The “Cool” War? China’s Aircraft Carriers Hint At Growing Arms Race

China's Liaoning Aircraft Carrier
Photo Credit: 
By Simon YANG [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

While it might not be a genuine Cold War, the ongoing weapons build up between the United States and China could be described as a sort of “cool” war. No, China and the United States aren’t staring staring down the tubes of each other’s nuclear missile silos, but the military buildup and political tensions are real. Now, China is looking to build its own domestic aircraft carriers, with the first one believed to be nearing completion. Aircraft carriers will greatly increase China’s ability to project power.

Right now, the United States is the only country with truly global power projection. Only the United States can land large numbers of troops or launch aircraft against any target essentially anywhere at any time. Russia also has an ability to project force across large regions, but the Russians have only one aging Soviet-era aircraft carrier, the “Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov”, or Admiral Kuznetsov for short.

China also has one already afloat aircraft carrier, built using the hull from the same class as the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov. China bought the unfinished hull from Ukraine, and finished the vessel now dubbed the “Liaoning”. Now, however, China is aiming for something far more ambitious, the building of 100% domestic Chinese aircraft carriers.

Already, numerous countries have aircraft carriers, although America’s ships are by far the largest and most powerful on the ocean. India launched its own domestically constructed aircraft carrier in 2013. The United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, Brazil, and a few other countries have aircraft carriers, although many of them are much smaller than their American counterparts.

The USS Gerald R. Ford, for example, can carry 80 planes at any time, and runs on nuclear power, meaning it doesn’t have to stop to refuel. The next largest aircraft carriers are the Chinese Liaoning and Russian Admiral Kuznetsov, both carrying 50 airplanes. All other carriers carry 40 aircraft or less.

Yet as China begins to build its own ships, it will begin to develop the know-how to launch increasingly powerful aircraft carriers. If not now, in the future this could change the dynamics of military power across the world.

South China Sea First Step, The World The Next Step?

China’s immediate concerns for naval power projection center around the South China Sea. The Chinese government is rushing to put as many as 351 ships in the water by 2020. Many of these ships won’t be long range, deep sea vessels, but instead will stick closer to mainland China.

Yet as China builds up its navy, long-range capabilities are expected to become an increasing focus. Up until recently, China has focused primarily on projecting its influence globally through its economic prowess, but as China’s ability to develop higher technology platforms increases, China will be able to ramp up its military capabilities.

Satellites have uncovered evidence that China is looking to build up to four of its own carriers. More importantly than the exact number, simply developing the capability to construct domestic aircraft carriers from scratch is a major challenge to American dominance on the high seas. The first carrier is nearing completion, and is believed to closely resemble the Liaoning, which again is largely based on Soviet designs.

China will undoubtedly learn from its experience. For now, China may be stuck upgrading old Soviet technology, but in the not-so-distant future they may be able to build carriers capable of going toe-to-toe with their American counterparts.

Why Air Craft Carriers Matter

Weapons systems have a tendency to go out of date, and often quite quickly. The first metal battle ships only appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, quickly making old wooden sailing ships obsolete. Just a few decades later and the precursors to the “battleships” that would become famous in World War I and World War II were plowing the ocean.

Yet, by the end of World War II battleships had lost much of their luster. Certainly, they were no longer the key to naval power. Instead, aircraft carriers (and also nuclear submarines) were the key to global force projection.

In the future, long-range attack aircraft and missiles, stealth submarines, satellite or space-based weapons, or weapons we can’t even conceive of, might make aircraft carriers obsolete. For the time being, however, few if any non-nuclear weapons can provide as much projected firepower over as large of a range as an aircraft carrier. This is especially true for nuclear powered aircraft carriers, which don’t need to refueled. Currently, only France and the United States field nuclear power aircraft carriers.

Will China go nuclear? Perhaps in the future. For now, the Middle Kingdom’s ambitions are a bit more modest. Still, naval power will be essential for China, both in Asia, and as the country looks to expand its influence. Currently, we appear to be entering an age of multi-polarity, and China will almost certainly emerge as a great power. And as Chinese aircraft carriers take to the oceans, China will be able to project its power ever further.

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