Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Chinese flattops

I’m a panda hugger, not a panda slugger. But the Chinese navy is certainly getting my attention this week. Not only are they going to be steaming off the coast of Africa, now they’re talking about getting themselves a working aircraft carrier. Carriers are great ways of showing the flag, and for much of the ...

590850_090101_chinesenavy2.jpg
590850_090101_chinesenavy2.jpg

I'm a panda hugger, not a panda slugger. But the Chinese navy is certainly getting my attention this week. Not only are they going to be steaming off the coast of Africa, now they're talking about getting themselves a working aircraft carrier. Carriers are great ways of showing the flag, and for much of the last 100 years, the best way to project power visibly.

The irony for the Chinese may be that the era of manned naval aviation appears to be on the wane. The next great step for carriers will be switching over to stealthy drone aircraft. For that matter, the advent of long-range drone aircraft like the Global Hawk has greatly diminished the significance of carriers. Why put a big fat target for anti-ship missiles like the Exocet off a hostile coast when you can fly pilotless planes from bases thousands of miles away? You really don't even need bases-you could just sling a bunch of the drones under the wings of a long-range 747 and launch from 30,000 feet. So Beijing's big talk may be the 21st century equivalent of the Maginot Line.

Photo: KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

I’m a panda hugger, not a panda slugger. But the Chinese navy is certainly getting my attention this week. Not only are they going to be steaming off the coast of Africa, now they’re talking about getting themselves a working aircraft carrier. Carriers are great ways of showing the flag, and for much of the last 100 years, the best way to project power visibly.

The irony for the Chinese may be that the era of manned naval aviation appears to be on the wane. The next great step for carriers will be switching over to stealthy drone aircraft. For that matter, the advent of long-range drone aircraft like the Global Hawk has greatly diminished the significance of carriers. Why put a big fat target for anti-ship missiles like the Exocet off a hostile coast when you can fly pilotless planes from bases thousands of miles away? You really don’t even need bases-you could just sling a bunch of the drones under the wings of a long-range 747 and launch from 30,000 feet. So Beijing’s big talk may be the 21st century equivalent of the Maginot Line.

Photo: KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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