Skip to main content

Asian superpowers jostle to join the aircraft carrier club

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
October 4, 2013 -- Updated 0422 GMT (1222 HKT)
Tugboats guide aircraft carrier INS Vikrant as it leaves the Cochin Shipyard after the launch ceremony in Kochi, India, on Monday, August 12, 2013. India's carrier is one-third the size of U.S. Navy's Nimitz class carriers. Tugboats guide aircraft carrier INS Vikrant as it leaves the Cochin Shipyard after the launch ceremony in Kochi, India, on Monday, August 12, 2013. India's carrier is one-third the size of U.S. Navy's Nimitz class carriers.
HIDE CAPTION
Asian aircraft carrier race
Asian aircraft carrier race
Asian aircraft carrier race
Asian aircraft carrier race
<<
<
1
2
3
4
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China, India and Japan have turned to aircraft carriers as an extension of military prestige
  • Aircraft carriers are expensive to build, logistically complex to operate and costly to defend
  • Carrier race comes amid rising assertiveness of Asian's military powers
  • Military analysts say the value of a carrier lies in having one rather than using one

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Want to be an Asian superpower? Then an aircraft carrier, it seems, is the minimum requirement for joining this elite club.

In China, a retro-fitted former Ukrainian carrier dating back to the Soviet era is the flagship of the country's hopes for a "blue water" navy -- a fleet that can operate on the high seas thousands of nautical miles from base. India has launched its first home built aircraft carrier as part of a plan to operate three carrier battle groups by 2020.

And Japan -- whose navy is officially classed as a self-defense force -- has controversially unveiled what it has classed as a flat-topped helicopter destroyer, but to China looks perilously akin to an aircraft carrier.

This latest piece of must-have military hardware might be expensive to build, logistically complex to operate and costly to defend -- and in the context of drone and submarine technology, some argue, increasingly obsolete - but the aircraft carrier is still regarded as one of the strongest projections of a nation's military power.

More image than action?

The carrier race comes amid rising assertiveness of Asian's military powers and changing conditions in the region.

China lands jet on aircraft carrier
Modern Nato shows strength
Watch first drone launch from carrier

For Japan, it's a counter to the rising power of China and the threat from North Korea. For India, its carrier flexes its muscle in the direction of Pakistan while China wants to project power along its trade routes and regional interests.

Just 20 aircraft carriers are active throughout the world and the U.S. Navy operates 10 of them. For many military analysts, however, the value of a carrier lies in having one rather than ever using one.

Ashley Townshend, Joan Rydon Scholar in Government at Oxford University, says there is a disconnect between what an aircraft carrier projects and what it can actually do.

"Needing an aircraft carrier and wanting one are two different things," Townshend told CNN, adding that Asia -- despite recent headlines -- has had a long history of aircraft carrier operation.

"India has operated carriers before; China hasn't but China is a new foray into carrier naval warfare/carrier naval operations," he said. "Japan interestingly had the world's first aircraft carrier."

Costly carrier

As an indication of how much a carrier costs, Britain is plowing an estimated £5 billion (US$8 billion) into its new carrier Queen Elizabeth. It is so large that it is being constructed in sections at six shipyards around the United Kingdom before being slotted together at Rosyth in Fife, Scotland.

Perhaps fittingly for China's biggest naval gamble, its refurbished Ukrainian carrier was once touted to become a casino in Macau, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China and a gambling center.

"This is really its initial training platform," said Townshend. "It's unlikely that this carrier would be able to pack the sort of punch that would make it useful as a power projection carrier outside of limited and asymmetric incidents in Asia.

"You could conceivably ship it down into the South China Sea for the purposes of intimidating weaker South East Asian nations -- but that carries with it a lot of risks not least the proliferation of anti-carrier anti-sea control platforms in Asia."

Vulnerable

He said submarines, ship-launched and land-based ballistic missiles all make aircraft carriers vulnerable to attack in the context of modern conventional warfare.

"The sort of things, interestingly, that China has been building to keep the U.S. out of the Taiwan Strait are also being built by South East Asian nations to keep large scale Chinese naval platforms from being as powerful as they might be in the region."

Needing an aircraft carrier and wanting one are two different things
Ashley Townshend

While India, China and Japan may have deep pockets, the technology and military infrastructure necessary to operate what amounts to a floating military city for thousands of personnel still lags among these Asian superpowers.

Military analyst Michael Horowitz, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, in his book The Diffusion of Military Power, says learning to operate an aircraft carrier is difficult and time-consuming

"Carrier warfare is one of the only major military innovations requiring high levels of both financial intensity and organizational capital to adopt," he said. "Operating a floating airfield and the ship itself, plus coordinating with support ships, is simply a much harder set of tasks than lining up the big guns of a battleship and firing."

Carrier losses

Aircraft carriers also have one of the highest attrition rates of any arm of the military. According to a study by Professor Robert Rubel of the U.S. Naval War College, between 1949 and 1988 the US Navy and Marine Corps lost 12,000 aircraft and 8,500 air crew.

Analysts say that with China training less than 100 pilots to operate fixed-wing aircraft from carriers, its capacity to absorb losses is low.

"It's difficult to train pilots up to land on what is effectively a moving airfield," Townshend said. "While China will learn from the successes and failures of every country that has gone before it, it does take a lot of time and China has less than 100 airmen who are being trained to fly their version of a carrier aircraft."

Meanwhile, as India and China size up each other in the carrier war, analysts say it has to be remembered that both carrier nations have ships that are a third the size of the U.S. Nimitz class ships.

"For the Chinese, a lot of it is tied up with a story about itself becoming a great power," Townshend said. "For China to be a great power it must be a great maritime power and to be a great power it must have carriers and blue water naval platforms."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Successful launch of lunar orbiter, seen as a precursor for a planned mission to the surface of the moon, marks significant advance for the country's space program.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, shot while standing guard at Ottawa's National War Memorial, was known for his easygoing manner and smile.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Non-stop chatter about actress' appearance is nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
CEO's 30-min Putonghua chat is the perfect charm offensive for Facebook's last untapped market.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0345 GMT (1145 HKT)
Chinese leaders want less odd architecture built in the country.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2058 GMT (0458 HKT)
Air New Zealand's new 'Hobbit' safety video stars Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, elves and orcs.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
A 15-year-old pregnant girl is rescued from slavery, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage, shocked rights activists say -- a charge potentially punishable by death.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 0333 GMT (1133 HKT)
After sushi and ramen, beef is on the list of must-eats for many visitors to Japan.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Airports judged on comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
Scientists use CT scans to recreate a life-size image of the ancient king.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
Despite billions spent on eradicating poppy production, Afghan farmers are growing bumper crops, a U.S. government report says.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT