A Comparison of Top Naval Aviation Forces

China, the United States, and Russia have some of the best naval aviation forces in the world. These pilots operate carrier-based aircraft, and they are considered the elite of their respective militaries. They fly from the decks of nuclear-powered supercarriers and support their nations’ strategic interests globally. Although they share some similarities, their training and operational philosophies are different.

The United States Naval Aviation Forces

A Comparison of Top Naval Aviation Forces

The United States has the most powerful carrier force in the world, consisting of 11 supercarriers powered by nuclear energy. American naval aviators undergo rigorous training programs to develop and hone their skills before earning their coveted wings. This training is known to be very difficult. The US has a long history of experience in naval operations dating back to World War 2.

A Comparison of Top Naval Aviation Forces: China vs USA vs Russia

After passing an initial screening, aspiring pilots are required to complete strike training at naval air stations on land. This training involves mastering different types of aircraft, such as the T-45C Goshawk jet trainer. The pilots who show exceptional discipline and airmanship then move on to field carrier landing practice on runways that simulate carrier deck dimensions. Those who progress to the final stage, carrier qualifications at sea, must demonstrate perfect flying skills and nerves of steel to land on a pitching flight deck at night.

American carrier air wings are highly proficient once they are deployed. This is because they maintain a high operational tempo, which includes combat deployments, multilateral exercises, and perpetual readiness to respond to crises.

In addition, US naval aviation benefits from a vast logistics infrastructure that is sustained by global alliance networks. This infrastructure enables American naval aviators to spend prolonged periods at sea and make thousands of arrested carrier landings.

The United States boasts the largest carrier force in the world, consisting of 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers and over 3,700 operational aircraft as of 2022. American naval aviators undergo rigorous training, and reports suggest that around 25% of prospective pilots drop out during strike training alone.

A Comparison of Top Naval Aviation Forces: China vs USA vs Russia
An F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft, attached to Attack Fighter Squadron (VFA) 136, takes off from the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush (CVN 77) on June 10, 2022.

Once deployed, U.S. carrier air wings maintain a high operational tempo. For example, the USS Carl Vinson deployed for nearly 8 months in 2021, during which its air wing reportedly flew over 15,500 hours and conducted 8,800 arrested landings.

Chinese Naval Aviation Forces

A Comparison of Top Naval Aviation Forces: China vs USA vs Russia

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is quickly updating and expanding its carrier aviation division despite starting far behind the American equivalents. The PLAN has made significant progress in improving the skills of its pilots and accelerating the operational learning cycle.

Chinese naval pilots train extensively on simulations that recreate carrier landing scenarios. Once proficient, they practice landing on land-based airfields with specialized arrest gear. Only after mastering these challenges do pilots qualify to fly from China’s active aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong.

Chinese naval aviators receive intensive training and guidance from an experienced group of pilots and instructors aboard these vessels. Some of these trainers have received training from international partners like Russia and Pakistan.

Although Chinese aircraft carriers currently have a limited range compared to their American nuclear-powered counterparts, Chinese pilots are making up for it with a high-intensity training program. This rigorous training regime provides valuable experience to pilots and is helping them to gain operational experience quickly.

A Comparison of Top Naval Aviation Forces: China vs USA vs Russia
Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong.

China currently operates 3 aircraft carriers: Liaoning, Shandong and Fujian. It plans to have at least six carriers by 2035. China is rapidly working to build proficiency – in 2021, Chinese naval pilots reportedly conducted over 1,800 day/night takeoffs and landings during carrier operations.

Public reports indicate that Chinese naval aviators also train aboard land-based simulated carrier decks, such as the one at Huangdicun Airbase. China has also sent pilots for training with partners like Russia to accelerate experience accumulation.

Russian Naval Aviation Forces

A Comparison of Top Naval Aviation Forces: China vs USA vs Russia
Admiral Kuznetsov

Russia’s contemporary carrier aviation capabilities are relatively modest compared to past glories. The Russian Navy currently operates only one aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov – an aging, conventionally-powered carrier plagued by finicky powerplants and escalating maintenance costs.

Russia has a strong naval aviation heritage that was developed during World War 2. Soviet naval aviators had to master both seamanship and airmanship skills, even in the harshest environments. This experience has provided invaluable institutional knowledge that has been carried on into the modern era.

Russian naval aviators undergo extensive training on land and at sea to become qualified. Their training is known for its uncompromising approach, which has shaped the crucible of combat.

The training focuses on important aspects such as night carrier operations and tactical navigation. Russian naval aviators are known for operating some of the most impressive aircraft in the carrier aviation world, such as the Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker-D.

Russia’s carrier capability is centered on Admiral Kuznetsov, which was at its peak in the 1990s. It had over 40 aircraft, including heavy fighters like the Su-33. However, the future of the flagship is uncertain.

Nevertheless, Russia maintains a highly skilled group of naval instructors and pilots. Their training focuses on mastering extreme conditions, and units such as the Russian Navy’s  Air Regiment train extensively in the Arctic. As a result, the legacy of Russia’s naval aviators and instructors remains intact as some of the most professional maritime air warriors on the planet.

Conclusion

Whether flying from American, Chinese, or Russian decks, the tenets of superior carrier aviation remain universal – an unwavering commitment to excellence, nerves of steel under extreme pressure, and belonging to an elite fraternity of tremendous prestige and esprit de corps. As naval aviation continues advancing into the 21st century, these intrepid aircrews will soar as their nations’ preeminent manifestations of seaborne air power projection.