Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Taking Flight: China, Japan, and South Korea Get Aircraft Carriers
Taking Flight: China, Japan, and South Korea Get Aircraft Carriers

Taking Flight: China, Japan, and South Korea Get Aircraft Carriers

Many naval theorists have heralded the end of the aircraft-carrier era.[1] They argue that the advent of pervasive sensors and precision-guided munitions would overcome improvements in ship-based defenses to render the aircraft carrier (and perhaps most large surface combatants) obsolete. Such a shift in naval warfare would obviously have its biggest impact in the world’s biggest body of water, the Pacific Ocean. Australia decommissioned its last aircraft carrier in 1984. After the Cold War, Russia dispensed with an aircraft carrier for its Pacific Fleet. Thailand left its lone aircraft carrier without fixed-wing aircraft. By the first decade of the 21st century, the only active aircraft carriers in the Pacific were American, and even those were under budgetary threat. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld contended that the future lay in “prompt global strike”—using new weapon systems that can strike foes a world away within hours—and less in forward-deployed forces, like aircraft carrier battle groups.

Yet, over the last decade, China, Japan, and South Korea have all committed to adding aircraft carriers to their fleets. China was the first. It now has two carriers in service and a third under construction. Japan is converting two of its helicopter carriers into full-fledged aircraft carriers, and South Korea has rushed the development of its first. Certainly, the spurt in carrier construction has much to do with what the three countries see as their security priorities, including China’s desire to push out its seaward defenses and protect its “historic rights” over neighboring areas; Japan’s desire to ensure that those areas do not include the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in China); and South Korea’s desire to ensure that Japan’s efforts to ward off China do not imperil its hold on the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea). But the new construction also speaks to the enduring value that navies put in aircraft carriers. Regardless of their vulnerabilities, carriers remain useful for defending and taking distant outposts.

China’s Cold War (and Post-Cold War) Thinking

China’s affinity for aircraft carriers runs deep. In the last decade of the Cold War, Admiral Liu Huaqing, then-commander of the Chinese navy, had already begun to urge the serious study of carriers. He reasoned that, with the advent of standoff weapons, his navy would have to operate further offshore in order to adequately defend China’s coastline from attack. To do so, he believed it would need aircraft carriers.[2] Meanwhile, China’s political leaders arrived at a similar conclusion after the United States used its carriers to intimidate China during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis.[3] Nonetheless, it took a while for Beijing to get started. There were plenty of arguments for and against building aircraft carriers. But in time, internal debate faded, as China’s rapid economic growth fueled ever larger defense budgets, making the decision to proceed with carrier development an easier one.

Still, China moved forward cautiously, building its aircraft carriers iteratively. The first was constructed from the partially completed hull of a Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class carrier. Put through what was likely an expensive six-year refit, the carrier was commissioned as the 60,000-tonne Liaoning in 2012.[4] Immediately after, China began construction on a slightly larger version of the ship from the keel up. That second carrier, the 66,000-tonne Shandong, entered service in 2019. Both carriers can accommodate about 24 J-15 fighters and were designed to launch them from ski-jump flight decks without catapult systems. As such, their fighters are unable to take off with heavy ordinance and fuel loads, limiting them to air defense or short-range strike missions. Even so, the two carriers provide the Chinese navy with new capabilities and operational flexibility that would be useful in limited conflicts against China’s neighbors, especially those that dispute its outposts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

At any rate, China did not stop there. Two years before the Shandong was commissioned, China began building a far more ambitious 85,000 to 90,000-tonne aircraft carrier. It is anticipated to carry almost twice the number of fighters as its predecessors and feature a flat flight deck with a catapult system that will enable it to launch not only fighters with heavy payloads, but also airborne early-warning and anti-submarine aircraft. By the time the carrier enters service, probably in 2023 or 2024, China may even have a new fifth-generation fighter, the FC-31/J-31, ready to fill out its air wing.[5] When finished, China’s third carrier will be the first in its fleet that can operate at the center of a naval task force to exercise sea control in much the same way as its American counterparts.

Japan’s Naval Hedging

Meanwhile, across the East China Sea, Japan has watched China’s development of aircraft carriers with growing trepidation. Beyond the long-term rivalry between the two countries, Tokyo must consider the practical matter of the defense of the Senkaku Islands. That is because, while Japan controls the islands, an increasingly assertive China claims them. Over the last decade, Chinese incursions around the islands with aircraft, fishing boats, and patrol ships have become nearly daily occurrences. Indeed, they have raised concerns in Tokyo that Beijing might one day try to seize the islands outright. The closest air base from which Japan could respond is on Okinawa, 400 km away. And, should hostilities break out, it would be an obvious target for China’s military. If put out of action, Japan’s next-nearest air base is a further 900 km away on Kyushu.

So, it should have come as no surprise that, as China began construction on the Shandong and speculation swirled over a third aircraft carrier, Japan started to contemplate how to best counter them. Acquiring aircraft carriers and carrier-borne fighters of its own was an obvious solution. Even small carriers could give Japan’s new amphibious forces the vital air support that they would need to defend or retake the Senkaku Islands.[6] Japanese naval planners likely had such a scenario in mind when they approved the design for their navy’s two 24,000-tonne Izumo-class helicopters carriers in 2012. Both warships were built bearing striking similarities to aircraft carriers, making their future conversion easier should the need arise. At about the same time, Japan was considering its choice for its next-generation fighter aircraft. Just one month before the keel of the first Izumo-class helicopter carrier was laid down, Tokyo selected the American-built F-35. While it did not initially order the F-35B variant, which is capable of short take-offs and vertical landings on aircraft carriers, its selection gave Japan the option to procure them without having to add extensive new maintenance and training infrastructure in the future.

Thus, in the early 2010s, Japan had already laid the groundwork for a light aircraft carrier force, if it chose to do so. And in 2018 it did. Only months after the Shandong began sea trials and the keel of China’s third aircraft carrier was laid down, Japan revealed that it would convert both of its Izumo-class helicopter carriers into full-fledged aircraft carriers and buy 42 F-35B fighters for carrier duty. Since each Izumo-class light aircraft carrier would carry about a dozen fighters, Japan would have enough aircraft for at least one more light aircraft carrier or possibly even a medium-sized one. Though both converted aircraft carriers would be smaller and carry fewer fighters than China’s, they would enable Japan to more reliably support military operations, particularly amphibious ones, in the East China Sea.

South Korea’s Naval Bandwagoning

Japan’s construction of aircraft carriers, its first since World War II, has sparked concern in another corner of Asia, South Korea. That is because of not only South Korea’s long-time suspicion of its one-time colonial occupier, but also Seoul’s concern over its not-often-mentioned dispute between it and Tokyo over the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan. South Korea currently occupies the rocky outcrops, which are thought to sit atop natural gas deposits. Seoul worries enough about the islets that it continues to hold military exercises to practice defending them from a potential Japanese foray. While Japan has shown little indication that it might do so, its new aircraft carriers and amphibious forces make such a foray a practical possibility and one for which the South Korean military must prepare.

But South Korea’s concern over a Japanese descent on the Liancourt Rocks is only one of its maritime concerns. A second lies in the Yellow Sea, where Chinese incursions into South Korean airspace and waters had increased by the late 2010s. Given China’s increased maritime assertiveness elsewhere on the Asian periphery and that one of its carriers (the Liaoning) is based at Qingdao, across the Yellow Sea from South Korea, its naval leaders have no doubt urged the acquisition of a similar capability. Fortunately for them, South Korea’s shipbuilding industry has become a world leader and is capable of building an aircraft carrier on its own.

An order was not long in coming. In October 2020, South Korea revealed that it radically changed the goals for its largest shipbuilding program. Originally intended to produce an amphibious assault ship, the program now aims to build a light aircraft carrier. Moreover, the timetable to launch the warship was tightened from 2033 to the late 2020s. Design work on it will have to begin almost immediately. The estimated 40,000-tonne warship will be larger and accommodate more fighters than Japan’s Izumo-class light aircraft carrier. Indeed, in August 2020, South Korea announced that it would procure 20 F-35B fighters for it. (Like Tokyo, Seoul had earlier selected the F-35 as its next-generation fighter.) Ultimately, South Korea’s light aircraft carrier will have many of the same capabilities as China’s and Japan’s first carriers, helping Seoul to rest a bit easier about the security of its maritime borders and outposts.

There They Go Again

After decades of numerical decline, aircraft carriers have regained some of their luster in Asia. Not only are China, Japan, and South Korea building new carriers, but India will also add a second carrier (INS Vikrant) to its fleet in 2023. Even so, those who argue that aircraft carriers have become more vulnerable are not wrong. Modern sensors and anti-ship missiles are better than ever. Carriers will continue to need escorts with advanced air-search radars and large missile magazines, like China’s Type 055 (Renhai-class), Japan’s Maya-class, and South Korea’s Sejong the Great-class destroyers. But more importantly, new ship-based defensive technologies, like high-powered lasers, have emerged that hold the promise of restoring the balance between offensive and defensive naval weaponry, just as close-in weapon systems did in the 1980s.

In any case, the latest prognosticators of aircraft-carrier obsolescence were not the first to do so. Their forerunners predicted much the same in the late 1970s.[7] Yet, aircraft carriers have played a key part in many conflicts since then. The conflict in which they were absolutely critical was the Falklands War in 1982. Without the air support from two Royal Navy light aircraft carriers, the British campaign to retake the Falkland Islands would have certainly taken longer and been far more costly. During the war, British carrier-borne fighters not only provided close air support to ground troops, but also shot down 20 Argentine aircraft, compelling Argentina’s air force to change tactics that reduced the effectiveness of its anti-ship attacks.[8]

The Falklands War demonstrated the enduring value of aircraft carriers in a limited conflict, particularly one waged over a distant outpost. As it happens, that is precisely the sort of conflict that Indo-Pacific countries think is most likely. Certainly, there are plenty of distant outposts where one might erupt, from the Spratly Islands to the Senkaku Islands to the Liancourt Rocks. But outside of actual combat, the aircraft carriers that Japan and South Korea are building serve another useful function—that of balancer. Given China’s ambitious carrier program, they may help to maintain a stable balance of power in the region and lower the likelihood that any warships will have to go to war.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

[1] Henry J. Hendrix, “At What Cost a Carrier?” (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, 2013), pp. 4-9; and George Friedman and Meredith Friedman, Future of War: Power, Technology and American World Dominance in the Twenty-first Century (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), pp. 180-204.

[2] Liu Huaqing, Liu Huaqing Huíyìlù [Memoirs of Liu Huaqing] (Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 2004).

[3] Douglas Porch, “The Taiwan Strait Crisis: Strategic Implications for the United States Navy,” Naval War College Review, Summer 1999, pp. 15-48.

[4] By comparison, India spent over $2.3 billion for a nine-year-long refit of a smaller, Soviet-era Kiev-class aircraft carrier. In contrast, the United Kingdom spent about $4.3 billion for each of its modern 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, according to its Committee of Public Accounts in 2020.

[5] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Defense, Sep. 2020), p. 50.

[6] In 2018, after a decade of planning, Japan established its first amphibious combat unit, the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, to defend its island territories.

[7] Congressional Budget Office, The U.S. Sea Control Mission: Forces, Capabilities, and Requirements (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Budget Office, Jun. 1977), p. 34.

[8] The Royal Navy’s two light aircraft carriers and their 28 Sea Harrier and 14 Harrier GR.3 fighters could only do so much. Argentina’s air force, totaling some 50 air-superiority fighters and 72 strike aircraft, managed to sink ships and damage several more.