Aircraft Carriers

What Is It? Whose Is It? & Do We Need Them?

This monster will be China’s new aircraft carrier, if the accidentally leaked report by China’s state media is to be believed. The report mentioned that the new carrier would be constructed 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 variety of different vessels including warships. This will be China’s second aircraft carrier and will take 6 years to build. Its proposed construction reinforces the belief that China is aiming to achieve the world’s second biggest navy with plans to eventually build 4 such carriers. China has made no secret of its desire to build a powerful navy that will boost the country’s international status and its control over the seas. China’s first carrier was a 990ft former Soviet vessel called the Liaoning.

Bought from the Ukraine as a gutted hull, it was refitted in Dalian and was formally brought into service in 2012. In a show of strength it recently completed a 37-day “sea trial” in the South China Sea.

What does this mean?

The leaked news shouldn’t be cause for panic. China’s ambitions will take decades to fully mature and the country’s long-term military plans are not immune from the various political, academic and financial problems that infect every military. It takes many years to master naval aviation and while a number of countries have aircraft carriers, very few harness their full potential. The technology involved in launching planes and missiles is complex and very expensive and aircraft carriers are vulnerable to attack, requiring a sizable supporting cast of submarines, ships and aircraft to protect them. There’s also the question about how the carriers should be fuelled, whether by diesel or nuclear power and what type of aircraft the ships should carry. These issues will take years to work out and China does not yet have a fleet of aircraft or pilots ready for carrier operations. Nevertheless some countries, especially Japan, have expressed concern at China’s growing naval strength.

The World’s Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers are floating airfields that can deploy a nation’s military might across the world’s oceans. It was back in May 1912 that the first plane took off from a moving warship, HMS Hibernia, temporarily adapted for the purpose.

The idea of dedicated floating platforms had been suggested in 1909, but it wasn’t until 1918 that HMS Argus became the first proper carrier.

Carriers have evolved since their inception, from wooden vessels used to deploy balloons, to nuclear-powered warships that carry numerous fighter planes, strike aircraft and helicopters. There are four main configurations of aircraft carriers at present in service, divided by the way the aircraft take off and land:

  • Catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR)
  • Short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR)
  • Short take-off vertical landing (STOVL)
  • Helicopter carrier

At the present time there are about thirty-nine active aircraft carriers in the world within thirteen navies.

The US has the largest number, 10 nuclear powered carriers, known as supercarriers, carrying up to 90 aircraft each. These are the largest in the world, with a deck space over twice that of all the other nations combined. They also have 9 amphibious assault ships used primarily for helicopters, but they can also carry up to 25 fighter jets. Other countries possessing carriers are:-

Australia – 2 Canberra-class vessels, one in service, the other in the process of being built.

Brazil – 1 Clemenceau-class carrier

Egypt – 2 Mistral class helicopter carriers

France – 1 nuclear powered carrier and 3 amphibious assault ships

India – 1 carrier, another under construction and a 3rd planned.

Italy – 2 carriers

Japan – 3 helicopter carriers and another under construction.

Russia – 1 carrier with another proposed to replace it.

South Korea – 1 amphibious assault ship with the intention of procuring 2 light aircraft carriers by 2036.

Spain – 1 vessel which can operate as an amphibious assault ship or an aircraft carrier.

Thailand – 1 helicopter carrier.

United Kingdom – 1 amphibious assault ship with 2 larger aircraft carriers under construction, the Queen Elizabeth class, to replace the now retired Invincible-class.

While the Nimitz class carriers belonging to the US are like floating cities, the size of 4 football pitches, each housing 5,000 crew, nations such as Spain and Italy have miniature carriers with around a dozen planes.

Do we need them?

The argument in favour of carriers is that they allow a nation to project air power around the globe without having to worry about countries in between who might refuse the use of ground bases or airspace. While some politicians believe that they are a complete waste of money, others feel the need to retain and build more in order to defend their country and lands. They argue that carriers are as relevant as ever – in the age of the unmanned drone you still need somewhere to launch it from. Another point in its favour is that a carrier, some distance from a particular threat, can pick off attackers by scrambling its jets, without being overwhelmed itself.

So it looks as though aircraft carriers are here to stay and if China’s new toy is anything to go by, they will get bigger and better as countries try to outdo each other.

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