Why China Wants Aircraft Carriers

Despite trying to negate U.S. aircraft carriers, Beijing is building its own. Why?

China’s recent release of its first strategic white paper signals its official emergence as a maritime—and therefore global—power. Little in the document should surprise those who have monitored China’s rise, though it remains to be seen whether China watchers will discern nuance and inscrutability instead of taking Beijing at its word. Simply put, China views the United States as Asia’s hegemon, and its strategy seeks to deprive the United States of this role.    

In its quest to eject the United States from a position of power and influence in the region, China has embarked upon a naval building and modernization program. At first, this program seemed aimed at rendering U.S. wartime support to Taiwan moot after the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis.  The effort included weapons and platforms designed specifically to target U.S maritime power projection capability—primarily resident in the air wings of its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier force. Early on, some assigned non-threatening motives for the buildup given the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue to Beijing. Yet over time, China began to develop weapons and sensor architectures far beyond those necessary or even useful for Taiwan scenarios. The Chinese naval program began to lay the foundation for regional maritime dominance and global influence by building modern multi-purpose destroyers, nuclear attack submarines, amphibious vessels, and an improved logistics force.

By far the most powerful symbol of China’s design on regional dominance is the development of its own fleet of aircraft carriers. With one flat-top already launched and two to three more in the works, an interesting question arises. Why would a nation that has spent considerable time and effort to deny the U.S. Navy freedom of maneuver by creating the impression that its aircraft carriers were vulnerable embark on the expensive, logistically arduous, and operationally dubious decision to build its own carriers? The answer is that the benefit of a carrier force to achieving China’s strategic goals far outweighs the risks associated with operating them—a lesson that the United States once embraced, and one which must be generationally re-learned.

Whether in a direct or support role, carriers have taken part in almost every major military operation the United States has undertaken since the Second World War. They also serve as first-rate diplomatic tools to either heighten or ease political pressure. When regional tensions increase, a carrier, or sometimes two, is sent to patrol off their coast. And when an election takes place in a nascent democracy or country central to U.S. interests, a strike group typically is sailing offshore.

China recognizes this brand of unique flexibility and the extensibility of the aircraft carrier across the spectrum of conflict, from presence through deterrence to coercion and war-fighting. China cannot be ignorant of the multiplicity of threats arrayed against its potential carrier force. For starters, the peerless U.S. Navy Submarine Force would likely make short work of China’s carriers in a conflict. But that scenario is unlikely. More likely, Chinese fleet architects are thinking about carriers more for their ability to exert influence throughout the region, like coercing nations reluctant to toe China’s nine-dash-line claims in the South China Sea, and in order to display global Chinese influence as far afield as the Eastern Pacific and the Mediterranean Sea.

Presence, Deterrence, Coercion, and Warfighting

Modern, first-rate navies tend to operate three main types of vessel: submarines, surface ships (including amphibious transport ships and logistics ships), and aircraft carriers with embarked air wings. Submarines are superb war-fighting platforms—able to operate in the opaque undersea environment. They hunt surface ships, provide incredible platforms for surreptitious surveillance, and can strike targets ashore. That said, submarines aren’t great platforms for presence, since they must stay unseen to stay alive.

Surface ships are the primary platforms employed for naval presence, deterrence, and coercion.  Presence can be accomplished by unarmed or even modestly armed ships, though these are less useful in deterrence and warfighting. More heavily armed surface ships perform presence missions and are considerably more potent deterrence platforms, but are more vulnerable than submarines to modern weaponry when the shooting starts.

Aircraft carriers combine the ability to carry out everyday missions well while remaining a deadly warfighting platform. Carriers remain premier instruments for presence, deterrence, and coercion, while the embarked air wing renders the carrier a potent warfighting system able to project power and exert control of the seas around which it operates. Though achieving this unmatched capability has taken the U.S. Navy decades, the Chinese may realistically replicate it within twenty years. Additionally, the Chinese Navy will contend with the U.S. Navy for dominance in the Pacific under China’s growing anti-access/area denial umbrella, reducing the risk to its carrier force.

The Burden of Fleet Architecture