Key Point: China understands that in a maritime conflict with virtually any nation but the United States, its carriers would be would be a powerful combat advantage.
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.
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
Even as the Chinese Navy expands its fleet architecture to match expansive maritime goals, several U.S. defense analysts want to consolidate the U.S. Navy. These carrier detractors would end the U.S. Navy’s balance between everyday missions and warfighting requirements by killing off America’s carriers to fund more submarines and drones. The problem with this approach is that a fleet disproportionately composed of submarines and drones cannot perform the missions necessary to keep conflict from occurring. While a submarine- and drone-heavy approach would do well once the shooting started, the U.S. Navy exists to prevent the war from starting in the first place.
That said, these analysts also unfairly undercut the warfighting ability of carriers by refusing to consider their realistic employment. No one would think of stationing a U.S. Air Expeditionary Force in harm’s way without adequate protection and air and missile defense. Similarly, no one would send an army division across a hostile border without air cover. Yet these carrier detractors have led audiences to believe that the U.S. Navy would simply steam its carriers into the teeth of an enemy’s defenses without the benefit of a joint, combined arms concept of operations to mitigate risk. Framing the debate in such terms subjects the aircraft carrier to a standard of invulnerability applied to no other weapon system.
This tendentious presentation of the carrier’s value has negatively impacted America’s carrier force. Only two years ago, carrier program chief Rear Admiral Thomas Moore commented that America has “an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world.” Worse yet, the combination of one carrier in long-term maintenance and the gap between the overhaul of the USS George Washington and the completion of the USS Gerald Ford means that America operates a single-digit carrier navy today with just nine carriers. Even though the George Washington survived sequestration-inspired attempts to cut it, the Ford remains under constant attack by Congress. Meanwhile, China is only adding to the ranks of the roughly ten nations operating or building carriers of one form or another. While the size, capabilities and effectiveness of these vessels vary widely, the fact that India, Brazil, Thailand and China enter and stay in the aircraft carrier business speaks to the ship’s continued utility both in war fighting and war prevention.
China understands that in the steady-state security environment of the Western Pacific, its carrier force would be a pivotal and influential capability, essential to its quest for regional dominance. Furthermore, China understands that in a maritime conflict with virtually any nation but the United States, its carriers would be would be a powerful combat advantage. Finally, China understands that if conflict with the United States comes, its carriers’ warfighting capability would—like the rest of its arsenal—have to be employed based on the principle of calculated risk. It would be wise for strategists in the United States to remember these same principles.
Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, and the Assistant Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense issues. This piece was first featured in 2015 and is being republished due to reader's interest.