China’s First Aircraft Carrier

My view is that China is in some ways closer to achieving aggregate economic parity with the United States than some people think. At the same time, I see relatively little appreciation for how far behind us they continue to be in terms of military capabilities. To get a sense of the gap, you really need to look no further than today’s launch of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s first aircraft carrier.

The basic story here is that in 1988, the Soviet Union launched an Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier named the Riga, later renamed Varyag in 1990. By 1992, the ship was structurally complete but lacked electronics and further work halted because the Soviet Union was dissolving. Ownership of the thing was transferred to Ukraine, who didn’t do anything with it, and after six years of neglect auctioned it off. The Chinese bought it, and people initially thought it might become a Macao-based casino. Instead they sent it to scenic Dalian where it was overhauled and now has been sent out to sea.

Andrew Erickson has a very informative analysis of what we’re likely to see during its maiden voyage. But I think the key thing a generalist needs to know is that one question about the ship is “Will PLAN Aviation attempt to land aircraft on the ship at sea?” In other words, just because you’ve gotten your hands on a 25-year-old Soviet aircraft carrier doesn’t mean you actually know how to land planes on it without killing everyone! The basic issue here is that the learning curve at the initial stages of carrier operation is extremely steep. Not only is it difficult and expensive to build a working aircraft carrier, but if you don’t already have a fleet of working aircraft carriers, you don’t have pilots and flight crews who can reliably operate it. And if you don’t have pilots and flight crews, you don’t have experienced people who can train new pilots and flight crews. What’s more, the United States got to go through this bootstrapping phase decades ago when ships and planes were simpler. Then we had a solid foundation of human capital to go through the process of building more advanced hardware. But if you want militarily useful equipment for the 21st century, your human capital gap is much bigger than any that we ever faced.

This is all just to say that while China is rapidly closing certain gaps in material production capabilities, a lot of aspects of both military and economic life have important human elements. The United States really does have the best-trained, most knowledgeable military in the world, and that human element is going to be very difficult for anyone else to match.