China’s force of aircraft carriers continues to grow. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently has two carriers, one an ex-Soviet vessel, the other a virtual clone of the first. But it is rapidly adding to its arsenal.
A third carrier is already under construction at the Jiangnan shipyards in Shanghai. This 85,000-ton vessel, dubbed the Type-003, will be China’s first true flattop carrier, outfitted with an advanced electromagnetic launch catapult and capable of operating nearly twice as many fighter aircraft as the first two carriers. The Type-003 could enter service as early as 2023.
In addition, China is already planning its first nuclear-powered supercarrier, the Type-004 CVN. It is speculated that the Type-004 could operate up to 100 fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. This ship could enter service by the end of the decade and will likely also serve as a model for additional CVNs.
It is possible that China could have four supercarriers by 2035, the year the PLA has set for itself the goal of achieving “complete military modernization.” At the same time, China expects to make continual improvements to its submarine fleet—particularly building lots more nuclear-powered boats—and the rest of its surface fleet. This makes the next 15 years especially critical for countries in the region seeking to counter China’s growing naval might.
Fortunately, these countries are not standing still. The U.S. Navy plans to replace its entire fleet of Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarriers with the new Ford-class. The Ford is a 100,000-ton behemoth, over 1000 feet long, capable of carrying up to 90 aircraft and sustaining up to 270 sorties per day. It is truly a force to be reckoned with.
The United States maintains five aircraft carriers in its U.S. Pacific Fleet, in addition to four flat-deck amphibious assault vessels, which are capable of acting as mini-aircraft carriers (flying F-35s off their decks). Additional carriers could also be deployed to the Pacific, if needed.
This gives the United States an edge over the PLAN, albeit not a comfortable one. Fortunately, other U.S. allies and partners are seeing the advantages of also operating aircraft carriers. Countries that have never operated carriers—or who gave them up decades ago—are rethinking their positions.
The most important of these is Japan, which is soon likely to have its first aircraft carriers since the end of World War II. In 2018, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) announced that it would convert its two 27,000-ton Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers”—basically open-deck amphibious assault vessels—into ships capable of operating fixed-wing aircraft. At the same time, the SDF revealed that is buying 42 F-35Bs, the short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; most of these will probably be deployed on these ships.
In fact, earlier this month, the MSDF conducted its first-ever take-offs and landings of F-35Bs from the deck of the Izumo, inaugurating the vessel’s status as an aircraft carrier. Each of these ships will carry from 12 to 24 fixed-wing aircraft.
Not to be outdone, South Korea recently announced that it will build a 45,000-ton dedicated aircraft carrier, designated the CVX. Like Japan’s Izumo, it will be a true flattop operating STOVL aircraft like the F-35B. Seoul plans to buy up to 20 F-35B fighters.
Even Singapore might acquire a small aircraft carrier. It is currently building an 14,500-ton open-deck “Joint Multi-Mission Ship” (JMMS). This ship could conceivably deploy a handful of F-35Bs, which the Singapore Armed Forces is also buying. Australia’s two Canberra-class amphibious assault ship could also operate F-35Bs, should it choose to do so.
Finally, India—China’s major regional competitor—is in the process of accepting two new carriers. One is based on the 45,000-ton Admiral Gorshkov (sold to India in 2004 and heavily refitted as the INS Vikramaditya), while the other—the indigenously built INS Vikrant—is currently undergoing sea trials. A second indigenous carrier is likely, for a total of three.
Even U.S. allies outside of the Asia-Pacific are coming to play. The United Kingdom is currently engaged in a highly publicized, months-long deployment of its supercarrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the region. At the same time, the British government has said that it will permanently deploy two warships to Asian waters.
To be sure, any aircraft carrier is vulnerable to missile strikes, particularly from the growing threat of hypersonic weapons. At the same time, the value of aircraft carriers still greatly outweighs their vulnerability. They have considerable impact in peacetime operations, providing large, secure platforms from which to launch humanitarian and disaster relief activities.
In crisis situations or during periods of international tension, they serve as potent signals—as the United States like to call its supercarriers, “100,000-tons of international diplomacy.”
Most important, in military operations, aircraft carriers are still invaluable. Despite their vulnerabilities, the British found its carriers to be instrumental to providing air support to their naval and land forces during the Falklands War; without Harrier jets flying off those carriers, British casualties could have been much worse.
Short of outright war, carrier battlegroups provide useful naval footprints for security, including air defense, antisubmarine operations, and intelligence-gathering. Moreover, their deterrent value goes without saying.
To be sure, so far most current or near-term Indo-Pacific aircraft carriers have their limitations. Many are small and can only carry relatively few numbers of fixed-wing fighters, especially compared to U.S. supercarriers (the Chinese Type-001A operates at most 32 J-15 fighters, about half of what a U.S. carrier can carry). Moreover, the ski-jump design used on some of these vessels (particularly the Chinese and Indian carriers) severely limits the number of aircraft they can carry, while also reducing the usefulness of the aircraft itself: The plane has to hold so much fuel that it is almost literally a flying gas tank, unable to carry more than a handful of armaments or operate very far from its carrier.
That said, aircraft carriers do not have to be large in order to have a significant impact. Japanese and Korean carriers may be smaller, but they can also be quite versatile. The F-35B is also a superior fighter jet compared to Chinese or Russian carrier-based aircraft. In addition, the greater use of automation reduces crew size, while drones—both airborne and undersea—can help to expand these ships’ situational awareness and operational breadth.
Despite any vulnerabilities, therefore, the aircraft carrier’s value endures. All in all, the United States and allied forces should continue to outnumber Chinese naval capacities, particularly when it comes to aircraft carriers. As it should.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.