Carriers have been the capital ships of the oceans since 1939, especially in the vast Pacific Ocean which will potentially be the combat theatre of any US-Chinese conflict. Today America’s carrier power is overwhelming; however these ships are massive targets and far from stealthy in design. Only the two new British carriers have been designed with stealth as a primary consideration. A further extension of the stealth carrier concept is the Japanese stealth Amagi design which hints at the next stage of carrier design.
Despite the accompanying escort warships being of a stealthy design, with a non stealthy carrier at its centre, a modern USN carrier task force becomes an obvious target on radar. Thus, America’s carriers need to incorporate stealth in their future designs. This transition to stealth carriers will give the PLN a chance to catch up with the USN carrier strength, much as the arrival of the dreadnought class battleship allowed Germany to start from the same zero starting point as the Royal Navy after 1906. The key question is: “Will this carrier revolution arrive before the 2025 peak or is it further into the future?” The risk is that it will arrive sooner than we think to upset the strategic balance. Carriers are useless without their planes, and in that regard the arrival of the F35 will represent a significant increase in USN air combat power due to its stealthy nature and sensor system that can communicate with the fleet below. One other capability that can be expected to be seen in the near future aboard the F35 is a powerful 25-Megawatt laser weapon that could revolutionise air combat. Notably, at present PLN fighter technology is inferior to the USN.
However, at the same time the appearence of unmanned combat planes (UAVs) which will be only half the size of their manned equivalents, may soon mean that carriers can be reduced in size and consequently, their massive 5000 strong complements could be minimised, lowering their vast running costs. This would allow double the number of carrier platforms for a similar price with the benefits of a wider dispersal of vessels and a reduction in the risk of losing a single massive carrier in one successful attack.
When both factors are taken into account there is a high risk that the current USN carrier force may soon become obsolete. Thus, the development of the next generation of stealthy miniaturised UAV carriers could provide the PLN with a significant advantage over the USN who will be unable to build at the same rate as the Chinese ship yards.