An aircraft carrier at port is an imposing sight – dwarfing even the biggest ships moored near it. France’s Charles de Gaulle was at anchor in Djibouti when I came out onto the docks one day and looked up at it. The ship seemed almost bigger than the city.
China’s entry into the aircraft carrier competition has made a commotion recently. The commotion is misplaced. The Chinese carrier is a twice-orphaned, quarter-century-old relic of obsolete design, with a ski-jump flight deck. Beijing’s navy may have done a rouge and lipstick job on the old Varyag, fitting it out for the first time with engines and electronics, but the ship’s foundation architecture dates back to the last spasms of the Soviet Black Sea fleet. Comparing this vessel with an authentic aircraft carrier is like comparing a taxicab with a Ferrari Testa Rossa. It’s good that Beijing intends to use it for training outings only.
For the few nations with true blue-water capabilities, the aircraft carrier is the jewel in the crown, the symbol of an ability to project power across the globe. Top-of-the-line carriers – of which there are no more than 15 in the world today – each carry 80-90 fighter-bomber jets and a complement of a dozen or so helicopters and auxiliary planes. Each ship will have a crew of around 5,000. The crew of the Varyag, by contrast, will number some 2,000, and the ship will carry a maximum of 30 planes. Its port-to-port range is 7,500 miles, compared to the essentially infinite range of a standard U.S carrier, which can cruise non-stop for 10 years.
Carriers came of age in World War II, when Japan used them to launch the attack that crippled the U.S Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The shoe shifted to the other foot three years later when America broke the back of the Japanese fleet by sinking four of its carriers at Leyte Gulf. Since then, through the Cold War and up to recent U.S-China sea standoffs near Taiwan, the aircraft carrier has been the sine qua non of national power. So it is natural that an ambitious and newly wealthy China would want one – or some, in order to break out of its confinement in the South China Sea.
The majority of the world’s working carriers are in the service of the U.S. Navy. Ten of them, Nimitz-class ships, are nuclear-powered and capable of staying at sea for up to 20 years. France has its formidable Charles de Gaulle, and Britain an equivalent ship, the Ark Royal, but the British government is in the process of decommissioning it over cost concerns.
Aircraft carrier construction is a lengthy and expensive undertaking. Building one from scratch, even renovating an old one as the Chinese are doing, can be a decade-long process before the vessel is seaworthy. A Nimitz-class carrier’s construction will cost a minimum of $5 billion. Staffing it means having the manpower resources to draw from the trained ranks of hundreds of grades of technicians, and having pilots good enough to land on a swaying deck at night – in a storm.
A small number of other countries besides the U.S., France, and Britain have carriers of sorts, generally smaller vessels that can only launch helicopters. Brazil, India, Italy, Russia, and Spain have jet-launch-capable ships in various states of readiness. There are tactical constraints. A carrier can venture out only in the protection of a fleet battle group, consisting of destroyers, frigates, submarines, and satellite vessels. Further, having a single carrier will not do if unbroken reach is the aim; two or three are needed to allow for regular port maintenance calls.
Aircraft carriers are formidable weapons platforms, but the missile age has made them vulnerable. Analysts remember that single ship-to-ship missiles sank the U.S destroyer Liberty and the Argentine battleship Admiral Belgrano in 1982. Further, could a fleet battle group fend off the kind of 300-kilometer-per-hour Skvall-class torpedo developed by the Soviets?
China needs carriers to become more than an economic power. The debut of the re-fitted ship that just sailed out of Dalian is far from a transformational event, but it begins a process that could, in time, give Beijing real global reach. Naturally the other players will not sit still as this process unfolds.