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China plows ahead with aircraft carrier buildup

Program lags behind US technologically but still unnerves neighbors

China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, left port in Dalian this month to begin sea tests ahead of schedule.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- China is forging ahead with building a fleet of homemade aircraft carriers, wielding great psychological power over its neighbors despite still trailing American naval power in terms of hardware and experience.

The country's first domestically built carrier left port in the northeastern city of Dalian earlier this month. The ship is to begin sea trials ahead of schedule in the Yellow and Bohai seas between China and the Korean Peninsula. It may formally enter into service as soon as next year -- joining China's only other functional carrier so far, the Liaoning, a refurbished former Soviet vessel.

The 50,000-ton Type 001A, as it is known, stretches for 315 meters and appears capable of carrying around 30 fighters. It uses non-nuclear propulsion. By comparison, the 10 Nimitz-class carriers employed by the U.S. weigh in at 100,000 tons and are about 333 meters long. The nuclear-powered vessels can carry roughly 60 aircraft.

At last October's Communist Party congress, President Xi Jinping vowed to make the Chinese military a "world-class force" by mid-century. The government views aircraft carriers as a keystone of that effort and has been working to produce its own for over three decades.

In 1985, the Chinese military bought a decommissioned Australian carrier, nominally for scrap metal. It later acquired three scrapped Soviet carriers. It researched the vessels carefully, and the third Soviet ship was overhauled to become the Liaoning. The Type 001A was modeled after that vessel.

Aircraft carriers are used first and foremost to project military power in foreign seas, and can also be used to intimidate hostile countries, or for peaceful ends such as disaster relief.

Purely in terms of military might, China's carriers fall short of American rivals. U.S. carriers generally operate in strike groups that include cruisers and nuclear-powered attack submarines, for example. Running such groups requires uniquely crafted techniques for coordinating fleets and sharing information -- knowledge that takes a single country a century to acquire, a source affiliated with the U.S. Navy said with confidence.

The U.S. carriers have catapults that can launch heavily armed jets weighing 20 tons or more from short runways. Fighters on China's carriers must carry fewer arms to reduce weight, and take off from so-called ski jump ramps. Moreover, China's fourth-generation fighters lack the modern stealth capabilities of America's fifth-generation jets, giving them a severe handicap in combat, at least on paper.

The Chinese military is nevertheless pressing ahead with improving and mass-producing its carriers, and is expected to have a fleet of five or six in a little over a decade, including some running on nuclear power. But by the time it builds a fleet that rivals the U.S. one, the vessels themselves may be outdated.

The U.S. has begun deploying F-35B fighter jets, which can take off from short runways without using catapults and can land vertically. That means allied countries who can procure the jets can get by without massive aircraft carriers, whose very size makes them easy targets for anti-ship missiles and submarine torpedo attacks. In the future, operating several small carriers together with fighters like the F-35B will likely become safer and less costly than deploying large carriers.

Japan's Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces are eyeing this route, for instance. The Maritime SDF has accumulated years of experience related to running aircraft carrier groups through joint exercises with the U.S. and other means. The Japanese force's Izumo destroyers -- its largest class at 248 meters and a full-load displacement of 27,000 tons -- can carry more than 10 F-35Bs. Procuring those jets and retrofitting the Izumo class to carry them would give Japan a quick path to an aircraft carrier fleet that could rival or even surpass China's.

But leaving aside how long it would take China to build a winning force, its aircraft carriers certainly serve as psychological weapons against its neighbors. Heavy military spending is helping to rapidly strengthen its fighter jets and submarines. Awareness of China's growing might drove the U.S. decision to disinvite the country from the Rim of the Pacific joint naval exercises this summer, as well as its ongoing freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.

The Chinese military, which continues to expand while embracing its weak points, must be watched carefully and neither over- nor underestimated.

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