Any day now, China will launch the first aircraft carrier in its Navy’s history. And in September, Russia will debut its first stealth fighter jet at an air show in Moscow. The days of unbridled US sea and air power appear to be numbered.
While the Chinese government only officially acknowledged the existence of its aircraft carrier programme a few weeks ago, defence nerds have been peering through long lenses at the huge craft, which is moored in the northern port city of Dalian, for several years. When smoke started rising from the ship’s funnel at the end of July, it became clear that the carrier’s maiden voyage was imminent.
In explaining the carrier’s purpose, Chinese officials insisted that the vessel – a refitted ex-Soviet warship – was “obsolete” and would be used merely for “training purposes”. But China’s neighbours are unconvinced. The Chinese carrier has been named Shi Lang after a Qing dynasty commander who conquered Taiwan: China’s leaders seem to be making a none-too-subtle point.
Russia, meanwhile, has announced that its prototype stealth fighter, the Sukhoi T-50, will appear publicly for the first time at next month’s MAKS Air Show. This, too, is a watershed moment. So far only the US has succeeded in developing stealthy jets that can slip unnoticed through enemy radar. These two developments slot nicely into the narrative of declining US power and will no doubt be used to illustrate that very phenomenon.
However, nothing moves so slowly as a big-ticket defence programme. Building an aircraft carrier takes many years; learning how to use one as an effective part of your navy might take decade. And anyway, that probably isn’t what China has in mind. “The carrier would be a sitting duck in a conflict,” a US naval analyst told Monocle. “The prestige value is its serious function. It changes how China is perceived.”
Beijing’s rationale is that a carrier makes you a world power and fleet of carriers makes you a superpower – even if the ships don’t have much practical purpose. As for Russia’s stealth fighter, aviation experts are already questioning how advanced the plane really is. “The Indians [and other potential buyers] think it’s a real stealth fighter, but it’s not,” says Ashley J Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who argues that Russia’s developmental stealth technology is vastly inferior to that already deployed on US jets. The Russians also face an uphill struggle in getting the plane into full production by the end of the decade.
As war-fighting machines, the Chinese carrier and the Russian T-50 are therefore unlikely to change the world. But as PR machines, they are potent weapons.