- China’s first domestically-built carrier hit the waves recently, boosting its naval power as it increasingly rivals the US.
- China, Russia, India, Thailand, the UK, France, and a host of other European powers all boast aircraft carriers, but they’re not all made equal.
- This post examines the major categories and nationalities of aircraft carriers and weighs their combat power side by side.
China recently cemented its status as a first-rate naval power with its first-ever domestically built aircraft carrier hitting the sea for sea trials as its military competition with the US becomes increasingly overt.
More than ever before, the US now discusses China as a potential enemy in military, and especially naval conflicts. While China’s new carrier demonstrates an impressive capacity to quickly build aircraft carriers for power projection, it also displays a very different philosophy of naval warfighting than the US.
With different objectives for its navy, it makes sense that China would take a different approach to aircraft carriers than the US, but a close examination shows the Chinese effort lacking in key areas.
So how does China stack up to other world powers when it comes to aircraft carriers, one of the biggest factors in air and sea dominance?
Take a look at the photos and graphics below to get an idea of China’s carriers compare to the rest of the world:
This is China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Like much of China’s military hardware, the Liaoning is a reworking of an older Russian-made model.
The Liaoning’s particulars and capabilities sound impressive, but it’s been in bad shape for years and primarily used as a training vessel. China declared it combat-ready in late 2016, but probably only for limited operations against ground only forces.
Here’s China’s newest carrier, so far only known as the Type 001A. It’s still based of an old Soviet design, but it’s built in China and features some tweaks.
By making the ship a little bigger, and the island, as the superstructure on top of the flightdeck is known, a little smaller, experts estimate it can hold 8 more aircraft than the Liaoning’s 48. China expects the ship commissioned by 2020.
The Admiral Kuznetsov, which the Liaoning is based on, is Russia’s sole aircraft carrier. The ships have the same size and speed, and they both feature the “ski jump” platform.
The Kuznetsov, like the Liaoning, lacks the steam or electric powered catapults used by US vessels to launch heavier planes. This means planes launched off ski-slope style carriers employed by China and Russia can’t carry as much fuel or weapons as US carrier aircraft, limiting their range and combat effectiveness.
China’s southern neighbour India operates two smaller aircraft carriers, but they are more reliable. In 2014, the Liaoning experienced unexpected power failures while at sea. In 2016, the Kuznetsov experienced a host of mechanical issues and spewed thick black smoke all the way to Syria and back.
The UK’s new HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier weighs in a touch smaller than the Chinese and Russian ships, but has F-35B stealth jets that can take off vertically, as well as a ski-slope runway for heavier planes.
The USS Abraham Lincoln, one of the US Navy’s 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, is larger and carries more planes, and it features catapults to launch heavier planes, thus the flat runway.
US carriers can hold around 70 aircraft, depending on the configuration. Also, because the US uses nuclear powered carriers, they can sail around the world indefinitely without refuelling. Carriers normally on load jet fuel at sea.
Typically ski-slope style carriers work better for coastal defence, using the carrier to launch planes and keep back enemy fleets, as China and Russia have opted for. The US’s carriers, on the other hand, can go anywhere and bring the fight to the enemy, as they have recently against ISIS in Iraq and Syria from both the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean.
The US leads the world in aircraft carriers by far, and it is developing an even larger class of aircraft carrier to replace ageing members of the fleet.
These ones, the Ford class, will generate three times as much power to accommodate future weapons like lasers or railguns.
Outside the US, only one other navy operates a flat deck nuclear-powered aircraft carrier: France. The similarities have helped French pilots train aboard US carriers.
France deployed the Charles de Gualle carrier to fight ISIS after the November 2015 terror attack in Paris.
In addition to the larger nuclear-powered super carriers, the US also operates a large number of smaller helicopter carriers which carry Marines and, recently US Marine Corps F-35Bs.
Japan also operates a number of smaller carriers, though it refers to them as “helicopter destroyers.” Rumour has it, these ships can and one day perhaps will also host F-35B stealth jets.
To put things in perspective, this graphic shows the relative sizes of aircraft carriers from around the world.
And let’s not forget that the US has more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined.
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