NAVAL WAR COLLEGE REVIEW
steam-powered catapults, but it appears to be theoretical in nature.28 Only a few navies, notably those of the United States and France, have solved the perplexing mechanics and daunting upkeep of steam catapults or the subtleties of arresting gear, and they are unlikely to sell them to foreign powers. When it comes to air- craft for a conventional deck, only the United States and France have third- generation catapult-capable planes (we will return to aircraft below).
Another option for overseas purchase would be a small-to-midsized VSTOL-capable carrier from a European producer, such as Spain’s Navantia, the builders of Thailand’s ten-thousand-ton Chakri Naruebet.29 In fact, there were some tentative moves in this direction in the mid-1990s, but nothing developed from them. Empresa Nacional Bazán, which merged with Astilleros Españoles S.A. (AESA) to form Navantia in 2000, reportedly attempted to market its SAC-200 and -220 light conventional-takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) designs to
China in 1995–96, but apparently Beijing was interested in obtaining design plans, as opposed to a prebuilt carrier.30 Given the continuation of the post-Tiananmen U.S.-European arms embargo on the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the acquisition of operational carriers from overseas seems highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Notwithstanding all of this, however, buying a carrier undeniably saves time, trouble, and expense, by capitalizing on the expertise of others and securing a proven commodity, and it is notable how the Chinese debate has accommodated to this reality.
Indigenous New Construction This approach would appear to offer a wider range of options and would allow the Chinese to take engineering and architectural clues from other navies and tailor the ship more closely to China’s anticipated naval doctrine and aspira- tions. Nonetheless, start-up costs are very high, and the “delta” between plans and construction is large. China would confront such challenges as a long time- table and a lack of relevant experience. Prestige issues would seem to push China toward the biggest ship possible, but lately there have been signs of favoring a more modest ten-to-twenty-five-thousand-ton ship that would carry helicop- ters or VSTOL aircraft, like the British Harrier or newer versions of Russia’s Yak-141. These discussions include some speculation that such a ship might even be nuclear powered, although conventional power seems more realistic. This proposal has drawn intense interest within China’s navy and in the opinion of the authors is the most realistic course of action if the PLAN is to bring aircraft- carrying naval vessels into service in the near future.
However, according to sources of varying credibility, a more ambitious construc- tion plan, sometimes referred to as “Project 9935,”is under way that would produce