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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

China’s Small Aircraft Carrier Fleet Has Big Ambitions

China Aircraft Carrier
China's first aircraft carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

China needs aircraft carriers, and its military-industrial complex is responding positively to this requirement.

China has two combat-capable vessels: the Liaoning and the Shandong. The Fujian is China’s newest, largest, and most advanced carrier with a flat deck and not the older, less effective ski-jump deck that the first two feature. It is nearly the size of the American Nimitz-class or Ford-class carrier and was launched in June with sea trials beginning in September. China believes that aircraft carriers show that its military is able to dominate its region and someday challenge the United States as a true Blue Water Navy, capable of deploying anywhere in the world.

Aircraft Carriers Have More Than Just Military Value

So, China needs and wants carriers to maintain this strategic confidence. These ships have even greater significance than their military capabilities. They promote prestige, psychological, and moral value for the rest of China’s defense forces. Carriers also give a boost to the Chinese people’s patriotic fervor. The military shows that the country is strong and not weak – that they can not only defend, but can also take the fight to the enemy.

Pilots Are Not Completely Ready Yet, But They Will Be

China has not engaged in warfare since 1979 in a short (around three to four week) ground invasion of Vietnam. The Navy has not seen a shot fired in anger in memory. There are not enough pilots to man all the carrier-based airplanes, according to a report by Business Insider published on October 2. There is not a trainer jet to qualify pilots on carrier take-offs and landings. Two hundred pilots are needed and only 130 are qualified for carrier operations, Business Insider wrote. But this is only a temporary problem for China as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aviators will eventually be up to speed and even excel at carrier operations. 

Two At Sea; One at Port

Three fully operational aircraft carriers have strategic and tactical advantages. Taiwan is China’s biggest political and military priority. Two aircraft carriers enable the PLAN to have one carrier deployed around the island and another carrier strike group (frigates, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines) sailing in the East and South China Seas to enforce territorial claims of various islands, rocks, and reefs. Three carriers will allow China to have one in maintenance and two at sea at all times. If there are three in the water, this fleet could also challenge the U.S. Navy and bully American allies in northeast and southeast Asia.

Massing Naval Forces During a Taiwan Offensive

China already has more ships than the United States and it overawes Japan’s Maritime Defense Force and Taiwan’s Navy, not to mention forces from Vietnam and the Philippines. Carriers allow the PLAN to take on the largest force necessary. So, if the United States and Japan rush to respond to a PLAN incursion against Taiwan such as aerial bombardment from a carrier or a carrier-supported amphibious invasion, it could mass naval forces against the Americans and Japanese.

Susceptible to Long Range Stand-off Missiles

However, carriers cannot stop enemy vessels such as frigates, destroyers, and submarines that can lurk out of range of PLAN carriers to fire stand-off anti-ship missiles. This would negate the advantage of China’s carrier battle groups. The skill of American pilots, who do have combat experience, could also outfly inexperienced Chinese pilots.

Anti-Access/ Area Denial Is Achieved

But Chinese carriers can also keep American and allied navies from sailing in waters that are a strategic must such as the Taiwan Strait and the East and South China Seas. This tactic is called anti-access/ area denial, a denial of enemy freedom of operation, and China has the capability to enforce this naval technique with a combination of deployed carriers and ship-killing missiles fired from shore or from airplanes. 

String of Pearls Allow for PLAN Global Deployment

Once anti-access/ area denial is assured, China can turn its eyes toward the “string of pearls” strategy in which they support their overseas naval bases in Gwadar, Pakistan and Djibouti. This gives China the opportunity to maintain, re-fuel, and re-supply ships on each “pearl” as it gets closer to the Persian Gulf where it can protect sea lanes that transit its oil imports from the Middle East.

China Aircraft Carrier

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sails through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa on its way to the Pacific in this handout photo taken by Japan Self-Defense Forces and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan on April 4, 2021. Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/HANDOUT via REUTERS.

Carriers promote and transform China’s strategy, operational art, and tactics for maritime activity. They offer national prestige and propaganda effect for the general public. They give confidence to the rest of the military. Individual sailors know they can defeat adversaries in the northeast and southeast Asia and challenge the U.S. navy. The carriers also give meat to the bones for Chinese maritime stratagems such as anti-access/ area denial and string of pearls. The PLAN has grown up in the last 20 to 25 years. It is in many ways a modern navy and it needs carriers to execute its naval ambitions. Look for China to keep building and acquiring a total of five carriers by 2035.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

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.