The aircraft carrier is an iconic ship type. That is, its history of dominance at sea along with the great expense and technical challenge of building and operating a fleet of them have invested it with potent geopolitical meaning. Possession of an aircraft carrier, almost regardless of its absolute or relative capability, signals that its owner is among the top rank of world navies. In fact, many countries’ carriers are either inoperable or only minimally so, and others, while able to get under way and operate aircraft, are unitary examples in their navies and thus constitute little more than symbolic naval power.
China has recently put a carrier to sea and appears intent on developing an actual carrier-aviation capacity. The distance between a symbolic and a real capability is quite long, and it is important to understand the nature of that distance to assess the prospects that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will be able to develop a geopolitically meaningful carrier-aviation arm.