This entire thing has been cooking for quite some time now. But while the U.S. Congress is cutting the budget, Beijing had its coming out. Finally, the old Varyag has been re-christened and will indeed serve as the People's Republic first aircraft carrier. And since Beijing is obviously constructing its first indigenous one based on the Varyag's model and is likely to build a couple of additional ones, it is high-noon for all those who previously excelled in missile-counting and of course for the media that likes nothing more than a strictly ill-informed debate on military matters. It is no surprise therefore that all sorts of people are already beginning to compare the number of aircraft carriers the U.S. and China can put to sea. And that is more than enough motivation for me to call for a time-out and make some serious remarks on the entire affair. And generally speaking this is going to be a cautionary tell.
Rule of the day, don't panic. This doesn't come as a surprise. The annual Pentagon report on China's military released last year already warned that such steps are highly likely. But: The first Chinese aircraft carrier is of Soviet design and Soviet aircraft carriers were comparatively small ones (not to mention old). And that is important for a simple reason. An aircraft carrier is nothing more and nothing less than a rather expensive floating flight deck. Having a carrier gets you exactly nowhere. Its military weight is determined by two factors:
First: What you've got to put on it
So, when a U.S. carrier shows up in a theatre, it brings something with it. And in terms of offensive capabilities, that basically translates to some 70 fixed wing aircraft, a threatening number of F 18s. Now, the F 18 is still an impressive fighter jet and unless its supposed to fight against a Eurofighter Typhoon, there is virtually no jet in the world that can take an F 18 on. Even if the Chinese had an equally capable jet (which despite all the fuzz over the J 20, they don't—because they suck in terms of avionics to name just one disadvantage), they had nowhere near the same number of these fighters on their carriers. Having said that, the jet on such a ship needs cover, mid-air refuelling, reconnaissance´planes to go with it, etc. U.S. carriers got all that, they don't just put a fighter jet in the air, they put an entire fleet of planes in the air that taken together is becoming a formidable force. The Chinese might have a carrier, but they are light years behind in terms of jets and jet composition. Not to mention, training, exercises, etc.
Second: What sort of ships you've got to sail with it
Now, even though you might have an impressive ship and a number of jets to go with it, the ship itself is still vulnerable. In order to protect it, you need a whole number of ships to go with it—subs, destroyers, cruisers, you get the point. And even though the Chinese are making inroads in the expansion of their navy, only about 30% of the Chinese navy is currently considered state-of-the-art. But even the most advanced destroyers and cruisers of the Chinese naval forces are nowhere near being a match for an American AEGIS-destroyer or cruiser. The notable exception being subs. But there is a point here and that is: There is a reason the U.S. sends its carriers in a carrier strike group. Because the floating deck in itself is use- and defenceless.
And you Chinese, don't get carried away just yet
Because on the face of it, this might appear to be about numbers and capabilities. But that is only part of the story. And since expertise in military matters is not exactly a common trait these days, there is a bigger picture, I'd like to introduce. Two points on that: 1) A force might have all the power you can think of, but it needs doctrines to be effective. And the Chinese doctrines are strictly Mao-mass-infantry-attrition-like. They are beginning to look at it, mind you, but they don't have much experience in it and that has partly to do with how the military is structured in communist states. Because, well, in communist states, its not the state that is in control of the armed forces. Its the communist party. And that's not exactly ideal in terms of civil-military relations. 2) An aircraft carrier has a lifespan of about 50 years. But: the era of carriers is nearing its end anyway. With more effective area-denial weapons entering the market, these ships are becoming really vulnerable again. What is more is that the F 35 JSF might be the last jet developed that still requires a pilot. Drones are simply much cheaper to procure and operate. Prompt Global Strike has been resuscitated by the Obama administration and might lead somewhere (though I have no earthly idea where). Put differently, having a carrier is impressive. But its also becoming less relevant.