How we know China has big plans for aircraft carriers
China is recruiting a lot more carrier-based fighter pilots, a clear sign of the Chinese navy's ambitions.
The People's Liberation Army Navy's annual pilot recruitment program ended in early July with 20% more recruits than last year, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Furthermore, recruiters witnessed a 41% increase in enrollment in the carrier-based fighter pilot program, an important development as the country pushes ahead with plans to build a fleet of aircraft carriers.
China only has one operational carrier at the moment. A second aircraft carrier is expected to enter service soon, and a third is under construction.
China's sole aircraft carrier — the Liaoning — began as the discarded hull of an unfinished Soviet heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser, which China purchased, refitted, and transformed into its first flattop.
The second carrier, currently unnamed, will be China's first indigenously produced aircraft carrier, although it is essentially a slightly improved derivative of its predecessor.
The third carrier, which China began building in 2018, is expected to be China's first step toward a modern aircraft carrier.
The Pentagon assesses that this vessel will "likely be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system," featuring a design that "will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations."
Chinese military analysts expect China to continue to build up its carrier fleet as it strives to rival American military might.
Wang Yunfei, a naval expert and retired PLA destroyer naval officer, told the South China Morning Post earlier this year that China ought to have at least six aircraft carriers by 2035.
"The country needs to keep developing until it is at the same level as the United States," he said.
The US has a total of 11 nuclear-powered carriers that are much more capable than anything China currently has and likely will have for the foreseeable future. Not only does the US still have a technological advantage, but the US Navy also has decades of experience with aircraft carrier operations.
As China builds up its fleet, it will inevitably need more capable carrier-based pilots, of which the Chinese navy has traditionally had a shortfall.
"China has been training more pilots for aircraft carriers for some time now, and this upward trend will continue to guarantee warship operations," a Chinese military analyst told the Global Times this weekend.
The expert, the state-affiliated newspaper paraphrased, explained that "China will not only have more carriers in the future, but the sizes will be bigger, enabling them to carry more aircraft, thus requiring more pilots."
Chinese carrier-based fighter pilots presently fly the J-15 "Flying Shark," a heavy, unreliable aircraft not particularly well suited for carrier operations, but China is looking into better alternatives as its carrier program advances.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
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