Monday, June 24, 2019, 11:10 (GMT+7)
Aircraft carrier – an arm race among major powers

Aircraft carriers are considered as “floating air bases” and represent important combat vehicles of navies, particularly of countries with strong military capability. Since its first operation 115 years ago with non-stop innovations, they have shown their outstanding strength and there have been a fierce competition in the development of this vehicle among military powers.

Studies on weaponry of military specialists have all agreed on the “hegemony” of aircraft carriers on sea. They can be used for maneuvering across the seas, for coercive goals, for controlling air zones and sea zones with their systems of aircrafts and weaponry on board without using on land airports. Although the cost of acquiring and maintaining is huge, their outstanding strength makes them indispensible in the navies of military powers. To improve combat power for navies, military powers are setting out strategies and guidelines for the development of aircraft carriers to assert their power.

The U.S. and their development of new-generation aircraft carriers

The USS Gerald R Ford Aircraft Carrier (Photo: Getty Images)

With their domination in the race, the U.S. is possessing 13 aircraft carriers, including 10 nuclear Nimitz – class and 3 new generation Ford - class ones. What’s more, the U.S. is also integrating modern technologies to make a breakthrough in the development of aircraft carriers. The former U.S. Defense Secretary has elaborated that without special weapon the U.S would not able to maintain its voice and world influence. To date, the U.S. has the most aircraft carriers, mostly the heavy ones (over 60,000 tons) with highest displacement. It is estimated that by 2068, the U.S. will build 12 new Ford-class aircraft carriers. At the same time, they will also strengthen investment for stealth technology for both the carriers and their on board aircrafts, and the electromagnetic launch technology to make it completely superior to other powers.

Despite being well equipped with both offensive and defensive weapons, aircraft carrier is vulnerable to attacks of missiles and aircrafts because of its huge dimension. For this reason, the U.S. attaches special importance to its outer design to enhance its self-protection capability. Moreover, it has developed stealth technology for weapons and equipment on board, such as: the F-35B  stealth fighters, the MQ-25A stealth tanker craft, etc. Notably, the Gerald R. Ford class are the only ones equipped with electromagnetic launch system (EMALS) which can reduce 50% the size and weight and 30% of staff compared to the steam launch system. What’s more, EMALS is also easier to maintain. Its higher capacity makes it capable of launching heavier aircrafts with faster  rate compared to the Nimitz class. Besides, Gerald R. Ford class have larger decks which can accommodate to more aircrafts, weapons and fuel. It can produce electricity three times higher which is able to run the equipment on board for 50 years.

China focuses on developing its own aircraft carrier

China is focusing on developing its own aircraft carrier. From a limited air force and naval capability, China has acquired its own combat aircraft carrier. Its first Liaoning aircraft carrier was first put into force in 2016 and the Shandong has been put under testing condition since 2018. The third one has been put under construction and is projected to completion by 2020. An aircraft carrier can  only promote its function when being equipped with aircrafts, so the PLA is accelerating the development of aircrafts, particularly helicopters, fighters and specialized aircrafts.

In reality, China has started its aircraft carrier development program since 1988, but they can only realized their ambition when  they succeeded in purchasing the Varyag aircraft carrier from Ukraine. The Varyag used to be a partly finished aircraft carrier, built in the former Soviet time before being towed to the Dalian naval shipyard. It was then completed in 2012 and renamed to Liaoning (Type 001) and put into service on 25 December 2012. Liaoning is not equipped with a launch system. Instead, it has a ski – jump take-off ramp for launching aircrafts. By December 2016, it was proclaimed to be capable for combat readiness. China’s second aircraft carrier is named  Shandong (Type 001A) and by nature a copy of the Liaoning with higher displacement and bigger hanger deck. The ship was built by Dalian shipyard and launched on 26th April 2017. It was then put under testing condition in late April 2017 and is projected to service in October 2019.

The development of the third aircraft carrier (Type 002) is considered a breakthrough of China with the straight running way and the EMALS which allow for the stealth jet fighters, such as J-20 and J-31. Moving from ski-jump to EMALS represents a major evolution which allows for jet fighters be fully equipped with ammunition. This is such a challenge to China as it requires a very huge source of energy. Chinese engineers recently have claimed to find the solution for the matter without resorting to nuclear energy. The Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard Group began the construction of the ship in March 2017. Construction is expected to finish the project in 2020 before handling the ship to the PLAN some years later. With the construction of the Type 002, China becomes the third countries in the world (after the U.S. and France) to use EMALS on aircraft carriers. What’s next, in early 2018, China planned to build the Type 003 aircraft carrier with displacement up to 90.000 to 100.000 tons and can carry 70 to 100 warplanes. Its aircraft carrier program is aimed to make the PLAN the second most powerful navy in the world after the U.S. Navy and it is planning to acquire 265 to 273 surface ships and submarines in its fleets by 2020.

Japan’s changing policy of aircraft carrier

By the end of 2018, Japan decided to change their defense policy to improve their helicopter carrier to aircraft carrier which is capable of carrying stealth fighters. On 18th December 2018, Japan officially approved their new “National Defense Program Guidelines” which set out defense goals for the upcoming 10 years in response to new regional and world security challenges. Accordingly, Japan will put into service their aircraft carrier for the first time after World War II, deploy long range missiles, and develop airspace and network warfare. In order to realize their guidelines, Japan decided to improve the Izumo helicopter destroyer to be able to carry the F-35B stealth fighter. At the same time, it plans to purchase the V-22 Osprey multi-mission tiltrotor military aircraft and 105 F-35 fighters. This implies that in the future, Japan will construct at least three more aircraft carriers. Being bound by the peace constitution, Japan has to call the Izumo a “helicopter carrier”. In 2018, Japan’s defense minister asserted that their plan to improve the Izumo - class destroyers is still within their defense strategy. However, after improvement, Izumo – class destroyers will be truly aircraft carriers.

The Izumo – class destroyers have the equivalent specifications to the Invincible –class aircraft carriers of the British Royal Navy supplemented with the latest technology for electronic warfare, radar and firepower control. If being equipped with the F-35 fighters or V-22 Osprey multi-mission aircrafts, the Izumo will possess very huge offensive capability on sea. Japanese Self-Defense Force first got the Izumo destroyer in 2015. Their Kaga – class (DDH-184 helicopter carrier) has just been listed since March 2017.

Earlier in the past, Japanese Navy possessed 10 aircraft carriers which made them the most powerful and modern one in the world. Japan was one of the two countries, together with the U.S., to have used aircraft carrier in war. In the World War II, Japan’s aircraft carrier combat group carried out the large scale ambush attack into the Pearl Habour base of the U.S. Navy, shocking the world. At present, instead of watching China’s development of aircraft carriers, such moves of Japan can narrow the aircraft carrier gap between the two powers in the Northeast Asia. The construction of the Izumo – class helicopter carriers marks a big stride of the Japan’s Navy. The improvements will allow for the operation of fix-wing aircrafts which make them as capable as light aircraft carriers being widely used in the world. This can be considered as a Tokyo’s message to their rivals that Japan is still a sea power.

Russia plans to build their own Storm K23000 – class aircraft carrier before 2025. However, given their history of so many unfinished projects, it is unsure that Russia will complete their project on time.

Military powers are striving for the development of aircraft carriers as a way to build “mobile base” on sea and deploy their air force power to any place in the world. This is why the U.S., China, Japan and other military powers are applying the most modern technology in the R&D of aircraft carriers.

Senior Colonel Dang Dong Tien – General Technical Department

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