Without the ability to achieve air superiority or project stealth power from the air, an additional Chinese carrier isn’t likely to be impactful in any great power conflict.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will soon launch its third aircraft carrier, a development marking a significant expansion in China’s ability to project global power.
The Chinese-government-backed Global Times newspaper describes the PLAN’s third carrier as larger and more technologically sophisticated than China’s now-operational second carrier, the Shandong. Numerous reports suggest that the carrier is likely to be unveiled quite soon, although an exact date is not yet available.
The Global Times reports that work can be done on the ship even after it is launched, suggesting that the PLAN’s timetable for the carrier’s launch is flexible.
“Based on the general pattern of shipbuilding, some outfitting work of a ship can be done either before launch or after launch. This means the Jiangnan Shipyard and the PLA Navy can choose when to launch the carrier once its construction has reached a certain level,” the Global Times writes.
China’s new, indigenously-built carrier appears to resemble the U.S. Navy’s Ford-class carriers, as they abandon China’s traditional “ski jump” configuration in favor of a larger, flatter deck that resembles the Ford-class. Beyond that, there is another substantial way in which the emerging Chinese carrier appears to mirror the Ford class. The Global Times reports that “commercial satellite images indicate that it is different from the previous two carriers and uses electromagnetic catapults.”
The use of an electromagnetic catapult suggests the new Chinese carrier may be a specific Ford-class “copycat,” and it raises the question as to how mature, evolved, and effective China’s technology in this area may be.
While the ability to operate three aircraft carriers certainly falls behind the U.S. Navy’s fleet of eleven aircraft carriers, the addition of a new carrier does greatly expand China’s ability to project power well beyond the Pacific theater.
An earlier report in the Global Times quotes a Chinese military expert as saying that “we need to sail to more unfamiliar waters, face more complicated weather and sea conditions in more complex missions, and have more accompanying forces.”
However, despite the addition of a third carrier, China is thus far lacking a fifth-generation carrier-launched stealth fighter jet. The PLA’s J-31 fighter has been underway for several years as a potential rival to the U.S. Navy’s F-35C. However, few J-31s exist, and it is not at all clear that the emerging aircraft could rival the mighty F-35. Without the ability to achieve air superiority or project stealth power from the air, an additional Chinese carrier isn’t likely to be impactful in any great power conflict. What it will do, however, is enable China to adopt a forward presence as it works to expand its influence in regions such as Africa and the Middle East.