China’s Newest ­Aircraft Carrier
What is it for?
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 3)

Last week, China launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier in the northern port city of darlan. At about 50,000 tons, this second carrier is similar to its first, and about half the size of the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers which are the mainstay of the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike forces. It now will be fitted out, undergo sea trials, and probably join the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by 2020. 

The still unnamed aircraft carrier was transferred into the water in the north-eastern port of darlan. Expected to be operational by 2020, it is the first aircraft carrier to be made domestically by China. (Photo: Sputnik News)

China’s older carrier, the Liaoning, had been built in the former USSR but was laid up for years when the Soviet Union’s military lapsed during the ‘bad old days’ of president Boris Yeltsin. China eventually bought it from Ukraine, rebuilt it and modernized it, putting a small carrier air wing aboard it. It still deploys regularly around the East and South China seas. 

In some ways, it is quite curious that China is intent on developing a new small carrier fleet. It is likely this second carrier will be joined in due course by a third and possibly a fourth, and that the newer carriers will be larger, with straight, rather than “ski-jump” flight decks. In the past the Chinese have downplayed the importance of the powerful U.S. carrier fleet – claiming that, in this day of precision-guided bombs and anti-ship missiles, an aircraft carrier is nothing more than a bigger target for a conventional air or missile attack.

The Chinese are surely correct about the vulnerability of aircraft carriers, even with up-to-date defensive systems. In the Second World War, the British, Americans and Japanese suffered significant carrier losses and, although current firepower way outstretches that of 70 years ago, the vulnerability of surface ships’ in the face of an equivalently-equipped enemy is no less true today.

Why then, are the Chinese intent on building what will be the second largest carrier fleet in the world? The answer, pure and simple, is ‘power projection’ – especially in the oceans and seas that are closest and most important to China.

Photo: Sputnik News

An aircraft carrier is a power-projection, offensive weapons system. Its true purpose, going right back to the first carriers or carrier-like ships of the First World War, was to extend the fleet’s hitting power well beyond the range of the big guns aboard the battleships and battle cruisers of the day. Before that long ago war ended, British aircraft that had launched from flight decks mounted aboard conventional surface ships, bombed German Zeppelin facilities on the North Sea’s coast.

Carriers operate best in a permissive environment. This means that a nation can use carriers to launch effective strikes against enemies that do not have the capability to retaliate against the carrier strike group, but the carrier’s value would be diminished in an armed conflict with another major power. In this way, a carrier strike against a Syrian target would have a very different outcome than a carrier strike against a Chinese port or a Chinese fleet.

The Chinese know all this, and yet have decided to put considerable resources into the development of these seaborne assets. The answer to why they have embarked on this course is simple. China has, for at least a decade, been developing naval assets not simply for the defence of Chinese coastal waters, but to project power around the rims of the South China Sea, the East China Sea and even the Indian Ocean. In doing so, China believes – likely correctly – that its diplomatic power will be considerably enhanced without having to fire a single shot. 

Thus, the carriers should be seen as the flip side of China’s reefs that have been turned into naval and air bases, and which now dot the outline of its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. 

One other consideration must be kept in mind: although the U.S. has 10 Nimitz-class carriers, their mission is to cover the world’s oceans. The Chinese will eventually outnumber the U.S. in carriers in the waters that really matter to it. 

Dr. David Bercuson, a Canadian military and political historian, is the Research Director with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.