Michael G. Gallagher is an American expatriate and independent researcher living in Seoul, South Korea, with his Korean wife. He has MA and Ph.D. degrees in International Relations from the University of Miami in Coral, Gables, Florida.  Prior to residing in South Korea, he has lived in Mainland China and Hong Kong.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing the Role of China’s Aircraft Carriers in a Taiwan Invasion

Date Originally Written:  June 1, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  July 11, 2022.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that China in its present form poses a grave threat to the United States and its allies and that insufficient attention-at least in public- has been paid to certain aspects of Chinese military planning. This inattention may be the result of the U.S. Navy’s (USN) projecting its views of aircraft carrier strength onto its view of China.

Summary:  Despite the publicity China’s carrier force has received in the press, the huge ships, as impressive as they are, may only play a secondary role in Chinese naval operations during a Taiwan invasion. The function of China’s carrier force will be to clean up any remaining opposition after Chinese forces decisively defeat the U.S. and Japanese fleets using a blizzard of cyberattack and missile barrages.

Text:  China’s aircraft carriers have been in the news over the last few months.  The Liaoning and its escorts conducted exercises in the South China Sea May of this year[1].  China’s second carrier and its first domestically built one, the Shandong, was recently spotted with several drones on its flight deck[2]. Meanwhile, the Chinese have just launched a third carrier, the Fujian,  and planning for a fourth carrier, possibly nuclear-powered, is in the works[3]. There is even discussion of six People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) carrier groups by 2035[4].

Traditional reasons for building aircraft carriers includes sea control, showing the flag, having a mobile airfield that you and only you control, and the sheer prestige of having a large carrier force. However, none of these reasons cancel out the fact that aircraft carriers are an increasingly vulnerable weapons system that is already over 100 years old. The first full-fledged carrier was a converted battlecruiser, the  Royal Navy’s HMS Furious. The Furious entered service during World War I in 1917[5]. The first specifically designed carrier was the Japanese Hosho, launched in 1921[6].

Apart from its carrier force, China has expended enormous resources since the mid-1990s on capabilities that are specifically designed to sink the USN’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and wrest control of the waters of the Western Pacific from the United States and its allies. To achieve this strategic end, the PLAN has acquired an impressive arsenal of land-based ballistic missiles like the DF-21 land-based anti-ship ballistic missile and the DF-26 “Guam Killers” Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, which also has an anti-ship mode, H-6 medium-range bombers armed with ship-killing cruise missiles, a 79 boat strong submarine force, and numerous frigates and destroyers armed with anti-ship missiles[7][8][9][10]. 

If any assault against Taiwan is delayed until the late 2020s, China’s emerging hypersonic capability will likely play a significant role in in its attack plans. Mounted on  either  JL-2 or JL-3 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles or land-based weapons like the DF-26 Medium Range Ballistic Missile and the longer-range DF-41 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), nonnuclear hypersonic glide vehicles using kinetic energy impacts would devastate Anderson Air Force Base on Guam, Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. Navy’s huge Pacific Fleet base at San Diego[11][12][13].

Non-nuclear hypersonic warheads mounted on ICBMs could even strike high-value civilian targets in the U.S. like Boeing’s huge Everett, Washington factory. These weapons would be doubly effective if they could be deployed as Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles. This potentially revolutionary advance was hinted at during China’s July 2021 hypersonic weapon test when the glide vehicle, mounted on a ballistic missile, may have released an extra payload while in flight[14].

Current U.S. Anti-Ballistic Missile systems like THAAD, Patriot-3 and the US Navy’s family of Standard missiles would have limited effectiveness against such weapons. And that gap in defensive capability may not be filled until around 2030[15].

The PLAN’s strong anti-carrier posture, when combined with the fiscal reality that it is less expensive to use a missile than put a carrier at risk, points to China’s carriers playing a clean-up role in a Taiwan invasion scenario.  This scenario would begin with a blizzard of cyberattack and missile barrages, accompanied by wave after wave of cruise and ballistic missile strikes against American and Japanese bases on Guam, Okinawa and elsewhere. PLAN carriers would then sink any remaining hostile warships and force the smaller nations of Southeast Asia, plus Australia and New Zealand, to bend their knee to Beijing[16].

Still, even if China scored huge gains early in any conflict over Taiwan, the stealthy U.S. and Japanese submarine fleets could cripple any Chinese naval campaign.  Chinese planners may assume that any enemy submarines at sea when the war began would be cut off from repair and resupply and would eventually wither on the vine.  This may be a valid assumption if the Chinese plans do involve strikes on U.S. home ports and possibly parts of U.S. industrial infrastructure.  However, until these U.S. and Japanese submarine forces run out of food, fuel, or munitions, they are still a threat.

Taiwan, the target of China’s violent, high velocity, high-technology assault, would almost certainly be forced to surrender. With Taiwan’s two potential saviors, the U.S. and Japanese fleets, having carriers resting on the bottom of the Pacific, the island democracy would be cut off from all possible aid by an impenetrable Chinese naval blockade.  Messy amphibious assaults against contested beaches would not be necessary.

China’s carrier force may wind up playing the same role the US Navy’s fast battleships did in the Pacific during World War Two. Those powerful warships, once the queens of battle, found themselves relegated to back up roles, providing fire support for amphibious landings and using their formidable antiaircraft batteries to help defend the now dominant carriers from air attack[17].


[1] D, M. (2022, May 23). Chinese Carrier Group now operating in the East China Sea. USNI.org. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from https://news.usni.org/2022/05/23/chinese-carrier-strike-group-now-operating-in-east-china-sea

[2] A, W. (2022, June 3). Drones included in Refit for China’s second aircraft carrier Shandong. South China Morning Post. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3180265/drones-included-refit-chinas-second-aircraft-carrier-shandong

[3] K, M & D, R.(2022, June 17). China launches hi-tech aircraft carrier in naval milestone. Retrieved July 6, 2022, AP News. from https://apnews.com/article/beijing-china-shanghai-government-and-politics-6ce51d1901b3a5658cc9ef7e62b65000

[4] World’s biggest Naval Power: Can China Develop Six Aircraft Carriers By 2035 & Challenge Its Arch-Rival USA Eurasian Times Desk. (2021, December 23). Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://eurasiantimes.com/worlds-biggest-naval-power-can-china-develop-six-aircraft-carriers-by-2035-challenge-its-arch-rival-usa/

[5] History’s First Aircraft Carrier. Naval Encylopedia.com. (2021). Retrieved June 26, 2022 from https://naval-encyclopedia.com/ww1/uk/hms-furious-1917.php

[6] The Hosho, world’s first purpose built aircraft carrier. Naval Encylopedia.com. (2021). Retrieved June 26, 2022 from https://naval-encyclopedia.com/ww2/japan/hosho.php

[7] DF-21 (CSS-5). Missile Threat: CSIS Missile Defense Project (2022, March 28). Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/df-21/

[8] DF-26. Missile Threat: CSIS Missile Defense Project (2021, August 6) Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/dong-feng-26-df-26/

[9] Hanyang H-6 Medium Bomber. Military-Today.com. (2022).  Retrieved July 6, 2022 from http://www.military-today.com/aircraft/h6k.htm

[10] 2022 China Military Strength. Globalfirepower.com. (2022).. Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.php?country_id=china

[11] Missiles of China. Missile Threat: CSIS Missile Defense Project. (2021, April 12). Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://missilethreat.csis.org/country/china/

[12] Missiles of China.  Missile Threat: CSIS Missile Defense Project. (2021, April 12). Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://missilethreat.csis.org/country/china/

[13] DF-41 (Dongfeng-41/CSS-X-20). Missile Threat: CSIS Missile Defense Project. (2021, July 31). Retrieved July, 6 from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/df-41/

[14] N, T, R &, T, T, J. (2021, November 3). China’s Hypersonic Mystery Weapon Released Its Own Payload And Nobody Knows Why (Updated). The War Zone. Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/43242/chinas-hypersonic-mystery-weapon-released-its-own-payload-and-nobody-knows-why

[15] A, E. (2022, May 23). Just getting started: Too early to say when hypersonic interceptor will go live. Breaking Defense. Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://breakingdefense.com/2022/05/just-getting-started-too-early-to-say-when-hypersonic-interceptor-will-go-live/

[16] S,R.( 2021, June 21). China’s Third Aircraft Carrier is Aimed at a Post-US Asia. Foreign Policy. Retrieved July 6, 2022 from https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/06/21/china-third-aircraft-carrier-fujian/

[17] F,R.(2020, July 13). Rethinking the Technological Story of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. The Diplomat. Retrieved July 9, 2022 from https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/rethinking-the-technological-story-of-the-pacific-theater-of-the-second-world-war/