Key point: Are carriers becoming obsolete? China doesn't think so.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy—more commonly known outside of China as the Chinese Navy—is modernizing at a breakneck pace. Chinese shipbuilders have built more than one hundred warships in the past decade, a build rate outstripping the mighty U.S. Navy. Most importantly, China now has two aircraft carriers—Liaoning and a second ship under sea trials—and a third and possibly fourth ship under construction. With such a massive force under construction it’s worth asking: where does PLA naval aviation go from here?
For most of its modern history China has been the target of aircraft carriers, not an owner of one. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s carriers conducted strikes on the Chinese mainland in support of ground campaigns in the 1930s, strikes that went a long way toward honing the service’s legendary naval aviation record. U.S. naval power protected nationalist Chinese forces at the end of the Chinese Civil War, and U.S. Navy carriers conducted airstrikes on Chinese “volunteers” during the Korean War. In 1996 during the Third Taiwan Crisis, the United States deployed a carrier battle group near Taiwan as a sign of support against Chinese military actions. It could be fairly said that aircraft carriers made a significant impression on China.
Today, China has two aircraft carriers: the ex-Soviet carrier Liaoning, and a second unnamed ship, Type 002, currently undergoing sea trials. Liaoning is expected to function strictly as a training carrier, establishing training, techniques, and procedures for Chinese sailors in one of the most dangerous aspects of naval warfare: naval aviation. Despite this, Liaoning’s three transits of the Taiwan Strait and visit to Hong Kong show the PLAN considers it perfectly capable of showing the flag.