Foreign journalists appear to be misunderstanding China’s aircraft carrier program. Some of the recent reporting combines larger aircraft carriers that carry jets with smaller “carriers” that operate helicopters. There are currently two types of Chinese aircraft carriers; one for fixed wing combat aircraft and a second type of carrier that is actually an amphibious ship that carries troops plus landing craft and helicopters to put them ashore.
The conventional carrier program is in trouble, something the Chinese revealed at the end of 2019 when they announced that plans had changed. There were numerous problems that contributed to the decision and it meant a smaller Chinese fleet with far fewer carriers. Part of the problem was a shortage of resources to support a lot of aircraft carriers and this was made worse by a trade war with the United States (because of decades of cheating by China).
There is also a logistics problem with aircraft carriers because each one is accompanied by up to ten support ships. Half of those are warships but the other half are for “sustainment”, carrying oil and other supplies to keep the carriers going for as long as they are at sea. All those ships burn lots of oil, imported oil. Without nuclear power, aircraft carriers require frequent and substantial refueling at sea.
The second problem is military technology. China expected difficulties developing and implementing all the many technologies needed to effectively build and operate a carrier task forces. Fixing those problems is taking longer than expected. For example, the second Chinese aircraft, the Type 02 Shandong was unlike China's first carrier. That first carrier, the Type 01 Liaoning, was a heavily modified unfinished Russian carrier and not intended as a combat vessel. The Shandong was based on the Liaoning, with many improvements. It was commissioned into service at the end of 2019 but not considered operational (fit for service) until October 2020. That came after 29 months of sea trials plus time in the shipyard having problems fixed. The sea trials consisted of nine separate periods at sea, each consisting of one or more voyages followed by time in the shipyard. The first trials voyage one lasted a week but the last one involved many months in the shipyard where fixes and modifications were carried out. That was actually faster than the trials for the Liaoning, which went on for six years.
Then came the late 2019 announcement that the next carriers to be built, the first of the Type 03 carriers won’t be launched until later in 2021 and entry into service may take longer than Shandong because the two Type 03 carriers are more similar to most western carriers using a catapult to launch warplanes. The Type 03s also larger; 85,000 tons versus 65,000 tons for the earlier ski-jump carriers.
Meanwhile China is having lots of problems with the fixed wing aircraft that can operate from them. Most of China’s modern aircraft are illegal copies of Russian designs and efforts to implement lots of stolen American aircraft tech has not gone as smoothly as hoped. There has been a pattern of delays and problems with aircraft tech that has stalled ambitious efforts to develop carrier-based fighters and stealth aircraft. No point in building a lot of carriers is they will be limited or sidelined so often by technical problems.
This is particularly true with the amphibious ships that are often called “aircraft carriers” by foreign journalists, when the reality is that these 40,000-ton LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) type ships, like their American counterparts, have no catapult and no ski jump deck for launching jet aircraft or arrestor gear for landing them. The Chinese LHDs only operate 30 helicopters. China has few helicopters capable of operating from carriers and these are much less capable that Western naval helicopters. Moreover, Western carriers have effective VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) jets and transport aircraft.
There were three generations of VTOL aircraft, two versions of the British Harrier and now the American F-35B. Russia tried to copy the first-generation Harrier, which entered service in 1969, with their similar looking Yak-38. The Russian aircraft entered service in 1976 but was never as capable or reliable as the first-generation Harrier. A second, much improved version of Harrier entered service in 1985, four years after Russia halted production of the Yak-38 and six years before the Yak-38 was retired for not being good enough. Even China was not interested in buying or building the Yak-38.
The first-generation Harriers served until 2006 while some second-generation Harriers are still in service. The second gen Harrier was largely an American project and much of what was learned developing and building that Harrier in the United States went into developing the larger and much more capable F-35B. Britain bought F-35Bs for their two new carriers and pilots were impressed. The F-35B usually takes off via a catapult or ski jump since it can get into the air with more fuel and weapons that way. Landing is usually done vertically because it is safer. F-35Bs are used on U.S. LHDs but most take off and land in VTOL mode. Despite the limitations of this the U.S. Navy has found the F-35Bs a useful addition to the helicopter gunships they are still using on LHDs. All the Chinese have are less capable helicopter gunships and not many of them are available for the navy. China has had a difficult time developing competitive helicopter technology.
Another major problem is that those carriers and other large warships are meant to defend Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and that is proving more expensive than anticipated. The growing number of artificial island bases have to be supplied by ship. To operate larger ships in the generally shallow South China Sea, you have to dredge deeper channels to move those large ships around. In 2019 China canceled another major dredging operation because of cost, especially the oil needed for the dredging ships and support vessels. For now, smaller warships and land-based aircraft will defend Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
Finally, the Chinese navy has a growing problem attracting qualified recruits for its many new warships. The Chinese carriers require nearly 3,000 sailors to operate the ship and 40-50 aircraft and helicopters. The recruiting problem is two-fold. The longer voyages used to train the crew to Western standards are unpopular and a growing labor shortage in China provides too many more better paying jobs that don’t involve months at sea on a warship. The labor shortage is turning into a crisis that was caused by a 1980s policy of one-child per couple. This limited population growth, as intended, but the introduction of a market economy helped create the first large (several hundred million strong) Chinese middle class of well-educated engineers and other professionals. These are the people who were key to China quickly creating the second largest GDP in the world. But there is a catch. Affluent, talented women everywhere, and throughout history, don’t have a lot of children. Even though the one-child rule was revoked several years ago, the population is not growing, especially with educated couples. Worse the children of middle-class families are not eager to join the military, which needs their skills to operate all this new gear. China has conscription but it is not enforced because it is unpopular, especially among the educated. Those carriers, and all their support ships, need lots of capable officers. Someone did the math and realized the ships could be built faster than competent crews could be found. One carrier task force, with a carrier, five warship escorts and four or five re-supply ships, requires over 5,000 sailors. That’s as many as an army combat brigade or an air force aircraft division. The military, in general, has had a hard time getting capable young men to do all the tech jobs the army and air force, as well as what the navy now requires. Given the shrinking workforce, because of the one-child rule, that situation is not going to improve for a decade or more.
The army and air force are more attractive options for Chinese seeking a military career. China has no tradition of a high-seas fleet, something the West invented and has been using for over 500 years. The only other East Asian nation to develop a high-seas fleet was Japan, which starved its economy in the 1920s and 30s to do so and saw that impressive fleet largely destroyed by the American fleet after two years of heavy combat.
There is another problem with the South China Sea claims; many Chinese neighbors have increased their defense spending specifically to deal with the Chinese navy. The American naval forces in the western Pacific plus the fleets of South Korea and Japan were already a formidable naval force blocking the Chinese use of gunboat diplomacy. But now many smaller nations are allied with the larger anti-Chinese nations and those smaller nations are buying lots of submarines, fighter-bombers with anti-ship missiles as well as shore-based anti-ship missiles. The Chinese plan to build more warships and intimidate neighbors into submission backfired. The many threatened neighbors united and joined an arms race China cannot afford.
In light of all those problems the Chinese decision to halt the carrier force expansion is less of a surprise. This decision has been percolating just below the surface for some time. There were always national leaders, and their specialist advisors, who were bringing up these difficulties whenever the admirals asked for more. More naval power is fine but only if you can solve all the technical problems, assemble the necessary expertise and recruit enough personnel to crew all those ships.
Chinese state-controlled mass media prevents public discussion of these matters. As a result, changes in policy, especially military policy, appear sudden when they are not. For example, in mid-2019 Chinese and foreign media were amazed at the continued growth of the Chinese navy. For example, earlier in 2019 commercial satellite photos revealed to Western media what appeared to be a new addition to the Jiangnan shipyard on the Yangtze River near Shanghai. The new yard gave the impression that it was devoted to building aircraft carriers. A new carrier, apparently the first 70,000-ton Type 002, was under construction. More revealing was the extensive infrastructure being erected around the new dry-dock and nearby kilometer long fitting out pier. This is something of a mass-production operation with components of the hull and pre-fabricated sections of the hull interior stored nearby to be lifted into place and attached to the hull and other sections. This is a technique widely used in commercial shipbuilding and for other Chinese warships, including the new 12,000-ton Type 55 destroyers and 40,000-ton Type 075 LHD amphibious ship.
The new “carrier yard” could be used for building smaller ships, including commercial vessels, but it was essential for turning out carriers quickly. The Type 003 carrier uses catapults to launch aircraft. The hull of the first one, already underway, is apparently going to take less than two years to finish and launch. After that, it moves to the fitting out pier where another two or three years of work is needed before the new carrier ready for sea trials. The trials phase is where the navy ran into the most delays. Initially it was expected that the trials including trips back to port or the shipyard for fixes and adjustments, would take a year or so. The reality was it two more than twice as long. Earlier Chinese warship and carrier development included mentions of “persistent technical problems.”
Chinese are keen students of history, their own as well as that of others. Chinese ship designers know all about the Langley and the Enterprise. The Chinese are also well aware that in the two decades after the USS Langley there were tremendous changes in carrier aviation. While the innovation slowed after World War II, major changes continued into the 1950s (jet aircraft, nuclear-propelled carriers, SAMs). But in the ensuing half-century, there has been no major innovation in basic carrier design. This has not been a problem because the carriers have proven useful, at least for the U.S. Navy, the only fleet to use such large carriers.
No one else has maintained a force of these large carriers. Only the U.S. has felt a constant need to get air power to any corner of the planet in a hurry. More importantly, no navy has been able to give battle to the U.S. carrier force since 1945. The Soviets built new anti-carrier weapons and made plans to use them but that war never occurred. China is building carriers but does not yet seem committed to having a lot of them to confront the U.S., but rather just a few to intimidate its neighbors.
The Chinese Navy is very popular with most Chinese and its commanders are enthusiastic about expanding in order to protect the seaborne trade that the modern Chinese economy depends on. That popularity does not include attracting a lot of Chinese willing to serve on ship crews. For thousands of years before that Chinese rulers did not consider naval power important because it wasn’t. Now it is and the navy is getting the money and encouragement to do what China has never done before. But at the moment Chinese tech is not up to the task of providing capable carrier aviation, especially on a large scale. The government also realized that the money required to make it all work was not really available either.
In addition to the Chinese built J-15 fighter, the new carrier will also have early-warning radar and anti-submarine aircraft as well as some helicopters. CV-17 could apparently operate about 20 percent more aircraft than CV-16 (50 fixed-wing and helicopters versus about 40). Currently, China only has fewer than a hundred carrier qualified J-15 pilots and Liaoning is kept busy being what it is officially described as; a training carrier.