The Carrier Dilemma: How Many is Enough?
Image Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet (flickr)

The Carrier Dilemma: How Many is Enough?


Reports on Monday indicated that the PLAN has finally settled on a name for its aircraft carrier, heretofore known as the ex-Varyag.  While speculation included names such as “Beijing,” “Mao Zedong,” and “Shi Lang,” the PLAN instead decided to adopt a relatively conventional naming strategy, dubbing the refurbished Soviet-era carrier “Liaoning” in honor of the province that has hosted the warship’s refit.

Most analysts agree that China will pursue the construction of additional aircraft carriers, but at this point the opacity of Chinese defense planning has not revealed how many ships the PLAN intends to operate.  In a recent article for Globe Magazine, a Chinese security scholar and major general argued that China needs up to five carriers to manage its maritime security. 

The PLAN’s carrier battle groups will embark into an increasingly crowded sea. India will shortly take possession of its own refurbished Soviet carrier, and plans to operate three by early in the next decade.  The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force operates a pair of “helicopter carrying destroyers” that resemble small carriers.  And of course the United States Navy operates eleven fleet carriers, along with another nine light carriers (amphibious assault ships).

The proliferation of flat deck aircraft carrying warships in East Asia creates problems for the sort of static analysis of maritime requirements that General Wang Haiyun’s contribution represents.  Generating expectations for warfighting needs in absence of good estimates of potential enemy capabilities is extremely difficult. While static analysis of maritime interests (the North Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet each require an operational carrier, for example) has its value, it is very likely that China, India, Japan and the United States will all begin to think dynamically and strategically about their force needs. Another way of phrasing this is that any credible understanding of China’s maritime needs requires an estimation of Indian, Japanese, and American naval capabilities, and of how those states will respond to Chinese expansion.

A similarly static debate has emerged in the United States over the current size of the USN. Comparisons of the fighting power of the 1917 edition of the U.S. Navy with the 2012 edition are not (when adjusted for capability “inflation”) without interest or utility, but require context. For example, in 1917 the United States Navy possessed fourteen modern dreadnought battleships, trailing not only the Royal Navy (forty-one battleships and battlecruisers) but also the Kaiserliche Marine (twenty-five battleships and battlecruisers). That the USN of 1917 was substantially inferior to two global competitors while the USN of 2012 is wildly superior to any competitor is considerably more important than the accidental similarity in raw numbers. 

But obviously, dynamic, comparative analysis holds its own dangers.  As Chinese and India carriers enter service, competitive dynamics may take over, leading to a further desire to expand naval capabilities.  The obvious analogue is the dreadnought race undertaken by Britain, Germany, and several other countries prior to and during World War I. Given that questions of national prestige can easily wrap themselves around naval procurement, the potential for maritime arms competition is high.

In the wake of the First World War, the great maritime powers assigned tight quotas on the number, size, and hitting power of vessels they could construct.  While the Washington Naval Treaty system may have failed to prevent war, it did represent accurately recognize the fundamentally relative nature of military power.  Five aircraft carriers mean little in context of the capabilities of China’s regional and global competitors. At the moment, zero aircraft carriers are needed to defend China’s maritime interests.  Should China’s understanding of its competitors and its threat environment expand (potentially in response to China’s own construction), a dozen carriers may not suffice. 

Dr. Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.  He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination, and can be found on Twitter at @drfarls.

March 11, 2014 at 13:34

21 – 35 Full battle groups. No less than 35 light carrier groups.

September 17, 2012 at 13:01

Actually, I think China, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and others should all build more carriers.
That way, U.S would have more company on the high seas.

September 14, 2012 at 19:32

All these ridculous statements are based on only one assumption: that only the US derserves and knows how to deploy and operate ACs. That any other country dreamed of such act would be in a vain exercise to catch the great USA.
Well, actually, that assumption applies to most of the countries. But China is different: you know it, I know it, and the nice folks that worry about the US's hedgemon knows it.
China is still far away from building and operating a powerful fleet of ACs, and may never choose to do so if no other countries to show off their wares like ACs to threaten her. But, if threatened, China should and will do whatever it takes to defende her interest, including but not limit to build and deploy a fleet of sufficent number of ACs. As an old Chinese saying go: a thousand journey starts from the first steps. Varyag is a good start, but only a start.

Right Numbers
September 14, 2012 at 17:32

Simple. Follow the U.S. decision – Build a carrier fleet 5 times the size of next five country's fleet combined.  If the enemy axis has 15, build 75.  And use it to threaten them since they have shown themselves to be unfriendly and hostile.

September 14, 2012 at 03:10

The author is taking a roundabout way to make his point.
Look at the reactions from various US strategists, pundits and analysts in China's building her first aircraft carrier. That Varyag is China's "starter" carrier, that it may China decades to learn how to operate a carrier and, given the US's headstart in the 1920's, China would never be able to catch up with the US, etc., etc.
All these "advices" preciselyl point to one thing: China's starting to build and operate aircraft carrier has caused quite some anxiety and discomfort, to say the least. This exactly proves that China has done the right thing, and is on the right path.
Five carrier is not enough? How about twelve? Not even twelve carriers are sufficent? Then how about fifteen? Eighteen?

Mark Thomason
September 13, 2012 at 12:51

Carrier deck numbers are important.  But so are aircraft numbers on them.  Depending on how the carriers are used, total sorties and tempo of operations are more important than either numbers of decks or airframes.  Exactly what is how important depends on how it will be used.  That will be different for different navies, and different from us from one war to another.  
In WW2, we did more carrier raids than sustained strikes.  Off Vietnam and more recently, it was sustained strikes rather than raids.  But if the US had fought Russia in a hot outbreak of the Cold War, it was meant to be raids again, on the Arctic bastion.  Against China, it might well start as raids to break up their sea denial, then shift to more sustained presence if the raids are successful.  
In WW2, our light carrier decks carried few planes and had fuel and ammo for limited numbers of sorties, but they were more important than that.  They could provide CAP and antisub patrols while the bigger decks were tied up being set for big strikes, and provide alternate landing if a big deck was damaged.   They allowed the big decks to carry more aircraft each, to be more crowded.  
It is all vastly more complex than just numbers of carriers.

September 13, 2012 at 12:16

It is choice between sword and plow.

September 13, 2012 at 11:49

Quantities is not the real issue. From the military's standpoint, the more the better — only if you can affort it.

major lowen gil marquez, phil army
September 13, 2012 at 03:22

Having a few or dozens of aircraft carrier does not matter a critical point in Air-Sea- Land battle the important is the ideology within those soldier and those Ideology must be presented to those soldier if that ideology will benefit the world community, if such ideology will harm the free-world then this chinese communist soldier must think twice that they were being use by their communist central committe leadership for personal purpose to invade the world, intrude the territory in the WESTERN PHILIPPINE SEA like the SCARBOROUGH SHOAL and SPRATLEY ISLAND to accumulate more territories of othe countries… If this chinese soldier be able to think this kind of wrong notional ideology then the number of more chinese aircraft carrier will not put on the quality of the metal junk and the quality of the soldier but, it will gave weigth only to the quantitiy of the playing toys in Naval Warfare…

September 13, 2012 at 01:01

I was Hoping the PLAN build more carrier. So other ASIAN Country Such as Japan and allies detroy it quick. Just like the KAMAKAZI .

Chuck Hill
September 12, 2012 at 22:16

Would not be surprised to see the Chinese come to the same conclusion as the pre-WWII Japanese, that they need a fleet at least 70% the size of the US fleet.
But it is further complicatd because they see possible combinations of the US fleet with those of Japan, S. Korea, Australiia, etc.

September 12, 2012 at 19:15

Maybe the five aircraft carriers would be used for the conquest of Taiwan.

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