China's Troubled Aircraft Carrier Proves Why It's So Hard To Build Them

Kyle Mizokami
Photo credit: U.S. Navy - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

Recent news out of China suggests that the country is experiencing technical problems with its first homemade aircraft carrier. This points to an ongoing issue for countries that have elected to go the aircraft carrier route: carriers are really, really complicated and expensive things to build.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first purpose-built aircraft carrier was the Royal Navy’s HMS Hermes. Laid down in 1918 and commissioned in 1926, it was the first carrier built from the ground up as a carrier and not converted from another type of ship for the aviation role. At six years, it had an unusually long development period for a 1920s warship.

A century later, a handful of countries are still building carriers, with ships under construction in the U.S., U.K., China, India, and Italy. Russia and South Korea are pondering building new aircraft carriers, while Japan is planning to convert a helicopter carrier into one capable of embarking the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

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One design consideration with carriers is that they must be very large. Carrier-based aircraft typically need a rolling start, aided by a catapult or ski ramp, to get airborne, though some aircraft such as the Harrier or F-35B Joint Strike Fighter can take off vertically. Most carriers have a flight deck 600 feet (or more), while America’s Ford-class carriers have a flight deck 1,092 feet long. This means the ship must be equally large, resulting in one that displaces from 40,000 to 100,000 tons of seawater.

Carriers must also incorporate everything the embarked aircraft—typically known as the air wing—need for sustained operations at sea. Carriers must hold large amounts of aviation fuel and weapons, and supplies including spare aircraft engines. It must have locations to test engines, a noisy and dangerous operation, and hangar space for maintainers to store and service airplanes. In the case of larger carriers, it must have the systems necessary to launch and recover aircraft, including catapults and arresting gear.

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One of the major issues for a carrier is propulsion. Aircraft carriers are up to nine times larger than other surface warships in the U.S. Navy, necessitating large, powerful engines to propel them through the world’s oceans. Carriers that use conventional propulsion must include large fuel tanks to keep the engines humming. Alternately carriers can use nuclear propulsion, but that is a level of complexity an order of magnitude greater than conventional engines.

Carriers are often called “floating cities,” with the U.S. Navy’s carriers carrying up to 6,000 personnel at any one time. These people not only need places to work but to eat, drink, live, and even sometimes play. A population large enough to man an aircraft carrier requires dedicated medical and dental services, a gym, ship’s store, and other amenities. Food must be refrigerated, sewage must be managed, and life must be made bearable for the people onboard to do their jobs.

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Aircraft carriers are large, powerful ships. Their mission and size means navies must address thousands, if not tens of thousands of considerations when designing and building the ships.

A country like China, which has never built a carrier before, will naturally experience technical problems. Even the U.S., with literally hundreds of built carriers under its belt, has experienced two years of delays getting the brand-new USS Ford out to sea.

In the world of aircraft carriers, delays and holdups are simply part of doing business.

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