US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?

China has recently unveiled its third, and most advanced aircraft carrier, the "Fujian." But how does it stack up against American aircraft carriers?
Christopher McFadden
American navy aircraft carrier.
American navy aircraft carrier.

AvigatorPhotographer/iStock 

  • China recently hit the headlines with the launch of its third aircraft carrier.
  • The "Fujian" is China's most advanced aircraft carrier to date.
  • But how does it stack up against the carriers of the U.S.?

In June 2022, China reportedly launched its third and supposedly most advanced aircraft carrier. Domestically made, this ship, called the "Fujian," makes China the 4th most potent naval power by its number of aircraft carriers.

But quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

The United States, the world's most powerful naval power, has many more carriers. They are also some of the most advanced and expensive things afloat.

So, you might be wondering, is the new Chinese carrier on par with its American rivals? Let's take a look.

What is the "Fujian" aircraft carrier?

The Type 003 aircraft carrier known as "Fujian" is a Chinese aircraft carrier currently in development for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China. Named after the Fujian Province of China, when completely outfitted, it will be the PLAN's third and most advanced carrier to date.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
Press release image of "Fujian's" unfinished hull.

"Fujian" was officially launched on June 17, 2022, and she is China's first aircraft carrier with a fully indigenous design, featuring a Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system (more on that later) and electromagnetic catapults.

All very interesting, but what do we know about her design?

As far as can be ascertained, Type 003 is thought to use a combination of electromagnetic and steam turbine catapults, as opposed to the ski jumps used by earlier Chinese carriers to launch aircraft, which is a major advancement on earlier carriers and puts her more on par with NATO varieties.

As for how she is propelled through the water, little concrete information is available, but it has been claimed she runs on "integrated electric propulsion." In size, the ship is anticipated to have a displacement of more than 80,000 tons, somewhere between the unfinished 85,000-ton Soviet aircraft carrier "Ulyanovsk" and the 100,000-ton supercarriers the United States Navy used.

Rough measurements of her dimensions (no official statistics are available) put the Type 003's length at about 984 feet (300 meters). This makes her slightly smaller than the Gerald R. Ford-class ships of the U.S. Navy, if accurate. Estimations indicate her flight deck is also around 76 meters (250 meters) long.

When finished, the Type 003, according to analyst Robert Farley, will be the "largest and most advanced aircraft carrier ever built outside the United States."

But no aircraft carrier is worth it's salt without aircraft. Experts believe the carrier will have an increased air wing compared to her other PLAN sisters. These will likely consist of China's Shenyang J-15 fighters.

Also referred to as the "Flying Shark," these are Chinese all-weather, twinjet, carrier-based fourth-generation multirole fighter aircraft created by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) and the 601 Institute specifically for the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force.

Loosely based, allegedly, on the Russian Su-33, the fighter is equipped with Shenyang J-11B avionics and domestic Chinese technology.

As for how many, we cannot be entirely sure, but Kyle Mizokami, a defense analyst, has anticipated that the carrier would fly a 40-fighter air group. She would also be equipped with propeller-powered transports and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. This is supported, in part, by the test flights for the KJ-600 carrier-based AEW&C aircraft that started in 2020.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
A Chinese J-15 viewed from below.

Several Chinese media publications, including Xinhua and China's primary military newspaper, discussed replacing the aircraft in February 2018, claiming it is a member of the 4th or 4.5th generation of fighters. As a result, the J-15 is seen as a temporary carrier-based fighter until a fifth-generation replacement, which could be based on the Chengdu J-20 or Shenyang FC-31, enters service.

Is the Fujian carrier nuclear-powered?

In short, it appears not.

Her propulsion and powerplant systems are currently unknown, but most analysts believe she is of a more conventional combustion-engined or electrical variety. But China's next, and fourth, aircraft carrier might be nuclear.

According to a report in the South China Morning Post, analysts predict that China will build another nuclear-powered ship as a follow-up to the successful launch of the "Fujian." Nuclear-powered carriers are currently solely used by the U.S. and France; the U.S. uses the Nimitz and Ford classes, while France uses the Charles de Gaulle.

According to the same article, the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) may have already begun developing the technology needed to make it happen. However, this is somewhat contradicted by the fact that, according to the military affairs social media account The Wave of South China Sea, China's main shipyards are not authorized to work on nuclear power.

However, if China is to ever compete on equal footing with the U.S. Navy, nuclear-powered ships of this kind would likely be their top priority.

After all, together with Type 055 cruisers and next-generation submarines, China's nuclear-powered carriers would become a formidable force for international missions. But will not be easy to develop. They are not always the best option anyway.

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According to some analysts, conventional carriers cost less to build and require less maintenance than their nuclear-powered counterparts. However, nuclear power is more suited for carriers with aircraft catapults, like the "Fujian," because its reactors provide virtually unlimited range and power.

But, there are other reasons that future Chinese carriers may be nuclear-powered. For example, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's senior security analyst Malcolm Davis predicts that China's upcoming carrier will be nuclear-powered for two main reasons.

First, Davis points out that China's desire for a world-class navy with long-range power projection capability reduces the need for forward bases and resupply ships. A nuclear-powered carrier falls within this goal. Secondly, according to Davis, nuclear-powered carriers are regarded as prestige assets whose acquisition would enhance China's standing as a world superpower.

Other experts on the subject also agree with Davis.

Brad Martin, a senior policy researcher at the think tank RAND, agrees that China's next carrier will likely be nuclear-powered. He points out that the EMALS technology used with "Fujian" demands a lot of energy, which is impossible for a carrier to provide using conventional power.

Martin adds that a nuclear-powered carrier would seem to be the logical next step, given that China already employs nuclear-powered submarines.

This would also make sense about China's long-term plans. For example, China's so-called "Maritime Silk Road," a network of ports it leased or funded that stretches from Europe to Asia, reflects its ambitious worldwide plans. Long-range power projection capabilities may be necessary to safeguard this network, which acts as a maritime trade route focused on China, with nuclear-powered carriers meeting the criteria.

What are the newest American aircraft carriers?

The U.S. Navy's latest carrier, the mighty USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), is quite a ship.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
The USS Gerald R. Ford is quite a ship.

The leading ship of her class, she was put into service in 2017. The Gerald R. Ford-class will be the top forward asset for crisis response and early decisive strike force in a significant military operation.

The USS Gerald R. Ford, also known as "Carrier, Volplane, Nuclear 78" (CVN 78), is the newest and most technologically advanced aircraft carrier ever constructed for the United States Navy. It was named in honor of the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, who served in the Navy during World War II and saw action on the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey in the Pacific Theater.

The primary capabilities of forward presence, deterrence, sea control, force projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance will be provided by aircraft carriers and carrier strike groups of the Gerald R. Ford class. The U.S. claims that the class will "improve our ability to wage war, enhances the standard of living for our sailors, and lowers total ownership costs."

Compared to its predecessor class, the Nimitz-class ship, the Ford class is built to function successfully with around 600 fewer crew members. New technologies and ship design elements decrease the crew's workload related to watch standing and maintenance.

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), the lead ship of the class, is the first aircraft carrier to be built entirely using electric utilities, removing the ship's steam service lines, lowering maintenance needs, and enhancing corrosion prevention. Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), Dual Band Radar (DBR), the new A1B reactor, and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) all provide more capabilities with less staffing.

Regarding size and capability, the Ford class is the undisputed master of the sea.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
American carriers are very advanced pieces of kit.

The USS Gerald R. Ford has a total length of 1,092 feet (333 meters), a beam of 134 feet (41 meters) at the waterline, a flight deck width of 356 feet (78 m), and a height of nearly 250 feet (76 meters) over 25 decks. That, to put it mildly, is huge.

With regards to her fighting capability, each ship of the class will carry several squadrons of some of the most advanced aircraft in the world too. Official records indicate that each can carry well over 75 aircraft, but some sources state 90.

These include a mixture of Boeing F/A-18E/F "Super Hornet," the F-18's electronic warfare variant, the EA-18G "Growler," other support aircraft like the Grumman C-2 Greyhound, the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawk, the Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk helicopters, and a variety of unmanned aerial combat vehicles are all included in this mix.

The USS Gerald R. Ford will also receive a complement of some of America's most cutting-edge aircraft, including the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II.

That's impressive enough, but the ship can look after itself even without some fighter cover. Her hull is bristling with specialized advanced defensive weapons that provide a formidable shield against incoming threats.

These include, but are not limited to, 0.8-inch (20mm) Vulcan cannons from the Phalanx Close-in Weapon System (CIWS), RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile launchers, RIM-116 surface-to-air missile launchers, and M2.50 caliber (12.7mm) machine guns. All by itself, the Phalanx system can independently identify, locate, and eliminate a range of airborne threats, including approaching missiles, flying objects, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
The USS Gerald R. Ford has potent offensive and defensive systems.

The Ford is also outfitted with a multifunction AN/SPY-3 X Band radar and a volume search radar AN/SPY-4 S-Band to detect possible threats and assess the fighting theatre around the ship. She also possesses a Dual Band Radar (DBR), which was first designed for destroyers of the Zumwalt class.

The Gerald R. Ford class will be the key forward asset for crisis response and early decisive strike capabilities in a significant combat operation.

Naval officials say each ship in the Gerald Ford class will save more than $4 billion in total ownership costs during its 50-year service life compared to the Nimitz class.

Thanks to advancements in ship design over her forebears, the USS Gerald Ford's air wing can operate with about 400 fewer crew members. Additionally, the USS Gerald R. Ford is the first aircraft carrier to be constructed entirely from electric utilities, doing away with the requirement for steam service lines and lowering maintenance expenses and corrosion control.

Two improved A1B nuclear reactors, the so-called Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), Advanced Weapons Elevators, Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), and Dual Band Radar are all included in the ship and her class's equipment (DBR). All of these solutions boost capability while lowering the vessel's staffing needs.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
American carriers benefit from decades of U.S. carrier experience.

However, technical issues with the new machinery substantially delayed the vessel's deployment.

The ship's configuration and electrical generating system are also made to accommodate future technologies, such as direct energy weapons, as and when they are considered suitable for retrofitting throughout its anticipated 50-year service life.

So how does the new Chinese carrier compare to the U.S. ones?

In short, not very favorable.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that we only have concrete information on American carriers, so a direct and accurate comparison is impossible.

However, we can make some assessments.

1. The U.S. has more experience building aircraft carriers

The first is the comparative experience in designing, building, and fielding them. Aircraft carriers have been the centerpiece of U.S. Naval strategy for many decades. To this end, they are some of the most advanced and powerful ships ever built.

When you compare American with the latest Chinese carriers, it is clear that China has some ways to go even to match the U.S. supercarriers, let alone surpass them.

The Chinese carriers are also smaller.

While this doesn't necessarily translate into being inferior, it physically limits the amount of stuff these ships can carry. This will include aircraft, munitions, and a wide array of other gear needed to run everything on the vessel.

Unless the Chinese aircraft carriers have integrated some unknown level of operational automation that can save space, this is unlikely, given the lack of other sophisticated equipment.

2. U.S. carriers are nuke powered; Chinese ones are not

The next difference is that the existing and future planned Chinese carriers are conventionally powered. This reduces their range and speed, but it may also indicate the technological capability of its naval shipbuilding industry.

Designing, building, installing, and maintaining nuclear reactors on ships is not easy, and the process comes with a whole suite of other advanced tech that must also be installed on a ship. The nuclear benefits power offers a ship is well worth the investment, as we touched on earlier.

However, as we also touched upon earlier, the role of these carriers is allegedly more domestic in range than U.S. carriers that regularly need to operate for long periods far away from home.

3. The U.S. carriers have better fighters and close-in defense systems

The next difference is the quality of each carrier's aircraft.

U.S. carriers currently operate some of the most advanced jet aircraft in the world. With the addition of the "Lightning II" to their compliments, U.S. carriers likely have the better aircraft, at least on paper.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
American aircraft carriers have some of the most advanced aircraft in the world.

Like many of China's military assets, there is not that much official information to go on. However, comparisons of the latest that China has to offer have left many experts on the subject unimpressed.

The J-15 is effectively a 4th generation fighter, which might put it on par with older American fighters like the American F-18 Hornet or F-16 Fighting Falcon. Still, they are likely too old to give the 5th generation F-35 a tough time.

The J-15 is thought to be built on the same Soviet blueprints as the Sukhoi Su-33 fighter jet. Chinese engineers were allegedly able to reverse-engineer the Su-33 carrier-based fighter after being unable to purchase it from Russia. The result is a carrier fighter with numerous issues.

Although the prototype had a sturdy frame, it was missing the Su-33's engines. China, renowned for having trouble building effective jet engines, was forced to make do with weaker domestic alternatives.

Numerous crashes, some fatal, were caused by the underpowered engines and other mechanical problems, and they became such a problem that the entire J-15 fleet was grounded for three months at one point.

Given the limitations of the STOBAR system, the J-15 also holds the unpleasant distinction of being the heaviest carrier-based fighter in service. The J-15 weighs 38,000 pounds at empty weight, almost 6,000 pounds more than the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and 4,000 pounds more than the F-35C.

It is logical that, like the Ford-class carriers, the latest Chinese aircraft carriers will eventually receive wings of Chengdu  J-20 fifth-generation fighters. Since little concrete is known about the J-20, whether it is equivalent to the United States fifth-gen fighters is unknown.

The ships also probably differ drastically in their ability to defend themselves without fighters. The USS Gerald R. Ford and even the older Nimitz class have an impressive array of proven anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses.

Little is known about the close-in defenses of Chinese carriers. However, they appear to come with a collection of domestically made Gatling cannons and missiles.

Given the apparent outdated design of some other elements of the ships, especially the first two, these systems are unlikely to be as effective as American versions.

4. The U.S. has more experience using aircraft carriers

The next significant difference is a little hard to quantify; operational experience.

America has nearly a century of operating aircraft carriers in many theatres worldwide. They have had many successes and failures over those years but have been able to rack up a lot of experience that has fed directly into aircraft carrier design and operational doctrine.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
The USS Gerald R. Ford was very expensive to build.

Senior staff and the crew of their aircraft carriers are some of the best in the world, with many having actual combat experience too. From the Second World War to more recent conflicts like in Syria, American aircraft carriers have been in the thick of the fighting for decades.

On the other hand, Chinese carriers, probably inspired by American combat doctrine, lack real-world experience in battle. While this is not necessarily a deal breaker, after all, Japanese carriers did quite well in World War II (initially), but a relatively inexperienced crew can be a hindrance.

Reaction times of crew, ability to prioritize actions in the heat of battle, and promptly deal with losses and damage can be life or death for a ship and her crew. American ships and crew are well aware of this and drilled appropriately.

Are Chinese crews? That is anyone's guess.

The quality and experience of the American carrier's leadership have also been honed by their decades of experience in battle. We can't say the same for Chinese military leaders.

5. There are far fewer Chinese carriers

The fact that China has only two operational carriers is a big disadvantage for them. If push comes to shove, America has many times that and could overwhelm the Chinese fleet in short order.

US vs. Chinese aircraft carriers: Which is better?
The USA has many more aircraft carriers.

In theory, America also has carriers to spare and could absorb losses and keep fighting. Each of China's is relatively more precious to them, so they would be less likely to expose them to potential loss unduly.

Of course, each of America's aircraft carriers is also invaluable, but they can be a little more aggressive with them.

If a direct conflict were ever to occur, like with the German navy in World War II, the Chinese might attempt to keep them closer to their shorelines, perhaps never deploying them at long range. This kind of strategy would eliminate the tactical advantage of these ships, leaving them vulnerable to air attacks.

However, not to labor the point, Chinese plans for its carriers are precisely for his kind of role. They are not designed to fight far away from home and can make some trade-offs to take advantage of additional air cover from mainland China.

On the other hand, American carriers are designed to be little pieces of America projecting its power overseas. For this reason, they need to be able to defend themselves anywhere as best as they are able.

This includes support ships that form part of an American carrier group.

5. The number and type of aircraft catapults are critical

The United States carriers have traditionally used steam catapults, or ski jumps to get their aircraft airborne. These two systems have advantages and disadvantages, but the latest Ford class has installed something new; an EMALS CATOBAR.

Compared to steam catapults, EMALS use electromagnets to accelerate an aircraft up to speed before takeoff. This is more efficient and puts less stress and strain on aircraft airframes, ultimately improving their lifespans.

The "Fujian" also allegedly has electromagnetic CATOBARs on her flight deck. However, it is not clear if this is the case.

The Ford class also comes with four EMALS catapults compared to what appears to be a total of three on the "Fujian." If true, this would mean that the Ford class has a significant advantage in getting its aircraft in the air over time.

This would prove critical to victory in combat, as an aircraft carrier's main power is in its air fleet. By getting more plans airborne in less time, the outcome of any conflict would be a foregone conclusion.

This has been proven repeatedly, especially in past conflicts, like the Battle of Midway.

And that is your lot for today.

While it is tempting to compare American and Chinese carriers like-for-lie, this is not entirely possible for a few reasons. The first is that either country will keep the most vital information on their naval assets a closely guarded secret, so we cannot be entirely sure what each ship is capable of.

The next and most important is that they are only superficially similar. Both are "flat tops," but their relative roles differ.

For this reason, overall design and capabilities are targeted toward those roles. So, you would expect American carriers to be stronger in isolation than Chinese ones.

However, until and unless (hopefully not) both naval forces clash for real, we will never really know which will come off better. This is especially the case with developments in drones and hypersonic weaponry.

Suppose such technologies can swamp and annihilate these ships in short order. In that case, we could be on the brink of seeing the mighty aircraft carrier consigned to the rubbish heap of military history.

Just as the carrier did for the battleship all those years ago.