mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Chinese Aircraft Carrier Still a Long Way off

China launched its first aircraft carrier, an antique bought from Ukraine, about a year ago to much fanfare in China and hand wringing abroad. The international media saw this as a “potent” sign of China’s growing naval prowess.

But the carrier is still a long way from being a battle-ready warship. Reuters reports:

Despite public anticipation in China that the carrier — a refitted, Soviet-era vessel bought from Ukraine — will soon become the flagship of a powerful navy, defense experts say it lacks the strike aircraft, weapons, electronics, training and logistical support it needs to become a fighting warship. . . .

. . . [S]enior People’s Liberation Army officers have played down expectations [that the carrier was almost ready], making it clear the 60,000-tonne carrier was far from operational readiness and would undergo an extensive schedule of trials and exercises.

“The Great Wall wasn’t built in a day,” Colonel Lin Bai from the General Armaments Department was quoted as saying on official government news websites after the Varyag returned to port.

Even when the Varyag is operational, it will only have a limited operational role, mostly for training and evaluation ahead of the anticipated launch of China’s first domestically built carriers after 2015, military analysts say.

This is a reminder for many Weibo nationalists and others in China who don’t understand how far China really is from becoming a strong and effective naval force in even coastal waters. They probably also don’t understand that China’s most serious naval challenge isn’t the South China Sea but control of the sea lanes from the Middle East and elsewhere, over which its oil and trade move.

Given the rate of technological change and the progress in information and other innovative warfare strategies, aircraft carriers may well be obsolete by the time China has built a significant capacity. Moreover, any major sign of a Chinese naval buildup will prompt a response from its neighbors, as well as from the U.S. China can spend a lot of extra money on defense without actually changing the balance of forces.

We Americans are sometimes so worried by our own problems that we forget that other people also have issues trying to catch up with us.

Features Icon
show comments
  • dearieme

    “aircraft carriers may well be obsolete by the time China has built a significant capacity”: or now.

  • Luke Lea

    Off topic, but this story on the immigration of corrupt Chinese officials caught my eye. Do we have an extradition treaty with China?

    “A report released by China’s central bank last year said more than $120bn (£74bn) had been stolen by corrupt officials who fled overseas, mainly to the US.

    Between 16,000 and 18,000 officials and employees of state-owned companies left China with the funds from the mid-1990s up until 2008, the report said.”

  • Luke Lea

    On topic: in its search for new stimulus projects the Chinese leadership might turn to a naval buildup? Their ship building industry is now in the doldrums due to over building so there is a lot of excess capacity. Just saying.

  • Luke Lea

    A follow up to China’s capacity for ship building. If her national freeway construction program is any guide, China’s capacity to ramp up production almost beggars the imagination. I read stories of freeway construction projects which in the U.S. would have required years being completed in China in a matter of weeks. On YouTube there are time lapse videos showing ten-story office buildings being built in ten days. Could they build, say, 500 submarines in two years? I wouldn’t put it past them.

  • Gene

    Ukraine had an aircraft carrier?

  • Jeff

    Aircraft Carriers obsolete? Not yet, and not lIkely in near future. Lots of threats, subs and ballistic missiles probably most dangerous. They are much harder to target than fixed airfields in the Pacific where we would have to position all Air Force tactical aviation and tankers. Additionally no host nation restriction on what you can do which is a big deal. People have been

  • Jeff

    Darn phone. Meant to say people have been predicting the demise of the Aircraft Carrier ever since the end of WWII but it remains one of the most potent weapon systems we have. Tremendous ability to influence events without firing a shot. Just send a carrier and make sure CNN shows footage of flight ops.

    Chinese have a long way to go, what we do is incredibly difficult and reflects over 70 years of lessons learned.

    Fly Navy!

  • Kansas Scott

    To Luke Lea at #3, I agree that China has great capacity to build lots of things quickly. However, I’d be a little nervous about hanging around it let alone taking it on a long deep ocean cruise.

    A story from August 28th on the People’s Daily online service reports “Fifteen bridges, including three under construction, collapsed between 2007 and this month, killing 141 people and injuring another 111. But official reports made public say that no case was triggered by poor quality.”

  • BobjustBob

    There is more to operating a carrier then just building(or buying)one. The trust and teamwork required to work on a flightdeck, to keep squadrons of highly complex aircraft maintained, to maintain multiple nuclear reactors is beyond authoritarian states like China…ask the Soviets about that.

    Let them waste time and resources trying to make a carrier work.

  • f1b0nacc1

    The Chinese do indeed have a huge amount of excess naval building capacity, but even a large naval building program wouldn’t soak up much of it. Naval hulls tend to be small compared to commercial shipping, and modern naval vessels require specialized skills and materials that aren’t common at most yards. A big naval building program would more likely lead to bottlenecks and backlogs at many yards that would interfere with profitable commercial construction.

    On the subject of carriers, they aren’t going to be obsolete anytime soon, as Jeff correctly points out. This tired refrain (“the end is near for the carrier”) gets a fresh retelling every decade or so, only to be silenced by the ability of carriers to absorb and incorporate most of the technologies likely to be used against them. Take a look at the Ford-class carriers, and you can see how the USN has done a rather impressive job of planning to integrate new technologies (mostly notably UAVs, where they are far ahead of the hidebound USAF) to extend the life and usefulness of these vessels.

  • f1b0nacc1


    Remember that the Shi Yang is conventionally powered (no reactors), and far less complex (and less capable) than a Nimitz-class carrier. This is more of a training ship for the Chinese….they have a larger carrier under construction (though this is taking place at a somewhat leisurely pace), which is likely to be the more challenging platform when they deploy it at some unspecified future date.

    Overall, however, you are spot-on…the level of training and teamwork required to make a carrier operate is far, far higher than most people seem to understand.

  • Kevin Lohse

    The UK have a couple under construction which the Chinese could take off our hands at cost.

  • strmwr

    Commentors 8 and 9 might be right in this particular instance, but a note of caution.

    In WWII, it was the US that was the object of the same kinds of disparaging comparisons as you’re now making with respect to China. The US’s ability to quickly produce lots of middling-quality war materiel was contrasted unfavorably with German precision engineering, and the greenness of US troops with the discipline, experience, and tradition of their German counterparts. We all know that all those American boots, battleships, and bombers, with a healthy assist from millions upon millions of Soviet casualties, won the day. China, arguably, has both the manufacturing capacity and the ability to absorb considerably higher casualties.

    It may be that US won because Hitler was so stupid, or that advances in technology make the comparison inapt. I would add that the US had, and still has, the additional advantage of a superior financial and economic system to keep the factories humming.

  • Jim.

    Does anyone really believe that the Democrats wouldn’t sell our carriers to the Chinese if that were the only way to keep the Blue Model running for a few more months?

  • QET

    @strmwr — not to go all patriotic here, but the fact is that the US was in a position to adapt quickly to the changed environment where I suspect China is not. Building and deploying an aircraft carrier requires far more than just manufacturing capacity and a large labor force. Your last sentence gets at the difference, but it goes even beyond those superior systems.

  • strmwr

    @QET – I would like to think, and sometimes I do think, that liberal, capitalistic states are better able to adapt to and meet the unforeseen exigencies of a war than authoritarian states.

    But that the “US was in a position to adapt quickly to the changed environment” in WWII was not simply due its own “superior systems.” First the British and then the Soviets performed a holding operation while the US dithered about entering the war and then ramped up and marshaled its forces for D-Day. The Soviets also broke the back of the Nazi army on the eastern front; for every 5 Germans who died fighting, 4 of them died on the eastern front. No small part of the “superior systems” of the US in WWII was the ability of an abhorrent totalitarian police state to endure causalities in the scores of millions withstanding the brunt of the Wehrmacht and then chasing them back to Berlin.

    I don’t doubt that building and deploying an aircraft carrier requires more than manufacturing capacity and a large labor force. But I also don’t doubt that authoritarian, illiberal, non-capitalistic states have proved able to rise to that challenge, as the Soviets and Japanese did. Even if their carriers do not rise to the level of ours, that does not necessarily mean that a larger number of inferior carriers, together with the resources and will to sustain exponentially greater losses, won’t pose a significant threat.

  • f1b0nacc1


    As said by #15, I don’t want to sound like a jingo, but any serious discussion of American military hardware prior to WWII tended to rate it very, very highly in terms of quality, not simply quantity. There are obviously cases where our allies (and our enemies) produced superior weapons, but American hardware was considered reliable, rugged, easy to manufacture and to repair, and (drum roll please….) extremely effective. The USN’s carriers were widely regarded as the best in the world, and the WWII battle record suggests that this was likely the case. While the IJN built some impressive ships (notably their battleships, arguably the best in the world till 1943), their carriers were deeply flawed, as were the aircraft they carried. None of this suggests that we didn’t have some duds, but to compare the indifferent (at best) quality of most of the Chinese kit to that of the US in the preWWII era (where it was considered even by foreign militaries to be cutting edge) simply doesn’t stand up.

    You are correct that we should not be complacent, indeed we should redouble our efforts to extend our existing advantages, but it is also important to put things in perspective…

  • Mick The Reactionary

    I like to thank commenters strmwr, f1b0nacc1 and Jeff for their informative contributions, I learned quite a bit from them.

    The blog posting itself? Not so much.

    It is not intended as criticism. A good stimulating blog often starts a discussion that is superior in depth, breadth, facts and logic to a blog post itself.

    In fact a blog post that is a catalyst for a good discussion is the best post there is.

  • Luke Lea

    Kansas Scott — Yes, shoddy construction is a hallmark of the Chinese economy so far. Even so, 500 shoddy subs wouldn’t be too shabby necessarily. The Chinese are good at modular design — that’s how they put up office towers in two weeks. As for carriers, I think they would be a disaster for China. Not enough experience to operate them.

  • Luke Lea

    China news:

    “The excellent Chris Buckley has an interesting story about preparations for the 18th Party Congress–Exclusive: China considers downgrading domestic security tsar in next line-up | Reuters. Buckley writes that:

    China’s Communist Party is considering downgrading the role of domestic security chief as part of a move to a new and smaller top elite, reflecting fears that the position has become too powerful, sources said.

    But there are at least two issues with the story. First, this shift has been discussed ad nauseum in the overseas Chinese press. Duowei especially has been all over this, as Sinocism noted here, here, here, here, and here over the last couple of months.

    Reuters even admits in this story that “Overseas Chinese websites, which are beyond the reach of Beijing’s censorship, have also carried reports that the Standing Committee will shrink to seven.”

    [China’s domestic security apparatus is bigger than the army, several million strong. You can see how the guy who controls it could take over. As for seven instead of nine: makes sense. The size of a poker group. Get any bigger and something is lost.

  • Jim.

    @Luke Lea-

    So where are you going to find crews for 500 subs, particularly once they’re discovered to be “shoddy” ones?

  • f1b0nacc1


    At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets had almost 500 subs in service, most of them old “Whiskey”-class boats based on the German Type XXI designs from WWII. Despite huge problems with quality control and poorly trained sailors, they maintained this force for several decades. We now know (from post-Cold War document dumps) that these subs were considered death traps (their nukes were even worse….), and their crews rightly dreaded patrols in them. One of the great discoveries of the Cold War era is that (contra Stalin) “Quality has a quantity all its own”, i.e. well built and well-crewed vessels are far more valuable than large quantities of indifferently contructed and crewed pigboats.

    This is all moot however, if you follow the development of the Chinese Navy, you iwll note that they are attempting to emulate our philosophy….quality vessels, with good crews. They have a long way to go, and there are serious issues (notably corruption) that may prevent this goal from being realized, but the notion of a seaborne “human wave attack” from the Chinese is completely at odds with reality.

  • Tom Chambers

    A trivial point in re #17, but I don’t agree that the Japanese aircraft carriers prior to and during WWII were deeply flawed, at least not in ways that couldn’t be fixed with wartime experience. The Shokaku class were arguably the best carriers in the world when built. Their biggest limitation by far was that there were ever only 2 Shokakus. Similarly their aircraft in 1941 were far superior to the models American carriers were then flying. Japanese aircraft accepted some great weaknesses in return for other great strengths. The Americans learned to fight to their weaknesses and avoid their strengths.

  • f1b0nacc1


    The Shokakus had serious problems with air currents over the flight deck that made it very difficult to rapidly launch and recieve aircraft. Their firefighting systems were extremely limited, and their hanger spaces were cramped even by 1941 standards, and they lacked fuel and ammo capacity for sustained operations at sea. Other than being the best of the IJN carriers (which is much like being the best ballerina in Galveston), I don’t see what they really had to offer. In the USN, the Yorktown and Wasp classes were arguably superior, certainly not inferior, to these ships, as they posessed far superior firefighting (particularly nitrogen flushed fuel lines), outstanding fuel and ammo storage, and roomy hangers and machine spaces.

    Japanese carrier-borne aircraft were, in 1941, excellent, but they also had their limitations. The famous Zero, for instance, was virtually unmanuverable over 250 mph, and lacked both self-sealing fuel tanks and useful armor. The Val and Kate were fine aircraft, but had an unfortunate tendency to break up after sustaining even limited damage, and were mechanically unreliable. American aircraft were typically much more heavily armored, more mechanically reliable, and generally (but not always) more heavily armed than their Japanese counterparts. What WAS indisputably superior about the IJN in 1941 was their aircrew quality, which more than compensated for their material weaknesses. This was particularly the case with the Zero, where Japanese pilots with over 800 hours (on average) of combat flight time were pitted against green American pilots in the first months of the war. Once this initial advantage was attrited away by the normal course of war, the performance of the IJN declined.

  • Mick The Reactionary

    “USN has done a rather impressive job of planning to integrate new technologies (mostly notably UAVs, where they are far ahead of the hidebound USAF) to extend the life and usefulness of these vessels.”

    Except supporting role USN was not battle tested since 1945.
    It is anyone guess how they will perform today against a worthwhile adversary given all the mix sex social engineering Navy is so enthusiastically engaged in.

  • f1b0nacc1


    The Cold War involved (particularly in the undersea theatre) every battle test short of actually firing the weapons. I understand your point that without ‘seeing the elephant’ there is no way to know for sure that any fighting force is ready, but the USN has had more operational experience than any other navy on earth at this point. The best example I can give you is that the Army and the Air Force had no significant operational experience for almost a decade prior to the first Gulf War, and they substantially exceeded expectations largely because their training was so good. The Navy has followed that tradition, and continues to innovate as well.

    It was said of Tiberius (who was actually a superior general before he became a mediocre Emperor) that “his drills were bloodless battles, and his battles were bloody drills”, I believe that the same can be said of the USN…one of the primary reasons it is so very expensive…

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service