Why does an aircraft carrier take so many years to build?

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean. Ford is at sea conducting sea trials following the in port portion of its 15 month post-shakedown availability. (U.S. Navy photo)
USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) (U.S. Navy photo)

When building an aircraft carrier, you are constructing a floating, moving airport that generates its own power and provides everything necessary to sustain habitability for 5000 souls for weeks at a time at sea, in all kinds of weather. An aircraft carrier is a (roughly) 350 yards long, 80 yards tall, 80 yards wide building made entirely of hardened metal.

It really does not compare with building an airport because, while both have planes taking off and landing, the similarities end there. It does not compare with building a skyscraper with similar square footage because each level is different in size, design, and function from the one above and below it. Both an airport and a skyscraper take years to build and bring to full functionality. Yet an aircraft carrier must do so much more than either.

u.s. navy f/a-18f and f/a-18e super hornet fighter jets, an e-2c hawkeye tactical airborne early warning aircraft and french marine nationale dassault rafale fighter jets fly in formation over the aircraft carrier uss dwight d. eisenhower (cvn 69), during dual carrier operations with the aircraft carrier fs charles de gaulle (r 91) in the arabian sea, april 13.
U.s. Navy F/A-18F And F/A-18E Super Hornet Fighter Jets, An E-2C Hawkeye Tactical Airborne Early Warning Aircraft And French Marine Nationale Dassault Rafale Fighter Jets Fly In Formation Over The Aircraft Carrier Uss Dwight D. Eisenhower (Cvn 69), During Dual Carrier Operations With The Aircraft Carrier Fs Charles De Gaulle (R 91) In The Arabian Sea, April 13.

In short, you are trying to build an airport, a nuclear power station and an extended-stay hotel for more than 5000 people, plus the restaurants, shops and medical facilities to keep them fed, happy and healthy for months at a time – then put all that on an island, with engines capable of pushing it to 33 knots or more despite weighing ~ 100 000 tonnes.

uss abraham lincoln - naval post- naval news and information
Sailors Participate In A Foreign Object Debris (Fod) Walkdown On The Flight Deck Of The Nimitz-Class Aircraft Carrier Uss Abraham Lincoln (Cvn 72). 

Normally it could take five to seven years unless it takes ten to twelve. Why the disparity? If you are designing a new class of carrier, it will take much longer than if you are building follow-on ships to the first in class.

uss gerald r. ford under construction - naval post- naval news and information
Aircraft Carrier Uss Gerald R. Ford (Cvn 78) Under Construction . (U.s. Navy Photo)

The length of time to build an aircraft carrier depends on some factors. Here are some of these factors:

New Design and Equipment

The required time to build it will be much longer for the new designs. The new design may require new equipment, a new setup, and a new method of construction. It will also take much longer if the new design of the aircraft carrier calls for the integration of new equipment.  The new ship generally requires customized equipment and parts. This will lengthen the time of its completion. Examples: The Ford-class has a completely new catapult, that works on electromagnetic principles instead of steam, and arresting gear that uses a water-based turbine arresting gear. Both new systems had to be invented from scratch, and they were troublesome. There were no real civilian cognates from which to develop these systems. The only thing close to the catapult would be a linear induction motor, but those are not really very close cousins.

Modifications

New technological developments during the shipbuilding period and government’s new demands will take the shipbuilder more time to complete its construction.

pla navy's liaoning aircraft carrier
Pla Navy’S Liaoning Aircraft Carrier

The 3 Phases of Building an Aircraft Carrier

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

  • 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.
  • The Second Phase Is the Launching of the Ship. In shipbuilding, launching is the process of transferring a ship to the water.
  • 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 harbor and sea trials before it is commissioned for service. All of these processes impact the time it is ready to serve its purpose.

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.

shandong
China’S Type 002 Aircraft Carrier Of People’S Liberation Army Navy (Source: Wikimedia)

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

CountryAircraft Carrier Laid DownLaunchedCommissionedDuration
U.S.USS Nimitz22 June 196813 May 19723 May 19757 years
U.S.USS George H.W. Bush6 September 20039 October 200610 January 20095.5 years
U.S.USS Gerald R. Ford13 November 200911 October 201322 July 20178 Years
RussiaAdmiral Kuznetsov1 April 19826 December 198520 January 19919 years
ChinaShandong 17March 201526 April 201717 December 20194.5 years
FranceCharles de Gaulle14 April 19897 May 199418 May 200112 years
U.K.HMS Queen Elizabeth7 July 200917 July 20147 December 20178 years
ItalyCavour17 July 200120 July 200427 March 20087 years

Check out Naval Library App to find out the specifications of Aircraft Carriers.

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