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File photo - An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter delivers cargo to the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jameson E. Lynch/Released)Sophisticated anti-ship weapons and concerns about the U.S. Navy’s global ‘reach’ highlight the importance of America’s new state-of-the-art aircraft carriers, according to naval experts.

A recent report by Jerry Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security suggested that the aircraft carrier, the backbone of the U.S. Navy since World War II, might soon be threatened by a number of weapons including shore-based anti-ship systems. This report came out as the U.S. Navy revealed that it lacks the capability to provide a continuous aircraft carrier presence in both the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific until at least 2021.

In response to those revelations about carrier capabilities, which were made during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) introduced legislation that would increase the number of operational carriers in the U.S. fleet mandated by law from 11 to 12. The Navy has two ships already in its pipeline for deployment.

Back in January 2007 it was decided that this new class would be named the Gerald R. Ford Class, and the first of these, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is currently scheduled to join the Navy's fleet next March. It will make its first deployment in 2019 and is meant to replace the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which was taken out of active service in December 2012.

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Features of the Gerald R. Ford class vessels include an updated missile system, a new nuclear reactor design, an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EALS) and advanced arresting gear.

CVN-78 will be joined by the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) in 2020 and at present the plans are for new ships in this class to enter service in five year intervals until there are a total of 10 Ford-class carriers through 2058. The Ford Class of carriers will have roughly the same displacement as its predecessors in the Nimitz class including the USS George H W Bush (CVN-77). The new class will have between 500 and 900 fewer crew members.

Still a Symbol of Power

At present the United States' 10 carriers – until the Ford comes online – is equal to all the other nations in the world combined. However, the United States is far from the only nation currently building carriers, with a number of nations including the Chinese, British and even Indians now developing aircraft carriers.

"We currently have 10, but other nations are now building carriers, " Brad Curran, aerospace and defense industry principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan, told FoxNews.com.

Earlier this year it was reported that the Russian navy has begun to develop a new carrier to replace its aging and relatively small Admiral Kuznetsov. Launched in 1985 as part of the Soviet Navy, the ship is showing its age, which could be why the Chinese may have begun to build its first domestic carrier.

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The People's Liberation Army Navy's current carrier, the Liaoning (16) was commissioned in 2012 and became China's first carrier – but it was actually laid down as the Soviet ship Varyag in 1985 but construction ceased in 1992. With the breakup of the Soviet Union ownership of the structurally complete hull was transferred to the Ukraine and it was sold to the Chinese in 1998 and finally commissioned in 2012.

While the Chinese may have developed a "carrier killer" missile there may still be a reason for desiring a carrier – and it isn't for its humanitarian role.

"There is a political angle in that these are a symbol of national power, " Lee Willet, head of the naval desk at IHS Jane's told FoxNews.com. "For the Russian Navy it is the center of restoring past glory. Being able to sail past the UK with a carrier was a good expression of power and one the UK took very seriously."

That is why the British are now following America's lead and are building not one but two carriers: the HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is expected to be commissioned next year; and the HMS Prince of Wales, which is expected to follow two years after that.

"Carriers aren't going away, " said Curran. "That is why everyone wants one."

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"The carrier hasn't sailed into the sunset, " he added. "There is nothing that can compare to the flexibility and offer the capabilities of a carrier. It is not just for launching strike aircraft, there are all those other things it can do, ranging from humanitarian to disaster relief."

Curran agreed that the carrier is more vulnerable than ships were 10 or 20 years ago because of a leap forward in shore-to-ship missiles such as the Chinese DF-21D, which has been dubbed by some as a "carrier killer." With a range of 900 miles it could present a serious problem to a carrier, but throughout its history the carrier's defense has always been the aircraft and ships that sail with her. Carriers do not sail out into harm's way alone!”

'Flat Top’ Beginnings

The history of the aircraft carrier actually goes back more than 100 years ago to November 1910 when intrepid aviator Eugene "George" Ely successfully flew off the deck of the cruiser USS Birmingham. Just two months later he landed on the converted cruiser USS Pennsylvania, which had its fantail partly covered by a temporary deck with primitive arresting ropes. After making a successful landing Ely was able to fly off of the same deck and naval aviation was born.

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Q&A

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