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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Why China’s Aircraft Carrier Fleet Should Worry the U.S. Navy

China's Liaoning Aircraft Carrier
China's Liaoning Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

China’s ongoing naval modernization efforts are perhaps the most visible manifestation of both the country’s continued military build-up as well as its increasingly global foreign policy outlook.

China’s pursuit of blue-water naval capabilities threatens to push the United States Navy back beyond the second island chain, while its development of associated power projection capabilities may allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to more effectively support overseas Chinese foreign policy objectives.

China’s Aircraft Carrier Dream 

One area of China’s naval modernization that has attracted significant attention is the continued development of its aircraft carrier fleet. China’s carrier fleet currently includes two vessels, with a third currently under construction. China’s third aircraft carrier – designated the Type-003 – will represent a significant step forward for both China’s domestic carrier production capabilities as well as its naval aviation capabilities as a whole. As a result, the Type-003 is often compared with the American Gerald R. Ford-class carrier, the U.S. Navy’s future class of aircraft carriers.

There are currently two aircraft carriers in operation with the PLAN. China’s first aircraft carrier – the Liaoning – is a modified “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” originally designed for the Soviet Navy that was purchased in an unfinished state by China in 1998. After extensive modernization efforts, the Liaoning was commissioned by the PLAN in 2012 as a training vessel and was declared operational in 2016. China’s second aircraft carrier – the Shandong – is a domestically built carrier that is heavily based on the Liaoning, but which includes some enhancements over the predecessor vessel. Enhancements include a larger flight deck as a result of a smaller command center – or “island” – as well as room for a slightly larger air wing and the inclusion of the advanced Type 346 S-band active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

Both the Liaoning and the Shandong make use of ski-jump style decks as opposed to catapults as a mechanism for launching aircraft. Compared to aircraft launched from carriers equipped with catapults, aircraft launched from ski-jump style decks are more limited in both range and payload as a result of needing to expend a large amount of fuel during takeoff.

Type-003: A Game Changer? 

China’s third aircraft carrier – designated the Type-003 – remains under construction. The new carrier will represent a major step forward for China’s domestic aircraft carrier production, and will likely be significantly more capable than its existing two carriers. The Type-003 will not only be larger than its counterparts in the PLAN, but will also reportedly make use of a catapult system that many have speculated will be similar to the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) found on the U.S. Navy’s Gerald R. Ford-class of carriers. This will allow the new carrier to make use of a much more diverse and capable array of aircraft as part of its embarked air wing.

Compared to the Ford-class carriers, the Type-003 is slightly smaller, with an overall length of 320 meters and a flight deck width of 73 meters as opposed to the Ford-class’ 333 and 77 meters, respectively. The Ford-class, meanwhile, will be outfitted with four catapults as opposed to the Type-003’s three, and will have three aircraft elevators compared to only two on the Type-003. As a result, the American carriers will likely prove capable of generating faster sortie rates than its Chinese counterpart. Even so, the Type-003 will likely prove to be a very capable carrier platform, and while the Ford-class carriers are being developed on the back of decades worth of experience in building and operating aircraft carriers, the Type-003 instead represents a monumental step forward in China’s domestic carrier production efforts.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.