When China rolled out its first aircraft carrier six years ago, it was met mostly with shrugs, if not scorn. China had purchased the Soviet-era warship, dubbed the Liaoning, half-finished from Ukraine. It was immediately clear that the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s shiny new toy – a floating blunderbuss in appearance and obsolescence – would never see serious combat duties. The launch of the Liaoning therefore raised some questions: Just what is the purpose of the Liaoning, and what do Chinese strategic planners have in mind?

Two weeks ago, China’s second aircraft carrier slipped out of port in the northeastern city of Dalian for its maiden sea trials. The Type 001A, which may enter service within two years, isn’t a dramatic improvement over the Liaoning. It’s based on the same outdated design, and thus faces most of the same inherent limitations. But there’s one major difference: China built this one from the ground up. The Chinese constructed it quickly, and they appear to be gearing up to build several more. This doesn’t mean that China is anywhere near ready to engage in exceedingly complicated carrier operations in unfriendly waters. And it certainly doesn’t mean China is set to become a pre-eminent maritime power, capable of squaring off against the U.S. Navy in the middle of the Pacific. Nonetheless, it’s no small feat – and one that hints at China’s expanding naval ambitions.

This Deep Dive examines the pace, limits and strategic rationale of China’s curious carrier program. Ultimately, it concludes that, at present, Chinese carriers are largely irrelevant to the growing competition over the Indo-Pacific, but also that Beijing has reason to believe this may not always be the case.

Reasons to Shrug

If the Chinese were to try to go toe to toe with the U.S. using their two aircraft carriers in open waters, it would be like taking a knife to, well, a carrier fight. Part of the problem has to do with the limitations of China’s carriers themselves. Both the Liaoning and the Type 001A have conventional oil-fueled steam turbine power plants, limiting their speed and service life compared to the far more efficient nuclear propulsion systems sported by U.S. and French carriers. Neither are particularly large, with the Type 001A expected to be capable of carrying 32-36 multirole fighter jets (plus a dozen or so helicopters), compared to as many as 90 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft on the new U.S. Ford-class supercarriers. Both have ski-jump assisted short take-off but arrested recovery, or STOBAR, launch systems – as opposed to catapult-assisted systems that are standard on more advanced carriers – putting extra stress on warplanes and limiting their sortie tempo, payloads and operating range. Mastering the more advanced carrier technologies will presumably take longer, and be far more expensive, than merely copying and modifying the Soviet-era designs of its current fleet.

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The other problem for China is that having a carrier capable of toting around a bunch of fighter jets is not the same thing as having a viable carrier battle group, consisting of an aircraft carrier and a full suite of escort submarines and surface ships – destroyers, frigates, cruisers and replenishment-at-sea ships – plus air wings with sophisticated anti-air, anti-submarine, early warning and electronic attack capabilities. Absent these components, carriers are sitting ducks.

China still has relatively limited anti-submarine warfare capabilities, which means that its carriers would be easy targets for enemy torpedoes. Its own nuclear submarines are believed to be roughly equivalent to what the U.S. was building in the 1980s. The STOBAR systems cannot handle heavy fixed-wing airborne early warning and control aircraft, limiting the carriers to early warning helicopters that cannot fly at the high altitudes needed for expansive detection ranges. Unlike the United States’ latest and greatest fighter jet, the F-35, China’s own premier warplane, the J-20, has no variant suitable for carriers. Moreover, Beijing does not have any experience integrating these complex parts into a unified strike group. In fact, training and experience will be a disadvantage for China in nearly all dimensions of bluewater operations. The U.S. has been doing carrier ops since before World War II. According to the Pentagon, China did not graduate its first cohort of domestically trained pilots to fly China’s carrier-borne J-15 fighter jets until 2015.

Finally, there’s the problem of logistics. China would be operating extremely far from its main base of operations on the mainland. With few nuclear-powered ships, China must be constantly worried about refueling. The U.S. has forward bases, supply depots and maintenance hubs around the globe. China is just beginning to scratch the surface on gaining long-term basing rights anywhere in the Indian Ocean, despite its investments in deep-water ports in various Indo-Pacific countries.

Trajectory Matters

As with all dimensions of China’s rise, trajectory is more important than the current balance of forces. And China’s shipbuilding program is demonstrating a capacity to pump out large, increasingly sophisticated vessels with remarkable speed.

China’s third carrier, for example, is expected to be significantly larger than the first two and include catapult launch systems. This means it will be able to carry a larger and more diverse air wing, including warplanes with heavier payloads and longer operating ranges. China is then expected to turn its focus to developing a nuclear-powered carrier in the not-too-distant future, allowing for much greater operating range and speed and addressing some of its refueling concerns. Furthermore, the Type 001A was built in around a third of the time it took the U.S. to build its latest carrier, the USS Gerald Ford. Granted, the Ford is a much larger and more sophisticated warship, and China has far more limited operational expectations than the U.S. in the near term, so the carriers can essentially be rushed into service and allowed to work out the kinks on the fly without fear of them pulling up lame in the middle of combat. So this tells us only so much.

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But China’s success in rolling out other new warships at a blistering pace and its success in playing rapid catch-up on the technology front tell us quite a bit more. The number of naval vessels rolled out by China over the past three years is greater than the total fleet of any country in Europe except France. Over that period, China has gone from no corvettes to 37. In 2016 alone, it commissioned 23 new surface ships (compared to just six by the U.S.), including a Type 052D guided-missile destroyer and three Type 054A guided-missile frigates – both considered world-class warships. According to the Pentagon, by 2020, China’s force will likely grow to between 69 and 78 submarines, compared to just 31 (most of them outdated or purchased from abroad) a decade ago. Altogether, the People’s Liberation Army Navy now boasts more than 300 surface combatants, submarines, amphibious ships and missile-armed patrol craft – by far the largest navy in Asia, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. (The U.S. Navy is expected to reach 326 ships in the next five years.)

What’s most notable here is how quickly China has been replacing obsolete components and weaning itself off foreign technology. In 2015, the Pentagon rated 70 percent of Chinese submarines (both nuclear- and diesel-powered), destroyers and frigates as being of “modern design,” compared to between 30-40 percent just a decade earlier. According to the Office of Naval Intelligence, “The JIANGKAI-class (Type 054A) frigate series, LUYANG-class (Type 052B/C/D) destroyer series, and the upcoming new cruiser (Type 055) class are considered to be modern and capable designs that are comparable in many respects to the most modern Western warships.”

There are doubts about whether China can maintain the trajectory of its buildup if, as we expect, its economic growth slows considerably over the coming decades, creating new budgetary constraints. It’s also facing questions unrelated to its ability to build bigger and better ships. Perhaps most important is whether it can use its Belt and Road initiative to build out a logistics and base network needed to sustain a global presence. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that China has at least the technical chops to play catch-up in the carrier realm, and it certainly has the industrial capacity to do so. The real question is why it would want to – and what this may say about China’s strategic intentions.

Carriers’ Diminishing Strategic Value

However strong its carrier groups might one day become, China’s decision to devote resources to them is curious for several reasons. Most important, carriers would do little to solve China’s most immediate strategic problems. In fact, China’s broader naval modernization push has been geared overwhelmingly toward making carriers altogether obsolete.

The issue comes down to two concepts core to naval doctrine: sea control versus sea denial. According to the godfather of U.S. naval strategy, Alfred Thayer Mahan, sea control is basically the unchallenged power to conduct maritime trade, military operations and so forth wherever and whenever a country likes, without putting itself at risk of attack by an adversary. Sea denial is simply the ability to conduct attacks on enemy ships, even without the ability to stop an attack on one’s own. Sea control, of course, is much more difficult to achieve, requiring carriers that provide a protective umbrella for all a country’s other ships. Sea denial can be achieved even without a substantial surface fleet, so long as a country has sufficient shore-based anti-ship missiles, aircraft and submarines. Achieving sea denial is sufficient for most countries’ strategic goals.

Since World War II, the U.S. has enjoyed sea control across most of the globe, including nearly all of the Western Pacific. This has allowed the U.S. to routinely move carriers into waters just offshore from conflict zones and establish air superiority. Indeed, just 22 years ago, the Clinton administration famously moved a carrier group and an amphibious assault ship into the Taiwan Strait in a demonstration of its ability to come to Taiwan’s defense in the face of a Chinese invasion. There was almost nothing China could do about it. That’s not the case today.

Across the globe, the proliferation of precision-guided anti-ship missiles and stealth diesel-electric submarines is gradually diminishing the U.S. ability to project power with impunity – and nowhere more so than in the South and East China seas, where China has historically been most vulnerable to foreign attack. Since embarrassing itself in the Taiwan standoff, the overwhelming focus of China’s naval modernization has been on building up sea denial capabilities as part of its broader anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. The goal, put simply, is to build a “fortress fleet” that, when combined with onshore missiles, air power, sea mines and swarms of deputized civilian vessels, would raise the costs of attacking China enough to give the U.S. and its allies serious pause before doing so.

Carriers, in particular, would be relatively easy pickings in China’s littoral waters. This has been a looming concern as far back as the early 1980s, when a top U.S. admiral told Congress that U.S. carriers would last just a day or two in a full-blown war with the Soviets. U.S. carriers have also routinely proved lacking during more recent war games and exercises, including those simulating an asymmetric attack on the U.S. fleet in a congested area like the Persian Gulf or South China Sea. In 2015, the French navy gracefully allowed the U.S. to save face by retracting a report that one of its subs had “sunk” the USS Theodore Roosevelt and most of its accompanying surface fleet during a war game. And their vulnerabilities will only increase as new space-based electronic warfare systems, longer-range and more precise missiles, unmanned systems and so forth come into play.

China’s carriers would be equally vulnerable, and its A2/AD strategy within its near seas doesn’t really require them. Over time, as the range, speed and sophistication of its sea denial capabilities increase, China intends to build strategic depth, gradually pushing its protective envelope outward until it can theoretically dominate the waters around maritime chokepoints along what’s known as the first island chain – a series of small islands running from Japan to Indonesia enveloping the South and East China seas. Presently, another naval power could use these islands to sever critical Chinese sea lines of communication, leaving the Chinese economy to wither on the vine. Carriers would do little to solve this problem. And, with China effectively encircled by hostile powers with growing sea denial capabilities and by U.S. positions in Japan, Guam, the Philippines and Singapore, plus U.S. carrier strike groups sitting farther afield, its carriers would be too exposed to enemy fire to play a central role in any such strategy, anyway. Nothing in China’s growing arsenal can do much to keep its carriers afloat in the face of a U.S. onslaught.

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For China, carriers may actually prove more of a vulnerability than an asset. Carrier groups are enormously expensive to develop and sustain. In the U.S., building a complete carrier strike group and air wing costs more than $35 billion, plus another $1 billion or so to keep everything humming each year. Labor and personnel costs in China will make building and upkeep less expensive for Beijing, but the carrier program will inevitably soak up resources that could be used for more important systems and dilute the talent pool by taking thousands of sailors to man the new warships. In a 2013 paper, for example, the U.S. Navy estimated China could produce more than 1,200 DF-21D “carrier killer” anti-ship missiles with what the U.S. pays for each one of its carriers. Moreover, the success or failure of China’s strategy is likely to hinge as much on China’s ability to strike an agreement with a country in the first island chain that ensures it access to the Pacific as on China’s military capabilities compared to those of the U.S. and its allies. Yet, building carriers deepens suspicion among regional states about Chinese intentions.

The Rationale Behind the Carriers

Beijing is certainly aware of these trade-offs and has prioritized development of the rest of the PLAN fleet over its aircraft carriers accordingly. Why, then, is China still building carriers? For one, China’s strategic imperatives aren’t confined to the South and East China seas. Its critical sea lines of communication extend much farther. For example, the vast majority of Chinese exports to Europe pass through the Indian Ocean, as do its critical energy imports from the Middle East. As a result, to bypass chokepoints in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, China is developing alternative import and export outlets in Indian Ocean littoral states. And this means developing maritime capabilities, base facilities and logistics networks needed to keep these outlets open should a conflict erupt to its east. Chinese naval doctrine now calls for a permanent carrier presence in the Indian Ocean.

Moreover, China sees a need to devote greater attention to growing Chinese interests farther afield. Indeed, Chinese strategic planners increasingly appear to be warming to the idea that the growing range of precision-guided missiles requires a capability to strike pre-emptively against an adversary in open waters east of the first island chain – a task in which carriers would have a more obvious role to play. China’s 2015 military strategy white paper, for example, calls for a shift in focus from littoral defenses to a “combination of near seas defense and distant sea protection,” citing the need to neutralize a distant enemy before it can launch land-attack aircraft and missiles against the Chinese mainland. In 2016, according to an internal Chinese navy paper obtained by The National Interest magazine, officers at China’s Naval Research Institute took this a step further, calling for the extension of area-denial capabilities to waters inside the so-called second island chain (Honshu, the Mariana Islands, Palau and eastern Indonesia), while developing “far seas counterattack” capabilities to conduct punitive strikes in response to an enemy attack in China’s littoral waters. In other words, China is beginning to embrace the notion that the best defense is a good offense.

Still, establishing sea control in either area – the Pacific east of the first island chain or the Indian Ocean Basin – would be a tall order, even with a major leap in carrier design, technology and experience. As noted earlier, Chinese carrier battle groups in either theater would be operating far from home, at the edge of their protective umbrellas from onshore missiles and well within range of sea denial assets of other regional powers. Their supply lines could easily be severed if the Chinese have not first established firm control over the myriad maritime chokepoints in the Indo-Pacific, and their Belt and Road bases could themselves be neutralized by enemy air power. Thus, the ability of the carrier groups to secure China’s far-flung interests in the event of conflict is still highly aspirational, at best.

Keeping Its Options Open

It’s also possible that China is under no illusions that it will ever achieve bluewater naval parity with the U.S. – and that it still sees carriers as worth the time and money even if it doesn’t plan on challenging U.S. supremacy on the high seas anytime soon. Indeed, according to the state-owned Global Times: “China doesn’t have to throw around its naval weight like the US does, we don’t need to wage a war in far-flung littoral waters on the other side of the world and thus we don’t need so many carriers as far as our ability goes, and we have no intention to police the world.”

After all, the U.S. is still heavily invested in carriers despite signs that their utility is declining. The U.S. hasn’t fought a major naval battle on the high seas since World War II. (In fact, no one has.) And the United States’ naval supremacy will not be challenged for at least another generation. Yet, the U.S. is planning to spend more than $43 billion on its next three carriers alone and launch a new one every five years.

The U.S. is doing so, in part, because worst-case scenarios are at the core of any power’s strategic planning, and in part because maintaining an overwhelming edge is a good way to dissuade any other powers from attempting to challenge it. Carriers are also valuable in reassuring allies, responding to humanitarian disasters, keeping sea lanes open and providing air cover for land-based wars against overmatched foes.

China will have more interest in these types of operations as its interests ripple outward – particularly in areas where it thinks the U.S. may have no appetite to try to stop it – and as it tries to prove to its skeptical neighbors that it can deliver the regional security benefits currently provided by the United States. At minimum, China’s carriers are a symbol of national prestige. It’s hard to say what tangible benefits this really provides, but Beijing has a political imperative to keep its people bought into the narrative that the Communist Party is making the country a great power.

Finally, Beijing may think that budgetary and political pressures could push the U.S. further into isolation and allow China to emerge as the dominant power in the Western Pacific without firing a shot. Of course, other regional powers – particularly Japan, India, South Korea and Australia – will also get a say in how easily China would fill the maritime vacuum left by the U.S. in such a scenario, while even weaker countries like Vietnam and Indonesia are also developing substantial sea denial capabilities. But waning U.S. interest in the region would certainly give China greater freedom to operate.

From this perspective, China doesn’t need to decide exactly what its carriers will be used for now. But if Beijing suspects carriers may end up helping it solidify its regional dominance – and, at minimum, deliver enough diplomatic, political and asymmetric benefits to justify the costs – then it has good reason to start laying the groundwork for a more robust naval footprint now. Building a viable fleet of carrier groups and mastering the training, technology, infrastructure and supply lines needed to make them meaningful takes decades, after all, and the U.S. and its allies will be improving their own systems in the meantime.

In other words, China’s interest in carriers is perhaps best described as an attempt to keep its options open. China cannot fully determine what kind of naval power it’s going to be; too many factors are outside of its control. But it wants to be ready to push outward if and when a door opens.