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China's First Home-Grown Aircraft Carrier Is Ready: Should America Be Worried?

China launched its second aircraft carrier Wednesday.

China’s first aircraft carrier, a refitted Soviet-era vessel called the Liaoning, was commissioned into the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 2012. The new carrier, China’s first indigenously-produced aircraft carrier, was officially launched at China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation’s Dalian shipyard, reports China’s Xinhua News Agency.

The carrier, which will likely be called the Shandong but is currently designated as CV-001A, is expected to be operational by 2020. China still needs to debug equipment, finish outfitting the ship, and conduct comprehensive trials.

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While the ship is still far from being operational, the launch “signifies major progress for our country’s indigenous design and construction of aircraft carriers,” the PLA said in a statement, “Aircraft carriers are still the most operationally powerful and worthwhile platforms at sea,” the PLA explained in an earlier statement.

China’s carriers are no match for U.S. carriers, but they offer China the kind of power projection capabilities that its neighbors in Asia lack. It is a symbol of power.

“With each new aircraft carrier, China is sending a signal that it has no peer among its neighbors,” Patrick M. Cronin, the director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security in Washington, told the New York Times.

China’s ultimate goal is to be able to field a blue water navy and project power as the U.S. does, and some observers suspect that China is moving along that trajectory at a rapid pace.

“China’s shipbuilding industry is poised to make the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) the world’s second largest navy by 2020,” argues Dr. Andrew Erickson, a renowned China expert with detailed knowledge of China’s naval developments, told the Diplomat. “If current trends continue — a combat fleet that in overall order of battle is quantitatively and even perhaps qualitatively on a par with that of the [U.S. Navy] by 2030.”

Chinese military experts see a big future for China’s aircraft carrier development program.

Chinese military expert Cao Weidong explained that China needs multiple large-scale operational platforms to mitigate those threats, stressing that China needs more than one or two carriers. The Chinese navy is moving towards nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with bigger tonnage and improved combat capabilities, Cao told CCTV.

Yin Zhuo, another Chinese military expert, said that China needs carrier battle formations in both the South China Sea and East China Sea, where China is involved in territorial disputes with multiple claimant states. He suggested that there be at least three aircraft carriers operating in each sea.

It is unclear if China will pursue this kind of development plan, but China has indicated that it wants to build a much more robust naval force to protect its expanding interests. In addition to carriers, China has also been constructing new destroyers, cruisers, and supply ships.

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