China’s Useless Aircraft Carrier

Chinese authorities last week admitted what the world had known for over a year — that their navy is refurbishing a Soviet era aircraft carrier, the former Varyag of Ukraine, as part of China’s military modernization program. Another, Chinese build carrier is also slated for construction, causing concerns across East Asia where many countries have unresolved maritime disputes with Beijing.

China is ramping up defense spending as the United States consider cutting their military budget though Washington still far outspends Beijing. The latter also spends as much on internal security as it does on external defenses and lacks years behind the Americans in terms of naval and missile technology.

The Chinese carrier now under construction is emblematic of the huge divergence between American and Chinese defense capabilities. According to War is Boring‘s David Axe, it’s nothing short of a piece of junk. To China’s closest neighbors, the prospect of a carrier speeding heavily armed Chinese fighter jets across the world’s oceans may be an alarming one but the US Navy seems oddly unaffected. “A close study of the 990 foot long vessel — plus the warships and airplanes she’ll sail with — reveals a modestly sized carrier lacking many of the elements that make US flattops so powerful,” writes Axe. Moreover, she will sail into a Pacific Ocean teeming with carriers.

Five nuclear powered American supercarriers are home ported in California, Washington and Japan, as are six assault ships. Between them, these ships carry six hundred aircraft compared to forty for the Chinese.

Japan operates two assault ships with another on the way that can carry helicopters and possibly vertical takeoff and landing Joint Strike Fighters in the near future. The same applies to South Korea’s four planned carriers and two Australian flattops under construction. Then there are Indian, Thai and Russian carriers able to match China’s.

Of the twenty-two flattops already plying the Pacific or coming soon, none belongs to a country that China can consider a close ally. Today it’s not uncommon to see American carriers sailing in mixed formations with carriers from Japan, South Korea, Thailand and India. Beijing can only dream of assembling that kind of international sea power.

There’s a further discrepancy in terms of cruisers and destroyers that sail alongside a carrier to protect it. America’s escorting warships boast incredibly sophisticated radars and air defense systems. “An American carrier battle group possesses more high powered radars and at sea missiles than most other countries’ entire naval fleets,” according to Axe. The Chinese have just two destroyers with comparable capabilities, although more are under construction.

“Underwater, the situation is even worse.” American carriers travel with at least one nuclear powered attack submarine of which the Navy has dozens. The Chinese operate just two subs capable of long range patrols.

In general, Americans shouldn’t worry too much about China’s burgeoning fleet. In a recent paper (PDF), British naval historian Geoffrey Till argues that the real strength of the US Navy should not be measured by its size in ships but by its tonnage. In that regard, the American fleet has a 2.6 to one advantage over a combined Chinese-Russian armada. When also considering the advantage in vertical launch magazines (actual strike power), the United States enjoy an enormous superiority. And that’s not the end of it.

Its fifty-six SSN/SSGN nuclear power submarine fleet might on the face of it seem overpowered by the world’s other 220 SSNs and SSKs but the qualitative advantages of the US submarine force are huge. It is much the same story with regard to the US Navy’s amphibious and critical support fleets, in its capacity to support special forces operations, in its broad area maritime surveillance capabilities, in its US Coast Guard (the equivalent of many of the world’s navies) and in the enormous advantage conferred by the experience of many decades of 24/7 oceanic operations.

In short, it deserves reiteration what James Pritchett wrote here last year — that “in terms of global seapower,” China is likely to remain “in the second band of naval powers for some time to come.”