Will the Chinese Build an Aircraft Carrier?

People’s Daily Online says China has the ability to build high power aircraft carriers.

Well, they bought their current one and only carrier off the shelf. But a brief review of the video of the launch and recovery of the J-15 fighter shows they slavishly copied US Navy deck procedures, modifying them mostly to accommodate the ski-jump take-off method.

So, can China indeed build their own carriers? They have a robust shipbuilding industry, and their current frigate and destroyer programs are light years ahead of the junky Soviet knock-off they were pumping out twenty years ago. But building a carrier from scratch is kind of a big deal.

Almost the very first question they’d have to answer would be whether it should be nuclear powered or not. The Chinese do have experience building nuclear ships. But it’s not as straightforward a question as you might think. It takes an awful lot of horsepower to keep a carrier moving. And as the US Navy found in the late 1950s and early 1960s, getting that kind of horsepower out of a small nuclear reactor is tough. So tough that the first US nuclear carrier, the USS Enterprise (then CVA(N)-65) had to have a whopping eight reactors.  And those early reactor designs had to be refueled ever 10-15 years. That costs more than all the fuel oil the Navy would have had to buy for her. Unless China has made a lot of advances in nuclear design, and there’s no solid information that they have, they’d face the same issues. The US has  been pretty successful building nuke carriers. But that the French experience with theirs shows it’s not at all a risk free endeavor.

But if they opt for conventional power, that has drawbacks as well. The need to devote huge internal spaces to fuel is one. All that space that could have been devoted to jet fuel, or other uses, is taken. Further, even with great amounts of fuel, carriers still need to be refueled quite often. That means, if China wants a true blue water capability, they would have to build not just the carrier and its escorts, but also a family of replenishment ships. To some extent, they’ll have to anyway, just for jet fuel, ammunition, and food and fuel for the escorts. But adding the burden of fueling the carrier is non-trivial.

So, can China build their own carrier? Probably. Will they? Probably. Eventually. I think they’ll use their current carrier a while to see what works, what doesn’t and what features they’d really like to have going forward.

3 thoughts on “Will the Chinese Build an Aircraft Carrier?”

  1. Very thoughtful post Brad. It will be interesting to see where the Chinese go with respect to having a true, deep water navy. More interesting still will be to see how the United States reacts to same.

  2. To be a bit snarky, but if we continue on our present fiscal course, they’ll be able to buy ours for pennies on the dollar.

  3. The French had experience building Nuke subs, but as we found, there is an order of magnitude difference between subs and bird farms. The problem, as the Navy found, is the reactors don’t scale up well. It took awhile for the Navy to solve the problem judging from the time between Enterprise and Nimitz.

    I remember the fight over the type of propulsion that would be used with JFK. My father thought it should be a nuke, as did a number of congresscritters, but the navy needed the deck, but had not solved the problem of scaling the plant up to work. JFK was an oil burner as a result.

    The French haven’t quite solved the problem yet, but I think they will learn what they need to learn with the DeGaulle and come out well on the other side. The will to actually use it, and on whose side it will be used, is another story.

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