China has become the great concern of much of official Washington. Their rise, largely fueled by lopsided trade agreements with the United States, has astounded economists and policymakers alike. In just 50 years, China went from a giant agrarian backwater ruled by a cult of personality to being the world’s second-largest economy (in GDP terms).
With great economic and technological advancements, naturally comes an enhanced military threat.
And for China, which fancies itself the next global superpower with ambitions of conquering Taiwan and subordinating its regional neighbors to its imperial will, a modernized navy with what’s known as “blue water” (global) power projection capabilities is a requirement. Today, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the largest navy in the world.
China’s Aircraft Carrier Fleet
The force now possesses two active aircraft carriers, with a third on the way—as well as an additional two coming online as early as 2030, according to most experts.
Yet, even with all these great advancements, the PLAN’s aircraft carrier fleet pales in comparison to the global carrier fleet that the United States has maintained since the end of the Second World War.
In fact, in a World War II-style fight pitting the US Navy’s aircraft carriers against the PLAN’s, it is likely that the Americans would have no problem defeating and destroying the paltry Chinese flat top fleet. Of course, China’s military leaders do not want to engage in a fair fight. Since the late 1990s, Chinese strategists have cultivated a doctrine of “unrestricted warfare.”
They seek to undermine the obvious conventional US military superiority over their forces by engaging in unconventional strategies to prevent the Americans from ever getting a clean shot at China’s weaker, untested force; to basically sneak up behind the unsuspecting Americans (and their allies) and knock them over the head in a stratagem Chinese leaders have previously referred to as the “Assassin’s Mace”.
Therefore, it is highly unlikely that China would risk deploying their aircraft carriers, if the US Navy were to have uninhibited access to waters near Taiwan and China, when China decided to launch an invasion of the besieged democratic island.
China’s Aircraft Carrier Flaws
The Chinese are aware of the shortcomings of their carrier fleet.
A Chinese military weapons manufacturer released a brochure highlighting China’s military capabilities in a pamphlet entitled, “Four Great Advantages the PLA has in Attacking Taiwan” earlier this month. Of the four advantages listed in the brochure, China’s growing aircraft carrier fleet did not make the list.
In fact, according to one report, the PLAN has yet to perfect protective operations for what are otherwise large, easy targets for rival navies.
For an aircraft carrier to have maximum impact on the battlefield, it must have reliable anti-aircraft defenses, protection from incoming missiles and other ordnance that might be fired at it in combat, and it must be well guarded against submarine attacks—all of which China’s aircraft carriers lack.
Still, China continues to massively invest in these units.
China’s Next-Generation Carrier, the Fujian
One estimate states that the third Chinese aircraft carrier, the Fujian, will be ready within the next year. The Fujian is the next generation of Chinese aircraft carrier. It will possess a launch area that is flat, like American carriers (the other Chinese carriers, based on old Soviet designs, have ski jumps, limiting their launch capacities).
The Fujian will have an electromagnetic catapult to allow for China to launch larger fixed-wing aircraft than what their original two carriers can deploy. It will also be larger than the other carriers in China’s growing fleet.
It will even be bigger than Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth II carrier.
Nevertheless, the Fujian will still lack nuclear power, thereby limiting the range of the new model of aircraft carrier. America’s carriers are all nuclear-powered, which is why they can be deployed globally and maintain a presence in regions far removed from friendly territory.
Taiwan’s military is concerned about this new carrier, as it is an evolution of the original two Chinese carriers. And China, despite not yet mastering all the moving parts of aircraft carrier operations, is getting better at these operations.
Further, China is clearly committed to a force that even their own military analysts are not convinced will give them strategic advantages in the near-term.
China’s Real Threats: Anti-Ship Missiles
It is believed that China will instead rely heavily on their massive land-based missile arsenal to degrade the US Navy’s ability to deploy its forces near China in the event of war.
China has built such a massive arsenal of anti-ship ballistic missiles that they could conceivably prevent the US Navy from moving its expensive aircraft carriers into range of Chinese forces, out of fear that China’s missiles might sink or damage those American carriers at the outset of a conflict, leaving a critical gap in capabilities that the Americans would be unable to fill quickly.
Since US forces would be fighting nearer to China’s area of operation, the Chinese military would have key advantages over the forward-deployed US forces.
China’s Threats to US in Cyberspace, the EM Spectrum, and Space
China intends to use their military in an integrated fashion, stymying America’s response to any potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan by first disabling America’s military—and possibly civilian infrastructure—in cyberspace, across the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, and in the strategic high ground of space. Once US forces are cut off and unable to coordinate a viable defense, China will use their missiles to destroy whatever carriers are within range.
Beijing’s war planners assume that, if a US carrier is sunk by Chinese missiles, with chaos reigning supreme back in the United States and throughout America’s military, they will then be able to have a clean shot at Taiwan.
It is at that point that China’s weaker carriers will be deployed to augment whatever invasion or blockade that Beijing is planning to use to crush Taiwan, under the assumption that the US military threat will have been sufficiently degraded by Chinese attacks to allow for China’s more vulnerable aircraft carriers to support whatever operations the PLA was conducting against Taiwan.
Of course, those carriers will still be vulnerable to US submarines and other modes of attack. But, with the Americans dazed and confused by the Chinese bolt-from-the-blue attacks within cyberspace, across the EM spectrum, in space, the bite of American military power will be far less than what it should be.
China’s Aircraft Carriers Not Essential to China’s Grand Strategy (Yet)
Even if China is able to get a jump on the Americans in a possible war scenario over Taiwan, the fact remains that, unless they wait to strike until the mid-2030s (which I do not believe China’s leader, President Xi Jinping can do), China’s carriers will continue to be a weak point in China’s overall military threat to Taiwan and its allies.
Their primary purpose, at least for now, is to be a symbol of China’s growing power without actually being a source of great power.
Just as with China’s overall development, though, if China continues honing their aircraft carrier operations, the force will be a powerful weapon in China’s endlessly expanding arsenal. It just won’t be anytime soon.
American war planners should be much more worried about China’s threats in the trade and tech domains, as well as in the strategic domains of space, cyberspace, and the EM spectrum.
American leaders should be aware of the danger posed by China’s submarine fleet, anti-ship missiles, nuclear weapons, and hypersonic weapons, too. US leaders should be much more concerned about these threats rather than the nascent Chinese aircraft carrier capabilities.
A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (Encounter Books), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert occasionally serves as a Subject Matter Expert for various organizations, including the Department of Defense. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.