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China: The Next Aircraft Carrier Superpower?

USS John C. Stennis
130105-N-ZZ999-001 U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Jan. 5, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) operates in the Arabian Sea during sunset. John C. Stennis is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Yeoman 3rd Class James Stahl/Released)

The US Navy is worried that Chinese economic and technological might could translate into naval might. Specifically, aircraft carrier power-projection capabilities: Three Chinese aircraft carriers are enough to worry about. But what if a fourth is on the way? Aircraft recently spotted at a Chinese naval air base might have been training for launches from catapults that differ from the ski-jumps China’s current carriers use. This activity could hint at yet another Chinese flat-top in development.

The Chinese are already building a third aircraft carrier, the Type 003, that will soon undergo sea trials. While a theoretical fourth carrier would still be years away, the nature of this aircraft training is enough to make military analysts wonder how far China’s carrier program has come.

New Skills for Chinese Pilots

Satellite photos show what appears to be a new kind of naval flight training. The images spotted two FC-31 Gyrfalcon stealth fighters and an unknown number of J-15 carrier-based fighter jets at the Chinese flight training area in Liaoning province.

The FC-31 resembles an American F-35 Lightning II. It is a single-seat, twin-engine, medium-sized multi-role interceptor with stealth characteristics including a signature-reducing coating.

The J-15 is a clone of Russia’s Su-33 carrier-based warplane, though China’s fourth-generation J-15 is believed to have upgraded sensors and radar, as well as improved wings. The J-15 is accustomed to ski-jump vertical takeoffs and landings. However, the Chinese have planned for the naval fighter to someday launch from a catapult on the Type 003. This could explain the training session spotted by satellite.

Aiming for Blue Water

The Chinese have high hopes for their fourth aircraft carrier. China’s first two carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong, are conventional diesel-powered ships. The Type 003 is also a diesel-powered model. Beijing’s goal is to introduce a nuclear-powered carrier – one with true blue-water capability that can project power and dominate the Indo-Pacific region.

Plans for a fourth carrier have been closely guarded, but according to Popular Science, the shipbuilder accidentally spilled some details. Leaked documents claim the carrier “will displace between ninety thousand and one hundred thousand tons and have electromagnetically assisted launch system (EMALS) catapults for getting aircrafts 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.”

An All-Around Upgrade

The FC-31s and J-15s are training at a facility that has simulated ski-jump takeoffs, but also has the means to practice different catapults for carrier-borne launches. The Chinese navy modeled this training from Russia. It hopes to give Chinese pilots the skills and tools needed to engage in comprehensive, authentic carrier operations – the trickiest and most dangerous feats in aviation.

The Chinese will probably have to build more fighters if they are to supply four carriers. They also have to work on adding to the number of support aircraft for airborne command and control, as well as anti-submarine warfare. Operations with EMALS catapults come with a learning curve, but the Chinese are working to acquire the necessary skills. While not everyone believes that additional carriers and a new air combat group are anywhere close to being ready, the Chinese are showing that they are strategically minded when it comes to preparing for carrier warfare.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.



  1. Helmut

    May 25, 2022 at 2:48 pm

    It would be nice to hear what the US is doing or not doing to counter the Chinese.
    The Chinese mind set is long range planning, training and development with its military as well as economically. The American mind set is short range quarterly reports, quick fixes by throwing money at the problem or imposing sanctions which create larger problems.

    • Jeff

      May 25, 2022 at 9:14 pm

      They aren’t aircraft carriers. They are refitted Russian helicopter carries.

      • Harold

        June 3, 2022 at 4:00 pm

        The Soviets only called them helicopter carriers to avoid any issues with Turkey and transiting of the Bosphorous due to the Montreux convention…

        Otherwise China’s first 2 carriers displace 65,000 tons and have ski jumps for fighter jets. India’s version is only about 45,000 tons and while still an aircraft carrier currently undergoing trials for a potential Dassault Rafale M or F/A 18 Super Hornet contingent, is also an aircraft carrier.

        Unlike the US which is policing the global oceans with it’s large contingent of nuclear powered supercarriers, China is aiming more toward power projection in the South China Sea and for Taiwan. 2 ski-jump carriers, 1 CATOBAR carrier and then a future nuclear powered variant would be devastating for any navy to break in that area.

        It is why Japan is now fast moving towards turning it’s Izumo helicopter carriers to F35B SVOTL aircraft carriers.

  2. Urpoggers

    May 26, 2022 at 12:03 am


  3. Ioannis

    May 26, 2022 at 4:20 am

    I’m not american but i know this. The US navy have aircraft carriers a century now and they have the experience to take a fleet from one place of the world to another and in the middle they can give a fight if it have to. The China is not a sea power, and with one and a half carrier sourly is not going to dominate on the Pacific.

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