You read that right- we’re not talking about an aircraft carrier but rather a gargantuan floating airbase. The concept has been around for years upon years, going as far back as the Second World War, when Allied nations originally conspired to build a gigantic aircraft carrier under the auspices of Project Habakkuk. The plan fell through, mostly because airbase/airfield accessibility increased greatly in the latter years of the war, and technological advancements increased the range of land-based aircraft enough that air-to-ground strike missions could be launched successfully from longer distances. The idea didn’t perish with Habakkuk, however. Even as the United States entered into Operation Desert Shield in the early 1990s, the concept of a joint mobile offshore base (JMOB) still floated around the Pentagon as a solution to staging fighter and attack aircraft in international waters, though still within striking distance of foreign targets. The underlying reasoning behind building such an offshore base was primarily political in nature- securing the permission of Middle Eastern nations bordering Iraq and Kuwait for the use of their airports and air bases as forward operating airfields for coalition aircraft wouldn’t have been very easy at all. Built on semi-submersible pontoons in modules, the JMOB would be floated into position anywhere in the world and fully operational within 30 days. A floating base the size of a small town, able to embark fighters, airlifters (such as the C-17 Globemaster III) and stage battalion-sized elements of infantry units, as well as operate as a logistics hub is one hell of a way to project power.
For a country like China, which possesses broad and expansive military goals, exploring the creation of a set of Very Large Floating Structures (VLFS) in the vein of the original JMOB concept might not be such a bad idea. At the moment, with the ambition of increasing muscle in the South China Sea, especially near Taiwan and Vietnam, China has begun the process of building artificial islands that essentially function as large immovable aircraft carriers; especially needed since no country in the region seems to be very open to allowing China the use of their airfields and air bases. On top of that, the Chinese government has made it known that they are also due to commission a pair of aircraft carriers similar to the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov within the coming eight to nine years, both adding to their power projection capabilities. So that in itself might actually nullify the need for a VLFS, which, of course, comes with its own set of downsides. They’re big targets, for one. All it would take for a floating base of the sort to be rendered ineffective and inoperable is for one anti-shipping missile, or one torpedo, or even one smart bomb to meet its mark. While using modules as the core foundation of the base would likely serve to hasten repair and recovery efforts in the event of such an attack, the logistics of removing the crippled modules from the structure, floating another few in and then integrating them would be an almost herculean task for a navy such as the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Keeping a base of the size functional and in-operation is also not a very easy proposition either. And most importantly, they’re only useful in and around wartime. Maintaining such a structure for extended periods during peacetime just makes it the equivalent of an oversized money pit floating around the South China Sea.
Assuming China does actually go ahead with the project, their mobile base(s) will likely feature a runway with a sizable apron/ramp, a set of hangars for the storage of aircraft, the ability launch and recover Xian Y-20 strategic airlifters (essentially the Chinese version of a C-141 Starlifter or a C-17 Globemaster III), and any fighter in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s fleet, including the supposedly fifth-generation Shenyang J-31 and the Chengdu J-20. Additionally, it wouldn’t be too outlandish to expect that the structure would be capable of deploying hovercraft and landing-type vessels that can embark a contingent of amphibious assault troops as well.
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For the Chinese, building such a monstrosity would have two benefits. First, its command of steel and shipbuilding capacity would do much to absorb China’s immense excess and provide domestic employment. Second, in addition to potential value in wartime, deployment of the structure could be justified in peacetime for disaster relief and would demonstrate a unique competence that would enhance China’s reputation and power in the region.