China Has New Aircraft Carriers, But Are They Too Small?

Michael Peck

Key point: China and America have different national security needs.

Is China’s newest aircraft carrier half-full or half-empty?

That depends on how you look at the vessel’s aircraft capacity.

The ship, prosaically named the Type 001A for now, is China’s second carrier and the first built in China. The first carrier, the Liaoning, is a refurbished ex-Soviet vessel.

The Liaoning could carry twenty-four J-15 fighters. The Type 001A can carry thirty-six J-15s plus various support aircraft and helicopters, according to Chinese media.

“Although the second carrier known as the Type 001A is similar to the Liaoning, it has an optimized flight deck, reduced weapon areas and a smaller superstructure with added deck areas,” a Chinese naval expert told China’s state-owned Global Times. “It also has an enlarged hanger, but reduced space for missile storage compared to the Liaoning.”

Interestingly, Global Times suggested that twenty-four J-15s on the Liaoning “could be a limit factor as a regional combat might require about 40 aircraft in order to seize air supremacy. The 36 fighter jets on the Type 001A would greatly expand its combat capability.”

But Global Times also noted that the United States “operates much larger aircraft carriers, including the Nimitz-class which can carry about 60 aircraft, while the country's latest Ford-class can carry about 75.”

Where China’s inexperience with building and operating aircraft carriers is seen by critics as a drawback, Hu Wenming, chairman of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation and head of China's aircraft carrier program, suggested that Chinese shipbuilders are both mature—and youthful—at the same time.

“China now has a mature development and construction team, and the average age of team members is only 36,” he said. “Whatever type of aircraft carrier our country wants to develop in the future, we can make it on our own,”

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