For the past few weeks, China, India, France, Italy, and the United States have engaged in a large-scale promotional campaign, complete with exclusive photo ops. Glamour shots were snapped in exotic locations. Entourages were spotted. But in large part, the only fans who took notice were a handful of naval-warfare nerds. Because the photos were of aircraft carriers.
In the ongoing international game of “Who Will Rule The World?,” these photographs represent a focused and deliberate attempt to communicate to each other — and to the rest of the world — that these countries intend to be dominant world powers this century.
China started it off with a photo op of its new carrier and some support ships. India, not wanting to be outdone, took some pics of both of the country's carriers at sea, side-by-side. The US and some of its allies responded with a picture of a US, French, and Italian carrier sailing with each other. Even when using a pretty generous definition of the term “aircraft carrier,” there are only a few dozen of them in the world today, so the fact that a sizable percentage of the operational carriers have been shown off in recent weeks is more than just coincidence.
National militaries are sometimes as much about image and symbolism as they are about killing enemies. But a nation building an aircraft carrier isn’t the same thing as a dude buying a muscle car. For starters, a lot of the effect of having a big, scary military isn’t about testosterone — it’s about deterrence. And while deterrence involves persuading others that you’re a badass, the functional consequence of deterrence is peace. Convincing some mouthy goofball that picking a fight with your country is a losing proposition is just as big a part of preventing war as diplomacy.
Among the many tools of military posturing, aircraft carriers are king. While they are indeed warships, they're not simply for fighting other navies. Aircraft carriers are, first and foremost, airbases. Of course, they can never be a one-for-one equivalent to an airbase built on land, but navies work very hard to replicate the functionality as closely as possible. And they are also mobile, able to park themselves within range of an awful lot of the world's potential targets. For months on end.
If a navy can do these things effectively, an aircraft carrier can be a potent political tool. There’s nothing quite like a floating airbase carrying 75 or more aircraft (which are perhaps in turn carrying nuclear weapons) appearing off-shore to encourage an end to hostilities. While other things may pose a bigger practical threat, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess how people would react if, in the middle of a diplomatic crisis, China parked a carrier battle group bristling with weapons 30 miles off California beaches. So even though aircraft carriers are potent weapons systems designed to break things and kill people, their day-in, day-out use is mostly about political signaling.
So if carriers are used to send political messages, what have these countries been trying to tell each other for the last few weeks? First off, the Chinese wanted to show the world that their first entry into the world of aircraft carriers — it’s actually an old Russian carrier — can go to sea, coordinate with other ships, and operate — rather than just decorate — a dock. What the analytical folks saw was a carrier that isn’t very good at being an airbase. Based on the photo, experts don’t think the Chinese would be able to send that carrier very far, and they don’t believe that it could operate at sea for very long. So as far as surprise airbases go, China’s would get a C for airbase and C for surprise. This isn’t unusual for a first entry into aircraft carriers, but it’s pretty clear that this first entry is more of a warm up than an actual threat.
The Indian photo-op featured both their carriers, which was a none-too-delicate way of showing up the Chinese as a bunch of newbie upstarts — even if the Indian carriers are a positively ancient British carrier and an old, modified Russian ship. The Indian display featured some highlights — like the presence of refueling and support ships — that allowed India to demonstrate they were better equipped to use the surprise airbases in practice, not just in theory. So India would get a C for airbase, but a B for surprise.
The most recent photo breaks this mold a bit, and that’s the interesting part. It is widely acknowledged that the U.S. is the super heavyweight champion of the world when it comes to carriers and power projection. In the surprise airbase category, the U.S. has walked away with A grades in both areas for decades. There’s nothing new here. What made the U.S. photo op interesting is that it didn’t focus on just the U.S. The photo included an aircraft carrier from France and one from Italy. And the picture didn’t include any of the support ships that are usually shown in such photos. What the U.S. and its allies were signaling downplayed ratings for surprise airbases, but showed off the real concrete manifestation of the diplomatic and functional relationships between the NATO allies. The point wasn’t that one of these three countries can go toe-to-toe with other navies — it’s that many countries can, and that those countries are allies.
And so in essence, what started out as China trying to display emerging capabilities morphed into India one-upping China and then resulted in a message from the West reminding both of those rising and competitive Asian powers that while they’re up-and-coming contenders for global dominance, they’re still a lot more up-and-coming than they are contenders.