The second issue, which relates to the first, is the extent to which a higher naval-training tempo will be prioritized. Training with a carrier group is not cheap: A study by the Government Accountability Office in 1993 (the last time the U.S. Navy released numbers) says it cost $1.5 billion per year to operate a carrier battle group. Today, in an era of higher oil prices, the cost may be double or more. A Chinese carrier group would be far less capable and likely smaller and cheaper, but the old U.S. Navy number gives a sense of the rough costs China will face to operate a carrier, especially with a Chinese fleet that relies more heavily on oil-based fuels than the U.S. Navy. If a Chinese economic slowdown constrains defense-budget growth, the PLAN may increasingly be forced to choose between training more with the ships it has and buying more of the new ships its admirals want.
Third, China's leadership (and the population at large) must also decide how many pilots and aircraft they are willing to sacrifice if they want the PLAN to become proficient in carrier operations. Between 1949, when the U.S. Navy began deploying jets on a large scale, and 1988, when the combined Navy/Marine Corps aircraft accident rate achieved U.S. Air Force levels, the Navy and Marine Corps lost almost 12,000 aircraft and more than 8,500 aircrew. Even if it moves less aggressively, China is almost certain to suffer significant and unexpected pilot and aircraft losses as it builds its carrier capability. In a predominantly one-child society with growing use of communication tools that can circumvent state censorship, grieving families of lost pilots could spark meaningful negative publicity and impose caution on training in a way that ultimately makes Chinese naval aviation less combat-effective.
The fourth factor speaks to decisions China must make in coming years regarding naval procurement, as well as additional training in areas of critical weakness such as anti-submarine warfare. Beijing faces a two-pronged dilemma in funding naval procurement, and carrier development exacerbates the situation. First, in an increasingly challenging economic environment with slower growth rates, the naval budget faces increased competition for state funds. Second, a single carrier cannot ensure a continuous operational capability. China probably needs at least three carriers to always have one at sea. Building two more massive warships, plus the surface combatants and submarines needed to protect them, would risk catalyzing further naval competition and anti-China security alignments in Asia. Deck aviation may well help China advance its strategic goals in the South China Sea, but it could also hem China in further afield.
Finally, Beijing's leadership will likely commit a number of missteps before it gets up to speed in the art of carrier diplomacy, a game that the United States has engaged in for nearly 70 years. In a region already rife with suspicion that China's willingness to use soft power is waning fast as its military becomes more capable, assertive carrier-related rhetoric and deployment may exacerbate tensions with neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
In an exclusive interview with CCTV, China's first carrier captain, Senior Capt. Zhang Zheng, acknowledged that the PLAN does not yet have sufficient experience in deck-aviation operations. He stated that progress was particularly needed in the integration of naval aviation and surface combatants, the implementation of new safety procedures, and enhancement of administration. It will also be necessary to continue science and technology tests and crew and pilot training. What is significant, however, is that Zhang was realistic about these challenges and that he discussed them in excellent English, the designated international language at sea. These are hallmarks of embracing a weighty historical mission that will take time to realize but will ultimately transform China into a very different sea power from what it is today. Given ongoing disputes and uncertainty about Beijing's future capabilities and intentions, neighboring countries are bound to worry. But Zhang's predecessors surely could not be prouder.