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

China's Liaoning Aircraft Carrier

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.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Slack

    July 27, 2021 at 9:50 am

    Aircraft carriers are a huge waste of money. Today, rapidly advancing tech has overtaken their usefulness and they’re no longer king of the roost.

    Most nations build carriers with the aim to hammer others into submission, for example, enforcing ‘regime change’, while a few may build a handful to establish a minimally credible carrier-based naval aviation.

    Today, such carriers are past their prime due to the advent of spanking new weapons especially hypersonic missiles. Today, a navy that thinks far ahead or far into the future should build ‘aircraft-carrying ocean sailing very large destroyers’.

    Such ships need carry far less aircraft than expected and thus have more space to house powerful defensive and offensive weaponry including VLS missile silos and long-range naval artillery. This will also lower costs for acquiring and possessing top notch naval aviation.

  2. Dane

    July 28, 2021 at 12:39 pm

    The purpose of these carriers is to reinforce the belt and road initiative with an offensive/defensive capability. The Chinese have found the Achilles heel of the US military and will never have to fight us. The CCP has/will continue to use soft power to defeat or reduce the threat of our military. The use of the dollar as a weapon to buy land, bankers, corporations (using cheap and sometimes slave labor), and politicians means that the application of Sun Tsu and to win wars without of shot is in total play. Just take a look around, Schumer, McConnell, Pelosi, and Biden are in the tank for the Chinese… it was an inexpensive maneuver that will make them rich in the short term but will facilitate our slide to a third rate power and manufacturing nation. I find it amusing and I bet the Chinese did as well that loyalty was the cheapest thing to purchase… Hopefully, I am all wrong here.

  3. DAX

    July 28, 2021 at 2:27 pm

    Slack and Dane make excellent points about outdated weapon systems (carriers) and value of soft power. China will build and reinforce its defensive/offensive capability in the SCS. Taiwan and natural resources (oil & gas) are the drivers for China’s long game.

  4. H North

    July 28, 2021 at 2:33 pm

    Sadly, Dane, you are not only most likely right, but it’s also likely that the CCP will not be satisfied with a soft power defeat of the US, especially if we keep acting as belligerent as we have lately. The CCP teaches its ~1.5 billion subjects to hate America, and teaches its military forces to kill American civilians with no remorse, in preparation for WW3. At a time of their choosing, and to their best advantage, the ChiComs will attack, and I expect our navy will take casualties not seen since WW2, with likely entire fleets being lost. After decades of “zero defect–zero casualties” expectations from the Pentagon, our soft population will be initially shocked by unexpected high losses. Okinawa, Guam, and likely Oahu will be obliterated and/or occupied as well. For a pretty realistically imagined sneak preview, I recommend David Poyer’s 6-book series, starting with “Tipping Point”.

  5. Paul Conley

    July 28, 2021 at 3:03 pm

    I would just be curious to see if all of these super ships the Chinese are building or any better than the hospitals they built and a bum rush when Covid first started?
    They both did they got these hospitals Built in just a few short days then almost as quickly as they were built they started falling down.
    I don’t recall where it was I read it I read an article several months ago that these so-called super ships the Chinese are building need to come in to Harbor every few hours for maintenance because they can’t perform as they are claiming that they do .

  6. H. H. GAFFNEY

    July 28, 2021 at 4:15 pm

    If war between China and the U.S. were to break out, the Chinese carriers would be sunk in a day by U.S. submarines.

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