How Long Does It Take to Build an Aircraft Carrier?

The USS Abraham Lincoln is 1,092 feet (332.8 meters) long. It has a displacement (the volume of water displaced by the ship) of 103,000 tons. [1] If you’re like me, upon seeing one of these carriers in person, you may wonder how long did it take to be built?

How long does it take to build an aircraft carrier? On average, it will take five to six years to build an aircraft carrier. There are cases where it took much longer, around 10 to 12 years, to finish the construction of the ship. Various factors come into play that impact the actual length of time required to build an aircraft carrier.

Despite its huge size and weight, the USS Abraham Lincoln is able to slice the water at 30 knots (35 miles per hour or 56 kilometers per hour). The order for its construction was given on Dec. 17, 1982 to Newport News Shipbuilding Co in Virginia, USA. It was eventually launched on Feb. 13, 1988. So, it took the shipbuilder around 6 years to construct the aircraft carrier.

The builders of the USS Ford-class aircraft carrier, the biggest in the world, took about 8 years to finish building it. India and China are now building their own aircraft carriers after many years of converting used Russian carriers.

India has been building the INS Vikrant since 2005. But its commissioning is not expected until 2023. If they are able to stick with the schedule, it will take about 18 years to finish building the ship.

China has now started building its own aircraft carriers. They started the construction of the first ship in 2011. In 2013, China estimates that it will launch its first carrier by 2020. That means they will spend around 9 years to build the ship.

Keep reading to learn more about how long it takes to build an aircraft carrier, factors that determine how long it takes, and the steps to building one.

How Long Does It Take to Build an Aircraft Carrier? (10 Biggest Carriers)

how long to build an aircraft carrier
Building the USS Gerald R. Ford

Aircraft carriers are truly impressive because of their sheer size. The U.S. Navy operates the biggest of them all, the Gerald R. Ford Class. In terms of displacement, three of the 10 biggest carriers in the world are operated by naval forces in Asia.

Here are the biggest aircraft carriers in the world, and the time it took their shipbuilders to construct each one of them:

10. INS Viraat

The Indian Navy operates the tenth biggest aircraft carrier on earth, the INS Viraat (R22). Its original name was HMS Hermes which was a part of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom. The ship was commissioned in 1959. India bought the ship in 1986. It is the oldest serving aircraft carrier in the Indian Navy.

The order for this ship was given in 2004 to Cochin Shipyard Limited [2]. Upgrades to the INS Viraat began on Feb. 28, 2009. It was eventually launched on Aug. 12, 2013. The expected completion of this ship is set in 2021. In effect, it took the shipbuilder around 9 years to refit the INV Viraat.

9. Cavour (550)

Italy owns the ninth biggest aircraft carrier in the world, the Cavour (550). Its displacement is 30,000 tons at full load. This aircraft carrier is the Italian Navy’s flagship. The order for its construction was given to Fincantieri, an Italian shipbuilding company based in Trieste, Italy, on Nov. 22, 2000.

They started building this aircraft carrier on July 17, 2001 and it was launched on July 20, 2004. In effect, the shipbuilder Fincantieri took around 3 to 4 years to build the Cavour (550).  After completing its sea trials, the ship entered the service of the Italian Navy on June 10, 2009.

8. Sao Paulo (A12)

The eighth-largest aircraft carrier on earth is the Sao Paulo (A12). Its total weight at full load is over 32,000 tons. This ship originally belongs to the French Navy under the name of Foch (R99). Brazil bought the ship in 2000.

The original ship, Foch (R99), was ordered to be constructed in 1955. Construction began on Nov. 15, 1957, and it was launched on July 23, 1960 [3]. The French Navy decommissioned the ship on Nov. 15, 2000 and later sold it to the Brazilian Navy. In effect, it took more than 3 years to build the now named Sao Paulo (A12) aircraft carrier.

7. Charles de Gaulle (R91)

The Charles de Gaulle belongs to the French Navy. It is the seventh biggest aircraft in the world and the largest in all of Western Europe. This sea vessel is also powered by a nuclear reactor, the only one outside of the United States Navy.

The order to build this ship was given to the shipbuilder Naval Group on Feb. 3, 1986. Naval Group started building this aircraft carrier on Apr. 14, 1989 and it was finally launched on May 7, 1994 [4]. So, it took the shipbuilder around three years to build it. The ship made its maiden voyage on May 18, 2001.

6. INS Vikramaditya

The largest warship in the Indian Navy is the INS Vikramaditya with its 44,500 tons displacement. India bought the modified Kiev-Class aircraft carrier from Russia and commissioned it with its navy in November 2013.

This aircraft carrier was originally constructed in Ukraine’s Black Sea Shipyard. Construction began on Jan. 20, 2004, and it was later finished on Dec. 4, 2008. Therefore, it took more than 4 years to build the ship. Some upgrades and final upgrades took another 4 years, completing on Apr. 19, 2012. [5]

5. Liaoning

The only official aircraft carrier of the People’s Liberation Army Navy is the Liaoning. It was originally built as one of the Admiral Kuznetsov Class carriers of the USSR. The original names of the ship are Varyag and Riga.

The order for this carrier was given to Mykolaiv South in 1983. Construction began on Dec. 6, 1985 and was finally launched on Dec. 4, 1988 [6]. Therefore, this aircraft carrier took 3 years to build. The ship was later sold to a shell company in China, in 1998. Later, in 2002, the ship was acquired by the Chinese Navy.

4. Admiral Kuznetsov

The Russian Navy has only one operational aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Like the INS Vikramaditya, It was built in Ukraine’s Black Sea Shipyard. The total displacement of this ship is 58,599 tons.  

The order to build this ship was given to the Black Seas Shipyard on Mar. 3, 1981. They started building the ship on April 1, 1983. The aircraft carrier was finally launched on Dec. 6, 1985 [7]. From the time it started construction to the time it launched, it took the shipbuilder 2 years to build the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier.

3. Queen Elizabeth Class

The total displacement of the Queen Elizabeth Class is 65,000 tons. That makes this class of aircraft carriers the largest in the service of the Royal Navy. The HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first vessel in this class, went on sea trials in June 2017. It will enter the service of the Royal Navy in 2020.

The order for this class of ships was announced on July 25, 2007, by Des Browne, the Defence Secretary of the British Government. Sea trials started in June 2017 [8]. So, it took the shipbuilder around 10 years to complete its construction.

2. Nimitz Class

The Nimitz Class of supercarriers is the second biggest in the world. Its total displacement is 97,000 tons. The first ship of this class was put in service in May 1975. This class of ships can operate for about 50 years before they are decommissioned.

The shipbuilder, Newport News Shipbuilding, in Virginia, started building this ship in 2003 [9]. In 2009, the shipbuilder completed its construction. Therefore, it took the shipbuilder around 6 years to complete the construction.

1. Gerald R. Ford Class

The Gerald R Ford Class of supercarriers boasts of a full load displacement of 100,000 tons. Its initial delivery to the US Navy, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), was made in May 2017. This class of ships is the largest aircraft carrier in the world.

Construction of the first ship in this class started on Aug. 11, 2005 [10]. But the aircraft carrier was actually laid down on Nov. 13, 2009. It was eventually launched on Oct. 11, 2013. Therefore, from 2005 to 2013, it took the shipbuilder 8 years to finish its construction.

The below video shows a timelapse of the first advanced nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, being built:

The below video shows the second USS Gerald Ford-class aircraft carrier being built, the USS John F. Kennedy, being built.

Factors That Determine How Long It Takes to Build an Aircraft Carrier

The length of time to build a humongous aircraft carrier depends on several factors. Here are some of these factors.

1. The Ship Has a New Design

If the order is made for an aircraft carrier with a new design, the required time to build it will be much longer. The new design may require new equipment, a new setup and a new method of construction.

2. New Equipment Is Incorporated in the New Design

It will also take much longer if the new design of the aircraft carrier calls for the integration of new equipment. For instance, if the ship needs a new catapult (used to launch aircraft from the ship), the builder has to modify their building method to accommodate the new equipment.

3. The New Ship Requires Equipment and Parts That Have to Be Specially Ordered

If the new ship requires some parts and equipment that need to be specially fabricated but there are not too many fabricators doing it, or worse, there are no more fabricators who can do it, the construction of the ship may be put on hold. This will lengthen the time of its completion.

4. The Contractor or the Shipbuilder May Want to Earn More from the Contract

The shipbuilder or contractor may want to prolong the ship’s construction time so that they can extract additional payments from the government.

5. Collusion Between the Designer of the Ship and the Shipbuilder

If the designer colludes with the shipbuilder or contractor to incorporate a special type of equipment that the contractor or the shipbuilder is still developing, the time to build the ship will be longer.

6. If the Government Wants to Change the Design of the Aircraft Carrier

There are times when the government wants to change the design of the aircraft carrier so that it can accommodate more airplanes or advanced equipment, it will take the shipbuilder more time to complete its construction.

The 3 Phases of Building an Aircraft Carrier

how long to build aircraft carrier
Russia’s Admiral Gorshkov being retrofitted to become India’s INS Vikramaditya

An aircraft carrier, or any ship for that matter, is built in three general phases or steps.

1. The First Phase Is the Laying down of the Ship

This phase involves the placing of the first parts of the keel on the dry dock or the slipway of the shipyard. In the past, keels can be seen outside of ships, running their whole lengths. Nowadays, keels are not seen outside. They are only visible inside the hulls of the ships.

2. The Second Phase Is the Launching of the Ship

In shipbuilding, launching is the process of transferring a ship to the water. It is a ceremonial process that every ship undergoes after the completion of its construction.

3. The Third Phase Is the Commissioning of the Ship

This is when the ship is officially put into active service. An aircraft carrier undergoes many processes before it is commissioned for service. All of these processes impact the time it is ready to serve its purpose.

Before an aircraft carrier is commissioned, it will first undergo sea trials. This is done to see whether the ship has deficiencies that need to be corrected. Commissioning of an aircraft carrier may take as long as three years.

There are regular ships that may only take around twenty days to commission. Aircraft carriers are in a special class of ships that is why they need to be tried and tested first before they are approved to go on their maiden voyage.

It took the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) approximately 7 years to undergo the whole three phases. Laying down was done in 1968. Launching was done in 1972. It was commissioned finally in 1975.

The latest aircraft carrier that was commissioned in the US Navy is the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). It underwent the whole process for 8 years because it had to incorporate newer technology.  The ship was laid down in November 2009. October 2013 was when it was launched. It was finally commissioned in May 2017.

Conclusion – How Long Does It Take to Build an Aircraft Carrier?

How long does it take to build an aircraft carrier? It typically takes approximately 5 to 6 years to build an aircraft carrier. The time it takes to build varies for a number of factors including:

  1. Brand new design
  2. Requires new equipment or tech
  3. Requires custom pats
  4. Disputes or disagreements between the designer, shipbuilder, and/or government

Some aircraft carriers took much longer to build, around 10 or 12 years. As technology improves, the construction time will decrease. Perhaps in the future, aircraft carriers will only take a year or less to be built. Let’s hope by then we have colonized Mars to avoid blowing ourselves up!