China's aircraft carriers
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US Navy carrier strike groups led by flagships USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson join Japanese helicopter destroyer JS Ise and a British carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth for group operations in the Philippine Sea in October. Photo: US Indo-Pacific Command

Say it with aircraft carriers: why countries send in the big ships

  • The vessels can send a political message in a time of tension, analyst says
  • But active diplomacy is needed to ensure security for all, he says

The exercise in October was typical.

Along with a Japanese helicopter carrier, Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier joined two American carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson, to patrol the waters around Taiwan.

The patrol by multiple aircraft carriers came amid a spike in tensions between China and the United States and served to show the participants’ resolve to maintain a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

In addition to patrols and exercises by the vessels, more countries are joining the aircraft carrier club.

Japan is modifying the Izumo-class destroyer to operate the F-35B fighter and South Korea relaunched its aircraft carrier plan.

China is also preparing to launch its third aircraft carrier, its first with an advanced electromagnetic catapult.

The behemoths are physical and symbolic manifestations of military might and resolve and ever more visible in regional waters.

But observers say more communication is needed to ease friction between countries.


British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth returns home after South China Sea mission

British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth returns home after South China Sea mission

Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher from the US think tank Rand Corporation, said aircraft carriers were often deployed to send political messages.

“The use of aircraft carriers to send messages and demonstrate muscle-flexing is a symptom of a world featuring more tension and military crises,” Heath said.

“Governments around the world hope to avoid war so they rely on military forces to send messages of deterrence and warning.

“Aircraft carriers are some of the most high profile military platforms available and well suited for signalling. However, in terms of combat capabilities aircraft carriers have become highly vulnerable in an era of long-range anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.”

Heath said he expected militaries to carry out exercises and training to ensure readiness and signal deterrence, but active diplomacy to ease tensions could complement such efforts to promote greater security for all.

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James Bosbotinis, a specialist in defence and international affairs, said governments should work to strengthen communication and develop confidence-building measures to manage geopolitical tensions.

“In this regard, the Shangri-La Dialogue being held in Singapore is valuable. While demonstrating credible combat power, aircraft carriers and their task groups can also contribute importantly to naval diplomacy,” Bosbotinis said, referring to an Asia-Pacific security forum held in Singapore on the weekend.

“Through activities such as port visits and training exercises, naval forces contribute to diplomatic activity; moreover, the naval forces of rivals can engage in confidence-building activities to reduce tensions, even undertaking port visits which help build interactions at multiple levels.”

However, Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said it was not proper to interpret messages from aircraft carriers too much.

“Aircraft carriers are not comparable, and they serve specific purposes, generally to project power over long distances, not towards other carriers,” he said.