My latest at the Diplomat takes a look at China’s approach to naval aviation:
Ranging from the Colossus class carriers distributed across the world at the end of World War II, to the Spanish Dedalo, to the modern Hyuga class Helicopter Destroyer, the USN could and can depend on allies to conduct escort missions. The USN could also rely on access to airbases worldwide in order to support land-based sea control aviation.
China has none of these advantages. No Chinese ally is likely to devote treasure to the construction of sea control ships in the near future (Pakistan might be the best long term bet), and China lacks access to good bases for counter-sea aviation. For sea control beyond China’s littoral, the PLAN has few, if any, good options.
In a structurally similar position to China (although much less dependent on foreign trade), the Soviet Navy started with what amounted to Sea Control Ships, in the form of the Moskva class helicopter carriers and the Kiev class “heavy aviation cruisers.” Although these ships weren’t designed specifically with commerce protection in mind, they were specialized for anti-submarine warfare, with allowance for air superiority and surface warfare in the Kiev class. Moreover, Soviet naval aviation evolved over time, with new platforms benefitting from experiences earned with older vessels.
China has been determined to leap several stages, with consequences for training that are already becoming apparent. But perhaps more importantly, by skipping ahead the PLAN has left itself bereft of the kind of low cost, medium size platforms that can support sea control operations at a distance from home.