The Buzz

China's Aircraft Carriers: The Ultimate Paper Tiger?

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) aircraft carriers won’t be able to conduct blue water operations in the way the U.S. Navy’s flattops do. Nor will the PLAN have global power projection capabilities akin to those afforded by America’s fleet of supercarriers. That’s the assessment of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.

“The aircraft carriers that they’re building will not have the same blue open ocean capability that our aircraft carriers have,” U.S. Marine Corps. Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Armed Service Committee on March 2. “Nor will it be able to execute air operations the way we use our carriers.”

Chinese aircraft carriers—at least initially—will be focused on local operations in the seas surrounding China, Stewart said. Most of China’s efforts seem aimed at securing Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea and its so-called nine-dash line.

Indeed, China’s current aircraft carrier, the 55,000-ton Liaoning—which was originally built in Ukraine before the collapse of the Soviet Union—is about half the size of an American Nimitz-class vessel. Moreover, the Chinese carrier is equipped with a ski-jump rather than catapults—limiting its ability launch heavier aircraft.

China’s follow-on aircraft carrier—which is under construction at the Dalian shipyards—is also based on the Russian Project 1143.5 Orel design like Liaoning and Kuznetsov. That means, until China develops an indigenous aircraft carrier with either steam or electromagnetic catapults, the PLAN will not have a flattop comparable to a Nimitz or Ford-class carrier.

However, as Beijing develops better technology and secures bases overseas, the PLAN’s global reach will expand. Indeed, there are indications that the Chinese intend to do just that. “Some of the excursions now with port facilities in Africa and their submarine technology suggest a much broader global capability in the offing,” Stewart said.

Only time will tell how the PLAN evolves over time. But even as China’s economic growth slows, Beijing continues to expand its military capabilities—albeit at a somewhat reduced rate.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Simon YANG.