A century ago, the U.S. Navy purchased its first airplane after a series of tests in which a brave pilot–wearing inflated bicycle inner tubes as a lifejacket–demonstrated one could land safely aboard a ship and then take off from the same vessel. The date of that purchase–May 8, 1911–is considered the birthday of naval aviation. In the hundred years since, the aircraft carrier has evolved from a scouting tool to a leading strike weapon.
During World War II, the dominance of the battleship ended abruptly in three striking examples. For the loss of two outdated biplanes, the British Navy crippled three battleships of the Italian Navy in a 1940 surprise raid at Taranto. That foray served as the blueprint for the attack on Pearl Harbor, which left most of the U.S. battle fleet in ruins. Those who still doubted the waning of the battleship argued that in both cases the surprise attacks against anchored, unprepared ships limited the crew’s ability to defend them. That defense was finally and emphatically laid to rest with the sinking of the fully alerted British battlecruiser Repulse and brand-new battleship Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Malaysia.
World War II was the only time carriers dueled with their own kind. The war in the Pacific saw such clashed as Coral Sea and Midway, in which the opposing fleets never saw each other. By war’s end, the aircraft carrier’s role as primary weapon was cemented. During the Korean War and the conflict in Vietnam, carrier aviation continued to develop not only as a weapon, but as a projection of foreign policy.
While the carrier has remained the backbone of U.S. defense strategy for 70 years, the club of nations that can afford them remains relatively exclusive. Britain has the HMS Illustrious at present, with a pair of super carriers under construction. France has the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, while Spain and Italy each have a pair of smaller carriers. Russia has one, as do Brazil, India, and even Thailand, which operates the 11,400-ton Chakri Naruebet, the world’s smallest carrier, on occasion (limited funds restrict operation). Australia, which has been without an aircraft carrier since the 1982 retirement of the World War II-vintage HMAS Melbourne, has ordered a pair of its own, according to reports.
But 100 years after the birth of naval aviation, a new player has finally taken a seat at the table. China, which has long envied the actual and perceived political benefits of owning and operating a floating airfield, began sea trials of its first aircraft carrier this month. Acquired from Ukraine (which inherited the carrier after the collapse of the Soviet Union) in the late 1990s, the former Admiral Kuznetsov-class Varyag was approximately 70 percent complete when she was towed to China in an odyssey that lasted nearly two years, to be used initially as a floating entertainment and hotel complex. Somehow that plan changed and over the span of five years the ship was completed in its originally intended role, a clear stepping stone to the country’s eventual building of indigenous carriers.
The U.S. downplayed the news, with some describing the refitted ship as a “starter carrier,” and China itself has described it as obsolete, to be used only for “research and training purposes,” but as the Shi Lang (as several reports have named it) left its port of Dalian, ripples from the nearly 1,000-foot-long vessel’s wake splashed at least symbolically against the shores of all of its Asian neighbors. In recent years, China has had territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, while India has expressed concern about China’s interest in the Indian Ocean. The development of a potent Chinese naval aviation force could also influence future events on the Korean peninsula, possibly deterring the approach of U.S. carriers.
Despite the sea trial (coincidentally scheduled at a time when Vice President Joe Biden was visiting China), it could take up to a decade or more for China to develop an effective battle group. A carrier exists for its air wing and it remains to be seen whether that will consist of Russian-built or -licensed aircraft, such as the Sukhoi Su-33; a naval version of the homemade Chengdu J-10; or a future J-15. Concurrent with the development of the air wing, pilots and support personnel must be trained for the highly demanding flight regime that is naval aviation. China must also build or otherwise acquire vessels to support and protect the carrier. These will represent significant challenges to the Chinese, who are reportedly beginning construction on two additional carriers.
Whatever else it represents, this “birth of Chinese naval aviation” could mean the start of a challenge to decades of U.S. dominance in the Pacific.