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China May Have Big Plans For Its Aircraft Carriers

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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China needs at least six large aircraft carriers to exert power in disputed waters, according to military experts.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy already has one active carrier, the Liaoning, and a second aircraft carrier is in the works, with a launch likely this year. But China is unlikely to stop at just one or two aircraft carriers, Chinese military experts told state-run broadcaster CCTV. China may move to build a full fleet of carriers to defend its interests.

Chinese military expert Cao Weidong noted that China has a long maritime border, exposing the country to numerous threats from the sea. He explained that China needs multiple large-scale operational platforms to mitigate those threats, stressing that China needs more than one or two carriers. The Chinese navy is moving towards nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with bigger tonnage and improved combat capabilities, Cao told CCTV reporters.

Cao encouraged China to develop advanced take-off capabilities and build ships to carry fixed-wing early warning aircraft.

Yin Zhuo, another Chinese military expert, said that China needs carrier battle formations in both the South China Sea and East China Sea, where China is involved in territorial disputes with multiple claimant states. He suggested that there be at least three aircraft carriers operating in each sea.

Cao’s statements on maritime threats is likely reference to the the military efforts of certain rivals.

The U.S. currently has two carriers operating in the region, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan. The latter is docked at a port in Japan.

Japan is preparing to send its first large helicopter carrier, the Izumo, to the South China Sea, and Japan’s second large aircraft carrier, the Kaga, just entered service and is expected to be tasked with hunting Chinese submarines.

For the time being, China only has one operational aircraft carrier.

The Liaoning is the standard bearer for the PLAN.

The aircraft carrier was originally a Soviet “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser,” according to reports from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The ship was bought under questionable circumstances by the Chinese in the late 1990s, hauled to China a few years later, and re-purposed as China’s first aircraft carrier.

The Liaoning was commissioned into the PLAN in September 2012, and it was declared combat ready in November last year.

“As a combat platform, regarding technology and capability to execute missions, China still lags behind the U.S.,” Li Dongyu, the political commissar on board the Liaoning, explained. He added, however, that, “As a military force, we are always prepared for war … We are prepared for actual combat at any time.”

The Liaoning conducted drills in the Bohai Sea, Western Pacific, and South China Sea late last year. Multiple state-run outlets reported that China’s carriers will one day sail into the Eastern Pacific, potentially putting pressure on the U.S.

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