Earlier this week, China's state media accidentally published a report that mentioned the construction of a new aircraft carrier in Dalian, a city on the East China Sea near the border with North Korea. Dalian is home to a major shipyard that builds a number of different vessels, including warships. An overly excited government official blurted that a local firm was super excited after "winning the contract for China's second aircraft carrier."
Shortly after realizing that this was technically "secret" information, authorities quickly tried to yank the story from news, social media, and other sites. Of course, the officials weren't quite fast enough to prevent people from noticing and getting all wound up.
China's plans for a second (and third and maybe fourth) carrier have been known for a long time. But here's the thing: China already has one aircraft carrier — the Liaoning — a Soviet-built ship that was purchased from Ukraine as a gutted hull. It took ages to refurbish. Hyping up the news that there's a second carrier under construction is like an exposé revealing that there's binge drinking at keg parties.
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But while reports about the leak have wrestled mightily with the fact that this news event is a non-event, it does give us an opportunity to figure out what this Chinese aircraft carrier business means and whether we should all be digging a fallout shelter in the backyard or just brushing up on our Mandarin.
Here's what it means: Nobody really knows.
China's carrier ambitions are going to take decades to fully mature. The country's long-term military plans are not immune to the various political, academic, and budgetary debates that plague every military.
It takes many years to master naval aviation. A number of countries have aircraft carriers, but very few harness their full potential. The technology involved is complex and fussy. Those steam-powered catapults that US carriers use to launch planes off the flight deck are immensely expensive and intricate. Brazil and France are the only countries, other than the US, that can even manage to build and operate a steam catapult. More countries have nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching missiles from underwater — no small technological feat — than have steam catapults.
And that only covers takeoffs. Landing essentially requires pilots to intentionally crash their planes to a halt on a tiny moving platform in the middle of an ocean.
There's also the fact that aircraft carriers require a sizable supporting cast of submarines, ships, and aircraft to protect against attacks. All those support vessels need to be refueled and resupplied. The navy needs to learn to coordinate operations with other sea- and land-based forces. That level of integration poses a significant challenge, especially since every nation deploys their carriers differently based on their own national strategic imperatives. China can't just borrow from someone else's playbook. They'll be writing an original composition.
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Finally, the Chinese are probably still debating what they want in their carriers. There's likely a discussion over whether the carriers should be nuclear-powered or use diesel fuel. There's a decision to be made about what type of aircraft the ship should carry. There's learning to be done about simple operations, like moving aircraft around the deck efficiently. These issues won't be settled years, perhaps even decades.
The more interesting aspect of the Chinese aircraft carrier news is figuring out the politics behind this huge expenditure and what China thinks their newfound prestige purchase will buy them. But that's a story for another day — or perhaps another accidental Chinese media leak.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via Wikimedia Commons