An aircraft carrier is a warship that that serves as a seagoing airbase, equipped with a full-length flight deck and facilities for storing and operating fixed wing combat aircraft.

The first airplane take-off from a ship was made from the British Royal Navy's HMS Hibernia on 9 May 1912. The Imperial Japanese Navy ship ‘Wakamiya’ was the first to launch a full air raid in September 1914. The aircraft carriers traditionally are classified by displacement tonnage and number of aircraft they can carry. Super Carriers are the largest with over 75,000 tonnes displacement and are mostly nuclear powered. Most navies operate only one or two aircraft carriers, if any.

The USA is a notable exception, with 10 super carriers. A total of 20 fleet carriers are in active service with ten navies. Additionally, the navies of Australia, Brazil, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Thailand and the United States also operate ships capable of carrying and operating Short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft like the Harrier. Top end carriers use Catapult-assisted take-off and arrested-recovery (CATOBAR). Many others like China, India and Russia use Short take-off and arrested-recovery (STOBAR) system.

India's first aircraft carrier was INS Vikrant, which was originally British Royal Navy’s HMS Hercules built in 1943, with a displacement of 20,000 tonnes, and was commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1959. It saw action during the 1971 India-Pakistan war and was finally decommissioned in January 1997. The second carrier, 28,000 ton INS Viraat, formerly Royal Navy’s HMS Hermes, was commissioned in May 1987. It sailed for last time on 23 July 2016, and will be formally decommissioned in 2017.

INS Vikramaditya, a modified Kiev-class carrier with 45,400 tonnes displacement, joined Indian Navy in 2013. Originally commissioned in 1987, it served in Russian Navy till decommissioned in 1996. Russia gave the carrier to India free of cost but charged huge amounts to refurbish and upgrade to Indian Navy requirements. It is designed with the STOBAR system, and can operate up to 34 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. MiG-29K fighter is the primary aircraft.

Indian Navy’s two carriers, Viraat and Vikramaditya, are deployed one each on the West and East coasts. The goal is to have three aircraft carriers, with two fully operational at any time, and third in refit. India is currently working on two Indigenous Aircraft Carriers (IAC) at Cochin Shipyard Limited. These are the largest warships, and the first aircraft carriers to be designed and built in India.

Work on 40,000 ton, 262 metre long INS Vikrant (IAC-I), started in 2008. It will feature STOBAR and ski-jumps, and operate jet-powered aircraft. The 30-aircraft capable carrier was floated out of its dry dock on 29 December 2011, and launched into water on 12 August 2013. It is scheduled to enter service in 2018. Vikrant will fly MiG-29K and Naval variant of HAL Tejas LCA, and many helicopters.

The Steel Authority of India (SAIL) supplied the carrier-grade steel for the hull, flight deck and floor compartments. 90% of the body work has been designed and Made-in-India, and about 50% of the propulsion system, and about 30% of the fighting capability of the carrier was Indian.

The second carrier 65,000 ton INS Vishal (IAC-II) would be able to take larger aircraft. The Naval Design Bureau is preparing the design concept and implementation plans and may seek Russian help to integrate the Russian aircraft. It would be able to operate the Tejas Mk II, DRDO’s under-development AMCA and AURA UAV, and some mid-air refuelling aircraft. It may also use the latest American Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) CATOBAR which will allow launch of heavier aircraft in shorter distance.

The US has specially cleared the developer General Atomics to give a system demonstration to Indian Navy. This would help Indian navy to leapfrog a generation of technology. India would be the only non-treaty ally to get the system. USA had earlier helped in certification, and quality testing for IAC-I Vikrant. INS Vishal is planned to enter service by 2025. Nuclear propulsion is also being considered. Meanwhile Russia has offered its latest Shtorm-class (Project 23000E) aircraft carrier for sale to India.

It is best for India to pursue the indigenous route with assistance only in core areas.

It is interesting to see how carriers are evolving elsewhere. The US fleet of Nimitz-class carriers is being replaced by Gerald R. Ford class carriers with EMALS and unmanned aircraft. The first Gerald class joins service in 2016.

Russia is planning two Shtorm-class aircraft carriers with a goal of beginning construction of first by 2018 and operational by 2023. Both these 80,000 tons, nuclear-powered carriers will in service by 2027. They will use hybrid CATOBAR and STOBAR system. Their aircraft carriers are designed to conduct operations in remote and oceanic areas, engage land-based and sea-borne enemy targets, ensure the operational stability of naval forces, protect landing troops, and provide the anti-aircraft defence.

At the end of Cold war, China realised the need of a stronger navy and turned their attention towards the seas and began initially developing a green-water navy to take on littoral zones. People's Liberation Army Navy took delivery from Russia of China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (refurbished Kuznetsov class Riga) in September 2012. This 60,000 ton ship can accommodate 33 fixed wing aircraft.

By September 2015, China started constructing its first 270 metre long indigenous carrier. China has plans to build one 110,000 ton aircraft carrier, essentially a larger version of the Liaoning. The PLA Navy plans to establish three aircraft carrier battle groups by 2020. One each will be deployed in the East China Sea, and the South China Sea, and one under refit. Pakistan Navy doesn't need, nor can afford aircraft carriers. South Korea also has plans for two light aircraft carriers by 2036. The British royal Navy is constructing two new 70,000 ton STOVL aircraft carriers. The ships are due to become operational by 2020. They will operate the F-35-B.

Notwithstanding the high costs, conceptually, the aircraft carriers are here to stay. The Indian Navy is on the right track.