilst Granit certainly wins on sheer power, its range sounds more impressive than it is. 625km is certainly a lot for a missile, but not that much compared to an aircraft. Therefore air-launched missiles allow the carrier to be further away from the target to launch an attack. The following very simplistic illustration shows relative distances for the Russian, US and French carriers respectively.

Note that I used
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website to calculate the radar horizons, assuming a target height of 30m.

The Kuznetsov can launch from 625km away but needs a means of targeting the enemy. Because the radar horizon of the Kruznetsov is only about 52km, this must be done by other units. Targeting can be done by warships closer, intelligence sources, or aircraft. In the latter case a Tu-95 Bear reconnaissance aircraft is an obvious candidate. The range at which a Bear can detect a surface target will vary depending on its altitude (the globe is round!). Giving the Bear the benefit of the doubt this might be as far as 675km, although in a heavy electronic warfare environment this would be much shorter. Either way 675km is still well within the intercept range of US or French carrier fighters.

It seems probable that a Granit could be shot down by the US’s AEGIS system using Standard SM-2ER or SM-2MR missiles. And even if the missile penetrated closer in it has to get through the ESSM and RAM barriers. I’d suggest that the Phalanx CIWS would be small comfort against a Granit. To maximize the chances of getting through multiple Granits would be used, hunting like a pack. It’s claimed that the Granit can network together so that only one missile needs to pop-up for radar searches, thus reducing the detectability of the others in the pack. However, let’s not forget that a near-miss with a 500kt nuclear weapon might not be enough.

The regular shipboard anti-submarine helicopter of the Russian navy, the Ka-27 Helix, can be used for targeting. Although Kruznetsov carries 18 of these, they are too short ranged to target the Granit at its maximum range, and their own radars is likely to be quite weak meaning that the Helix probably has to penetrate the AEGIS screen to detect the carrier! Brave pilots!

The USN’s air-launched Harpoon missile gives the Nimitz extra reach, which is also true of the French AM-39 Exocet. The Exocet is an older missile, arguably the first of the modern breed of sea-skimming anti-ship missiles, but suffers from relatively short range due to its rocket motor. Coupled with the older and weaker radar on the Super-Etendard aircraft this leaves the launch aircraft extremely vulnerable to interception by aircraft or missiles because it needs to get relatively close to the target vessel. The Rafale can also carry the Exocet which will certainly be a more survivable proposition against a modern adversary, but for the moment the Rafale is primarily used for air defense.

Another curiosity is that as whilst the Russian’s have neglected strike aircraft, they embark a massive fleet of anti-submarine aircraft; 18 vs 6 on the Nimitz. These helicopters are relatively short ranged (about 200km combat radius) but drastically increase the survivability of the carrier when faced with its true nemesis; the nuclear powered attack sub. In fact, Russia like France and US regularly deploys attack subs as the first line of defense of the carrier group.

(excludes Granit.)

Look at typical air-defence loads:

Although the Flanker has a brilliant reputation, the Su-33 version operated from the Kruznetsov is a 1980s variant and the weapons have not been heavily modernized. Although it can carry the R-27 family of missiles including the extremely long ranged R-27EM missile which is claimed to be able to intercept cruise missiles at wave-top height, it does not carry the more modern active-radar guided R-77 “Adder” missile. Another shortcoming is that because it is operating off a ski-jump it cannot take-off with a full weapons load or fuel load, although if it used the rear-most take-off position for maximum run-up it can probably carry more than many observers credit. However, what this means is that despite the Flanker’s impressive range and 12 hardpoints, it is likely to be operating on a relatively short combat radius (translates to shorter combat-air-patrols(CAP)) and with fewer missiles.
The F-18E/F (technically “F/A” but I hate that) Super-Hornet however is fresh out of the factory and can carry the potent AMRAAM active-radar missiles and the AIM-9X dogfighting missile which at least compares to the R-73 carried by the Flanker. I’ll be honest, the Super-hornet is a boring design. But it can carry double-rail AMRAAMs (conceptually up to 14; 6 under each wing and two on the fuselage!) and is now deploying with an Active Electronically Surveyed Array (AESA) radar.

However, only approximately half the F-18s on the carriers are “Supers”, the rest are still the older and less potent F/A-18C/D version. Even these can carry AMRAAM for air-defence though. Of course the Super-Hornet’s main role isn’t air defence, it’s a strike platform. Perhaps as China and Russia become more adventurous in their naval exercises this profile might change.

The Rafale carries the French MICA series of missile which are very potent but shorter ranged than the AMRAAM. Rafale has yet to receive AESA but is nonetheless as 4.5 generation fighter. The Rafales are multi-role aircraft and will also carry SCALP cruise missiles, Exocet anti-ship missiles and smart bombs. However, with the cheaper to operate Super-Etendards still on board the French navy has not been in any great hurry to train or realise this capability. This will change in the next few years as the Super-Etendards come to the end of their useful life. Certainly the Rafale is comparable to the F-18E in every respect.

The Brazilian’s conduct air defence with the Skyhawk using AIM-9 Sidewinders. Lacking an intercept radar, and without AEW support, this combination is inadequate at best. The main role of the AF-1 (A-4KU) Skyhawk is “training” a future carrier capability but with no purchase of a replacement carrier fighter in sight (Rafale, MiG-29k Fulcrums or surplus F/A-18Cs would be feasible) the obsolete Skyhawks look set to soldier on. I’ve previously listed the Skyhawks as ground attack aircraft because their air-defence capability really is that poor, but even in strike they only carry dumb bombs and rockets.

Air wings: Conclusion
Overall, the US carriers with their Super-Hornets/Hornets have a clear advantage, both in technology and numbers. Rafale is an excellent aircraft but France is holding back on fully utilizing its capabilities. A modernization of the Su-33 could certainly close the gap but for now the Russian carrier air-wing is a bit dated, and small. If Russia increased the Flankers carried they soon run out of airframes. Brazil is impotent.

Organic Air-defence excl. aircraft
The primary form of air-defence for a carrier are its combat jets. Next would be the area-air-defence SAMs of specialized air-defence escorts. But because the ships are so valuable, and such likely targets, they need close-in anti-missile defenses of their own.

This is the aspect where Kruznetsov is the clear winner.

The obvious loser is the Sao Paulo with zero air-defences. It’s surprising that Brazil hasn’t sought to fit even the cheapest and most basic AAA.

We could stop there but let’s go on. Just looking at Close-in-weapons-systems the Kruznetsov has 14 whilst the other two carriers have just 2 apiece:

A comparison of engagement zones of shipboard guns/missiles:

And a visualization of the relative numbers of missiles carried:

Air defences: Conclusion
So the short answer is that Kruznetsov has by far the most vast armory of air-defences, but that Charles De Gaulle has the furthest reaching and most sophisticated (the Aster-15 is active radar guided!).

And now that we have decided that Kruznetsov is by far the most heavily defended, let’s get some context. This is a scale illustration of the relative air-defence zones of the SAMs of the carriers and their typical escorts. The US carriers have by far the most and most-capable escorts although France and Russia can claim some credibility with small numbers of excellent air-defence warships of their own. The French Horizon class is only now entering service and carriers a longer ranged version of the incredible Aster missile. The Russian escorts shown have older versions of the S-300 “Grumble” SAM but one of the Kirovs carries a much longer ranged version.

Once again the Sao Paulo is left very vulnerable to air-attack with no credible area-air-defence escorts.

Deck layout and flight operations efficiency

Obviously the efficiency with which a ship operates is largely down to crew training, experience, equipment and similar aspects. However the underlying design and layout of the flightdeck has a huge impact also.

In general terms the bigger a flight deck is the easier it is to operate a given number of aircraft. Having said that, all of the carriers compared will rarely if ever carry a full air wing, either because it’s deemed unnecessary (US/France) or because there simply aren’t enough of the right planes in the navy (Russia, Brazil).

Another basic truth is that the number, size and position of the deck lifts (to move aircraft between the hanger and the deck) is important. More and bigger is better, and placed on the edges of the flight deck. Deck-centre lifts do have some advantages but nearly everyone agrees that their negative impact on flight deck movement is far worse. This is worst for Sao Paulo which only has two smallish lifts with one placed to obstruct the take-off handling. At the other end of the spectrum Nimitz has four huge lifts, one per aircraft launch position.

In terms of launch positions there is a huge debate about the relative merits of steam catapults and ski-jump ramps. Steam catapults allow heavier laden aircraft to take off, but at the cost of installation weight and complexity. Ski jumps reduce parking space on deck because you can’t park a jet on one.

It is often claimed that they also prevent large fixed wing aircraft like transports and AEW or ASW aircraft from operating. This isn’t proven and Russia did intend to use STOL AEW aircraft like the An-71 Madcap :

The Ukrainian built Madcap was dropped in favour of the yak-44 but the fall of the USSR put paid to the costly project. There was also an improved version of the Antanov An-71 design which had an ordinary tail and phased array radars along the fuselage. Yak-44:

The Yak-44 was much like a Hawkeye.

A less talked about deck space problem is missile launchers getting in the way. Two of the designs, Admiral Kuznetsov and Charles De Gaulle both have VLS on the deck! In the former’s case it is anti-ship missiles and in the latter’s SAMs.

A factor in deck utilization and efficiency, is the size of the aircraft being handled. This is even more impactful down in the confines of the hanger. At first glance the massive Su-33 is much bigger than any of the other aircraft, save the AEW/Transport aircraft like Hawkeye. But, naval architects get around this by making the aircraft fold up smaller. In the case of the Su-33, the wingspan is an incredible 49% narrower when folded. Although the Su-33 remains longer, it is actually narrower than the much lighter F-18E/F Super-hornet!

At the other end of the spectrum the A-4 (AF-1) Skyhawk is so small it doesn’t need to fold up. But it’s still wider than the Su-33(!). Although, overall the A-4 remains the smallest deck space. And length is also a premium, especially when parked on the deck. The deck layout of the Kruznetsov, with its ski-jump, doesn’t allow parking on the bow anyway, but in general aircraft are parked with their tail over the side so the shorter the aircraft, the less a row of parked ones impedes flight operations.

Deck layout: Conclusion
The largest and most versatile deck is undoubtedly the Nimitz’s.

Overall the USN’s Nimitz class carrier wins hands down, but not across the board. It’s weapons systems and sensors are inferior to the Kruznetsov and Charles De Gaulle but this is mitigated by the abundance and excellence of its escorts ; i.e. the others have a greater emphasis on sensors and defensive aids because they need them more. The obvious loser though is Sao Paulo; so much potential, such an inadequate fit and no worthwhile air-defence escorts.


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Part 2.

Large carriers not yet in service

Large aircraft carriers are a growth sector for naval shipbuilding. In a reverse of the gradual decline in operators following the second world war, a combination of recent naval lessons (for UK and France), regained pride (Russia) and new world powers (India, China) has led to a glut in new types.

Varyag, China
The Varyag (Chinese name unknown) is the sister-ship of the Kruznetsov. It was uncompleted at the collapse of the USSR and lay in Ukraine for several years before being sold to China. It was not fitted out and missing many key systems including the engines. After being towed to China it has sat in Dalian docks being refitted for several years. The pace of completion has been the source of much speculation with some people saying it’s far from complete whilst others believing she will sail any day. But, with the necessary aircraft to operate from it still to be delivered (Su-33s from China ordered in 2007) China probably isn’t in much of a hurry. Satellite image:

INS Vikramaditya, India
Although it has yet to be completed this carrier is worth comparing as it is rather unique. It is in fact a major rebuild of a Soviet Kiev class helicopter cruiser. Although the ship displaces over 40,000 tons it’s heritage provides for a relatively narrow flight deck. Certain details of its fit are still unknown but it is expected to operate MiG-29K Fulcrum multi-role fighters.

Vikrant class, India
This is Indias indigenous carrier design although it was designed with the help of an Italian shipbuilder and shows a close resemblance to the Italian Cavour design. This is however no reason to knock it! Of similar size to the Vikramaditya, it is much better optimized for flight deck operations thanks to it’s “clean sheet” approach.

Queen Elizabeth class, UK
The British CVF programme calls for the replacement of the three Illustrious class STOL carriers with two large fleet carriers. Uniquely for such large carriers these will be configured as a STOL platform but can be modified to a STOBAR or CTOL configuration.

Gerald R. Ford class, USA
The follow-on to the Nimitz class is the CVN-21 program. These are approximately the same as the Nimitz but feature and extensive modernization and deck rearrangement that moves the island (now with AEGIS phased array radars) further aft and reduces the deck-lifts from four to three.

Others not compared
Russia plans to build several more carriers and China is probably going to start building domestically designed types in the next few years. South Korea and Japan have also built new ‘carriers’ but these are too small for this comparison, being “STOL” carriers. The latest STOL carrier from Italy, Cavour, is extremely potent and intended to operate F-35s which will see the gap between “STOL” carriers and “fleet” carriers diminish. France may or may not purchase a second carrier, based on the British Queen Elizabeth type.

Typical air wings of the future carriers

The most obvious difference compared to the “in service” types is that all carry only multi-role jets.

The fit of the Chinese Varyag is most controversial. All that is known is that 50 “Su-33” fighters have been ordered from Russia. Although the specification is unknown I’d suggest that these will almost certainly have more modern avionics that the older Russia machines, and almost certainly be multi-role. Many people speculated that China would field a twin engine carrier version of the J-10. This does not appear to have materialized and at any rate the twin engine “requirement” for carrier aircraft is clearly not universal. I’ve also added some L-15 advanced supersonic trainers to the air wing. These seem a natural and cheap solution and have been shown at defence shows with short rangeTL-10 anti-ship missiles hinting at a naval use. These would be potent in close-air-support and light strike, as well as emergency air-defence (certainly better than the Brazilian Skyhawks!!).

The Indian warships were slated for naval versions of the LCA combat aircraft but this too seems to have not materialized and an upgraded version of the Russian MiG-29K Fulcrum is being delivered. Although less capable than the latest flankers, these are multi-role and feature a thoroughly modern avionics package.

The British carriers will deploy a cross-service fleet of aircraft including both Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm; FAA) and RAF F-35B VTOL fighters which will use the ski-jump but land vertically as per the Harrier. Harrier GR-9s will also deploy in the early days of operations as F-35s are still being delivered. Unlike the other carriers the air wing is likely to have an amphibious support emphasis with Apache gunships and huge Chinook and EH-101 transports. Maximum F-35s would be 36 in normal operations but probably fewer on routine deployments (as shown).

The US carrier will carry F-35C fighters and probably still the relatively new F-18E/F Super-Hornet. Exact mix not clear. Possibly USMC F-35Bs may be carried, presumably using a catapult to launch(?) but landing vertically – this might pose operational challenges.

Deck layouts:

The Varyag will have essentially the same deck layout as the Kruznesov with the probable exception of not having the Granit missile silos in the middle of the foredeck. The Obvious loser is the INS Vikramaditya which has only deck-centre lifts both of which obstruct deck operations, including the ‘basics’ like landing. The island is also sub-optimally placed relatively close to the centre of the ship. By comparison the Vikrant is relatively optimally laid out, showing what a 30,000 ton STOBAR carrier should look like.

The Queen Elizabeth class are interesting in that they will be laid out so that only vertical landings will be practical, although the deck is designed to easily accommodate an angled landing run for STOBAR operations, and the addition of catapults with minimal rebuild for CTOL operations.

Both the British and American carriers will have highly advanced deck management systems that will allow a much reduced deck crew and more efficient operations. This allows the Gerald R. Ford class to reduce the number of deck lifts to three from four. Similarly on both the British and American ship the deck lifts are large enough to carry two jets or a wider aircraft.

Shipboard air defences

We can guess that the Varyag will not be fitted with the same sensors/combat system/weapons as the Kruznetsov. Although China is an operator of both the AK-630 and Kashtan CIWS I expect that the Chinese designed Type-730 is more probable, probably just 4. The VLS silos will probably be welded over and the space used to increase the deck or more likely just for storage because China does not operate any VLS type SAMs that are as short as the Klinok; HHQ-16 is probably about 6m long.

The weapons fit of the Vikramaditya has been the cause of some debate. Although there were reports that the Russian engineers could not find space for the relatively short Barak-I anti-missile missile favoured by the Indian’s, recent photographs show that the rear AAA positions have been raised. This could be to house the vertical magazines of the Grisom missiles for the Kashtan CIWS but this would result in the CIWS being mounted very high and potentially representing a landing hazard. My guess is that the raised section is to accommodate the Barak-I SAM:

The Vikrant class will probably also carry Barak-I but probably more missiles and with three OTO-Melara 76mm guns for added protection (depending on the ammo used the 76mm guns can be regarded as anti-missile defences similar or arguably superior to a CIWS). Some reports indicate that the Vikrant class will have a similar weapons fit to the new Kolkata class air-defence destroyer, but the relatively large size of the Barak-II or Shtil-1 (SA-N-11/SA-17 “Grizzly”) missiles (about 6m long) makes this unlikely IMO.

The Queen Elizabeth class is typically shown in official graphics with three Phalanx 20mm CIWS and 3 (or more?) 30mm crewed guns. It’s going to be disappointing to many Royal navy fans that the ship isn’t better defended, perhaps with Aster-15 (as per Charles De Gaulle) or CAAM (an advanced SAM with active radar guidance and approximately 20km range, similar in concept to the MICA-VL).

The US carrier will carry a substantially better defencive suite than the current Nimitz with the more capable ESSM missile in place of the Sea Sparrow (50km range vs about 15km, anti-missile capability etc).


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Congrats on all the work you did. It's good to have all the info for all those vessels in one place. Especially with the f-35, and further blurring of the capability differences between STOVL carriers and conventional ones, smaller carriers may warrant being included in this list...

BTW, I swear i've always seen a figure of 3 E2s on De Gaulle being mentioned, never just two. As a matter of fact, a year or so ago i read an article where french wanted to/planned to change that to 4 E2s, probably taking up a spot from another aircraft.


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Great job on the comparison write-up!

The only major point that I would dispute is classification of "large aircraft carriers".

If I were to rate by tonnage:

10,000-15,000 tons: CVE
20,000-30,000 tons: Light CV
40,000-50,000 tons: Medium CV
60,000-70,000 tons: Large CV
>80,000 tons: Super CV

The NAe São Paulo, I'd probably consider a light CV. Charles de Gaulle would be medium, and Queen Elizabeth/CVF large.


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Registered Member
Truly magnificant. As I actually have sort of holiday this week, I try to give some insights and toughts for the matter as well.

Mr T

Senior Member
I'd have to disagree with all those helicopters on the QE2. Although it would probably be able to operate them, I think normally it would be limited to ASW Merlins and MASC.

Otherwise very interesting - thanks.

bd popeye

The Last Jedi
VIP Professional
Planeman, you've done an outstanding job. I have not read it all but I will at a later date.

A couple of notes.

The CVN-78 class should have electro-magnetic catapults and arresting gear.

One thing for future consideration. USN CVN's may start to carry one 10-12 plane squadron of F-35C Lightning II in the comming years as the squadrons are comissioned in addition to the 4 Hornet squadrons. Presently USN CVNs are operating with only 62 aircraft. The maxium capacity of a Nimitz is 90-92 aircraft. And yes there's enough berthing and work spaces for the entire crew.

I just remember the USMC has refused delivery of Super Hornets in the hopes of gaining more F-35s..I know they want to replace their aging Harriers with F-35Bs(STVOL) But will they accept F-35Cs to replace their aging F-18s? They may have no choice.
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Tyrant King
one other thing the Queen Elizabeth Class is supposed to be able to be retrofit with Steem Cats
and the Ford Class IS slated for the Electromagnetic Cat's

Mr T

Senior Member
one other thing the Queen Elizabeth Class is supposed to be able to be retrofit with Steem Cats
No, it has room for electo-magnetic catapults. They will not be fitted with steam turbines so there will be nothing to make the steam needed to power current catapults. Ergo it will be EM or nothing.


New Member
Didn't China agreed with Ukraine (I think?) when they bought it, not to arm and use the Varyag as an actual aircraft carrier? I thought that they were just going to use it as a training platform and wait for the planned indigenous CVs that will come into service (eventually). I haven't been here in a while so could someone please clear this up for me?