The Chinese are rapidly building a world-class navy that, by 2022, could include as many as four aircraft carriers, according to current estimates.
Already, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has fielded a pair of carriers: The Liaoning, a Soviet-era vessel that the Chinese spent many years refurbishing and which now serves primarily as a training ship; and the Type 002, which is currently undergoing sea trials and has yet to be named. There is a third carrier, the Type 003, under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, and there are “credible reports of a fourth ship of the same class” that is being built at a shipyard in Dalian, The National Interest reports.
Despite it being primarily a training vessel, where Chinese sailors and pilots are learning to master the difficulties of naval aviation, the Liaoning has nevertheless “shown the flag” during three transits of the Taiwan Strait and a port call to Hong Kong, so it is capable of being deployed.
Type 002 is said to be very similar in size and design to the Liaoning, complete with the characteristic “ski jump” bow. That said, the ship will feature some improvements that include an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system mounted atop the ship’s island and a bigger flight deck, giving it the ability to carry more fighter planes — up to 30 J-15s. This is technically China’s first combat-capable carrier, but because of the ski jump design, it will have far less range and striking power than U.S. carriers.
Type 003, meanwhile, is the first PLAN carrier to feature the modern “modular” construction method, which is how U.S. and Western carriers are built. Modules that are called “superlifts” are built and assembled on land, then hoisted aboard the carrier in drydock. These superlifts each weigh hundreds of tons.
The National Interest notes further:
Although there are few hard details on Type 003, we do know some things. The new carrier will forgo the ski ramp method for CATOBAR, or Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery. The use of catapults will allow the carrier to launch heavier aircraft with great fuel and weapons loads, making the carrier more effective as a power projection platform. China has reportedly conducted “thousands” of test launches of a new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). Not only does an EMALs launch system enable the launch of heavier combat jets, it can also launch propeller-driven aircraft similar to the U.S. Navy’s E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft and the C-2 Greyhound cargo transport. The ability to tune EMALs power levels also makes it easier to launch smaller, lighter unmanned aerial vehicles from catapults.
Thus far, Western naval analysts don’t know how large the new class of PLAN carriers will be, but it’s believed they will be conventionally powered, not nuclear-powered, and still smaller than U.S. supercarriers. But overall, they should be “incrementally larger” than Liaoning and Type 002, and able to carry a larger contingent of fighter and support aircraft, fuel, and munitions.
A fourth class under construction, the Type 004, will rival U.S. carriers.
According to Popular Science, a leak by the shipbuilder claims the new class, “will displace between ninety thousand and one hundred thousand tons and have electromagnetically assisted launch system (EMALS) catapults for getting aircraft off the deck. It’ll likely carry a large air wing of J-15 fighters, J-31 stealth fighters, KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft, anti-submarine warfare helicopters, and stealth attack drones.”
Analysis: Often targeted by aircraft carriers throughout much of modern history, China has decided that they represent the ultimate in power projection and defense of national objectives and foreign policy goals.
Communist leaders were said to be impressed, but alarmed, by the deployment of U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups during periods of intense relations over Taiwan during the Clinton administration in 1996. The U.S. carriers represented a massive amount of concentrated firepower that the Chinese navy, at the time, could not penetrate or match.
China still cannot match U.S. carriers, but under President Xi Jinping, the PLAN is working diligently to match U.S. carrier strength as a means of projecting Chinese power globally. In all, Chinese shipyards have turned out more than 100 modern warships in a decade; the move to build carriers is being seen as a natural extension of assembling blue-water fleets Xi can send to hotspots around the world to defend Chinese interests.
To some, including us, the buildup and modernization of the PLAN resemble the rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, as Japan — a revisionist power out to lead the global order — sought to expand its empire.
China is also a revisionist power, and if you believe in the Greek historian Thucydides, who explained conflict most occurs when revisionist powers rise to challenge the existing global order.
Thucydides said, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Over the past 500 years, there have been 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. In 12 cases, war ensued.
We are in a different world today, however, in that great power war — world war — would likely necessitate the use of nuclear weapons. That said, as Graham Allison writing in Foreign Policy advised, “Leaders must be prepared to risk a war they cannot win” if their objective is to assert hegemony over, say, an entire body of water like the South China Sea.
That said, the PLAN has a long way to go to catch up to U.S. naval dominance. The American fleet has 10 nuclear-powered, 100,000-ton Nimitz class carriers that feature 90 warplanes, as well as a global network of ports and logistical bases. This compares to a single overseas logistics base for China, in Djibuouti (though Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is seen as a means of expanding port access globally).
The fact that China is rapidly modernizing its fleet and building increasingly capable aircraft carriers, however, is not subject to debate. Rather, the debate centers around why Beijing is doing so, and it’s appropriate for American military planners to consider the question. If history is a guide, we may have our answer.