Here's What You Need to Know: In a high-intensity conflict with the United States, the PLA Navy would likely struggle to use its carriers without exposing them to unacceptably high levels of risk.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy takes many of its cues from the U.S. Navy as it develops its carrier aviation branch. It is seeking similar flat-deck carriers to its U.S. counterpart, and has developed airborne early warning planes and electronic attack jets comparable to American E-2D Hawkeyes and EA-18 Growlers.
But that tendency may have backfired for once. That’s because the U.S. Navy has been beset by major cost overruns and delays in deploying its new generation Gerald Ford-class supercarriers due to persistent flaws in their catapults, arresting gear, radars and weapons elevators. You can read more about these many problems in an earlier article.
Similar problems apparently are affecting China’s carrier program. In November 2019, Minnie Chan of the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing was scrapping plans for a fifth and sixth nuclear-powered carrier, once it finished construction of two new steam-powered vessels.
The reason? “Technical challenges and high costs,” including issues particularly linked to development of the latter two vessel’s electromagnetic launch systems—the same system bedeviling the U.S. Navy.
China’s Truncated Aircraft Carrier Program
For over a decade, China has been steadily building up plans to deploy six aircraft carriers of progressively greater capability.
China’s first carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning, was actually an old Soviet “aircraft-carrying cruiser” purchased by an ex-basketball star from Ukraine, ostensibly for use as a floating casino, and then extensively refitted into a carrier. Considerably smaller than U.S. carriers, the Liaoning features a curved ‘ski jump’ ramp that limits the fuel and weapons payload carried by her J-15 Flying Shark fighters.
The second carrier, launched in 2017—variously designated the Type 001A or Type 002—was China’s first entirely domestically built carrier, and is essentially a modestly improved Type 001.
China’s third and fourth carriers (the Type 002 or Type 003 depending on which nomenclature you prefer) are significantly larger and more capable, with flat, catapult-equipped flight decks that would allow deployment of fully combat-loaded jet fighters.
The final stage of the Chinese carrier program was two even larger flat-deck carriers using nuclear propulsion—intended essentially to be equal in capability to the U.S. Navy’s super carriers.
But rather than adopt the steam catapults used on most flat-deck aircraft carriers, Beijing was determined to steal a technological step by directly adopting next-generation electromagnetic launch systems, or EMALs—currently only featured on two new Gerald Ford class carrier.
U.S. Navy planners have long enthused that EMALs would save billions of dollars in operating costs compared to steam catapults, speed up aircraft operations 25%, and reduce wear-and-tear on aircraft by allowing the amount of impelling force to be fine-tuned according to operational needs.
But unfortunately, Pentagon testing reports revealed that EMALs remained far from mature, exhibited dramatically higher failure rates, and required excessively long times to repair due to the Ford’s distributed power system.
The catapults used by China’s third and fourth-carriers are also experiencing teething issues, according to Chan: “tests of the electromagnetic catapults used to launch the J-15, China’s only carrier-based fighter, had yet to meet the required standard.”
Chan cites a military insider in describing two other factors behind the axing of China’s plans for nuclear-powered supercarriers.
One problem is the need to develop a next-generation carrier-based stealth fighter to succeed the PLAN’s current J-15s. Indeed, there are conflicting reports as to whether China will evolve the lighter, and as yet non-operational J-31 stealth fighter for carrier operations, or develop a naval variant of the larger Chengdu J-20 stealth jet currently in service.
Chan’s source also claimed “China doesn’t possess the nuclear technology required, although it has developed many nuclear-powered submarines.” Apparently carrier’s larger scale needs pose a greater technical challenge.
Prestige versus Combat Power
Beijing may also be having second thoughts on whether springing big bucks for big carriers is the best use of its defense budget. China's carriers' greatest value may lie more in prestige, power projection against weaker adversaries, and building experience for later capability growth, rather than as deterrence against the U.S. Navy.
After all, a six-carrier PLA Navy would still be balancing against eleven higher-capability U.S. carriers. In the past, such naval imbalances in power often resulted in the weaker side’s most valuable ships staying in port rather than sallying forth into likely defeat. Consider the 17 huge Kaiser Wilhelm dreadnaughts built prior to World War I, which saw limited action because they were contained by the 29 dreadnaughts in the Royal Navy.
In a high-intensity conflict with the United States, the PLA Navy would likely struggle to use its carriers without exposing them to unacceptably high levels of risk. Cheaper but still capable surface warships and submarines, as well as land-based missiles and long-range anti-ship bombers offer the PLA Navy a more immediately useable means to contest the western Pacific against a peer adversary.
Debatably, such long-range standoff weapons threaten the future viability of even the United State’s more mature carrier fleet. Adapting supercarriers to survive against them may involve developing new long-range unmanned systems radically different from the Super Hornet and Lightning fighters in current carrier air wings.
Thus, China’s downsizing of its carrier ambitions may leave it with more time to evaluate just what the carriers of the future will really look-like—and whether they’re worth the cost.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.
This article first appeared in December 2019.