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China has big plans for its aircraft carriers, but its flattops are still no match for the US’s carrier fleet

A fleet does not a ship make.

The launch of China’s new aircraft carrier, the Fujian, has created a big stir in US media. The reason may be more psychological than military. Since 1945, the US has become accustomed to being the dominant aircraft-carrier power in the world.

Other countries — Britain, France, even Australia, and Argentina — operate smaller carriers, but mostly with more limited capabilities. And Russiα’s smoke-belching carrier Admiral Kuznetsov — famously damaged in 2018 when a dockyard crane fell on the ship — seems designed either for comic relief.

Only the US has a truly carrier-centric navy. But now along comes China, which seems likely to build at least six aircraft carriers.

Shandong is China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier.

Yet there is more to a navy than the number of its ships. Tactics, experience, training, and traditions are also important factors. If sheer tonnage was the only criterion for an effective fleet, Britain’s Royal Navy would never have achieved maritime dominance for centuries.

For now, the carrier force of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is no rival to America’s. The US Navy has 11 active nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, each capable of launching nearly 100 aircraft and helicopters.

China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, was built on a rusting ex-Soviet Navy hulk. The second, the Shandong, is a ski-jump design of around 60,000 tons, equivalent to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. These sorts of vessels can carry about 40 aircraft, but can only accommodate short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) planes, which limits aircraft weight and performance.

The Fujian is different but this is not enough

China’s third aircraft carrier, christened Fujian, at a dry dock in Shanghai on June 17, 2022.
Li Gang/Xinhua via AP

However, the 80,000-ton Fujian resembles a US aircraft carrier, with its flat deck capable of launching and retrieving high-performance aircraft. Though the Fujian is powered by steam turbines, it’s almost the size of a 100,000-ton nuclear-powered Nimitz- or Ford-class carrier.

Most startling to Western observers is that the Fujian will be equipped with a cutting-edge electromagnetic aircraft-launch system (EMALS), similar to the Ford-class vessels.

Rather than STOVL planes, the EMALS can launch heavier J-15 fighters — the carrier-based version of the Su-27 Flanker — FC-31 stealth fighters, or even a naval version of the J-20 stealth fighter. The Fujian will also carry helicopters and drones.

The US Navy’s reliance on carriers has long aroused criticism from those who question the wisdom of relying on a handful of expensive vessels in the face of anti-ship missiles, ultra-quiet submarines, hypersonic weαpσns, and “carrier-killer” ballistic missiles.

USS Gerald R. Ford conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean. US Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class Connor Loessin

But in numerous conflicts, from Korea to Afghanistan, the US has demonstrated a consistent ability to dispatch floating airfields on long-duration missions to places mostly inaccessible to land-based airpower.

What makes this possible isn’t just ships. It’s having the appropriate aircraft, pilots, mechanics, and munitions, and perhaps more importantly, the experience of maintaining flight operations in stormy seas and bad weather.

Nor do US aircraft carriers work alone. Carrier strike groups, which include anti-aircraft and anti-submarine escorts, surround the carrier in a tightly integrated team that requires practice and proficiency to operate smoothly.

The US Navy has problems enough of its own. For example, the EMALS catapults on the Ford-class carriers have been plagued by reliability issues. But at least the US Navy doesn’t have to build a carrier fleet from scratch.

There is no reason why China can’t be an aircraft carrier power if it wants to be. The question is whether it will devote the resources and attention to create an effective carrier fleet, and how long it will take it to achieve that.