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Is China Building Another Aircraft Carrier?


Images leaked online may show China’s second aircraft carrier under construction. If this story checks out, it would be China’s first homemade carrier. Analysts speculate that such a carrier would be outfitted with a catapult-launch system, rather than the “ski jump” used by its current carrier, the Liaoning (pictured above).

The Liaoning isn’t much of a threat to the US Navy. Further, this second carrier, if that’s what the pictures really show, would not be launch-ready for years and would still rank far behind the capabilities of current US carriers. But it would nevertheless be a clear sign that China’s is intently focused on building up its navy and eventually becoming Asia’s supreme maritime power.

“The oceans and seas have an increasingly important strategic status concerning global competition in the spheres of politics, economic development, military, and technology,” Chinese state media reported yesterday. “China’s maritime cause has generally entered the best period of development after years of efforts,” President Xi Jinping proudly declared recently. After Chinese ships circumvented the entire Japanese archipelago last weekend, the state-run China Daily newspaper proclaimed that China’s navy is “capable of sending and supporting its warships to navigate and fight in channels far from the continent.”

The Game of Thrones in Asia is a struggle which is increasingly being fought at sea. Beijing is still far behind the dominant naval power in Asia, the US Navy, but a couple of aircraft carriers and new maritime patrol vessels would be quite enough to bully and intimidate China’s weaker neighbors.

[Image of the incomplete vessel that would later be relaunched as China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning, courtesy Wikimedia]

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  • bpuharic

    It was already widely speculated that, when the first Chinese carrier was refurb’d they’d be building another.THey’re also building diesel subs and several nukes. In the next 30 years or so they’re going to have a formidable navy.

    • Eric J.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if in 30 years aircraft carriers were considered floating Maginot Lines; great big targets trying to shoot down clouds of $100 drones with million-dollar missiles.

      • Pete

        It might be sooner than 30-years, Eric.

        • Eric J.

          Well, I was just responding to the comment above.

          But how do you project power in the drone era?

          And clouds of drones imply an additional, invisible battlefield, as attackers and defenders try to control the local electromagnetic spectrum; disrupting C4i, and potentially overtaking control of the drones themselves.

      • Philopoemen

        You’re giving them 30 years? I find that generous, even accounting for railguns and directed-energy weapons.

      • bpuharic

        I absolutely agree. Why we are spending fifteen billion to build targets for Chinese missiles is beyond me.

      • Thirdsyphon

        Great turn of phrase, and I agree.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Every 20 years or so (going back to at least the 1940s) the ‘death of carriers’ song seems to be revived from the golden oldies rack. Whether it is submarines, cheap strike aircraft, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, etc. The song is always the same: waves of small, cheap weapons will overwhelm the defenses of large expensive carriers. Note that this has never come to pass.
        The problem with these scenarios is almost always the same, they overstate the impact of the anti-carrier weapons, they understate the drawbacks in using them (and the difficulties associated with them) and they ignore the potential countermeasures available to the large-carrier navy. The current threats (the AA/AD use of the Chinese ballistic missles (DF-21), along with various high-speed cruise missiles (the Soviet Yakunt and its various follow-ons)) all require fairly advanced targeting and surveillence systems which are extremely vulnerable to interference. Carriers may seem huge, but they are a very small MOVING target in a very large ocean, and to effectively target them at any significant distance requires a group of capable sensor platforms and even more capable communications network (with numerous vulnerable nodes) to pass the data back to the launcher and the missiles themselves. Even terminally guided systems (which are highly vulnerable to spoofing), are heavily dependent upon remote targeting data, and even declassified sources have revealed numerous strategies to neutralize or degrade these systems.
        The same problem (vulnerability of sensor and communications networks) lies at the heart of the ‘clouds of cheap drones’ approach, as none of these drones are going to find their targets (much less recognize them) without some sort of coordination and control system. While it may sound clever to discuss mass launches of hundreds of missiles overwhelming carrier defenses, the reality is a lot more complex, and a lot less impressive. The Soviets, who hoped to use dozens or even hundreds of high-speed air-launched missiles to overwhelm US carrier groups in some putative 1980s conflict, concoluded (as we now know) that coordinating these systems was simply impractical for large numbers of launch systems.
        Finally, we come to the favored weapon of the glib, the submarine. While modern AIP technology has made subs far more dangerous (quieter and able to stay submerged for longer periods), and their weapons are more dangerous than ever, the rise of modern computing technology has made ASW countermeasures even more powerful, and given us better tactics with which to employ them. A telling hint is that even the Chinese (who have been busily improving their non-nuclear subs, their nukes still lagging far, far behind even a minimum level of adequacy) depend upon medium to long range missiles lauched from the subs, not torpedoes, for anti-carrier operations. Certainly their are advances that make subs very dangerous opponents, but only someone with very little understanding of modern naval tactics would consider conventional subs as particularly dangerous to well-defended targets such as carriers.
        Lets also not ignore the fact that the carriers (and their escorts) are becoming increasingly difficult targets. Electronic warfare (mostly spoofing, but some outright jamming as well) seriously degrades the value of both remote sensors and weapon-mounted terminal guidance, the latter of which is inherently limited by size and power constraints. Carrier-based fighters offer a very effective defense not only against weapon swarms but agains ttheir potential launchers, while the carriers own point-defense systems (now being expanded for greater range and flexibility) provide an active defense that is difficult to breach. None of the foregoing even discusses the value of the escort ships, each of which is a quite dangerous weapon in its own right.
        Put simply; adding up the cost of a missile or a sub and comparing it to a carrier isn’t a viable analysis as it ignores the cost of the infrastructure necessary to support, target, and fire the missile (or direct the sub), as well as the (relatively low) probability that the missile (or torpedo) will actually impact. Does this mean that it is absolutely impossible? Of course not…but the primary goal of these ‘carrier killer’ systems is not to destroy carriers, it is to increase the risk for carriers, and thus make their use less likely. The difference is quite isignificant, and rather important when planning strategy.

        • bpuharic

          Part of the ‘golden oldies’ thing is we haven’t had a major war since WW2 where carriers were targeted. There’s enough literature on subs, especially diesel subs and, to a lesser extent AIP subs, that lead to the conclusion carriers don’t have much of a future.

          Do we REALLY want to test the viability of carriers in a real shootin’ war, when tests with the Swedish sub Gotland showed it had no problem taking out a carrier, let alone the “Song” class Chinese sub that surfaced within miles of the Kitty Hawk? Is that when we want to test our theories?

          We have REAL DATA showing carriers are very vulnerable. This is not just theory.

        • Thirdsyphon

          I agree with most of this, but a big part of the reason that carriers don’t seem vulnerable is because we haven’t gone up against an enemy with the willingness and means to exploit their vulnerabilities in generations.
          Your points about submarine warfare, drones, and cruise missiles are all well-taken, but I disagree with you about how easy it would be to defend a carrier against an attack by anti-ship ballistic missiles. About the best that can be said about our current generation of interceptor missiles (the Aegis-mounted SM-3) is that they don’t *always* fail to intercept their targets. It’s possible to compensate for their 25% accuracy by launching clusters of them, but that strategy is inherently limited, since an Aegis can only carry a limited number of SM-3s, while our enemies can launch as many ASBMs as exist in their national arsenals.

          • bpuharic

            And don’t forget the Russian 120mph torpedo. You don’t have to do much to hit a carrier with that.

          • Thirdsyphon

            That’s true. Those things are vicious. But they only have a range of about 4 miles. You can’t get that close to a carrier without eluding the ASW assets of its entire group, which consists of multiple layers of pickets extending for hundreds of miles from the carrier in every direction.
            The vessels in the outer layers would most likely be relying on passive detection which would make them easier to slip past. . . but by the time he got to the innermost layer of defense, the sub commander would be dealing with active sonar emitted by large, well-armed vessels that don’t give a hoot about revealing their position and would be bathing the ocean around them with the sonic equivalent of high-powered searchlights. This close to the core, the sub commander would be contending directly with the ASW efforts of at least one Aegis cruiser and possibly two. If he’s *really* unlucky, one of the group’s dedicated ASW vessels might be close enough in to intervene.
            It’s possible to get past all that, with either subtlety or brute force. The Soviets were once considered capable of mounting at least a credible threat of breaching a carrier group’s ASW layers. . . and China might one day acquire that capacity as well. But possible doesn’t mean easy.
            Also, unless they’re tipped with nukes, these torpedoes can only carry 1500lbs of explosives – unquestionably devastating against the submarines they were designed to be used against, but not necessarily enough to sink a carrier.

          • bpuharic

            THe Chinese Song sub got within five miles when it surfaced.

          • Thirdsyphon

            I know- I went back and edited after I read that in your reply. The USN’s defense was that they weren’t expecting a Chinese sub in the neighborhood, so they weren’t on alert. That’s a crappy defense, in both literal and figurative terms. I’m reminded of the British Navy’s sub-hunting “training exercises” prior to World War II, which were held exclusively during the day, at the captains’ insistence, because *the subs were too hard to find at night.*
            If we can’t do much, much better than that, then you’re right: the age of the aircraft carrier as a weapon in strategic-level conflicts is already over.

          • f1b0nacc1

            You raise a good point here, and a more serious objection to carriers, i.e. that they are only effective as long as the crews (and those of their escorts) remain alert and top-grade. This is a potentially serious problem if the navy lets its standards slip, but in fairness, that reflects more upon the administration of the fleet than the nature of the fleet itself.

          • bpuharic

            A number of years ago, I graduated with a physical science degree, with good grades from college. I talked to a navy recruiter who told me I’d be great for the navy nuke program. We talked about subs vs carriers; he said the wartime lifetime for a carrier was about 3 days.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Another issue regarding the high speed torpedoes is that they cannot maneuver. The way they achieve their high speed makes turns almost impossible, which means that only a straight bore shot would work. Given the range issues as well as their limited firing envelope, they are not a threat to carriers.
            On the other hand, they would be an excellent threat against merchant ships or small, fast vessels that wouldn’t be able to handle the shock wave from a near miss as well as submarines. Given the way we know they were deployed by the Russians (primarily on SSGNs, which would have no real need to ever get close to a carrier), this strikes me as a far more likely scenario. If we were likely to see these used against carriers, we wouldn’t be seeing them on SSGNs, but rather on SSKs, particularly their very quiet models. The fact that we haven’t (neither the Kilo nor Lada designs as deployed at this time use them) suggests that they aren’t intended for carriers.

          • bpuharic

            A carrier does 40 mph max. The “Squall’ torpedo does 3X that. They don’t have to maneuver.

          • Thirdsyphon


          • f1b0nacc1

            As I understand it, the supercavitating torpedoes are essentially unmanuverable with the exception of stabilizing fins within the envelop. This means that from very short ranges they are useful, but anything beyond that, they are worthless. This is fine in a ‘knife fight’, the sort of thing that you might expect of a sub is engaged in combat with another sub, but not so much when you are talking about having to penetrate multiple layers of defenses just to get the shot in the first place, as would be the case with a CVN.
            I agree with you that a better weapon against a carrier would be a hypersonic missile (the Brahmos, for example, or its predecessor, the Yakhunt), which is precisely what you see Kilos and other subs charged with the anti-carrier role armed with. Even SSNs don’t make (much) use of supercavitating torpedoes, which suggests that they have a rather limited tactical value.
            Your reasoned, informed discussion is why I enjoy this sort of interaction. Rather than simply pointing to the newest shiniest technology as a cure-all, you obviously understand it within the context of tactical utility.

          • Thirdsyphon

            Thank you for your kind words. Since you’re clearly very knowledgeable about this topic, it means a lot.

            Speaking of which, I think I’ve come to agree with your point about supercavitating torpedoes being effectively unmaneuverable. Although I still think it’s theoretically possible to steer these torpedoes while in transit (see, Ashley, Steven “Warp Drive Underwater”, Scientific American: May, 2001, pp70–79), upon further reflection, I’ve come to believe that practical terms, this capability (if it exists) would add almost nothing to the weapon’s effectiveness. I’m no hydrophysicist, but it strikes me that from the point of view of a torpedo encompassed by a supercavitation bubble, the world must look and sound exactly like the inside of a supercavitation bubble. From the moment the rocket kicks in, the torpedo itself is flying blind and there’s no feasible way for the submarine that fired it to help with guidance, because a) the sub probably has no way to stay in contact with the weapon at this point; and b) even if it did, its sensors are probably blinded as well -certainly in the direction of its target- by the deafening noise of the *underwater rocket engine* that it’s just deployed.

            So realistically, you’re right: these things would have to be straight runners, which means that to strike even something as large as a CVN, they’d have to be deployed from almost recklessly close range.

            On the other hand, from a Red Team point of view, this combination of characteristics has a certain “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” quality that I find kind of appealing. The USN is much, *much* better at getting soft kills on torpedoes than getting hard kills… and that’s for normal models. Getting a hard kill on something like a Russian Skhval (or worse yet, a German Barracuda) would be an enormous challenge. . . and the one great advantage of using a dumb weapon is that *only* a hard kill can stop it. And if you’re fighting Americans, the global grand-masters of the soft kill, that particular edge is worth quite a lot.

            Don’t get me wrong. . . there are numerous problems with this mission profile, and there are about a thousand ways for it to go south. It oozes desperation. . . but it’s desperate in an unorthodox way that plays to our weaknesses and avoids a lot of our strengths. Hunting down sneaky Kilos and physically intercepting supercavitating torpedoes sounds like exactly the kind of stuff the Navy hates.

            On balance, though, the only scenario where this is the best option is the one in which you think you’re facing an almost guaranteed soft kill if you fire a cruise missile or a normal wake-homing torpedo. I’m not sure that we’ve given the PLAN reason to think quite *that* highly of our defenses; but China’s investment in ASBMs implies a Sun Tsu-esque determination not to play from their enemy’s playbook, or by their rules. . . so I wouldn’t completely dismiss this possibility.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Don’t underestimate some of the rather fascinating ‘hard kill’ approaches that the USN has been investigating. Short range unguided rockets (with ‘interesting’ warheads) have been tested extensively for use by surface ships against torpedoes by several navies, including ours, and I suspect that you will see those sooner than you might expect. There was even some (truly bizarre) testing done a while ago using tarted-up depth charges as a terminal defense against the fish…
            Cruise missiles (and I will include hypervelocity ones in this category) are already pretty heavily defended against, but look at some of the subtle changes, such as the move away from projectile systems (such as the Phalanx) to missile systems (such as RAM, or the superior Israeli Barak) that allow multiple target engagement and far longer interception envelopes. The serious discussion of directed energy weapons and railguns (both are still at least a decade away of course) suggests that there is more attention being paid to hard kills at the ship level than has been the case in the past.
            The real key though is killing the launcher before launch, and some of the breakthroughs in ASW (particularly against AIP-based subs) are quite encouraging. Ultimately this is the area where increased computer processing power is having the most effect, as it is entirely dependent upon advances in senor technology and processing.
            Finally we return to ASBMs, and the problem of defense. In some ways these are the most interesting weapons, as any useful defense against them has to be at the system (i.e. platforms, C3I, and sensor) level, not simply shipboard intercept. Soft kills are a big piece of the puzzle, but don’t underrate the advances in hard kills of both the missiles themselves as well as the satellites and aircraft that provide their ISR.
            Let us hope, however, that all of this remains a theoretical exercise. When I was doing my dissertation, a big piece of my work dealt with nuclear war scenarios….nobody was happier than I when they finally became utterly obsolete!

          • Thirdsyphon

            The anti-torpedo technologies under development sound promising (I may have read about the terminal depth-charge defense you mentioned, if it’s the Russian program that I’m thinking of), but I’m concerned about offsetting breakthroughs in the design of the torpedoes themselves. As I was writing my last response, it occurred to me that supercavitating torpedoes would be made immeasurably more deadly if the forward surface of the supercavitation bubble could be shaped (perhaps by very careful control of the forward exhaust vent) into some highly stable and predictable form: a kind of lens. By using lasers or other means to take minute measurements of distortions to this lens, the onrushing warhead might just be able to discern the wake of the ship that it’s targeting, in which case maneuverability might become more than a theoretical concern; but that’s pure science fiction, for which I have no warrant in anything I’ve read.

            Anyway, thank you for an extremely interesting and enlightening conversation!

          • f1b0nacc1

            ASBMs are even more vulnerable to spoofing and jamming (remember, they MUST have terminal guidance to be effective, and they are far more vulnerable to disruption of their C4I networks), not to mention both soft and hard kills at the target.
            As a secondary matter, the DF-21 series has never been tested against a target at sea, much less a moving target. It has only been used against a stationary ‘land carrier’ in the middle of the Chinese desert. The SM-2s and SM-3s have been used successfully in realistic test environments (and as you correctly point out, they are never fired singly, so the accuracy issue is considerably less serious than you make it out to be), and have a solid kill probability well exceeding 75%. Unless you want to assume that the DF-21 (or its descendents) will have flawless performance while the SM-2/3s will have lousy performance, I don’t see this as a huge problem.
            Your comment about the lack of a real-world enemy in decades ignores the fact that the Soviets prepared quite lethal weapons for use against carriers over a very long time in the cold war, and even by their own estimation, never came close to being able to checkmate them. It isn’t as if the last time we faced a threat was 1945 and we have rested on our laurels since then.
            Nobody suggests carriers are invulnerable (I certainly don’t), but the notion that they are simply floating targets waiting for the next gee-whiz technology to sink them is a song that has been sung all too often over the last 70 years, and has never managed to become credible.

          • bpuharic

            The problem is we have real data from real war games with real subs using real tactics that show survivability of carriers isn’t that great. Do we want to put fifteen billion into a system that survives 3 days?

          • Thirdsyphon

            Carriers are far from defenseless against ASBMs, but

          • f1b0nacc1

            Taking the threat seriously is a prudent and intelligent approach, one that I entirely endorse. There is a wide gap between that and the sort of ‘sky is falling’ approach taken by some (not you), which makes it difficult to take them seriously at all.
            My original point in this thread was that while there are certainly challenges to be addressed (I mentioned numerous ones myself), most of this sounds like a song I have heard many times. Carriers have been pronounced dead many times over, and yet they still seem to be useful…the very nature of the system (the ship carries aircraft which can be modified and replaced quickly an easily) makes them far more flexible and effective than anything else out there.
            You are absolutely correct that the Chinese are deploying critical ISR assets for use with their ASBMs, but I should point out that these assets are themselves quite vulnerable, and thus the ASBMs themselves. Satellites can be spoofed or killed (the Chinese know this better than anyone), and maritime patrol aircraft are extremely vulnerable to (wait for it…) carrier-based fighters, among other things.
            Obviously we have to be careful about responding to new threats, and any serious follower of defense issues (you strike me as one) is aware that the community is abuzz with discussions of how to cope, and of the implementation of means to cope with those threats. There is a world of difference between that and ill-informed twaddle (not coming from you) claiming that the end is nigh…

  • Bob_from_Ohio

    China is making the same mistake as Imperial Germany. Building a navy just strong enough to scare everyone but not strong enough to dominate.

    Meanwhile the scare prompts it neighbors to enter into encircling alliances and prompts its rivals to build up their forces.

    Sending ships to sale around Japan was stupid. As if Japan needed more prompting to embark on a mass navy expansion.

    The combination of the US and Japanese navies dwarves any foreseeable Chinese naval power.

    • bpuharic

      I think they have to build a navy just strong enough to prevent US from dominating. THat’s sufficient.

      Japan would be a formidable adversary if the Chinese ever stirred them up, and the Japanese decided to rebuild a true fighting navy

  • Anthony

    In Financial Review about 2 weeks ago, General Michael Hyden put experienced credibility behind undersea combat as strategic goal neutralizing/balancing Chinese power (carriers, systems, etc.). He also asserts that as an intelligence officers he does not argue whether Chinese power is good or bad – it just is (an artifact of China’s trajectory to date). Further, he asserts that the probability of major power conflict is less than it was during Cold War and from his vantage point China is not enemy to United States nor region generally – he’s not pollyannish.

  • Bart Hall

    You want some good indigenous flat-tops? Look to India, not China. Indigenous boomers? Same thing. India are building such a good indigenous blue-water navy that in about 15 years we’ll need their tacit permission to operate in the Indian Ocean.

    Fortunately, they’re happily joining the Anglosphere, along with honorary member Japan.

  • Atanu Maulik

    As the wheels come off the Chinese economy, they will have a lot less money to play with such toys. China growing at 4% per year will be a very different nation from the one growing at 10 %. Remember that there are still nearly a billion Chinese very much at a sub-Saharan level of existence.

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