Navigating the Giants: The Largest Warships in the World

In size, scope and capability, the biggest warships in the world are truly formidable. They’re the most valuable ocean-going assets a navy possesses and they dominate the waters they patrol, but what is the biggest navy ship in the sea, and how big is the largest warship ever built?

Building Big Engineering
19 January 2024

In an era where geopolitical tensions and maritime supremacy significantly influence global dynamics, the strategic importance of a nation’s naval fleet cannot be overstated. Indeed the role of these fleets, which include the largest warships in the world, extends beyond mere tools of warfare. They are potent symbols of national strength and technological prowess and the modern naval arsenal, with its sophisticated array of vessels, is a culmination of centuries of evolution in maritime warfare.

The earliest warships, such as those built by the Egyptians and Greeks, were primarily designed for ramming enemy vessels. As maritime conflicts grew in complexity, so did the ships’ design and purpose. From the oar-powered galleys of antiquity to the sail-driven ships of the Age of Exploration, each era’s warships were a reflection of contemporary capabilities and military tactics.

The technological advancement in the field of naval warfare has continued to expand through the centuries. From the advent of ironclad ships in the nineteenth century to the introduction of nuclear-powered vessels in the twentieth, each leap in technology has brought about a paradigm shift in naval capabilities.

Today, the biggest navy vessel in the world, alongside the world’s other largest naval ships, are equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, cutting-edge navigation systems, and advanced communication technologies. These advancements not only enhance their combat effectiveness but also extend their operational range and sustainability, making them formidable assets in a nation’s arsenal.

The contenders for the biggest navy ship in the world can be measured in a number of ways, including by length, crew, or cost, but for the purposes of this article, they will be measured by displacement, or the amount of water a ship displaces when floating.

It’s important to note that these warships are owned and operated by some of the world’s most secretive military powers. The armaments and operational capacities of the ships in this list are in the public domain, but can be subject to change and might not be fully disclosed for security reasons.

Juan Carlos I

Aircraft carrier Juan Carlos I (Credit: JOSE JORDAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Navy: Spain | Length: 231m / 757ft | Displacement: Approx. 26,000 tonnes

Named for Spain’s former king, the €462 million Juan Carlos I is one of the biggest warships in the world. It’s known as either an amphibious assault ship or a landing helicopter dock, and is powered by diesel-electric propulsion and a gas turbine. The ship has a capacity for around 900 soldiers and just under 50 Leopard 2E tanks.

The flight deck can carry either 30 helicopters – including heavy helicopters such as the V22 Osprey or the CH-47 Chinook – or 10-12 fighter jets and a further 10-12 choppers.

Pyotr Veliky

Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) Russian nuclear-powered missile cruiser (Credit: AFP / Stringer via Getty Images)

Navy: Russia | Length: 252m / 827ft | Displacement: Approx. 28,000 tonnes

Outside of aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, the Kirov-class battlecruiser is believed to be the heaviest and largest surface combatant warship in the world. They were built in the Soviet era between 1974 and 1988 and at the time were a contender for the biggest navy vessel in the world. Only one, the Pyotr Veliky, remains in service.

Powered by a combined nuclear and steam propulsion system, the flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet, with a complement of around 700, is armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, short, and long-range surface-to-air missiles, AK-130 naval cannons, rocket launchers and a series of 53-cm torpedoes. It also carries three helicopters.

Charles de Gaulle

French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (Credit: Roslan RAHMAN / AFP via Getty Images)

Navy: France | Length: 262m / 858ft | Displacement: Approx. 42,500 tonnes

The €3 billion aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is the flagship of the French Navy, and ranks among the largest European warships ever built. The Charles de Gaulle was named for the former French president and general and was commissioned in 2001. It is the first nuclear-powered surface ship built by France.

One of the biggest warships in the world, it has a complement of almost 2,000 and can carry up to 40 aircraft including Dassault Rafale fighter planes, the E-2C Hawkeye and a number of helicopters including the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin and the Airbus Helicopters H225M.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

The British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (Credit: TERJE PEDERSEN / Contributor via Getty Images)

Navy: Britain | Length: 284m / 932ft | Displacement: Approx. 65,000 tonnes

One of the fastest aircraft carriers in the world with a top speed of almost 32 knots (37 mph, or 59 km/h), HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned in 2017 and is the Fleet Flagship of the Royal Navy. One of the largest warships in the world, it has a range of 12,000 miles and, along with her sister ship the HMS Prince of Wales, together form the core of the UK Carrier Strike Group.

Based at HMNB Portsmouth, the £3.8 billion ship has 16,000 m2 of deck space and carries a maximum of 36 F-35B Lightning combat aircraft, as well as troop transports and attack helicopters, including the twin-rotor Chinook, the Apache, and the Wildcat AH1.


Navy: China | Length: 305m / 1,000ft | Displacement: Approx. 70,000 tonnes

The Shandong was commissioned in December 2019 and is reported to be the biggest navy ship in the Chinese fleet. It’s also said to be the first aircraft carrier to be built entirely in China.

Verified facts are understandably scarce, but it’s believed the Shandong has a top speed of 31 knots (35 mph, or 57 km/h) and can accommodate 44 aircraft including 32 Shenyang J-15 twinjet fighter planes, eight Changhe Z-18 medium-lift transport helicopters and four Harbin Z-9 military utility helicopters.

USS Gerald R. Ford

USS Gerald R. Ford (Photo: U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

Navy: USA | Length: 337m / 1,106ft | Displacement: Approx. 100,000 tonnes

The nuclear-powered Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers are the largest warships in the world. The first of a proposed ten – the USS Gerald R. Ford, CVN-78 – was commissioned into service in July 2017. Named for the 38th President of the United States, the ship has a crew of up to 5,000 and is armed with surface-to-air missiles, radar-guided cannons and state-of-the-art machine-gun systems.

As with almost all modern-day warships, the statistics are staggering. Fully loaded, it can carry around ninety aircraft, has a top speed of around 30 knots (35 mph, or 56 km/h) and a virtually unlimited range. There are twenty-five decks and it’s reported that each of the Ford-class carriers – the largest warships ever built – will cost around $13 billion.

Titans of the Sea: The Biggest Warships in the World

USS Enterprise Aircraft Carrier, TX. (Credit: Walter Bibikow via Getty Images)

The size and scale of the largest warships in the world are staggeringly immense. These leviathans of the sea are astonishingly complex – and eye-wateringly expensive – feats of design and construction that embody the pinnacle of naval engineering and technology.


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