An aircraft carrier is a warship with a full-length flight deck and facilities for carrying, arming, deploying, and recovering aircraft that serves as a seagoing airbase.
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Typically, it is the capital ship of a fleet, as it allows a naval force to project air power worldwide without depending on local bases for staging aircraft operations. It is extremely expensive to build and important to protect. Aircraft carriers have evolved from converted cruisers to nuclear-powered warships that carry numerous fighter planes, strike aircraft, helicopters, and other types of aircraft.
There is no single definition of an "aircraft carrier", and modern navies use several variants of the type. These variants are sometimes categorized as sub-types of aircraft carriers, and sometimes as distinct types of naval aviation-capable ships. Aircraft carriers may be classified according to the type of aircraft they carry and their operational assignments. Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, former head of the Royal Navy, has said that "To put it simply, countries that aspire to strategic international influence have aircraft carriers".
Carriers have evolved since their inception in the early twentieth century from wooden vessels used to deploy balloons to nuclear-powered warships that carry dozens of aircraft, including fighter jets and helicopters. As of 19 March 2015, there are thirty-seven active aircraft carriers in the world within twelve navies. The United States Navy has ten large nuclear-powered carriers, known as supercarriers, carrying up to ninety aircraft, the largest carriers in the world. As well as the supercarrier fleet, the US Navy has nine amphibious assault ships used primarily for helicopters (sometimes called helicopter carriers); these can also carry up to twenty-five fighter jets, and in some cases are as large as some other nations' fixed-wing carriers.
The 1903 advent of heavier-than-air fixed-wing aircraft was closely followed in 1910 by the first experimental take-off of an airplane, made from the deck of a United States Navy vessel (cruiser USS Birmingham), and the first experimental landings were conducted in 1911. On 9 May 1912 the first airplane take-off from a ship underway was made from the deck of the British Royal Navy's HMS Hibernia. Seaplane tender support ships came next, with the French Foudre of 1911. In September 1914 the Imperial Japanese Navy Wakamiya conducted the world's first successful ship-launched air raid: on 6 September 1914 a Farman aircraft launched by Wakamiya attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth and the German gunboat Jaguar in Kiaochow Bay off Tsingtao; neither was hit.
The development of flattop vessels produced the first large fleet ships. In 1918, HMS Argus became the world's first carrier capable of launching and recovering naval aircraft. As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which limited the construction of new heavy surface combat ships, most early aircraft carriers were conversions of ships that were laid down (or had served) as different ship types: cargo ships, cruisers, battle cruisers, or battleships. These conversions gave rise to Lexington-class aircraft carriers (1927), Akagi and Courageous-class. Specialist carrier evolution was well underway, with several navies ordering and building warships that were purposefully designed to function as aircraft carriers by the mid-1920s, resulting in the commissioning of ships such as Hōshō (1922), HMS Hermes (1924), and Béarn (1927). During World War II, these ships would become the backbone of the carrier forces of the United States, British, and Japanese navies, known as fleet carriers.
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