Key point: Military capabilities are about more than size.
Is China’s newest aircraft carrier half-full or half-empty?
That depends on how you look at the vessel’s aircraft capacity.
The ship, prosaically named the Type 001A for now, is China’s second carrier and the first built in China. The first carrier, the Liaoning, is a refurbished ex-Soviet vessel.
The Liaoning could carry twenty-four J-15 fighters. The Type 001A can carry thirty-six J-15s plus various support aircraft and helicopters, according to Chinese media.
“Although the second carrier known as the Type 001A is similar to the Liaoning, it has an optimized flight deck, reduced weapon areas and a smaller superstructure with added deck areas,” a Chinese naval expert told China’s state-owned Global Times. “It also has an enlarged hanger, but reduced space for missile storage compared to the Liaoning.”
Interestingly, Global Times suggested that twenty-four J-15s on the Liaoning “could be a limit factor as a regional combat might require about 40 aircraft in order to seize air supremacy. The 36 fighter jets on the Type 001A would greatly expand its combat capability.”
But Global Times also noted that the United States “operates much larger aircraft carriers, including the Nimitz-class which can carry about 60 aircraft, while the country's latest Ford-class can carry about 75.”
Where China’s inexperience with building and operating aircraft carriers is seen by critics as a drawback, Hu Wenming, chairman of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation and head of China's aircraft carrier program, suggested that Chinese shipbuilders are both mature—and youthful—at the same time.
“China now has a mature development and construction team, and the average age of team members is only 36,” he said. “Whatever type of aircraft carrier our country wants to develop in the future, we can make it on our own,”
“It took only 26 months to build and launch the Type 001A, which is China's first domestically developed aircraft carrier, almost half of the time for a foreign aircraft carrier of similar type to finish construction,” Chinese state-owned broadcaster CCTV added.
The Type 001A was launched in 2017, and has so far undergone six sea trials. Apparently, not all has gone smoothly, as the most recent tests suggested problems with the ship.
So how does the Type 001A rate as an aircraft carrier? The 65,000-ton vessel is dwarfed by a 100,000-ton U.S. Nimitz- or Ford-class carrier, which can carry almost double the aircraft of their Chinese counterparts. But the U.S. carriers are conventional World War II-style carriers that are essentially floating runways, with long flight decks in which aircraft are launched by catapult, and then return to make an abrupt arrested-wire landing.
The Type 001A is a Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing (STOVL), or “ski-jump” carrier, with a sharply inclined bow for abbreviated takeoffs by aircraft that will then land vertically like a helicopter. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth-class uses the same approach: with the British flattops displacing about 65,000 tons and carrying about thirty-six F-35B STOVL aircraft, they’re equivalent to the Chinese carriers. Both classes are smaller and less capable than the American giants.
The problem with comparisons is that different nations need different aircraft carriers. The United States, accustomed to projecting power and prestige around the globe, relies on huge carriers that can sail to remote locations and launch a relatively large number of aircraft—a sixty-plane U.S. Navy carrier air wing is equivalent to about three or four U.S. Air Force squadrons.
China’s carrier fleet is still a work in progress. But the Type 001A will probably operate in the South China Sea or other waters not far from the Chinese mainland or island bases, where it would enjoy support from land-based aircraft or missiles. In that case, a Chinese carrier wouldn’t need to carry as many planes as an American vessel.