It’s Illegal for the US Navy to Have Less Than 11 Aircraft Carriers in Its Fleet

Photo Credit: Lt. Steve Smith / U.S. Navy / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Lt. Steve Smith / U.S. Navy / Getty Images

The advent of the aircraft carrier forever changed how militaries conduct warfare. Before, aircraft were limited to operations close to shore, but the introduction of these large ships allowed them to deploy from anywhere in the ocean – even with no land in sight. While it might be assumed the world’s navies operate however many of the vessels they can acquire, the reality is that, in the case of the US Navy, there’s a law mandating how many it must have in its fleet.

What are the US Navy’s aircraft carriers?

USS Nimitz (CVN-68) at sea
USS Nimitz (CVN-68), 2009. (Photo Credit: United State Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Presently, the US Navy operates 11 aircraft carriers: 10 Nimitz-class vessels and one from the newer Gerald R. Ford class. The latter will eventually replace the former, as its ships are beginning to show their age – the first was commissioned in 1975, after all!

All 11 carriers are nuclear-powered. The complete list is:

  • USS Nimitz (CVN-68) – Commissioned in May 1975.
  • USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) – Commissioned in October 1977.
  • USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) – Commissioned in March 1982.
  • USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) – Commissioned in October 1986.
  • USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) – Commissioned in November 1989.
  • USS George Washington (CVN-73) – Commissioned in July 1992.
  • USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) – Commissioned in December 1995.
  • USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) – Commissioned in July 1998.
  • USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) – Commissioned in July 2003.
  • USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) – Commissioned in January 2009.
  • USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) – Commissioned in July 2017.

Why does the US Navy need exactly 11 aircraft carriers?

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) at sea
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), 2004. (Photo Credit: Danielle Sosa / U.S. Navy / Getty Images)

The US Congress passed the law that dictates the number of aircraft carriers the US Navy must equip, and there’s just one thing in mind when it comes to this: national safety.

As The National Interest explains, the government wants to ensure the Navy – and, by extension, the military as a whole – can operate in various theaters at once. Too low a number runs the risk that something bad could happen in an area not afforded protection simply due to a lack of equipment.

The current number of aircraft carriers is a figure retired Adm. John Aquilino, the former head of US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), agrees with. In March 2021, he told the US Senate, “I think currently that the size of that force is correct unless additional challenges show themselves.”

Fluctuating numbers over the years

Aerial view of the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at sea
USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), 2023. (Photo Credit: Andrej Tarfila / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images)

While the law currently states that the US Navy needs to have 11 aircraft carriers in its fleet, this requirement has fluctuated over the years. It used to be 15, with this number later being reduced to 12 to minimize the cost of upkeep and acquiring new vessels – as Forbes explains, the military was okay with accepting the increased risk that came with such a decrease.

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That being said, the Navy is allowed to dip below the legally-required number, if Congress grants permission. This occurred in the 2010s, when the fleet was reduced to just 10 aircraft carriers between the decommissioning of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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