In recent years, China’s aggressive expansion of its military presence on disputed South China Sea territories has highlighted for the nation’s leadership the necessity for a ‘blue water’, or ocean-going, navy.
As the cornerstone of any modern naval force, the Chinese turned their ambition towards developing a homegrown aircraft carrier- now, nearly a decade after refitting a half-built former Soviet carrier as a test ship, the Chinese have recently put to sea their first indigenous aircraft carrier: the Type-001A.
Meanwhile, the USA is simultaneously launching its newest model of aircraft carriers, the Ford Class, as it finishes a 3-year pivot of its naval forces to the South Pacific in preparation for a possible confrontation with an increasingly aggressive China. Today, we’ll take a look at a potential showdown between two of the mightiest ships ever constructed, in this episode of The Infographics Show, the Chinese Type-001A vs the US Ford Class carrier.
To determine a victor, the ships will go head-to-head in three key areas: crew, speed/power, and armaments. China’s navy is re-entering ‘blue’ waters for the first time in over a century and faces a combat-proven United States Navy. But who who would win in an all-out fight?
A modern aircraft carrier is essentially a small floating city, housing a crew of thousands who must flawlessly execute dangerous take-off and landing operations 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in all weather conditions. In combat, crews can potentially be launching and recovering 240 aircraft a day, meaning that this small city must operate in perfect unison at all times- and all the while with hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of live bombs and jet fuel on or below the flight deck. Needless to say, crew expertise is a critical component of any aircraft carrier.
The American Ford Class is entering service into a navy with a rich aircraft carrier tradition. Both in its own wars, and assisting allies or UN forces, the aircraft carrier has been the tip of American power for over 70 years, and its pilots and crews indubitably the most experienced in the world. During the height of carrier-based strikes during the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan, American carriers were generating sortie rates of more than 200 a day, an absolutely incredible feat of teamwork and expertise.
The Chinese meanwhile have only now reached 6 years of aircraft carrier experience. For any new navy, and especially its pilots, the task of operating and launching sorties from a carrier is a difficult and often painful one to master. Landing a 70,000 lb (32,000 kg) airplane atop a moving deck in the middle of the ocean is an incredibly difficult task for any airman, and Chinese pilots were not only learning how to do this for themselves, but actually designing the training program for future pilots simultaneously. Due to Chinese censorship, exact figures are impossible to verify, but it is clear by the leak of reports of ongoing accidents involving pilots both at sea and testing carrier technologies on dry land, that the Chinese are finding the process of cutting their teeth on carrier operations to be as painful as any other nation’s.
Another important factor, however, is the Chinese government’s shaky faith in its own troops due to decades of corruption. As he assumed office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping was warned by senior staff that they doubted China’s ability to fight and win any war due to the prevalence of corrupt and incompetent military leadership.
Xi would immediately launch a series of historic anti-corruption purges, announcing in 2016 that an incredible one million officials had been punished for corruption. Western observers note that corruption is still a major concern for Chinese leadership, and also point at a three-times lowering of military recruitment standards as signs of questionable fitness from its service members. Still, the launching of the Type-001A clearly signals a Chinese navy that’s shaping up and literally shipping out.
Shaking off the dark shadow of corruption and boldly stepping forward into its first carrier program, China is still unfortunately overwhelmingly outclassed by America’s experience, giving the Ford Class the advantage for crew expertise.
Our next critical assessment of the two aircraft carriers lies in the area of speed. Aircraft carriers are the vanguards of a nation’s naval forces, and as such need to be fast enough to get to hot spots anywhere in the world quickly. Speed isn’t just important for getting to warfronts quickly though, but also to make a carrier harder to detect and target. By staying in constant motion, an aircraft carrier is much harder to neutralize than an airfield, but can be just as big a threat.
America has a long history of forward-deploying its carriers around the world, and thus it’s no surprise that speed was a big priority for the US Navy, with the Ford Class displacing a whopping 100,000 tons and still reaching speeds in excess of 35 mph (56 kph). By comparison, the Type-001A is a lithe 70,000 tons and travels at 36 mph (57 kph). Slight, but the advantage would seemingly still go to the Type-001A- except for the reason why though it is 30% lighter, the Type-001A is only 1 mph faster than the Ford Class: nuclear power.
The US Nimitz class, which the Ford replaces, carries dual nuclear reactors capable of generating a combined 450MWs of electricity, but the 40 year old design is incapable of generating enough power for modern systems. The Ford Class was thus designed not only to operate modern power-hungry electronics, but with a projected service life of 90 years, its nuclear reactors can generate up to 700MW- over 25% more than its Nimitz predecessors and leaving plenty of juice for future weapons and upgrades.
Though the Chinese Type-001A is faster by a hair, the Americans once more have the advantage courtesy of the Ford’s dual A1B nuclear reactors, and all the modern and future capabilities a Ford carrier can thus bring to bear.
Crew, speed, and power are all important for any vessel- but what about the actual weapons both ships bring to bear against one another? Unlike any other combat vessel, an aircraft carrier is unique in that it is equipped with few if any long-range strike capabilities in the form of guns or missiles. Instead they rely completely on the aircraft they launch for both offense and defense. Because our two carriers would never physically see each other in our hypothetical combat, we instead must look at the combat aircraft each brings to bear.
China’s Type-001A’s exact air wing compliment remains unconfirmed as the ship has only now entered sea trials and is yet years away from being operational. Analysts however have estimated that the Type-001A will carry either 4 more fixed-wing aircraft, or 8 helicopters than the Type-001, bringing its air wing to 24-28 fighters and 17-25 helicopters.
Once operational, the Type-001A will be equipped with the J-15 “Flying Shark” fighter jet. Denounced by Russia as a copy of their Sukhoi Su-33 fighter, the J-15 is indubitably heavily influenced by the Su-33, but features indigenously-developed technologies, an important goal for Chinese military aviation. However, by China’s own admission the J-15’s engines are not as powerful as either the Russian Su-33’s or the American Superhornet’s, requiring the Type-001A carrier to be equipped with a ramp-like ski jump to help get the plane into the air. Its weaker engines and need for a ski-ramp for takeoff assist means that the J-15 cannot take off with as much fuel or weapons as an American plane, a critical vulnerability in carrier-on-carrier combat.
By comparison, the American Ford class is predicted to field between 75 and 92 aircraft- potentially tripling its combat power vs the Chinese Type-001A. More important though is the configuration of the American air wing vs the Chinese air wing- a Ford Class carrier will be equipped with stealthy F-35s, EA-18G Growler electronic attack jets, MQ-25 Stingray refueling and reconnaissance drones, and E-2D Hawkeye airborne early-warning and control aircraft. The addition of electronic attack, airborne refueling, and early-warning aircraft to the American air wing means that US jets will be able to fly further for longer, and fire first on radar-jammed and blind Chinese fighters.
In the combat calculus of armaments, it is a no-contest win for the United States, who comes armed with triple the firepower and more sophisticated fighter and support aircraft.
So who would win in a fight between the Chinese Type-001A and an American Ford Class carrier? The United States brings proven combat veterancy and decades of experience in both operating and building aircraft carriers. Its new Ford Class carriers are not only based on a proven design, but will come equipped with the world’s first 5th-generation aircraft and have plenty of capability to adopt emerging technologies such as energy and railgun weapons.
While a brave and very impressive start, the Chinese Type-001A is still just that: a start based on an obsolete design for a nation that for decades had no interest in aircraft carriers. Still, some critics argue that the Ford Class is too ambitious and fields too many new technologies that have never been tested in combat. Should the worst come to pass and an American Ford carrier ever finds itself in combat versus China’s Type-001A, the victor will almost certainly be the American ship- but who knows, maybe somewhere deep within the American high-tech carrier lies a critical vulnerability that may spell doom for America’s flag ships.
So, what do you think? Despite the overwhelming advantages, do you think China’s first aircraft carrier has a chance of going toe-to-toe versus a Ford? Can the J-15 beat America’s stealthy F-35, or will the super-ambitious, state-of-the-art, but combat unproven F-35 be the Ford’s Achille’s Heel? Let us know your thoughts in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called Top 10 Most Powerful Militaries in 2017! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!