Commercial satellite photo reminds us that China is a future global aircraft carrier power

By John Keller
Posted by John Keller

The big-deck aircraft carrier is one of the world's most dominant and imposing conventional weapon systems, and the U.S. Navy has been the world's undisputed aircraft carrier power for nearly 70 years since the Battle of Midway in June 1942 when American naval forces sank four Japanese aircraft carriers in what was to be the turning point of World War II in the Pacific.

The modern aircraft carrier is a breath-taking vessel -- a veritable floating city with about 5,000 personnel aboard. A U.S. Nimitz-class carrier, fully loaded, displaces more than 100,000 long tons, has two nuclear reactors that drive four propeller shafts, has a top speed of more than 30 knots, can operate for about 20 years between refueling, and has a carrier air wing of about 90 advanced combat aircraft. This vessel is the largest capital ship in the world.

Bear in mind that the Navy has 10 active aircraft carriers -- all of them Nimitz-class vessels -- and is building two of the latest Ford-class carriers and has one additional Ford-class ship planned.

Since the Battle of Midway, challengers have stepped up, most notably the navy of the Soviet Union during the 1970s and '80s, but no other navy has come close to matching the might of U.S. Navy carrier forces.

Now another challenger is stepping up -- the People's Republic of China. DigitalGlobe Inc.m a commercial satellite company in Longmont, Colo., shot a photo the other day of China's first aircraft carrier on its second sea trial in the Yellow Sea. Undoubtedly U.S. military reconnaissance satellites have picked up this ship before, but just seeing the photo reminds us of what's to come.

This particular carrier originally was an unfinished Soviet carrier that China obtained in 1998 and refurbished. Although many experts believe the ship is years away from being able to launch and recover aircraft in wartime conditions, I'll wager this ship will be combat-ready much sooner than that.

In addition, China reportedly has its first indigenously designed aircraft carrier under construction, which could enter service by 2015. This new Chinese aircraft carrier reportedly has twin hulls, which would enable its navy to service submarines covertly between the carrier's hulls. This vessel might be one-third the cost of a U.S. carrier, and take half the time to build that it takes to put a U.S. carrier to sea.

In the U.S. we worry increasingly about defense budgets, and wonder if the Pentagon over the long term will have the money necessary to build and maintain a carrier force to match what the Navy has today.

One thing's for certain: the Chinese navy is serious about building aircraft carriers to challenge U.S. sea dominance, and China has the money, the technical know-how, and the will to make it happen.

I think we're seeing the beginning of a new global struggle for maritime dominance.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

July 2015
Volume 26, Issue 7

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